OK, I'm biased, and I am also privileged to be friends with some people who are making fabulous music. Here are three new releases from friends - let me pull your coat in their direction.

Mary Brett Lorson, Themes From Whatever 

Mary Brett Lorson lives in the Ithaca, N.Y., area and has been a prolific and multi-talented artist for many years. She came to prominence in the 1990s as the singer and co-songwriter for the band Madder Rose, which made waves in both the U.S. and U.K. Since then, she has released an incredible 11 solo albums. She also writes stage plays, screenplays and film scores, and she has even created a television series. Mary and I go way back - we met in 1985, in the offices of the Boston Phoenix, where we were both employed. All these years later, on a recent frozen night at Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side, I saw her perform her spooky and strangely catchy tunes at a baby grand piano, accompanied by two fine upstate musicians. She just released another collection, called Themes From Whatever. She is becoming more of a producer, and this disc has a real sound design to it. The title tune, "Theme From Whatever," is a winner - great chord progression, assertive vocals. It all flows naturally, and every part of the tune is as good as every other. ("The inside of the tune has to be as good as the outside" - Thelonious Monk.) Her tune "Time Is On My Side" nicks a title from the Irma Thomas and Stones hit but takes the concept in an eros-vs.-thanatos direction. Again there's a chord change in it that melts me. The rest of the record also compels. Check it out! 

Pablo Woiz and Milonga Roots, Vol. 1

This Berlin-based group has the instrumentation of a jazz trio - piano, upright bass and drum kit - but their mission is much more specific: to dig deep down into the roots of Argentine tango, down to its ancestor, milonga. This is music of mixed emotions, romance tinged with sadness and regret, and you can dance to it, up close and with fervor. What strikes you first is the clear simplicity of it. The melodies are up front, and each track is a miniature, a small gem - no extended jams or gratuitous displays of "chops." The first track, "Roots," sets the twilight tone with quiet intensity. "Un Vals" sends you to 1920s Paris. The drummer in the group, Martin Iannaccone, originally from Buenos Aires, is an old friend. He is also an accomplished cellist, bassist and songwriter, and for this project he brings his expertise to the drum kit. The last track on the disc, "Una Senal," sounds like an old folk tune, but it turns out that Martin wrote it himself. 


A Big Yes and a small no, "Stranger Things" (single)

Kevin Kendrick is a vibraphonist, singer, guitarist, ironist and lyricist with a poison pen. His lyrics can be taken two ways, or maybe three - is he complimenting someone or is he pouring scorn on some deserving soul, or maybe both? A Big Yes and a small no is an all-star project that applies jazz-level skill to pop music. (As the Mothers of Invention taught us, musicianship can really drive the attitude home.) Their first record was called "Jesus That Looks Terrible on You." Let me hasten to add that Kevin has a great sense of fashion - he is 120 pounds of danger in a velvet jacket. He is also a sweet guy, but he probably doesn't want me to tell you that. He was recommended to me as a vibraphonist a few years ago, and he really lit up my last two records. When he can cause so much mayhem without saying a word, imagine what he can do when he sings. Actually, you don't have to imagine - go to the video of the new single by A Big Yes and a small no. It's called "Stranger Things," and once you hear it, you will want to hear it again. A Big Yes has just released another full album, titled "Mise en Abyme," which I have not yet heard, but this taste leaves me wanting more.

Since I last wrote, I have been hanging out in the late 16th and early 17th century. I have been finding my way back to the earliest roots of keyboard music, and I don't mean Jerry Lee Lewis.

Lately I've been playing pieces by the Renaissance-to-Baroque composer William Byrd (1540-1623), who may have been the first full-on keyboard virtuoso. In Byrd's day, the keyboard was a relatively new instrument, dating back only to the 1400s. Think about it - people had been playing lutes and harps for centuries, but a keyboard requires so much mechanical operation, it's a wonder it was ever invented at all.

So I am busying myself with Byrd's gigues (a.k.a. jigs), pavans, galliards (lively tunes in 3/4 time) and alemans (slow marches). Many of these are selections from the massive collection of Renaissance and Elizabethen keyboard music, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (a virginal is a scaled-down, single-manual harpsichord, often played by young ladies). I'm playing "Wolsey's Wilde" and the pavan and galliard for the Earl of Salisbury, which are rather soulful pieces. This music is from 100 years before J.S. Bach, and it's much closer to folk music than Bach is. Renaissance keyboard music is simpler, less harmonically sophisticated than Bach, partly because of the limits of the tuning systems of the time, but it has its own charms. In its simplicity it has subtle movements and engaging chord progressions. This is music made for dancing and designed to delight. It does not carry the weight of religious or devotional music. When you're playing a piece called "John, Come Kiss Me Now," you know you aren't playing church music.

I have also been playing pieces adapted for keyboard that were written by the lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626), who was the Bob Dylan of his day - a tremendously deep and prolific songwriter who led a tumultuous life. And I am playing old English songs by Henry and William Lawes ("Gather Ye Rosebuds") and Henry Purcell. I intend to learn some tunes by John Bull (1562-1628) as soon as I can get my hands on some sheet music. And I have tried my hand at some Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), who has a style all his own. 

As for listening, the record shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan sell vinyl LPs of harpsichord and virginal music at bargain prices, and I have gotten my $5 worth from old LPs by Gustav Leonhardt, Christopher Hogwood, Igor Kipnis and Trevor Pinnock. On YouTube I have enjoyed the harp-like sounds of young harpsichordist Bertrand Cuiller, and I have tickets to see harpsichord firebrand Mahan Esfahani when he makes his Carnegie Hall debut on May 1. 

The sound of a harpsichord has gotten under my skin. There's something intimate and vulnerable about it. The sound enters with a pinpoint accuracy, then it soon decays. There's something poignant about that. Or maybe I'm anthropomorphizing again. There's no sustain pedal, so there is nowhere to hide. And all notes have equal loudness, so you have to achieve your effects simply through touch and how long you sustain the note and how you release the note. Emphasis comes from phrasing and from playing more notes at once. And of course the trills and ornaments are a field of study all to themselves. The contrast between sound and silence is much more pronounced on a harpsichord than on a piano. If piano music is like charcoal drawing with shades of gray, the harpsichord is like black-and-white ink drawing.

As for getting informed on music of the period and performance practice, I have read most of Wanda Landowska's "On Music," and I recently made a great find at East Village Books on St. Mark's Place - "The Sources of English Keyboard Music," by Charles van den Borren, originally published in 1913 and long out of print. I bought it for $10 - original cover price is 18 shillings.

That said, I am in no danger of becoming a harpsichordist. To own one of those fantastic instruments would be wildly impossible, for a number of reasons. But I'm using a Yamaha CP-4, which has wooden keys and a pretty good sampled harpsichord patch, and for my purposes, I can get as close to William Byrd's music as I need to be. 

If anyone has any comments or thoughts about harpsichord music, please let me know.

Let me tell you about my brief career as an accordion player.

In 1995, I was in the band Martin's Folly, and we were making our first album with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. Singer Chris Gray and I had written some tunes that were "rootsy" or that harkened back to old-time styles. In fact, one or two tunes sounded like sea chanties. "Accordion!" That's what I yelped. "We need an accordion!"

So I went in search of an accordion. At that time, hard to believe, there were two full-time accordion shops in Manhattan: Accordion-o-Rama in Midtown and Main Squeeze on Essex Street in the Lower East Side. I went to Accordion-o-Rama, where the proprietor had rows and rows of accordions on shelves. I tried a few of them and walked out with a full-size, Italian-made accordion, a red one that had the brand name Ferrari. I think I paid $300 for it. Yes, I bought a used red Ferrari for $300.

So I set about teaching myself the accordion. Playing the keys on the right hand was not much of a problem - just like a piano, except that it's vertical. But the left hand, oh, the left hand, those 120 chord buttons arranged in ways that I could not understand. Major, minor, seventh chords, diminished chords. And you could depress more than one button at a time to create some real dissonance. And of course the pulling and squeezing and wheezing action, in and out. And that reedy, wheezy sound, at least when I played it.

One thing I learned from those weeks of mauling the accordion is that music "breathes." An accordion can sound for only as long as you can pull or push that squeezebox. In a similar way, a singer can hold a note for only so long, and you need to leave space to "inhale." Months or years later, when I played organ parts, I kept this in mind. And maybe it has helped me to this day to realize that even instrumental music, even without an accordion, needs to "inhale." 

Martin's Folly got to the recording session, and when I pulled the accordion out of its case, a shadow crossed Roscoe's face. He could see the future, and he knew he did not want to spend hours with an amateur accordionist doing take after take on that reedy, wheezy instrument. Diplomatically, he said that the better thing is for us to use our usual instruments and to merely suggest the presence of an accordion. At any rate, we finished the album, and it sounded just fine without a single note of accordion.

For some reason, other people gigging in town were showing an interest in the accordion, maybe because it was so uncool, it was almost cool. Roscoe's wife, the singer Mary Lee Kortes, had been appearing with an accordionist, and she herself took an interest in that strange instrument, which changes shape as you play it. Roscoe bought an accordion for Mary Lee. Accordion fever!

But my interest in the accordion began to wane. For a while, I thought, "Hey, it's a portable, acoustic keyboard." But an accordion is not a keyboard. An accordion is an accordion. The accordion sat in its case unplayed for weeks, and then months. 

Fast forward a few years, and Martin's Folly is sharing a rehearsal space with Roscoe, who is using the space as a recording studio. He is recording a folky psychedelic band. He phones me from the studio and says, "Do you still have that accordion?" I say yes, it's in the back room of the studio. A few minutes later he phones again and says he can't find the accordion. I say, "What about Mary Lee's accordion?" He said they sold it because she wasn't playing it. I hunted around my apartment but could not find the accordion.

A month or two later, I'm walking down Avenue B, and out of the Lakeside Lounge comes Roscoe. He says, "Jimbo, I need to talk to you." He said that he and Mary Lee were renting storage space, and he went to retrieve something from their storage unit, and there he found Mary Lee's accordion. I said, "But I thought you sold that accordion." He said, "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I accidentally sold your accordion."

If I were a smarter person, I would have pretended to take offense and said. "What? You sold my fucking accordion?? What the fuck?? You sold my fucking accordion??!!"

But as it was, all I could do was laugh. What made it funnier is that Roscoe was apologetic and saying he was really sorry he sold my accordion, and I was just laughing.

We quickly resolved the issue. I said, "How much did you get for it?" He said, "$300." I said, "So how about you give me one free day in the studio, and we'll call it even?" He went for that, and that was fine, because seriously, a day in the studio was much more valuable to me than an accordion that I never played. The accordion was off my hands. And I have decided to leave accordion playing to the dedicated professionals.

Last Saturday night, Karl Berger - pianist, vibraphonist, teacher and leader of the Creative Music Studio - presented a night of new piano music with strings at the Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. He sounded great and gentle on that Steinway in that old, musty auditorium - great touch, great feeling.

On bass was Ken Filiano, bowing a lot and creating a real acoustic buzz on the instrument. On violin was Sana Nagano, who participated in the spring CMS workshop. At the workshop, she was amplified and doing some "rock" things. This particular night, she was acoustic but just as wild, and getting a fine, clear tone when she chose to use it. Also in the ensemble were, on viola, Jason Kao Hwang, on cello, Tomas Ulrich, and guesting on low-range clarinet, Sweet Lee, who performs regularly with the Improvisers Orchestra.

Karl Berger said a few words to the effect that this is instrumental music, though he likes to have vocals involved. He said the human voice has greater expression than any instrument, and instrumentalists have machines to work with. Over time, the machines get better and better, and then the instrumentalists put down the singers. 

To start the evening, Ingrid Sertso went to the mic and poeticized on a quotation from Ornette Coleman while Karl and Ken improvised behind her with long tones and quick reactions. Then Karl and Ken played music from Karl's three recent albums of piano music that he is doing for the Tzadik label. Karl said that the records went from solo piano to trio to full string ensemble, and so went the program on this evening. Piano, four string players and one tune with clarinet. Short pieces, all engaging and friendly to the ear, though with surprising and even shocking moments. All the musicians sounded great in that musty old auditorium, which was built in 1851.

After the Greenwich House, nothing could be further distant than the National Sawdust performance space in Williamsburg, which is about two blocks from my apartment. Several million dollars have been poured into this venue, and its profile is rising fast. The room at National Sawdust is a futuristic interior like something out of "A Clockwork Orange." I sat in the second row and saw a duet of Terry Riley on Bosendorfer piano and M-Audio synthesizer, and his son Gyan Riley, who is a fine and meticulous electric guitar player.

Riley was his genial self, looking hale in his 80th year. The duo began with a raga-like pattern that stayed in one scale or mode, and it had a cycle of beats rather than a time signature. I tried counting the beats and thought they came to ten, then I decided that counting the beats was distracting me from the music, so I let it go. 

Terry Riley then played the intro to Duke Ellington's "Caravan," and the duo did a deconstruction or lengthy exposition on that tune - the root note, then a half-step up, then back to the root. Riley jazzed it up, playing some real blue notes and taking brisk runs up and down the keys and sticking the landing. He sang dreamlike lyrics that transported Ellington's caravan to a surrealistic airplane journey. 

Another dreamlike tune was one that they introduced as the "California National Anthem." It began with lyrics something like, "Cannabis is a wonderful drug / Makes you feel like a cat on a rug / It takes your head trip lightly / I like to take it nightly." Did I mention that Riley has a benevolent smile on his face? This "National Anthem" went through a Dylan-like 15 or 20 verses, ending with a koan-like story about being conveyed in a rickshaw, then climbing a tree, then disaster, then an eyewitness account of reincarnation.

Gyan Riley was more than a foil - he began several of the tunes and wrote some of them, and he joined in on vocals and even scat-singing. He used a slide and an e-bow to get theremin-like effects on the guitar. After the show, I met him briefly, and he seems to be a nice guy.

Terry Riley may be the jazziest of the great "classical" composers who are among us. On one tune he broke out the melodica - yay, melodica represent! The duo's last tune was "Old Sun," a lament of a laborer who is asking the sun why it won't travel faster across the sky and go down. The tune suggested Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazybones."

Toward the end of the set, Gyan Riley said, "Are we out of time?" Terry Riley said, "No, time keeps going on."

One reason to live in New York is that on a Saturday night I can see Karl Berger play his new music, and a few nights later I can see Terry Riley play his new music.

To tie this all together, Karl Berger and Terry Riley appear together on a recent LP release called "Koln, February 23, 1975," along with Don Cherry on cornet. It's on the Modern Silence label, which is based in Malta. If you want a copy, which I think you do, you have to go out and find it - it's not going to come to you.

Happening today are the women's marches in Washington, D.C., and around the United States and around the world. I send my best wishes to everyone who is participating in these events.

Yes, march against the president. And let's not lose sight of the likelihood that the most direct threat to us comes not necessarily from the president but from the Republicans in Congress. They have cleared the way to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, and while our eyes are on our unstable, erratic president, the Republicans in Congress are organizing to "reform" the Affordable Care Act and remove health insurance from 20 million people.

This makes no sense economically - the more people who participate in the exchanges, the more healthy people, the cheaper it will be for everyone. And to deny health coverage to people who have pre-existing conditions is cruel and inhumane, and it ends up costing us more.

We need to keep the Affordable Care Act. Everyone must be covered. People with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied coverage for that reason. This will directly address the issue of people's health and quality of life and ability to breathe and walk around and have some kind of life. We can afford this. We are the richest country in the world. The most economic sense is to keep the Affordable Care Act. If we go back to the old way, we will be worse off that we were in 2008.

So yes, let's march against the president. Today is his first full day in office, and he has already attracted more opponents than supporters to the National Mall. Now our new president can claim that he attracted more people to the National Mall than any other U.S. president in history. Let's also be phoning our U.S. senators and representatives to tell them that the Affordable Care Act must stay.

In music news, this morning on WKCR, 89.9 FM, the Columbia University Station, from 6 to 8 a.m., "Sounds of China." This morning, recordings of Hu Jianbing playing the sheng unaccompanied. The sheng is a woodwind instrument that has a metal base and a mouthpiece, and a number of bamboo reeds pointing directly upward, in front of the player's face. On this ancient instrument, which is called the sheng in China and the sho in Japan, Hu Jinbing creates tone clusters that seem to hang in midair. His album is called "The Sky.'

Also this morning, to get warmed up at the keyboard, I did some freeform loping around the keyboard until I felt I was getting in tune and felt that I had touched all 88 keys on the keyboard. Then I played Burt Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer." Then I worked on a Bartok piece, a little three-page rhapsody that changes key a few times.

Went to the oral surgeon to have a dental implant adjusted. The screw that holds the implant to my jawbone appears to be OK in the X-ray, but the crown is wobbly. The oral surgeon tried removing the crown in order to re-install it with stronger adhesive. She had the pliers in my mouth, but the crown was too tight to remove, though it was loose enough to wobble. So we left it as it is, until it falls off on its own, and I have to hope I don't swallow it or choke on it.

Went to the farmer's market at McCarren Park and saw my friend Sarah Jane, and we talked politics for a while. She said she knitted a pink cap for the women's march in New York today.

Went to the Captured Tracks record store on Calyer Street and bought, for $4, an LP, "Eurly European Music for Clavichord," some very early keyboard music, from about year 1538 and thereabouts, music from Spain, France, Italy, England, Germany and Poland, performed by Hans Kann. The LP is on the Musical Heritage Society label, and it appears to be from the early to mid 1960s. I enjoyed it while repotting some ivy plants.

(photo: Columbia University School of the Arts)

Composer / accordionist / music visionary Pauline Oliveros passed away the Friday after Thanksgiving, at the age of 84. In September 2016 - just a few months ago - I participated in a workshop that Oliveros conducted at the Karl Berger Creative Music Studio in Big Indian, N.Y. She was sharp and funny, and she had a fully booked schedule of teaching and performances.

We 20 or 25 participants had had breakfast and done the morning bodywork and rhythm and voice exercises. We had been there for almost 24 hours, and we had still not touched our instruments! We were gathered in a fine, big barn that had been converted into a high-ceilinged music studio. Here are some notes from that workshop:

She was to lead us in a session of "deep listening" - a term and a musical approach that she invented. Do you think you are listening deeply to the sounds around you? Maybe you could listen deeper, and even deeper than that.

Oliveros said that she had recently performed in London and had not played or practiced in four months. She said, "I already practiced." When that comment was met with silence, she added, "That's a joke." She said that when she went to play the piece on the digital accordion, the piece played itself.

We were all sitting in a circle. First thing, we went around the room and spoke our first names the way we like to hear them. Then we did it again, and each time someone spoke his or her name, the group repeated each name, in an intonation as similar as possible.

Then a listening exercise. She said she would strike a little chime, and we should listen to the sound disappear and then just listen for the ambient sounds in the barn. 

*Chime.* The sound fluttered away with a chirp. Hear the sounds of the wooden rafters "checking." The midday sun was climbing, and the tin roof was expanding, and the wooden rafters gave out pops and creaks. Hear the late-summer insects outdoors. Someone is walking around outside - maybe one of the resort staff. I had my eyes closed, and I went into a mental state that was halfway to sleep, or maybe more than halfway. Although I was not fully asleep, I was dreaming that I had my checkbook and was writing checks and watching them fly away. I was in some far-off place, writing checks, when the chime sounded again. This time the sound did not flutter or chirp but stayed constant.

Pauline had us go into teams of three to to discuss what had happened, then one person from each team reported to the group. After each team had reported, she said that musicians often like to identify the sounds they hear.

During a break, she said that she had recently done some work in Norway, with a university and a private company that were developing musical instruments for the deaf. One such instrument involved loudspeakers mounted under a board, and the performer stands on the board. She said she composed music for an event that featured "hearing and non-hearing performers."

After lunch, back to the barn, and back to the workshop. We did a vocal exercise, starting with three breaths, then a tone. Join and and do one of two things: Either sing the same tone as someone else, as accurately as you can, really zero in on it, or else sing a note that no one else is singing. We did this for a few minutes -- she did not specify how long we were to do it -- until we came to a natural stop. She said, "That was kind of timid." She said we should make ourselves heard so that someone else can hear us and respond in some way. We tried it again, a little bolder. As for how and when to end, she said she doesn't specify endings -- sometimes everyone ends together, and sometimes someone wants to keep going.

Finally, instruments. We all took our places at our instruments -- several flutes and other woodwinds, three electric guitars, two or three percussionists, two upright bass players, one trumpet, two or three vocalists, four electronic keyboards (including yours truly) and a few others. We went around the room, each person playing a short phrase. Then we went around the room in duets -- we counted off, and then No. 1 plays with No. 11, No. 2 plays with No. 12, and so on. So it was myself and one of the flautists for five or ten seconds. Then again in trios, groups of three, and the first person drops out, then the fourth person enters. Then the second person drops out and the fifth person enters, and so on.

Then a group improvisation. She read the instructions of a "test" piece she had composed. We were to listen to the ambient sounds in the room and reinforce them with our instruments. Not imitate but reinforce. And we could reinforce sounds that other musicians were making. 

Someone asked us how long we should play. She smiled and said, "Everyone always asks about duration."

Finally we all got to really play something, and we were all maybe a little too ready to wail, because we all tended to play a lot. In the corner a fan was softly whirring, and I used the organ patch on my Nord Electro 2 to make a low *whoosh* that would reinforce the white noise from the fan. We had 22 people making sounds for about 12 or 15 minutes, and it sounded pretty cool, but while we were playing I began to suspect that we were losing the point of the exercise. When we ended, she asked us to discuss what had happened.

A few people said, and she agreed, that we were reinforcing each other and not the ambient sounds. She said we left very little space for the ambient sounds, and instead our own sounds dominated. She said, "I heard some good playing, but I didn't hear a lot of reinforcement."

Someone said this exercise was challenging and said that if we had another chance to do this exercise, we would do it better. Pauline said, "Yes, it's challenging. What kind of workshop leader would I be if I didn't challenge you?"

That's all I have for notes.

That evening, in the workshop "roadhouse" across the highway, there was a performance of a trio of Pauline Oliveros on digital sampling Roland accordion, Ingrid Setso on poetry and vocals, and Iva Bittova on vocals and violin. 



(Since I don't have a photo of Jimmy, I'll use this stock photo of a Boston landmark.)
In a strange way, Jimmy Guterman and I went back a long way. Back in the 1980s, I was the office manager for the Boston Phoenix weekly newspaper, and Jimmy wrote record reviews. Back then, for a reason I no longer remember, I decided I didn't like the guy! Maybe I didn't like his music opinions, or maybe I was sore that he wouldn't review my band, since I was not yet familiar with the concept of "conflict of interest."
Fifteen years later, I was hired to be a copy editor the Industry Standard, and I saw that Jimmy G. was writing and editing a newsletter called Media Grok. "Ugh, that guy," I thought. But somehow Jimmy and I got to talking online, and I started thinking he's not such a bad guy after all. When the Standard went under, Jimmy kept Media Grok going under the name Media Unspun, and he kept me on as a copy editor, so for a year or so, I had an easy hour of work every morning, and we got along great. 
In fact, when I would sign on to edit the morning copy, Jimmy and I would jawbone about music. One day he said something like, "I'm listening to Fela Kuti, and he's more James Brown than James Brown." Another day I said I had just heard Leslie Gore's "It's My Party," and that it's a hard-rocking track. He said, "I prefer 'Judy's Turn to Cry,' because I'm a petulant SOB."


Yesterday, Saturday, July 23, we went to the Ragas Live festival at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. It's a 24-hour presentation of Indian classical music, starting at noon on Saturday and running until today at noon. As you may know, different hours of the day call for particular ragas. For the Ragas Live fest, different groups would perform the ragas that are particular to that raga, 24 performances in 24 hours. The event was produced by WKCR-FM, which also broadcast it.

As we were getting ready to leave her apartment, Amy and I heard the invocation by Pandit Chaterjee, and we heard some of the first performance, by a large group of musicians who comprise Brooklyn Raga Massive. They were performing a tribute to the music of Ravi Shankar.

We arrived in time for the 2 p.m. set, the Arun Ramamuthy Trio. A lovely day for Indian music, a 90 degree F summer day, spicy food on offer. Pioneer Works is an enormous space that used to be a shipbuilding factory. Lots of light in the windows, extremely high ceiling for acoustic benefit and also to keep the temp reasonable. Quiet floor fans blowing.

At 3 p.m., Dan Weiss Teen Taal, one of the best things we saw all day, just Dan Weiss on drum kit and Michael Gam on bass. Weiss, who must have studied Indian music intensively, performed tabla pieces on the drum kit. He translated tabla to the U.S. drum kit. Gam played the same simple, dark figure on the bass for 40 minutes, with variations here and there. Weiss giving him some verbal instructions during the performance. The bass line that Gam was playing was so cool that after half an hour I wanted more. They played for about 40 minutes, pretty much nonstop, and it sounded and felt tremendous.

4 p.m., Dee Harris on a special acoustic slide guitar that had resonating strings on it. A type of guitar that George Harrison must have owned, a real east-west thing. Harris played alone for 15 minutes, arriving at a groove, when Mitim Mohan joined him on tabla.

5 p.m., vocalist Mitali Shawmik performing with Ramachandra Joshi on harmonium, Meghashyam Keshav on table - excellent - and a young man on tambura. A magnetic performance, a strong voice that rang through the room.

6 p.m. Neel Murgai on sitar, the first sitar we heard all day, accompanied by the formidable Sameer Gupta on tabla, who is one of the leading lights of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

7 p.m., a recital on tabla by young man of 11 years, Vivek Pandya, a student of Pandt Sanghamitra Chaterjee. Were they putting too much pressure on this kid to have him play essentally a solo tabla piece for 40 minutes? He was accompanied by his father, Kalpit Pandya, on harmonium, and whatever good intentions were present, we found this to be a good time to buy paneer wraps and sit outside and eat them.

8 p.m. Roopa Mahadevan, more vocals, a strong performance, accompanied by Anjina Waminathan on violin, Baila Skandan on mridangam and someone else on another percussion instrument. So only one melodic instrument, the violin, but in addition to the counter-melody lines she was playing under the vocals, the violinist somehow maintained a low, constant, tambura-like drone. How did she do that?

9 p.m., Snehasish Mozmuder on mandolin, who translated sitar and sarod parts to mandolin, accompanied by Shiva Ghosal on tabla. When they played, the time just flew by.

10 p.m., the last set we saw of the day. By this time the mood of the place had shifted much after eight hours. Darkness in the windows, of course, and the occasional lights of a distant aircraft. candles in tall jars burning two at a time in the long windows. An evening glow. Pandit Krishna Bhatt on sitar, accompanied by the excellent Meghashyam Keshav on tabla, whom we had heard earlier in the day. Transporting sitar performance. One of the two or three best things we saw all day, at our nine hours at the Live Raga Feat 2016.

We could have stayed longer, but you have to draw the line somewhere. We took the B61 bus to Fulton Street in Brooklyn, to the A, which was running on the F line, fortunate for us. We got off at Second Avenue and went to Punjab for takeout, curry and rice dishes. We returned to Amy's pad in time to hear the midnight set, Anupam Shobhakar on sarod, accompanied by Shankh Lahiri on tabla.

So we heard almost half of it. 


GTB crimes

Back in 1995, I had only recently switched from bass guitar to keyboard. The band Martin's Folly was just getting off the ground, and we were looking for a keyboard player and couldn't find one, so I switched to keys, temporarily. (That temporary period has lasted for 22 years and counting.)

So in '95 I had been concentrating on the keys for only a year or so. I knew all the major and minor chords and most of the scales, and that was about it.

Eric "Roscoe" Ambel was producing the first Martin's Folly album, and he had another production gig lined up, for the Philadelphia band Go to Blazes. He asked me to play on that record.

It so happened that I had seen Go to Blazes perform a couple of months earlier. I was walking past Brownie's on Avenue A, and I heard a raunchy guitar sound that I liked. I paid the cover charge and went in, and on the stage was a four-piece, Stones-like band that had a don't-give-a-damn stage demeanor. 

So Go to Blazes came up to Brooklyn, and I met them at Coyote Studio in Williamsburg. The idea was that we were going to record an entire album of cover tunes in one evening. The band's German label, Glitterhouse, commissioned the record, and that was the concept. To make things tricky, because of budget constraints, we were to record the whole thing live to two-track, which meant no fixes, no patches or punches. We had to all get it right at the same time, and Roscoe and engineer Albert Caiati would mix it on the fly, sometimes even doing fade-outs while the band was still playing. 

The band was Ted Warren on vocals and guitar, Tom Heyman on guitar and backup vocals, Ted Pappadopoulos on bass and Keith Donnellan on drums. To fill out the sound were Bruce Langfeld (RIP) on acoustic guitar, who came up from Philly with the band, plus Joe Flood on fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar, and yours truly, Jim Duffy, on the studio's chopped-down Hammond organ - a "Porta-B."

To prepare for the session, the band purchased multiple cases of beer at the wholesale distributor (that space, on North 6th Street, is now an American Apparel store). They also bought a few bottles of brown liquor. As I recall, we sidemen were smoking some funny stuff, but the band didn't go for that at all - Go to Blazes were whiskey men.

They had sent me a cassette of the tunes we were to do, and it included Lou Reed's "Underneath the Bottle," Kinky Friedman's "Sold American," Gordon Lightfoot's "The Watchman's Gone," a Hank Williams Jr. song, a couple of Lee Hazelwood tunes and a few others. The one that caught my ear was a Gene Clark tune, "Out on the Side," from 1968, which I had never heard. The chord changes haunted me, and the singer sounded so wired and desperate. And the drum sound on that track was insane. At the time, I didn't know anything about the tragic Gene Clark - actually, I still don't. I kept going back to that tune, and I couldn't quite get my head around those strange chord changes. By the time the session came around, I still didn't have the tune under my fingers. 

We started recording at about 6 p.m. on a warm spring day, the seven-piece group, plus Roscoe and Albert in the control booth. We started with the Lou Reed tune, and we knocked it out in one or two takes. It came out quite nicely, in fact. The camaraderie was good, we had put some points on the board, and we kept going, one tune after another, well into the night. When it came time for "Out on the Side," I was thinking, "uh-oh."

The DAT tape started rolling, and Keith counted us in, and I didn't know what I was going to do. I kinda-sorta knew where this complex song wanted to go. As we started playing, I was hanging on by my fingertips, watching everyone else to try to divine where we were going. In a couple of places you can hear that I'm letting the guitar players go to the change first, then I follow, Al Kooper style. 

And then, as sometimes happens, the music took off on its own. The chords started playing themselves, and I was just sitting at the organ, letting it happen. Whoosh. It was all a blur. The glorious changes of "Out on the Side" came ringing out, one after another. 

Dang. That may have been what I said, because back then I was affecting a roots-rock way of speaking, even though I'm a proud native of New Jersey. 

We played the rest of the tunes and got some nice versions. The session lasted all night, and we drank all that beer, and the guys in the band drank all that booze. By the time we finished, the sun was up.

The album that came out is called "Go to Blazes ... And Other Crimes," and if you find it, you should get it. And wow, I just now noticed that it was mastered by Elliot Sharp. For now, I wanted to draw your attention to the version of Gene Clark's "Out on the Side."

microphoneIf it's not too late, here are some remarkable concert events I saw during the past calendar year.

John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Cyro Baptista and Ches Smith at the Anothology Film Archives. Maybe the thrill was to be sitting so closely to so many master musicians. They were playing a live soundtrack to the Harry Smith films that were being projected on the screen. We were in the second row, getting to see how the magic happens. Laswell was a center of gravity, making his electric bass guitar sound like a section of bowed cellos, the percussionists kept the sound lively and thumping, and Zorn kept spinning out long, flowing lines that hung in the air until the bass met them. 

Public Image Limited at the Playstation Theater in Times Square. Three days after the massacre in Paris, security was tight, but the show did go on. John Lydon came out clothed like an escaped inmate, and he never kept still the entire show, except to occasionally stop and make a face at the audience. His voice has grown to operatic proportions, and he may be singing better than ever. Plus he has the sunniest outlook of anyone in show business. Top-notch band, too. Johnny kept telling us how much he loves us, and at the end of the show he said, "I have seen every one of you here tonight. Don't ever forget that."

Todd Rundgren at the Gramercy Theater: A crowd-pleasing show with a rock band, playing the hits. I've been a big Todd-head since the '70s, and to hear all those great songs again moved my heart. He came out of the box playing "I Saw the Light," "Love of the Common Man" and "Open My Eyes," and I was completely sold. He was funny and self-deprecating, and he still wears his heart on his sleeve. His voice sounded strong and still sweet, and he played a lot of rocking Stratocaster. I have seen him perform many times, but I had never heard him play his signature song. The show was a week before Christmas, and when the band kicked into the famous opening of "Hello It's Me," he said, "Aw, look what you got in your stocking."

Craig Taborn at the Stone: This past summer, the Stone featured Sunday afternoons of various musicians performing John Zorn's new compositions, Bagatelles. Before the recital, Zorn reminded the audience that video recorded was not allowed, and he said the music we were about to hear was only for those of us who were in the room. Taborn has piano technique suitable to playing Chopin and Liszt, and to hear it applied to new composition and improvisation was an eye-opener. The ideas kept flying as fast as his fingers, and the hour flew by.

Courtney Barnett at the Bowery Ballroom: She was rocking and fun and loud. And her song "Avant Gardener" is a hoot. Glad to see that her generation can put on a good old rock show.

Pale Afternoon cover

"Pale Afternoon," my third album of instrumental pop music, has now been pre-released!

What does pre-released mean! I don't know! But what I'm getting at is that the official "release" and promotion will be Jan. 12, 2016. In anticipation of that, the record has now been made available on CD Baby and on iTunes.

If you act now, you can be among the first to hear it. 


No one has ever made a perfect album, and no one ever will. "Revolver" is not perfect, and neither is "Sticky Fingers." You wouldn't want to change anything on "Highway 61 Revisited," not even Mike Bloomfield's out-fo-tune guitar on "Queen Jane Approximately," but that album has plenty of spots and gaps in it. "Forever Changes" is imperfect, and so is the first Cars album. Phil Spector never made a perfect album, and none of Jimi Hendrix's albums are perfect. Heck, not even "Kind of Blue" is perfect. John Coltrane never made a perfect album. Even the all-time great albums have flaws that prevent them from reaching some Platonic ideal of perfection. Anything human is imperfect.

And that's fine. As I write this, my next album (I still call them albums), "Pale Afternoon," has just been shipped from the pressing plant, and it has not yet arrived. As I go back and listen to it, I'm pleased with it, and as I get some distance on it, the mistakes start to fade away. Even so, I keep hearing things that could have been done differently.

But would I go back and change anything? I'm not sure. The most important thing is the feeling. Time and again, I tried doing a second or third take, to try to get the piece note-perfect. And sometimes the group really did play it note-perfect, but somehow that "perfect" take lacked the energy and feeling of the earlier take.

The lead track from the next record is "Boulevard Six," and near the end of the tune, i played a wrong note on the Wurlitzer electric piano. When we finished the take, I asked engineer Greg Duffin if I could fix that note. "Nope," he said. "But - " "Nope." And he was right. If I had gone back and fixed that note, there's no way that new note would ever have the energy and momentum of the "wrong" one. So we left it as it was, and that was the right call.

When we recorded "Mission Creep" for the new record, we did one take, and when we finished it, I said to Greg, "That one's OK, but I'd like to ..." He said, "I won't let you do another take," and he shut down the remote controller to the tape machine. I think he even folded his arms. And again, that was the right call.

When you have the right feeling, leave it. As a listener, I don't mind hearing little mistakes and flaws. In fact, a good flaw can enhance a recording.

For "Pale Afternoon," I was more involved in the mixing process than I was on the first two records. At the mastering session, when we put the finishing touches on a particular track, I told mastering engineer Scott Hull, "There's too much bass on this track."

He said, "That's right, there's too much bass." And he just worked with it. The finished track has too much bass, and damn it, I will defend that track's right to have too much bass. 

We mastered another track on which the vibraphone comes in kind of hot. I said, "Can we do something about how strong that vibraphone comes in?" He said, "At least I know what to listen to." 

So "Pale Afternoon" is imperfect. That's not exactly the kind of promotion you expect to hear these days. My point here is that I have had to let go of the idea of perfection, and it feels good.

But being who I am, now I'm freaking about about the artwork. What could I have done differently? A lot of things. But a "record" is exactly that - a record. It's a snapshot of a moment in time, like tossing the coins of the I Ching. If we would have recorded those tracks a day earlier or a day later, they would have sounded different.

When you make an album, you learn how to make it while you are making it. Someone said, "A work of art is never finished, only abandoned." I could have spend another three months on "Pale Afternoon," but at a certain point I said, "Basta, enough." It's imperfect, and it is what it is. It captures the energy and feeling I wanted to get across. Let it go! 


One of the best music events I have seen this year was actually a film event. At a fundraiser for the Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue, resident composer John Zorn and a group of heavy hitters performed in front of a screen that showed short films of Harry Smith. In the group were Bill Laswell on bass and both Ches Smith and Cyro Baptista on drums and percussion, Zorn on alto sax. Quite a group of heavyweights, and we were sitting in the second row, right on top of the band. 

The films were little gems. First up was a short 3-D movie, so put on your 3-D glasses. That one had a pre-programmed soundtrack of ever-expanding sonic dots coming at you while the dots and shapes jump off the screen.

Then the full band played for the next film: Geometric shapes, close-ups of fabric patterns, edited in a rhythmic way, and the two drummers were watching the screen, playing along. Next up was my favorite film on the bill, which started with vintage color footage of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Then it goes into a kaleidoscopic lens, quadruple image, splintering the images into fantastic shapes on the screen. Zorn was playing lines that could have had something to do with 12-tone music or Indian raga - I'm sure he has studied both. At any rate, he was playing lines that defied key or scale or mode - I couldn't fathom what he was doing. And Laswell, who looked like Johannes Brahms on the bass guitar, played an ascending line. Zorn left a note hanging in the air, and Laswell played a note to harmonize with it. How much of this was composed and how much was improvised? I have no idea, but that particular moment was the highlight of the evening.

One of the films showed young women doing string tricks and rope tricks, tying clever knots and untying them without effort - cats cradle to an exponential power. Images of skillful hands and strings, superimposed over images of sunlight on rippling water. Then images of a woman dancing in kaleidoscopic quadruplicate, and Zorn started playing a long, and I mean long, note while he tapped out a rhythmic figure on the keys of the saxophone. That one note went on for six or seven minutes. I have seen a lot of people do circular breathing, but I have never seen anyone do it as effortlessly as Zorn did.

Then they showed "The Tin Woodman's Dream," a riff on "The Wizard Of Oz" taken directly from the book. Laswell, a monster on the bass guitar, made it sound like a bowed cello. At the end, they played the two-minute 3-D film once again. To see these great musicians at close range was a privilege.

Then another event a week later, at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, the Karl Berger Improvisers Orchestra. I counted 26 musicians in the group, in a 1,000-square-foot room. Four string players, two basses, a bass saxophone, two bass clarinets, a baritone horn, two guitarists, Ingrid Setso on vocals and poetry, plus many more string, wind and brass players. Two upright basses, a drummer and a and percussionist.

In front, Karl Berger, about 75 years of age, conducting with his whole body. The concept is freely improvised music that has a steady pulse. He gets a groove going, then he points to a musician or group of musicians and indicates with his arms and shoulders and face what he wants to hear. He points to the clarinetist and makes a crooked, rusty move with his body, and in an instant, the clarinet plays a rusty, jerky line. Many times instruments drop out for long stretches of time. Then Berger brings them in for short, Stravinsky-like bursts. It's always musical, "harmonized improvisation" he calls it, and it's never angry-sounding. Sometimes it sounds somewhere between Charles Mingus and Gil Evans.

Berger "plays" the orchestra like a soloist on an instrument. To see him spread his arms and move his fingers and hear this large group of accomplished players respond instantly is like seeing someone play a gigantic, fantastical keyboard.

As a musician - and yes, I am a musician, I may be a poor one, but I am a musician nonetheless - I listen to a lot of stuff that's much further out than what I myself do.

Back on the pop side, I'll be going to see Public Image Limited on Monday, Nov. 16, at the Best Buy Theatre on Times Square. Just saying that is kind of funny. John Lydon seems to have the sunniest disposition of anyone in music, and his interview on WFMU was rather hilarious. You can hear it here.

And on Saturday, Dec. 19, I'll be going to see Todd Rundgren at the Gramercy Theater. Rather than explain this as a guilty pleasure, I'll just say that I don't feel guilty at all about loving a lot of Rundgren's music. He has written 20 or 30 certifiably great pop tunes, if not more, he can rock, he can do prog-rock with Utopia (I saw Utopia in 1977 at the Palladium, which is now a Trader Joe's, and I never go into that Trader Joe's without remembering that great Utopia show), he can melodize solo at a piano, and even his harebrained schemes and high-tech misfires only add to his charm. 

Pale Afternoon cover

"Pale Afternoon" will be the name of my next record, the third full-length collection of instrumental pop tunes. The album was recorded and mixed between the spring of 2012 and the fall of 2015, though it was done in relatively few sessions. I made it quickly, over a long period of time.

The record will have 11 original compositions in a style similar to that of the first two records, though I believe that style has developed and evolved. It's more harmonically adventurous, I believe, and the sound has a slightly harder edge. Fewer overdubs, more letting the momentum of the basic track carry the rhythm.

Once again we have a core group of Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass, Lance Doss on guitars and lap steel, and myself, Jim Duffy, on Wurlitzer electric piano and other keyboards. We have special appearances by Kevin Kendrick on vibraphone, Michael Evans on percussion, Sam Kulik on trombone and Claire Daly on baritone sax.

The music was recorded and mixed by Greg Duffin and Mario Viele at Cowboy Technical Services, Brooklyn, NY. The record was mastered, I'm proud to say, by Scott Hull at Masterdisk. 

Artwork by Linda Kamille Schmidt, design by Sally Rinehart.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the making of this record. This is supposedly a "solo" record, but there's hardly any such thing as a true solo record. Even if you're a recluse and keep to yourself, you need a lot of help to realize your musical inklings and make them available. So again, my thanks to everyone.

The release date, to the extent such a micro-release has a release date, will be mid-January 2016. But I'll have some advance copies by early November. I'll be sharing some musical previews on the music page of this site. As for advance copies of the CD, if you ask me nicely, I'll send you one.

All the best,


Untitled No. 40 (2015)

"Untitled No. 40 (2015)," by Brooklyn-based artist Linda Kamille Schmidt.

It's flashe and graphite on mylar. And it will appear on the front cover of my next CD, which will be called "Pale Afternoon," and which will be released this calendar year on Three Dots Records.

This will be my third full-length release of instrumental pop tunes. "Pale Afternoon" was recorded, mixed and masteed from the spring of 2012 through the fall of 2015, though in relatively few studio sessions. "I made it very quickly, over a long period of time," says Duffy, who is also myself.

The record started with tracks from a core group composed of Jim Duffy on Wurlitzer electric piano, Dennis Diken, world-famous as founding and current member of the Smithereens, on drums, Paul Page, who tours the world with Ian Hunter, on bass, and Lance Doss, who has toured and recorded with John Cale, among many others, on guitars and lap steel.

"Pale Afternoon" also features Kevin Kendrick on vibraphone, Michael Evans on percussion, Sam Kulik on trombone and Claire Daly on baritone sax.

The album was recorded and mixed by Greg Duffin and Mario Viele at Cowboy Technical Services, Brooklyn, NY. Mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk.

"Pale Afternoon" has 11 original tunes of three or four minutes each. The music is in a style similar to the first two records - what I call "moody and bouncy instrumental music." The difference is that although the music remains simple in conception and construction, it has developed and evolved. It's more harmonically adventurous, and more of the tunes count to six instead of four or eight. More to the point, I believe each tune gets to a more specific feeling. As Lennie Tristano said, music should come from the id, not the ego.

My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who participated. There's not really any such thing as a "solo" record. Even if you're a recluse and keep to yourself, you need help from a lot of people in order to realize your musical inklings and make them available for the world at large.

"Pale Afternoon" will be officially released, to the extent such a micro-release is "official," in January 2016. I expect to have copies of the CD - artwork and all - by mid-November. And I'll soon be posting previews on the Music page. 

Hi - my next record, "Pale Afternoon," has been mastered, the artwork and design are in the works, and it will be available before calendar 2015 is done. I want you to be the first to know.

It's more instrumental music of many moods. It's in a similar style as "Side One" and "Mood Lit," though I believe that style has evolved and developed. Harmonically it's a little richer, and the rhythm section has a new looseness to it.

It was three and a half years in the making. I take a long time to make a record, even though making records is just about my favorite thing to do. My thanks to all the musicians who played so splendidly, and to the sound engineers who applied their big ears and NASA-like skills to the project. All thanks and acknowledgments to the individuals who participated will be detailed later.

Artwork is by Linda Kamille Schmidt, as seen above.

Yeah, I don't say much on this here blog. You're probably not interested in my personal life. Heck, I'm not that interested in it myself, so why would you be? Oh well. But I love making music. I have had a long and checkered career, and after all this time I feel as though I'm just getting started. 

I'm pretty excited about this record, "Pale Afternoon."

Wave Form

Hello again. I'm glad to say that my third full-length album (I still call them albums) is in the home stretch. The tracking is done, now it's just a matter of adding the little touches and pixie dust.

Recording is just about the best thing to do. You set up the conditions to create a controlled environment, you book the studio, gather the musicians, get everyone settled in the right place, get the microphone placement just right. You want to have the right amount of preparation (enough, and not too much).

Then, when the little red light comes on, you just let it rip. When the tape is rolling (I still use tape), there's no time to think. Verbal thought would just get in the way. Dial back your mind down to zero. When you're really swinging it, not a word comes through your brain. And since I record with a full band, the last thing I can think about is my own performance. It's all about bandleading, cueing the other people in the room. When we finish the take and the last note fades away, and the engineer switches off the tape machine, I very often cannot remember anything I did. During playback, I often don't recognize anything I did. It's as if somebody else played it. That's recording at its best.

In other words, when you make a record, you go to great trouble and expense to get everything under your control, but what you are after are the moments of spontaneity and the happy accidents - exactly what you cannot prepare for, but for which you can set up the right conditions.

And you have to keep everyone happy and well fed. Sometimes you have to talk a lot, sometimes you want to talk but it would be better not to, and sometimes long stretches pass when no one says a word.

So that's what's happening. Opus No. 3 should be ready for public consumption this summer. 

Thanks for listening,


Mitra Sumara

Mitra Sumara, the band that plays pre-revolutionary Persian pop of the 1960s and '70s, will perform two shows on the afternoon of Saturday, March 7, at 1 and 4 p.m. at the Smithsonian Institute, Freer Gallery Meyer Auditorium, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. The concerts will be part of a Nowruz celebration - the Persian new year.

We will be a five-piece band that day: Yvette Perez on vocals, singing these vintage pop tunes in the original Farsi, Peter Zummo on trombone, Bill Ruyle on hammer dulcimer, Michael Evans on drums and percussion, and Jim Duffy on keyboard.

For more info, and to obtain free tickets, go here. Act fast - the 4 p.m. show is selling out!

Hello again, if you are out there.

Yes, it has been a crazy long time. Lots of changes, new job, new schedule, made a trip out west.

I am still Jim, and I am still making music. This every evening, a tracking session for the as-yet-untitled Opus No. 3. This will be the final tracking session for this project, and I hope to have it to you soon.

Take care.

Hohner melodica

Hi, since I'm not on any social media, and since I have never sent a text message or a Tweet or owned a cell-phone, I am on the "information dirt road." (I have also never owned a camera or taken a photograph, except when strangers and tourists have asked me to.) So thanks to you for finding me and stopping by. I realize that you are meeting me more than halfway.

Lately I'm busy composing the last few tunes for the as-yet-untitled Opus No. 3, which will be another collection of instrumental tunes, on which I am accompanied by the extraordinary group of Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass, Lance Doss on guitar, plus some special guests. The recording and mix engineer is Greg Duffin, assisted by Mario Viele. It's all coming along nicely, and I hope to have it out the door later this year.

(Technologically, I'm so backward that I may as well release it on a 78 rpm disk or an Edison wax cylinder.)

This perverse relationship with technology is not based on principle. I'm no Luddite. I am just helpless in the face of technology. This is strange for a keyboard player to say in the year 2014. I like the fat, buzzy sound of a Moog, but a digital sequencer leaves me cold. Even a Hammond organ is way too mechanical for me. It's so big and heavy, I can barely cope with it. The simpler the better.

The melodica is as simple as it gets, and I've been playing more melodica lately. It's a wonderful instrument, and in my opinion it's the instrument of the future. If we ever get solar flares that knock out the electricity, the melodica will be the go-to keyboard instrument. You just blow into it and play beautiful chords and melodies with your right hand.

Last Dec. 21, in observance of the winter solstice, Make Music New York organized a melodica parade, and about 25 of us melodica players, led by ace melodicist Jean Baptiste, marched from Columbus Circle to Times Square, entertaining and irritating locals, passers-by and visitors alike.

That was successful enough that a couple of weeks later, our makeshift melodica troupe was invited to play at Gracie Mansion for Mayor Bill de Blasio. So the melodica is gaining momentum.

The melodica runs on the respiratory power that you put into it. It weighs about one pound. You can carry it anywhere -- on the subway, in the overhead rack of the airplane. One trick I learned from watching Mr. Baptiste is that if you don't use the mouthpiece, you can get a better tone -- more breathy, less reedy.

This really is the instrument of the future, in my opinion. If the power goes out, or if sunspots wipe out all our digital information, the melodica will prevail. It's so easy that even I can handle it, and that is high praise. You can buy a 32-key Hohner melodica brand new for about $60. So go get one, then get in touch with me, and we'll jam.

Random Notes

Right now, a heavy snowstorm is blowing outside the window. The snow started at about 8:30 this morning, and it has kept up all day, still coming down at 11 p.m., and it is accumulating. As I look out my window, at the former cathedral that is being converted into luxury housing, the flakes are blowing sideways, left to right. Very exciting on a Saturday night. Too bad for anyone who is playing a gig tonight. All my best to you...

Meanwhile, I'm doing research-and-development for the next full-length album (I still call them albums). For me, it's a messy, inefficient process, and unpredictable. Tunes fall out of the sky, in my experience, and the only way to catch more tunes is to spend more time looking for them.

I've never been the type to say, "I'm going to write a tune today." And when I hear people say that they met in the afternoon to write a song, that's a complete mystery to me. Although that's what I used to do 30 years ago in Boston, when I was in the band Rods and Cones. We would set out to write a song, and more often than not, we would write one. And some of those tunes we still play 30 years later, when we get together.

How does it happen these days? Noodling, playing around on the keys, or walking down the street, or riding in the subway, or cooking dinner, a little germ of an idea comes along. And I sit down and play it on a digital piano (yeah, I know, but I'm in an old tenement building in Brooklyn, and I don't want to turn neighbors into enemies), which is plugged directly into a Zoom H4n recorder. Actually, I record myself too much. I'm trying to cut down.

Anyway, after I have recorded too many hours of noodling, messing around, playing with chords and melodies and modes, I go back and listen to this huge mass of stuff, hours and hours of it, most of which is unusable. But amid the hours of inconsequential noodling, a real live germ of a tune will pop up. (It has taken me years of experience to recognize a viable germ of a tune when I hear one.) Very often, when I hear something of interest, I have no recollection of ever having played it.

A lot of tunes don't work out. Just because you can finish a tune and put an arrangement on it and compose it, and just because it may be fun to play, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good tune. (Again, it has taken me many years of experience to understand this distinction.) I have finished easily 100 bad tunes that did not make it to the records.

The best tunes come back on their own. At first, you might think there's not much there, or it's nothing special. But then, at the office, the tune keeps coming back to me, it's playing in my head, over and over. So I run to one of the little phone room, close the door, dial my home phone and hum the tune into my answering machine. One track from the next record came about in exactly that way.

When a tune is playing in my head and I just cannot manage to play it on a keyboard -- what the heck is this tune doing? -- then I know I'm dealing with something that has potential.

So Opus No. 3, still untitled, is about two-thirds tracked, and I need to come up with another four or five tunes to round it out. Right now, I may have two in play. Maybe two and a half.

That's just a little personal spillage about my working methods, such as they are, in case you are interested. Making records is just about my favorite thing. Also, playing gigs and practicing. And of course the chief activity is composing. Which, as I said, is a matter of luck. But I believe we can do certain things to improve our luck.

Amy, Graffiti, 1976

Hello, and thanks for visiting.

Here's some cub reporting that I did for Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, about a wall in Lower Manhattan that is being repaired, and in the process, graffiti from July 4, 1976, has been exposed. Photos by Amy L. Anderson. Please have a look.

This item was picked up by the Our Town Downtown community paper and website.

Mitra Sumara

If you feel something pulling on you, it's me pinching your sleeve to tell you that I'll be participating and making sounds in two upcoming events on Friday, July 12, and Saturday, July 13.

On Friday, July 12, Mitra Sumara, the eight-piece band that plays pre-revolutionary Persian psychedelic pop and funk, will perform one long set at Drom, 85 Ave. A, in Manhattan.

Mitra Sumara is led by singer Yvette Perez, who sings these 1960s and '70s hits in the original Farsi. The band features Peter Zummo on trombone, Julian Maile on guitar, Bill Ruyle on hammer dulcimer, Jim Duffy on keyboard, Sam Kulik on bass, Michael Evans on percussion and Brian Geltner on drums.

We'll be swinging these tunes as hard as we can, and we hope you'll come out and join us under the party lights.

To see recent video of Mitra Sumara performing at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, click here.

And then, the following night, Saturday, July 13, from 6 to 10 p.m., yours truly, Jim Duffy will provide some piano sounds at an art opening for Camille Iemmolo, an installation artist from Chicago. The event will be at The Proposition, 2 Extra Place in Manhattan -- in the East Village, behind where CBGB used to be.

Camille will transform the intimate Proposition gallery into an alternate universe of delicate and striking imagery in three dimensions. Her handmade aesthetic will make an impression on you. Among the carefully considered objects in this mini-wonderword will be the "Talking Piano," and my job will be to help the piano talk.

New York is starting to empty of people on the weekends, so the rest of us have the city to ourselves. Are you feeling artsy and a little restless? Then mark that weekend. Spend Friday night, July 12, shaking it with Mitra Sumara, and then on Saturday, July 13, expand your perceptions at The Proposition.

Make Music New York

Do you know about Make Music New York? For the past seven years, on the day of the summer solstice, usually June 21, Make Music New York has organized live music all over the city, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

On Friday, June 21, 2013, Make Music New York returns, and more than 650 music groups and individual artists will perform at more than 300 venues throughout the five boroughs.

As a city-dweller and pedestrian, in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and in the East Village and Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan and elsewhere, I have seen heard some cool music ensembles and and fun bands and individual artists that I would not have seen otherwise. All kinds of music on the sidewalks that day, and in the parks, in public gardens and on corners and plazas -- ethnic music of all kinds, jazz, classical, experimental, avant garde, folk music, rock and roll, pop music, soul and R&B.

This year, as part of Make Music New York, I will perform two solo sets of moody and bouncy instrumental music, playing original tunes, favorite cover tunes and improvisations using an electronic keyboard and a small amplifier. The events are Friday, June 21, at 1 p.m. and at 4 p.m., in two neighborhoods in Queens.

1 p.m., on the sidewalk in front of Sweet Leaf, a cafe at 10-93 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City, Queens.

Then I'll pack up my gear and take the Q66 bus to Astoria.

4 p.m., on the sidewalk in front of Cafe Bar, 3290 36th St, in Astoria, Queens.

So if you're in New York on Friday, June 21, check the schedule for Make Music New York and go see some live music, and if you're in Queens, come by and say hello.

Sound waves

Any music is new if you never heard it before. And more good music has been recorded than one person can hear in a lifetime. So there's no reason for anyone to listen to lousy music.

By "lousy" I mean whatever is derivative, watered-down, phony or done for cynical reasons or just plain lazy. Incompetence can be charming, as long as the person is really trying and is sincere and pure at heart. You wouldn't want the Shaggs to play any better than they do.

Lately, however, I have a high regard for competence, for artists who know what they are doing. Here is some recent listening, of some people who most definitively know what they are doing:

Mary Lou Williams, "Zodiac Suite," from 1945. A deep understanding and exploration of harmony, unafraid of dissonance, not far from more abstract Duke Ellington. Twelve miniatures, just piano, upright bass and drums, poorly recorded, a wartime pressing. But the poor sound quality, even for 1945, adds to the mystery. The pieces speed up and slow down in rubato, decades before Ornette Coleman. Each piece has the blues, and the blue notes you hear are most definitely blue. From our point of view, the horoscope is a jejune conceit, but we need not let that worry us -- it's just the organizing principle, and it got her to write these strange little pieces. Mary Lou Williams had a daytime radio show and composed some of these little gems under time pressure, improvising freely at the keys and composing on the spot. She learned directly from Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, and she taught Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. She was always ahead of her time, and she remains so.

801, "801 Live," from 1976, the kind of record that gives "art rock" a good name. If only more people did it this way. It's a rare live recording of Brian Eno, who sings perfectly in tune and not only plays synthesizer but processes the rest of the band's sounds live from the stage. Has that ever been done before or since? You get guitar hotshot Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, plus top-notch drumming by Simon Philips and great bass playing by the almost-unknown Bill McCormick. The rest of the band is filled out with British prog-rock all stars. The sound is crystal, and the music pulses forward and gets your head nodding in a "yes, yes" way. I first heard this record 30 years ago -- first Eno record I ever heard. Recently I found it on vinyl, and it's even better than I remembered. It's one of my favorite records of any kind. The version of "Baby's On Fire" on "801 Live" is the best one, for my money.

John Zorn, "The Gift," from 2001: Is there anything this guy can't do? You may know his more abrasive side, from Naked City or Painkiller, or his searing, multiphonic saxophone. On this somewhat out-of-character recording, he assembles a group known as The Dreamers, and they make lovely, smooth, listenable sounds that are fun, groovy, ear-catching, bouncy and adventurous. Guitarist Marc Ribot takes a star turn, and Jamie Saft's cool, breezy keyboards put one in mind of bossa nova. "Quiet Surf" takes you to a faraway beach. This may or may not be major Zorn, as it compares with his 100-plus full-length releases, but it may be the most inviting to uninitiated ears. It's almost as if he's doing this lovely music just to prove he can beat the rest of us at our own game. Which he does.


Persian New Year Celebration

Save the date: Saturday, March 30, Mitra Sumara performs at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St., New York, as part of the seventh annual Persian New Year Celebration. Also on the bill will be Rana Farhan, playing Persian jazz and blues, and Vatan, who will play Persian country music. Mitra Sumara will bring its own strong blend of Persian psychedelic funk from pre-revolutionary Iran -- Persian pop from the 1960s and '70s.

The event starts at 6:30 p.m., and Mitra Sumara will take the stage at 8:30.

This will be a rocking way to ring in Nowrooz. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 at the door. So act now, and we'll see you then!

Random Notes

Random notes -- or not so random. Some people can let down their defenses and preconceptions and just start spinning out musical notes with abandon. Stream of consciousness, first thought best thought, let it all out. I have tried all that, and maybe I'm just too square. Or it just sounds like a baby crying. Maybe some primal scream would be good. Maybe I'm too complacent...

Anyway, what's new? Work -- actually play, since it feel like play, although some work is involved -- continues on the next "album." Forget the scare-quotes. It will be an album. For this I am grateful to the powers that be for enabling me to do this. And my thanks to the people who are helping me. You know who you are.

What else? Last Saturday night, Amy and I went to see John Cale perform his "Paris 1919" album at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, along with a rock band and chamber orchestra. Mellifluous violin and cello sounds spiked with abrasive rock. And Cale the Welshman singing out in fine form.

Other listening: Laurie Spiegel, "The Expanding Universe," electronic music from the early 1970s, created at Bell Labs, using mainframe computers and punch-card technology. But forget for the moment how it was made. Spiegel is a composer who knows counterpoint and how to write for three or four distinct musical voices in a surprising and positive way. These warm, satisfying tones fill the room while I'm making rice and beans or cleaning the apartment, and I just like the way she plays.

Mitra Sumara, the eight-piece band that plays music of pre-revolutionary Iran, of which I am honored to be a part, will return to action in March, for the Persian New Year. Save the date: Mitra Sumara, Saturday, March 30, at Le Poisson Rouge, Bleecker Street, Manhattan.

Thank you for listening.


See video of Mitra Sumara performing at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2012!

Mitra Sumara at Kennedy Center

(The image above is not the link -- please click here to see the video!)

Thanks to the Kennedy Center for hosting a performance of Mitra Sumara last Thursday. Please go to the above link to see high-quality video of the entire performance.

Also, thanks to the Tropicalia club, also in D.C., for having us to play two smoking sets of Persian psychedelic funk and shimmy-shimmy.

Learn more about Mitra Sumara here and here. You’ll be glad you did!

Mitra Sumara at Westbeth, 2012

(Photo by Leila Ostovar-Kermani)

Mitra Sumara, the 16-legged band that plays psychedelic, funky Persian pop music of the 1960s and ‘70s, is psyched to announce that we will perform two shows in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 15.

Early in the evening, at 6 p.m. sharp, we will play a one-hour set at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage. Yes, that’s right, Mitra Sumara is playing the Kennedy Center. Free admission. For more info, please go here or here.

Then, when we are nice and warmed up, we will report to the Tropicalia club, 2001 14th St. NW, for a 10 p.m. set. We will be pulling out all the stops, playing tunes that might be a little too hairy for the Kennedy Center, and in general, holding nothing back! For more information on the Tropicalia show, please go here.

Mitra Sumara is a New York City-based big band that pays homage to the vibrant pop music of pre-revolutionary Iran.

Active ingredients:

  • Yvette Perez – vocals  (Birdbrain)
  • Julian Maile – guitar (Loser’s Lounge)
  • Sam Kulik– bass (Talbam!, Starring)
  • Peter Zummo – trombone (Arthur Russell, Lounge Lizards)
  • Jim Duffy – keyboards (Jim Duffy Combo, Martin’s Folly, Rods and Cones)
  • Bill Ruyle – tabla & hammer dulcimer (Arthur Russell)
  • Brian Geltner – drums (Nervous Cabaret, Chris Whitley)
  • Michael Evans – drums & congas (Alex Hacke, Carla Bley, David Grubbs, God Is My

Learn more about Mitra Sumara here and here. You’ll be glad you did!

Three Fingers

If there's one thing I do more slowly than updating blog posts, it's making records. i work so slowly, so slowly, that I surprise myself by how slowly I work.

These days, you hear a lot about how easy it is to make records. Why, with just a laptop and a couple of microphones, you can make an album in your bedroom in one afternoon, at almost no cost.

Yes, but all this wonderful technology does not speed the composition process by a minute. At least not in my case. I take months and months to write a tune. Rather, in the course of a year, I come up with a couple dozen ideas that may or may not work out. As I play around with these ideas, or "germs" of tunes,  I'll try them in different keys, try different rhythms, try combining ideas. And in the course of a year, maybe two or three of these ideas will crystallize into an actual composition that bears repeated listening.

Meanwhile, months have gone by. When I finally have four more tunes, then it's time to phone the usual cohort: Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass, Lance Doss on guitar, recording engineer Greg Duffin, and now engineer Mario Viele. Just a couple of weeks ago, we convened in Cowboy Technical Services, the studio operated by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel and Tim Hatfield.

Once we got everyone in the same room at the same time, we just started flying. In about five hours, we recorded basic tracks for four songs. Keep in mind that we had never played these tunes together until that evening in the studio.

And let me tell you, I am excited about the results so far. This new stuff will be the most original music I have had the privilege to make. Or the weirdest, depending on your view. I'm excited, I tell you.

Typically, I need three years to make a full-length record. (I still think in terms of albums -- I can't help it, that's how I came up.) During that three-year period, I may need 10 or 12 days in the recording studio to complete the process, from recording basic tracks to adding a few simple overdubs to getting final mixes.

By the way, I tend to do these things in the most difficult, most expensive way possible, recording onto two-inch analog tape and mixing to half-inch tape. Because we use tape, we have limits on how many tracks we can use. And we have to get it right, all in one take, because post-performance editing is more difficult in the analog realm. I do it this way for reasons that I'll explain in a future post.

So my question is, does it take me three years to make a record, or does it take me 12 days? When I put out my last release, Mood Lit, my ha-ha catchy phrase was, "This record was made very quickly, over a long period of time." Maybe I should consult a Zen master.

In the meantime, I'll just say that the as-yet-untitled third album is well under way, and it's already developing its own sound and personality, and I hope you'll stay tuned.

Random Notes

Hi, long time no see. Here are some random notes and updates:

Mitra Sumara, the 16-legged band that plays pre-revolutionary Iranian pop music, has been rocking and swinging in 6/4 time. Our leader and singer, Yvette Perez, took us into Andrew Baker's recording studio, and we laid down some tracks that have us all feeling very excited and tingly. Stay tuned, and you'll get to hear it too.

By the way, two members of that group have put out excellent records this year: Sam Kulik, "Escape From Society," and Brian Geltner, a.k.a. Dr. Snitch, "Instrumental Health."

In other recording news, next week I will begin tracking for the next Jim Duffy album, featuring the same group -- Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass and Lance Doss on guitar. We'll be laying down four tunes at Cowboy Technical Services, vis-a-vis the engineering skills of Greg Duffin and Mario Viele. As I write, I'm tweaking the compositions. I tend to make changes at the last minute.

And I tend to record in the most inefficient ways. Yes, I know that people can make good records in their bedrooms, using a laptop computer, and more power to them. But that's just not my style. Instead, I have to sweat over the compositions for months, and then arrange to have a full band play live in the studio, and record using vintage microphones onto old-fashioned two-inch tape, using 16-track recording. For some reason that brings out the vibe. That's also why it takes me three or four years to make an album. (And yes, I still call them albums.)

As the summer winds along, my listening playlist includes the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet, one of my favorite groups of all time. I really enjoy all that counterpoint, and I like how there's no piano or guitar or other chording instrument. Plus, they keep the tunes short and snappy. A lot happens in those three minutes. Each track is a little gem.

Also, I am finally catching up with Brian Eno's early pop albums. On heavy rotation: "Here Come the Warm Jets," "Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)" and "Another Green World." I have heard this stuff on and off over the years, like most people, including you, probably, but these days I'm really *hearing* it. Maybe I'm just conducting my own music education in public. That's all right, I'm not embarrassed. And I found a vinyl copy of "801 Live" for $8 -- that's one of my favorite records of any kind. That record gives prog rock a good name.

For my own keyboard playing, I have made a project of Bach's Two-Part Inventions on the Wurlitzer electric piano. As I write, the Wurlitzer is in the repair room at Main Drag Music, where keyboard tech Jun Takeshita is fine-tuning it for the recording session. In the meanwhile, I'm playing some acoustic piano and also blowing into a Hohner melodica. The melodica is a subject unto itself.

Those are just a few notes for anyone who may be interested. Thanks for clicking.

sine wave

What I have always liked about playing musical instruments is that you don’t need to have anything to say. You can just pick up an instrument and start making sounds. “Sounds are sounds and nothing more,” as John Cage said. Sounds have no inherent meanings in themselves. They are different from words. As Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

A sound is a vibration in air, and it either moves you or does not move you. If it moves you, then that opens up many more possibilities. You don’t need to have anything in particular to “say.”

The problem with words is that if you sit down to write, you must have something to say. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. For instance, right now, at this moment, I do have something to say. I am saying that words have meaning, but sounds have no inherent meaning.

In music, self-expression is overrated, in my opinion. That’s why so much confessional singer-songwriter stuff is so unsatisfying. So much of it is about me-me-me, or about me-and-my-problems. Too much "meaning" drags down the performer and can be embarrassing for the listener.

Sound resists any kind of meaning. When I make a recording, it’s not because I have something to express. I have nothing to say in music. If I'm compelled to record something, it’s because I have hit upon a set of sounds or chord changes or rhythmic patterns that move me, and if I record it, maybe it will move you too. Sometimes a single note on a Wurlitzer electric piano just thrills me. The word “meaning” never enters the discussion.

Bob Dylan’s great records are great not because of his lyrics but because they so compelling musically. People who know no English can enjoy Dylan's great records. When Dylan's literal meaning overwhelms the music, he ceases to make great records.

In music, you can pluck a guitar string or press a key on a piano without a thought in your head. In fact, it’s better if your mind is a blank, and press a key and then another key, then two or three keys at once. Sounds are sounds and nothing more, but if they are effective, they can give you a certain feeling, and from that point the possibilities are endless.

Also, in music, you can improve your skill by playing other people’s music. If you want to play better piano, you can learn one of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. But if you want to write better prose, then typing a chapter of “Moby Dick” won’t help you at all.

Of course, one can write excellent lyrics without resorting to self-expression. Dylan does it all the time. Carole King wrote great lyrics to "Up on the Roof." Not a word is wasted, and the lyrics and melody are so entwined, they are one in the same. Was she trying to express herself? I have no idea. Whether her initial impulse was self-expression or something else, the overall excellence of "Up on the Roof" is such that it doesn't matter how she got there. That song goes way, way beyond self-expression.

In 1978 Brian Eno was quoted in an interview in Creem magazine:

"There are some bands who want to give the illusion by their music that the music itself is the result of incredible, seething passions and turmoil from within, and all this music comes out as a direct result of that. It's a case of 'Boy, are we in a sort of emotional turmoil, here it all comes...' "The way I work, and the way a lot of other people work, is to create music that creates a feeling in you. You set out in a rather deliberate way to do this by carefully constructing a piece that will evoke in you the feeling that you want. It's not the other way round, where you have all these feelings that then suddenly force this piece to exist in whatever form it takes. It's a matter of constructing a piece which evokes that, and evokes it time and time again. Every time you play it, it triggers the same thing -- until you finally become immune to it, which you will at some time."

Bingo! He got it in one!

For right now, let me reiterate that sounds are sounds and nothing more, and if they are used effectively, they can move you deeply. In my own experience, self-expression has little or nothing to do with it.

Mitra Sumara, Sunday, June 10, Brooklyn Bowl


Mark your calendar and save the date: On Sunday evening, June 10, at 8 p.m., Mitra Sumara, that eighteen-legged psychedelic funk band that plays tunes from pre-revolutionary Iran -- yes, that's right, Persian pop music of the 1960s and early '70s -- will be at Brooklyn Bowl, 61 Wythe Ave., in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mitra Sumara is hitting the groove and going deep into the pocket with these rhythmically compelling tunes with the keening melodies. Bandleader and vocalist Yvette Perez brings out the tragic qualities of the Farsi lyrics.

Mitra Sumara's ingredients:

Yvette Perez– vocals  (Birdbrain)
Julian Maile – guitar (Loser’s Lounge)
Sam Kulik– bass (Talbam!)
Peter Zummo – trombone (Arthur Russell, John Lurie)
Jim Duffy – keyboards (Jim Duffy Combo)
Bill Ruyle – tabla & hammer dulcimer (Arthur Russell)
Brian Geltner – drums (Nervous Cabaret, Chris Whitley)
Michael Evans – drums & congas (Alex Hacke, AndersNilsson, God Is My Co-Pilot)

Here is some video from a recent performance at the Clemente Soto Velez arts center in the Lower East Side.

But to see us in 3-D and full sense-o-rama sound, come out Sunday evening, June 10, at 8 p.m., to Brooklyn Bowl. Also on the bill will be People's Champs and the CSC Funk Band. Come out and rock with us, Persian-style!


Lakeside Lounge sign

If you're in the New York area, and if you need thumping, rocking roots, blues, rockabilly, country, boogie-woogie, R&B, soul and proto-punk music, then you already know about the Lakeside Lounge. And you have probably spent hours marveling over its encyclopedic jukebox. (What in the world was that greasy, soulful track you just heard?) And if you like to hear live, American-sounding bands kick it for one set per night, no cover charge, then you've already been to the Lakeside.

For 16 years, this little club on Avenue B has delivered the goods in an uncompromising fashion. Eric "Roscoe" Ambel and Jim "The Hound" Marshall had a vision for a true, rocking venue where the real, vital rock could still throb. And that's just how it went down.

I was there for the opening night, an acoustic set by Cheri Knight, and then the main set from Missouri's Bottle Rockets. In the early years of that club, Mojo Nixon played at the Lakeside, also a Sonics tribute band called Hooked on Sonics, Mike Ferrio and Tandy, Laura Cantrell, Beat Rodeo, the Lyres, the Fleshtones, George Gilmore's all-star variety show, Simon and the Bar Sinisters -- those are just a few. One memorable night, the great Memphis-based pianist and record producer Jim Dickinson rocked a packed house at the Lakeside, and I'm honored to say that he used my Wurlitzer electric piano for the gig.

After the live set, the real education came via the jukebox. Amos Millburn's rollicking piano, Ike Turner's nasty guitar, ditto Mickey Baker, some sick, obscure doo-wop and greasy blues, some out-of-the way Sun Records artists who never got to be superstars, some far-out, space-age psychobilly from Hasil Adkins, girl groups singing in in early-'60s urban harmony, some early Rolling Stones that you never heard in your life. For a while, the two main bands on the box were the Kinks and the Stooges.

By and by, I played some sets at the Lakeside, first sitting in with Philadelphia's Go to Blazes, then with singer/songwriter Joe Flood, then a gig or two with Roscoe's various groups, then with the band I was in at the time, Martin's Folly. And when I started performing with my own group, the Jim Duffy Combo, the Lakeside was our home base. Last Friday night, Jesse Bates and Los Dudes rocked the house, with Roscoe sitting in on guitar.

The Lakeside will be closing its doors on Monday, April 30.  The neighborhood has changed, the fancy eating emporiums are moving in, the luxury housing is taking over, the rents have spiked. Iggy no longer lives at the Christadora. The live-music venues have been closing, one by one, and it's almost inconceivable that a new one could open in the East Village under these circumstances. When the Lakeside is gone, it will not be replaced.

So you have a week. Do yourself a favor and stop into the Lakeside for a cocktail or a beer, soak up the atmosphere and dig that deep-throated jukebox and hear whatever kicking band is playing its final set there.

Thank you, thank you, to Roscoe and the Hound for providing 16 years of cool, rocking music at a low-pressure venue that was always easy to enjoy.

You've heard me talk about Mitra Sumara, the eight-piece, psychedelic funk Farsi supergroup I've been playing with. We play Persian pop music from the 1960s and '70s, music from pre-revolutionary Iran.

This is some wild stuff. Unlike Western pop-psych music of the period, which used sitars and dulcimers to spice up the sound, these Persian artists grew up playing sitars and dulcimers, and they applied this deep knowledge to American rhythm and blues. It's the reverse image of the flowering of pop music, and it has been rarely heard until now.

Mitra Sumara honors this brief period of transcultural rock by playing the Farsi pop songs from this period. And we'll be performing for the Persian New Year on Friday, March 30, 9 p.m., at the Clemente Soto Velez arts center at 107 Suffolk St. in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Come out and have the best Persian New Year of your life -- Nowruz 1391!

Mitra Sumara is:

Yvette Perez– vocals  (Birdbrain)
Julian Maile – guitar (Loser’s Lounge)
Sam Kulik– bass (Talbam!)
Peter Zummo – trombone (Arthur Russell, John Lurie)
Jim Duffy – keyboards (Jim Duffy Combo)
Bill Ruyle – tabla & hammer dulcimer (Arthur Russell)
Brian Geltner – drums (Nervous Cabaret, Chris Whitley)
Michael Evans – drums & congas (Alex Hacke, AndersNilsson, God Is My Co-Pilot)

Special guests - Arki (Ethio-groove) - instrumental quintet performing all Ethiopian 70s dance tunes!

So save the date and mark your calendar: Mitra Sumara, Friday, March 30, Persian New Year at Clemente Velez. Helelyosa!

For a little taste of Mitra Sumara, check out this video from a recent performance at Fontana's in Manhattan. We're playing a song called "Mosem-E Gol," which was originally recorded by a group called Parva:

mitra sumara from rumur on Vimeo.

Mitra Sumara Fontana

Thanks to all of you who came out a couple of weeks ago at Clemente Velez to see and shake to Mitra Sumara, that rhythmic, psychedelic Persian band. We will be playing again on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 11 p.m. at Fontana's, 105 Eldridge St. in Manhattan.

We play Persian pop music of the 1960s and ’70s, tunes that shook the air before the Islamic revolution rolled into Iran.

This vibrant music has deep grooves and funky breaks and dark, keening melodies. This music is challenging and rewarding, and it all fits together like clockwork.

>>>>>>>Mitra Sumara<<<<<<<

Thursday, Feb. 9 , at 11 p.m.


105 Eldridge St., New York, NY

with ***Screentests*** at 10 p.m.


///////Hot Farsi funk - Persian psych - bangin' dance grooves from beyond!\\\\\\

Mitra Sumara is an eight-piece super group of musicians dedicated to the vibrant sound of 60s/70s Persian funk & pop hits. The sound of pre-Revolutionary Iran mixes the beats of Fela Kuti, Salsa, and Disco with Mid-East melodies, a cool LA breeze, and tragic poetry. Big beats, blaring brass, and wheezing electric organ.

We are here to help you get your Persian groove on!

Mitra Sumara is:

Yvette Perez– vocals  (Birdbrain)
Julian Maile – guitar (Loser’s Lounge)
Sam Kulik– bass (Talbam!)
Peter Zummo – trombone (Arthur Russell, John Lurie)
Jim Duffy – keyboards (Jim Duffy Group)
Bill Ruyle – tabla & hammer dulcimer (Arthur Russell)
Brian Geltner – drums (Nervous Cabaret, Chris Whitley)
Michael Evans – drums & congas (Alex Hacke, AndersNilsson, God Is My


Mitra Sumara, Jan. 18

Mitra Sumara, that rhythmic, psychedelic Persian band, will be playing on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

We play Persian pop music of the 1960s and ’70s, tunes that shook the air before the Islamic revolution rolled into Iran. Did you know that such music existed? I didn’t, until Yvette Perez asked me to join.

We’ve been working on these tunes for several months now, working on the deep grooves and funky breaks and dark, keening melodies. And the band keeps getting bigger! There are nine of us now, and we make quite a sound.

Yvette can explain it better than I can, so take it away, Yvette:

>>>>>>>Mitra Sumara<<<<<<<

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 9 p.m.

Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center

107 Suffolk St, New York, NY

with ***Minerals Duo*** (Zach Layton & Bradford Reed!!!!)


///////Hot Farsi funk - Persian psych - bangin' dance grooves from beyond!\\\\\\

Mitra Sumara is nine-piece super group of musicians dedicated to the vibrant sound of 60s/70s Persian funk & pop hits. The sound of pre-Revolutionary Iran mixes the beats of Fela Kuti, Salsa, and Disco with Mid-East melodies, a cool LA breeze, and tragic poetry. Big beats, blaring brass, and wheezing electric organ. 

We are here to help you get your Persian groove on!

Mitra Sumara is:

Yvette Perez– vocals  (Birdbrain)
Julian Maile – guitar (Loser’s Lounge)
Sam Kulik– bass (Talbam!)
Jordan McLean – trumpet (Antibalas, Medeski Martin & Wood, TV on the Radio)
Peter Zummo – trombone (Arthur Russell, John Lurie)
Jim Duffy – keyboards (Jim Duffy Group)
Bill Ruyle – tabla & hammer dulcimer (Arthur Russell)
Brian Geltner – drums (Nervous Cabaret, Chris Whitley)

Michael Evans – drums & congas (Alex Hacke, AndersNilsson, God Is My


Best Occupy Wall Street Sign Ever

I work in Lower Manhattan, and when the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations started on Sept. 17, they didn't look like much. Just a few young people were marching up Wall Street, carrying signs and chanting. Some of the signs were, frankly, a bit idiotic. The police had set up barriers, and I had to walk 200 yards out of my way to get to work. Good luck to the protesters, but their little march looked ineffectual and a bit annoying.

A week later came the widespread video of a high-ranking New York police officer pepper-spraying nonviolent protesters. The next day, I went to Zuccotti Park, and the protest had grown overnight to triple the size. Some of the protesters' signs were a little more intelligent. I said to one demonstrator, "Your message seems to be getting more focused."

He said, "It's been focused all along. Why don't you join us?"

Since I work nearby, I started going over to Zuccotti Park at lunchtime, to see what was happening. The protesters were becoming more organized. They had set up a media table, a first-aid area, a food line. They posted a daily schedule of workshops and events.

Then came the news of the march over the Brooklyn Bridge, which resulted in the arrest of 700 protesters. When I returned to Lower Manhattan that Monday, the protest had once again doubled in size. That week, the protesters were about to march to nearby Foley Square, to join some labor unions that were demonstrating. The Occupy Wall Street group is not allowed to use amplification, so they use the "human microphone" mode of communication: One person speaks, and everyone repeats it, for the sake of those who are out of earshot.

Speaker: "In a few minutes, ..."

Demonstrators: "In a few minutes, ..."

Speaker: "We are going to walk..."

Demonstrators: "We are going to walk..."

"Peacefully and calmly and on the sidewalk."

"Peacefully and calmly and on the sidewalk."

"If we block traffic, ..."

"If we block traffic, ..."

"Then we suck."

"Then we suck."

The Occupy crowd had already started changing in its makeup. During the mass arrests at the Brooklyn Bridge, the police didn't have enough vehicles to transport the arrested, so they asked the MTA to send city buses. The bus drivers didn't like that, so the Transit Workers Union joined the march. And in sympathy came the Teamsters. And along came the teachers' union and the nurses union and the teachers.

Meanwhile, the AM radio and the cable business channel was referring to the Occupy movement as a bunch of hippies and mooches. "What do they want?"

In the following days and evenings in Zuccotti Park (I got to be a regular), the demonstrators took their organizational capabilities to the next level. One day a young economics professor was conducting a seminar, complete with whiteboard and hand-outs, on the subject, "What Is a Credit Default Swap?" The food line was becoming more orderly. More people of advanced years were appearing in the park, either participating or looking on in curiosity. I saw an older gentleman with a hat identifying himself as a World War II veteran.

On CNBC, the baffled commentors said, "What do they want?"

At Zuccotti Park, a woman held a sign that said, "Warning: Do not confuse the complexity of this movement with chaos."

Whatever you think of the protesters themselves, they are right about a few key issues:

1. The financial system itself is what crashed the economy in 2008. Large investment banks created securities that were backed by pools of residential mortgages. Some investment banks intentionally loaded these securities with pools with mortgages that they knew were likely to default, but the ratings agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, rated these mortgage pools as triple-A. So the investment banks pushed faulty products into the market, products that were designed to fail, and sold them to their clients, who had every reason to trust the ratings agencies. Furthermore, the investment banks that created and sold these securities took short positions against these bets. That is to say, they bet against their own clients, betting that these securities would fail. And they created products that would double or triple the leverage on these bets.

2. When the mortgage pools failed, as they were designed to do, many billions of dollars of capital were destroyed. Lehman Brothers failed, as did Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual.

3. To repair the losses, U.S. taxpayers spent over $800 billion to shore up the financial system against an all-out economic depression.

4. The operators of the investment banks who caused the crash were not prosecuted for fraud. Technically, they had operated within the letter of the law. Not only were they not prosecuted, they used the money that the taxpayers had spent for the bailout in order to award themselves seven-figure bonuses.

5. No major reforms were enacted to prevent this from happening again, and the same types of OK-by-the-books fraud is starting to happen all over again.

6. Meanwhile the unemployment rate in the U.S. remains at almost 10%, wages are stagnant, those who still have jobs are working longer hours, jobs continue to be outsourced, our manufacturing base continues to move to China, and recent college graduates are facing few or no job prospects and huge levels of debt.

7. Investment bankers and those whose primary income comes from investments -- unearned income -- pay a lower tax rate than those who work for salary or hourly wages.

Those are just a few points that the protestors are trying to get across. It's not quick, it doesn't fit onto a bumper sticker, and there's a lot more where those came from. Another supporter of Occupy Wall Street could have another list of seven or 14 points, but it all comes under the heading of economic injustice.

This is not about hating the rich. It's about fixing the unfairness that's in the system. The system is tilted in favor of those who make money through investment as opposed to labor. And the unchecked greed of some of these people is what crashed the economy, and it's what keeps the economy in such miserable shape. They continue to profit.

If you can't read the words on the sign in the photo above, here is the message: "It is wrong to create a mortgage-baked security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon."

That's the issue, in a nutshell of 45 words.

I'll have more to say about what's happening at Zuccotti Park. Right now, I have to do some piano practice...

mitra sumara 36 resized

(photo by Stephanie Woodard)

I'm involved in an exciting music project that has been brewing for several months and is just now seeing the light of day: a Persian rock band. Yes, you heard right. Iran had a vibrant pop music scene in the 1960s and '70s, before the Islamic revolution moved in. And now, 35 years later, vocalist/arranger/bandleader Yvette Perez is giving that music new life here in the Western Hemisphere.

The group, Mitra Sumara -- for that is our name -- had a test run at the Westbeth Center for the Arts last Sunday, and so far, all systems are go. Yvette sings all lyrics in Farsi. The lineup is as follows:

  • Yvette -- vocals (Birdbrain, H.E.R.)
  • Julian Maile -- guitar (Loser's Lounge)
  • Sam Kulik -- bass (Talibam!)
  • Jeff Hermanson -- trumpet (Stew and the Negro Problem, Yo La Tengo)
  • Peter Zummo -- trombone (Arthur Russell, Lounge Lizards)
  • Jim Duffy -- keyboard (Jim Duffy Combo, Martin's Folly, Rods and Cones)
  • Bill Ruyle -- hammer dulcimer and tabla (Arthur Russell)
  • Michael Evans -- drums and percussion (Alex Hacke, Anders Nilsson, God Is My Co-Pilot)


We'll have some public events coming up in November and December, so please stay tuned. This is some of the most challenging and rewarding music I have ever played. And to be on the bandstand with such high-caliber musicians is an honor. We have been rehearsing hard and often to get this music to bounce and shake the way it should.

Mitra Sumara. Say it a couple of times and it becomes natural.

hurricane image

As I write, the rain is beating against the windows. Here in New York, we're waiting for Hurricane Irene to roll in with gale force. We don't get too many hurricanes here in the city. I'm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the local businesses downstairs have boarded up their windows with plywood. The supermarket was crowded this morning, and in the bagel shop, people were buying bagels by the dozen. The news reports on the AM radio dial have come back into fashion.

So while I'm hunkered down, drinking too much coffee, let me tell you about about a band I'm in. It's an exciting project led by vocalist Yvette Perez -- a Persian pop and dance band. Yes, you heard right. We're called Mitra Sumara, and we've been rehearsing for a couple of months, getting ready to bust out and get you moving.

As I have learned from my involvement in this project, Iran had a vibrant pop music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. The Teheran nightlife was aglow with fast-moving, sinuous, sensuous music, some of which featured keening vocals by the fabulous Googoosh.

When the Islamic revolution moved in, this music was shut down and driven underground. Now, 35 years later, this music has broken through the asphalt of New York city, and Mitra Sumara will be ready to serve it to you, hot and fresh. For several years, Yvette, who is of Persian descent, has been studying Farsi language and studying this idiomatic brand of singing.

And she has assembled a group of fast-moving musicians who can handle the twists and turns of this frenetc music: Peter Zummo on trombone, Michael Evans on drums and percussion, Bill Ruyle on hammered dulcimer and percussion, Julian Maile on guitar, and yours truly on keys.

Mitra Sumara will play its first show in September, at a private party in the West Village. After that, we'll be hitting the clubs and the dancefloors, and I hope you'll avail yourself of this rare and exotic treat. Mitra Sumara -- you heard it here first!

C.S. Gray 270

Something a little different -- my good friend Chris Gray, a.k.a. C.S. Gray, will be playing two sets on Friday evening, July 22, at Banjo Jim's in the East Village. He asked me to fill in on bass guitar, and I was delighted to say yes.

Chris and I go way back. Back in the early 1990s, we co-founded the band Martin's Folly. Before anyone ever heard the term "roots rock," we started writing songs that portrayed what we liked best about the American music we loved. That was the pre-Internet, pre-download era, so we were more or less working in the dark. We made three albums that were produced by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, and for five or six years we played in the New York clubs, up and down the East Coast, and out to Cleveland, Chicago, Nashville, Asheville and points in between.

After I veered off into instrumental music, Chris took his brand of songwriting, singing and guitar tone-making up to the next level, and his solo album "Shoot Out the Star" is finally getting the exposure it deserves. Like a vintage Neil Young album, "Shoot Out the Star" collects sessions done with various groups of musicians, some acoustic, some very electric.

On Friday the 22nd, Chris will be doing a quiet set of his own tunes, in a contemplative manner, on acoustic guitar and harmonica, with some special guests and surprises. I may play a bit of piano. Beyond that, I shall say no more about the "quiet" set.

And then Chris will plug in his amp for the warm, buzzy tone he is known for. On drums will be the swinging Karl Myers, and I'll be thumping the bass. And we may have more electric guitars on stage than you're supposed to. In our rehearsals, we're sounding quite bluesy and ... I don't quite know how to say this ... a bit British? It's something different. Some tunes are getting stretched out, other tunes are getting compressed. It's all a bit mysterious, but it sounds way cool, both raunchy and refined, and I can't wait to hear how it comes out.

So make it to Banjo Jim's on Friday, July 22, for this double-barreled show. It will be live, spontaneous and real, and it may not happen quite this way ever again.

Cones at Brighton Music Hall 2011

Rods and Cones say love and thanks to everyone who came out to see our rare (and I hope well-done) performance at the Brighton Music Hall on May 14.

Special gratitude to Eddy Schneider, who thumped some fine bass guitar while I was on keys, and to our friends Linda Page and Gabby Agachiko, who provided some fine vocal harmonizing.

Chris Kelley, vocals and madness

Mike Napolitano, guitar

Gary France, guitar and vocals

Jim Duffy, bass, keyboard and vocals

Jim DiNardo, percussion and vocals

Chris DiNardo, drums

Eddy Schneider, bass

Linda Price, vocals

Gabby Agachiko, vocals

To see the full cast of characters performing "Come Sunday," please go here.

Photos by Kristen Westhoven:

Cones at Brighton Music Hall  

Cones w/Linda and Gabby

Cones at Brighton 2011, basic

To hear Rods and Cones' "Round Room" from 1983, "Education in Love" from 1985, and "Seventy-Seven Degrees" from 1996, please go to the Music page on this site.

Kelley/Cones 1986

Editor's note: Rods and Cones will be performing their first full-length show in 23 years on Saturday, May 14, 2011, at the Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave., Allston, Mass., 02134. For information and tickets, please go here.

"Education in Love," written by Rods and Cones, 1985, from the self-titled EP, produced by Alec Murphy and Rods and Cones. To hear "Education in Love," please go to the Music page on this website, and scroll down.

For the moment, let me talk about the music track of "Education in Love," as opposed to the video. (For info on the video, please go here, and to see the video, please go here.)

In 1984 and 1985, Rods and Cones went into the studio to record our first EP. Those were still the days when vinyl records were the norm, not a boutique item, and the barriers to entry were higher. We went to Polymedia Studio, which was Alec Murphy's (RIP) 16-track studio on Newbury Street in Boston. Over the course of several weeks, we recorded most of the tracks that appeared on the self-titled EP.

Then we tried to get fancy, and we spent days and days -- and too much money -- at the even higher-tech studio SynchroSound, which was owned and operated by the Cars. Synchro was 24-track, and the technology got on top of our heads. We'd spend hours and hours trying to get a sound on the snare drum, and it sounded like a tin can. Occasionally Ric Ocasek would poke his head into the studio and see what was happening.

We were a bit discouraged, but in the midst of it all, we were gigging like crazy, and we had a new tune, "Education in Love," that Alec felt would be a good kick off to the album. So we loaded our gear back into the comfort of Polymedia and banged out "Education in Love" in just one or two takes, and as I recall, Chris Kelley did the vocal track in one take.

It's a very simple song -- the whole thing is in one chord, and the vocals are on three notes. But it has a good beat, don't you think? We put it as track No. 1 on the self-titled EP, and it got a good response at WFNX in Lynn, Mass. Then, a week or two later, WBCN started spinning it. Meanwhile, a couple of Emerson College students, Kris Hockemeyer and Peter Martinez, produced an amusing video for the song (the video positively screams "1985," and I mean that in a good way).

All in all, a nice experience. Of course, we became saddled with this song and had to play it at every gig. Though a year or two later, we played at Jack's in Cambridge and went the whole night without playing "Education," and I thought that was rather daring.

Anyway, to hear "Education in Love," please go to the Music page on this site, and scroll down. As I now say in my best Don Kirschner voice, here is Rods and Cones' greatest hit, "Education in Love."


P.S., Chris Kelley sent me some MP3s of a live radio broadcast the Cones did on WERS-FM in the spring of 1985. Holy moly, I had not heard this in 25 years, and it's stirring up all kinds of feelings. I'm sure I'll have something to say about it, so please come back...



Cones at Channel, Kelley, Mike's Guitar

Rods and Cones will be performing on Saturday, May 14, 2011, at 10 p.m., at the Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Allston, Mass., in the Boston area. This will be our first full-length show in 23 years. Also on the bill will be the Cinnamon Fuzz. For information and tickets, please go here.

To hear a sound clip of "Round Room" by Rods and Cones, recorded in 1983, please go to the Music page on this site.

"Round Room" by Rods and Cones, recorded in early 1983. Produced by Bob Slavin. Recorded at Sanctuary Studio, Shrewsbury, Mass.

That's Mike Napolitano on guitar, and Mike wrote the words, which were sung by Chris Kelley:

In a round room,

In a white room,

In a dead room,

I lay naked

And curse the cold.

"Round Room" was the first original tune of Rods and Cones, or at least the first one that stuck. We were jamming on that B minor thing, and when we came up with the break, we were so excited about it, we had to keep playing it. And the tune had that walking-down keyboard riff by Brian "Herm" Hess.

"Round Room" was produced by Bob Slavin, who was a Boston radio personality at the time. We had had a very serious meeting with Bob one night in the dressing room of the Channel. (I laugh as I type this.) Bob had never produced a record, and none of us had ever been inside a real studio.

That's Chris DiNardo with the portentious opening thump on the drums, then I get my big entrance on bass. We laid down multiple vocal tracks and a couple of percussion tracks -- that's Jim DiNardo on bongos galore. Our friend Jim Smith played alto sax.

In 1983, "Round Room" made the rounds as our calling card, on cassette, and WFNX in Lynn, Mass., started playing it. In 1984, "Round Room" appeared on a vinyl compilation called "Boston Rock and Roll Anthology, Vol. 3," which was released on "Count" Joe Viglione's label, Varulven Records.

kelley/cones 2010


Rods and Cones appearing Saturday, May 14, 9 p.m. at Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave., Allston, Mass. Also on the bill: Freezepop. (617) 779-0140.

 Back in the early 1980s, in Boston, the local music was in a state of flux. Anything could happen, the weirder the better. Bands were abandoning the typical rock and roll backbeat and trying other grooves, other instruments. As I look back, it seems that Rods and Cones were in the right place at the right time, though it didn’t always feel that way in 1982.

The local audience was enormous, of course, given all the college students – and recent graduates -- in the area. In Kenmore Square you had the Rat and Storyville, in Allston you had Bunratty’s, on the waterfront you had the enormous Channel club, in the Fenway you had the Jumpin’ Jack Flash club, which was a lot more fun than the name implies, and in Cambridge you had Jack’s, the beloved Inn-Square Mens Bar, and later T.T. the Bear’s (the Cones played at all those places and many others). The local radio was playing Boston bands, and the local press would write about the big noisemaker of the week. Conditions were ripe for anyone who had a musical instrument and a little nerve and some determination to create something different.

I’ve written about Rods and Cones a couple times. I was a 22-year-old bass player waiting tables in Harvard Square. At night I would go down to the basement and help create some odd, chugging, bleeping, growling tunes with my mates. For the record, I co-founded the band with keyboard player Brian "Herman" Hess. We recruited Chris Kelley to be our singer. On guitar was Mike Napolitano, on drums was Chris DiNardo, and on percussion was Jim DiNardo. In 1984, Napolitano left the band, and Gary France took over on guitar.

All in all, we had a good six-year run. We performed up and down the East Coast, we competed in the 1984 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble, our tune “Round Room” appeared on a vinyl compilation album and got some airplay. We performed on the final night of the Inn-Square Men’s Bar, where we missed a chance to jam with Joe Perry. We opened up for Gary Glitter at the Channel – his first-ever U.S. show. (Should I really be bragging about that?) We opened for the late reggae great Dennis Brown at the Channel. We opened for Ebn Ozn at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. We opened for The Call at the Living Room in Providence. We released an EP that included “Education in Love,” the video for which was in heavy rotation on V-66. We became semi-regulars at CBGB in New York, and some of our tracks were released on the short-lived CBGB record label. We played at a benefit concert, opening for X and Cheap Trick. One night down at CBGB, in about 1986, we opened for Lenny Kaye, and we handed a copy of our record to Jim Carroll. An hour later, as we were driving our van up the Bowery, we saw Carroll and his date, and he was spinning our record in his hands like a basketball!

As I’ve said before, there are worse ways to squander one’s youth.

The occasion for talking about all of this is that all these years later, we Rods and Cones are still in touch, and we all still play. The exception, of course, is our late colleague Brian “Herman” Hess, who died suddenly in 2004. I have written about Herm in a previous post.

In early 2010, Rods and Cones regrouped – with Napolitano and France in the band at the same time, and yours truly switching off between bass and keyboard -- and performed a few tunes at Boston’s House of Blues, at a V-66 tribute night. The show went so well that we are jamming even harder and deeper, and stretching out farther and putting together a full-length show. As I write this, I’m coming off a two-day rehearsal, and let me tell you, my central nervous system is positively pulsing with it, and it feels good.

Rods and Cones will be returning to play their first full-length show in 22 years on Saturday night, May 14, at the Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Allston. More information here. Also on the bill will be the young, vibrant group Freezepop.

We’re putting some work into this show, to make it as intense as we can. If you heard us back in the day, I hope you’ll come out and see some old friends. If you weren’t there, then this is a chance to see what the fuss is about.

And thanks for listening.

Wanda Jackson

Rock and roll pioneer Wanda Jackson, “the nice girl with the nasty voice,” is getting some of the flash she has deserved for a long time – about 50 years or so. Her new record, "The Party Ain’t Over," was produced by capo de tutti capi Jack White. Last Sunday, in a front-page arts-section story in the New York Times, Melena Ryzik called Wanda “among the first women to record a rock song.” If you consider the women who came to rock and roll from the country side, as opposed to the rhythm-and-blues side, you may have to count Wanda Jackson as the very first.

Wanda Jackson started as a teenage country singer in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City, singing the songs of Kitty Wells and Hank Thompson and Hank Williams. She went on tour, chaperoned by her father, as an opening act for an up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley. As Wanda tells the story, Presley was the one who convinced her to belt it out without holding back.

Her signature tune, “Let’s Have a Party,” from 1959, still scorches. What's startling is the combination of sweetness and snarl. “Funnel of Love,” a single as bizarre as the title, can make you turn your head and say, “What?”

In the late 1990s, when Wanda’s star wasn’t soaring quite as high as it is now, she was booked to play at the old Tramps on West 21st Street, on a bill that included Lucinda Williams, Ruth Brown (RIP), Victoria Williams and some others. The all-star revue show was to promote a book from Rolling Stone Press about women in rock. Wanda had asked bassist Robert Burke Warren to assemble a band for the short set she was going to play, and drummer Will Rigby recommended yours truly as a piano player. (Thanks, Will!)

As I recall, we rehearsed once or twice without Wanda and met her the night of the show. We did four or five tunes, “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama,” "Right or Wrong," “Stupid Cupid” and a few others. Wanda was totally cool, she sounded great -- actually, she sounded so much like her old records, it was hard to believe -- and she was really leading the band. She made a big hit with the crowd, and after the set, she posed for many photos and signed many autographs.

The set went well enough that when she returned to New York in 2002, she asked for the same band. By that time, Will Rigby was out on tour with Steve Earle, so we had Doug Wygal on drums. On guitar was Mark Spencer, Robert Warren still on bass, and we were to be billed as Wanda Jackson and Her New York Partytimers. We were to play two shows and record a live album.

We rehearsed a little more thoroughly for those shows, and even rehearsed with Wanda. At the end of the rehearsal, she told us what every side-person wants to hear: “You guys did your homework.” Somebody in the band asked her about a weird guitar sound on a particular track. Wanda said, “Well, that was Roy Clark, and he could do anything.”

For the first gig, at Arlene Grocery, we opened the show with some "entrance music," vamping on “Rockabilly Fever” for a couple of minutes. Her husband/manager Wendell Goodman went to the mic with some well-practiced showbiz patter: “Ladies and gentlemen, the First Lady of Rock and Roll, the Queen of Rockabilly…” Wanda came out and took charge of the stage, the band, the whole club. We did a good version of “Mean Mean Man.”

The next night’s show was at the Village Underground. We played a medley of country tunes, and Wanda told Elvis stories from the stage -- she dated Elvis for a while, and that story got plenty of woo-woos from the audience. Then we got into the rocking stuff, and it was pretty much a total victory. 

That show attracted a lot of rockabilly retro kids, young women in crazy poodle skirts and wild hairdos, and guys with big sideburns and pastel suits, like outcasts from the Stray Cats. As always, she made herself available at the merch table for photos and autographs. At one point Wanda turned to me and said, “Some of these kids have funny ideas about how we used to dress in the ‘50s.”

You can hear some the results of those two nights on a limited-release CD called "The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’."

About a year later, I got the call for another Wanda gig, this time with my pal Dennis Diken on drums. This show was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and I realized that Wanda had at least three separate, distinct audiences: the country music fans who liked her '60s Nashville country stuff and her '70s gospel records, the retro rockabilly kids, and in Hoboken, the riot girls -- I mean riot grrls, the women who were a generation younger than Chrissie Hynde and leading rock bands.

During one upbeat number, I had a short solo to do, and I started plinking the high-register keys in a Jerry Lee Lewis style. Wanda was not digging it. She came over and pointed to the middle register of the keyboard, so I started playing down there. And she was right.

Those are the only gigs I played with Wanda Jackson, and she was, as I said, totally cool to work for, and her husband Wendell treated us well.

Over the next few years, she was “discovered” by Elvis Costello, and she sang on some duet records with pop stars who were looking for credibility. She started receiving a lot of overdue recognition. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, in case you're keeping score. And now she’s playing sold-out shows from New York to L.A. and beyond. (Wait, you mean that if I had stayed on that gig, I’d be wearing a pink shirt and recording with Jack White? Uh, no.)

So go check out some Wanda Jackson. Do yourself a favor and see the rather shocking video of that sweet young girl tearing it up on “Hard Headed Woman.” It’s from a TV appearance in 1958. And then watch her tear it up on "Mean Mean Man." For crying out loud, go check it out!

Burt Bacharach

This isn’t Burt Bacharach’s birthday -– he’ll be 83 next May -– but this is as good a time as any to appreciate a master composer who is still with us.

This is just a personal take. Whenever I go back to Bacharach’s music, I can’t seem to stop. And so much of what I try to do in music is in the direction of what Bacharach started doing 50 years ago. Once I started playing those Bacharach-like major seventh chords, there was no looking back. But of course there's so much more to it. His songs are so fresh and modern and aerodynamic. Those harmonies, so simple yet sophisticated, as in bossa nova. It’s such a stylized, idiosyncratic sound, in two notes you can tell it’s Bacharach.

Listen to Dionne Warwick’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Something fresh and exciting happens every two seconds. During the instrumental verse, the flugelhorn plays a line, then Dionne harmonizes with the horn, the time signature changes from 4/4 to 2/4, then the backup singers sing, “I say a little prayer for you,” the time signature changes back to 4/4, then Burt plays a fantastic piano riff. This all happens within six and a half measures.

Bacharach’s own mostly-instrumental albums give you the purest Bacharach. He plays piano, he conducts, he arranges, he produces. He takes the tunes way out, with crazy modulations and shifts in time signature, and he adds whole other themes that don’t appear in the vocal versions. Burt’s own version of “This Guy’s in Love With You” is my favorite – no disrespect to Herb Alpert.

Burt’s albums “Reach Out,” from 1967, and “Make It Easy on Yourself,” from 1969, constitute a one-two punch. Everything on those two records is so lively, from the compositions, of course, to the wild arrangements to the tight-as-a-drum performances to the sizzling rhythm section to the production. Those records are mixed in such a way that when you listen in stereo, you can point to the exact spot in your living room where the horns are, where the strings are, where the tambourine is. Special mention here to sound engineer Phil Ramone.

To see Bacharach in action in the studio, see this clip on YouTube of Cilla Black recording “Alfie” at Abbey Road in 1965, and see Bacharach conducting the orchestra, waving his arms like a sea lion. For my money, this is the best version of “Alfie,” by far.

Back in 1983 or so, I went to a free concert by Dionne Warwick in Boston Common. I didn’t care much about Dionne Warwick at the time -- I was a disaffected 23-year-old bass player in a loud rock band who had some very different ideas about music -- but I went as sort of a goof. The unannounced guest was Burt Bacharach, who played and conducted. And what a swinging bandleader he was that afternoon! As hard-headed as I was in those days, Bacharach got to me, without a trace of irony.

In 2000, I went to see Bacharach perform with a small orchestra at the Count Basie Theater in Long Branch, N.J. The man has so many hits that he literally could not play them all in a 90-minute concert, so he mashed them together into medleys, sung by four vocalists -– "Walk On By," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," “The Look of Love," "You'll Never Get to Heaven," “Close to You,” "Promises, Promises," “A House Is Not a Home,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Wives and Lovers,” "A House Is Not a Home," “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and on and on –- I haven’t told you the half of it -– ending with a big sing-along of “What the World Needs Now.” Let me tell you, as wild as I am about Burt Bacharach’s hits and his rarities, I never much cared for “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” That tune always struck me as silly. But when he came out to do an encore, who was the idiot in the balcony who was singing along to "Raindrops" and swaying from side to side?

By the way, at that particular show, Bacharach had a young guy on second keyboard, playing organ and string parts. During a slow musical passage, this young guy started improvising, and some of his notes started going off the rails. Burt slowly turned around from the piano and cocked an eyebrow -- you wouldn't want to be on the other end of that -- and this young guy twisted his musical phrase upside-down to make it right, and in doing so, he twisted his body around until he was literally underneath his keyboard, looking up, with his elbow over his head. It all happened as if in slow motion. Talk about pressure.

In 2003, while I was recording some instrumental tunes for the “Side One” album, Mac Gollehon, an ace session musician, was going to play a flugelhorn part. I asked him if we could double-track the flugelhorn, to suggest that classic Burt Bacharach sound. Mac said, “I played with Burt Bacharach at a concert at Royal Albert Hall.” OK, then.

As I said, there's so much more. Bacharach's song "Hasbrouck Heights" is the best ode to a New Jersey town that this New Jersey native has ever heard. Heck, I even like the way he sings. And man, can that guy wear a tuxedo. And he's still at it.

Let’s appreciate Burt Bacharach while we still have him. Back in the 1970s I knew of Burt Bacharach, as many teenagers did at the time, from a TV commercial he and his then-wife Angie Dickinson did for Martini & Rossi vermouth. (See it here.) When Angie offers him a glass, Burt plays and sings:

"Say yes … yes

To Martini & Rossi on the rocks

Say yes."

Here’s to you, Burt.


(Photo: Lockheed-Martin experimental airship)

Sooner or later, every blogger apologizes for not writing sooner, even though it never occurred to anyone to have their feelings hurt. You never think you'll be that way yourself, but here were are.

In my own case, I've been working on a top-secret research-and-development project. Or not really -- I'm just trying to write some tunes. I'm up to my elbows in the composition process. I'm listening to hours of rough recordings, listening for "germs" of ideas that might become tunes.

It's a slow process, and it's just how I work. I've never been the type to say, "Let's write a song today." Instead, it comes about as a matter of slow accumulation, playing every day, and when an interesting rhythmic figure or chord progression or melodic line comes along, I record it and move on. In this way I accumulate many hours of recordings, and then, when I undertake the research-and-development phase, as I call it, I review it all. My tunes are pretty simple, but some of them, like "Balladeer" from the "Mood Lit" album, take years to get right. (To hear it, please click here.)

Sometimes I get lucky. The tune "Your White Raincoat," from the "Side One" album, came to me in my sleep, and I just woke up and recorded it. No kidding. (To hear it, please click here.)

As I'm listening, what counts most is the immediate gut reaction. I like it, or I don't care for it. It moves me, or it doesn't. As I listen with my ears wide open, in search of "germs" of musical compositions, the musical phrase or rhythmic figure or melodic figure has to move me physically or somehow engage me before I have a chance to think about it.

In a way, this is an anti-intellectual exercise, and that may be why I enjoy it so much. I ratchet myself down the evolutionary scale and go from being a highly developed ape to being a less-developed ape.  When I hear a tune or a part of a tune that has promise, I hop up and down and grunt for joy.

So far, I have had a few occasions to grunt. That must mean that I'm composing. As I delve through these many, many hours of recordings, I'm very close to my simian nature and can barely form words.

Only now, as I'm taking a break from this regressive process, can I manage to tell you why the updates have been so sporadic, and to tell you that I have not forgotten about you.

Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club

This is on short notice, and it's something a little unusual. On Friday, Sept. 24, at 9 p.m., I'll be playing a set of solo piano music at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club, which is at 59 Kent Ave. in Brooklyn, between North 10th and North 11th, right on the East River.

The Brooklyn R&G is a mellow hang -- it's a "private social club," but if you want to come by and not start any fights, you are welcome. On Friday nights, the R&G hosts live, mostly roots-oriented music, and they asked me to do a set opening up for Willy Gantrim.

To find out more about the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club, go here. And if you can swing by on Friday night, please do.

sept. 16 flyer, smaller

Save the date -- Thursday, Sept. 16, 9 p.m. The Jim Duffy Combo will return to our "home court," the Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B in Manhattan, near East 10th Street.

We'll be playing our unique blend of sparkling instrumental pop tunes and bouncy themes. We always enjoy playing at the Lakeside -- and who are "we," you may ask?

* Jim Duffy -- keys

* Dennis Diken -- drums

* Paul Page -- bass

* Lance Doss -- guitars

We'll be playing original tunes, plus a surprise or two. The more we play, the more "in the pocket" we get, and the wilder and freer become the musical notes. There's so much going on, you'll forget that there's no singing!

"Moody and bouncy instrumental pop tunes" is my catch-all phrase for what we do, but there's so much more. So come down and join us at the fabulous Lakeside on Thursday, Sept. 16, 9 p.m. -- sweet live music, no cover charge, intimate setting, friendly bartenders, and when we're done playing, the most rocking jukebox in New York City.

But I have to warn you: To be there, you have to be there!

Jamaica Pond

(Pictured, Jamaica Pond)

(Editor's note: Here are some non-musical notes relating to events that took place in 1989 and 1990. My band, Rods and Cones, had recently disbanded, and I moved to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, down the street from Jamaica Pond. In a slight panic, I realized that I didn't know how to do anything, so I quit playing music and enrolled in business school at Northeastern University. It was a strange period, and the transformation did not stick. This piece was published in 1994 in the New York Press.)

Frank vanished into thin air, or something like that. I don’t know what happened to Frank, and maybe no one knows, except Frank, but he can't say, or maybe he can, who knows. This is the end of Frank, if in fact it was the end.

He owned the house, or at least it was his name on the mortgage. He kept a bedroom for himself in the back. It was an old, wooded railroad house that had been built at least 150 years earlier and had been transported from a previous foundation to the present one, and not very successfully. The house creaked and groaned during high winds. There were three of us: two tenants, Rob and myself, and Frank, who came and went.

There was something vague about Frank. He was a tall guy with sandy hair piled high on his head and a 40th birthday coming up. He had grown up in Massachusetts, spent 20 years going up and down the West Coast, then came back east to take care of his mother. Along the way, he worked at a flower farm in Maine that went broke. In Cambridge, he had been a disciple of a folk-rock star who had a sideline as a guru. He lived in a Zen commune of some kind, but walked out. He was a groundskeeper at a golf course. He wound up working at a fish-packing plant in Alaska. I could never put the whole chronology together. I'd catch bits of the story, then Frank would disappear for weeks at a time.

Frank had installed a hot tub in the backyard that he had brought with him in pieces from California. Before I moved in, the story was that Frank decided he would have the only wood-fired hot tub in Boston. Rob, the other tenant, was walking home when he saw a plume of black smoke rising behind the house. He ran toward the house as the wailing fire engines arrived on the scene. They all ran to the backyard, where they found Frank and two women in the tub, naked, Frank with a joint in his mouth saying, "Is anything wrong, gentlemen?"

He had his share of problems, Frank. His mother was sickly, and she phoned the house every day when she couldn't find him. He had a tough family history, father a suicide, brother a suicide, he and his sister both fragile types. Frank was taking antidepressants and washing them down with cans of beer. Sometimes he was a sweet guy, sometimes a prick. Then he'd be off to his mother's house, and our rent checks would pile up behind the sink.

You'd forget all about him, then you'd look out the back window and see Frank hoeing the garden or trimming the hedge. I saw him that way once, and he was about to leave without saying hello. He seemed in good form. He said he was reading the New Testament from an unbeliever's point of view and enjoying it immensely. He said, "Christ has the one-liners."

He said a friend of his had dragged him to a religious meeting hosted by a former jewel thief, the legendary Murph the Surf, who was now promoting salvation through Jesus. Frank said he went as a kind of joke, and said that all Murph the Surf was promoting was his new book, so he walked out. He said Murph the Surf was still a lousy crook.

Rob and I used to play acoustic guitars in the house, and we howled and hollered our way through the Dylan songbook. We worked up a version of "Dear Landlord," and we made Frank sit still for it. Frank had a few cans of beer in him, and in a strange gesture, he fell to his knees and raised his arms in the "salaam" attitude.

After that, Frank's mother had a relapse, and he disappeared. Before he left, he dismantled the hot tub and gave it to a friend. He was turning bitter again, and we weren't too sorry to see him go. The rent checks piled up behind the sink. Rob and I could both imitate Frank's low, yawning voice, so we talked that way to each other all the time.

One Saturday, I was on my way out to the beach with a girlfriend when I heard hammering at the back of the house. Plaster dust was flying everywhere, and in the middle of a white cloud was Frank with a claw hammer in his hand, a bland smile on his face. He was tearing his bedroom apart, pulling out the drywall, and he seemed to be in good spirits, drinking fake beer. He was going to rebuild the two upstairs rooms in the back and catch up on all his projects around the house. He had big plans for the summer. I handed him a rent check, then left for the beach.

Two nights later, we got a phone call from his sister. She said, "You better sit down, I have some bad news. Frank died the other night."

The story was that Frank had swallowed his mother's medication and died in his sleep. The sister assured us that it was an accident, that Frank would never do such a thing on purpose, and that he had promised his mother he wouldn't. The memorial service would be later in the week, after the autopsy was complete. He was a few days shy of his 40th birthday.

This did not sink in. Frank's stuff was all over the house, and he was always coming and going. It felt strange, this news, incomplete. There wasn't much to go on, not enough to feel sad about. This sense of incompleteness continued through the memorial service, where Frank's body was absent.

The Unitarian minister conducted the service in an open-minded, generic, utilitarian manner. This was not a funeral, it was an official acknowledgment. He described Frank as "slow of body, quick of mind," and he invited members of the gathering to stand up and bear witness to Frank.

One earnest-looking guy stood up and said he had taken Frank to a religious meeting and that a change had come over Frank that night. He said he was sure that Frank had found Jesus before the end.

That was a hot one. Frank's mother was not there. This was the last straw for her, and in fact, she didn't last too long afterward. We asked the sister as tactfully as we could what had happened to Frank, if he had been cremated, or whatever. She said the autopsy was still in progress, but they were absolutely sure it was an accident.

My canceled checks arrived in the mail, and I saw that Frank deposited my rent check on the last day of his life. There was his signature, in ballpoint pen. In the fridge were cans of that weird non-alcoholic beer that he had been drinking.

Rob and I had much speculation over what Frank had done. We discussed it with the next-door neighbors, who had known him longer than we did. Our opinions swung to extreme. Our neighbors said, "I can hear Frank's voice saying it was an accident, that he didn't mean to do it." But it seemed at least possible that he meant to do it, maybe on the spur of the moment.

Frank's sister took over the mortgage and made preparations to sell the house, so Rob and I had to move out. For weeks and weeks she held to the line that the autopsy results still weren't in, but everyone was sure that Frank had just made a simple, tragic mistake.

We never did find out. For a while, Rob and I joked that Frank was probably tending bar in some remote part of Brazil. But most likely, he was just one of those people who have to go, and there's nothing you can do to make them stay.

Grateful Dead tie-dye

(Editor's note: These remarks are prompted by Jim Duffy's recent gigs with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band. To read Part 1, click here.)

To clarify and advance some earlier comments, I have lately been learning and relearning a bunch of Grateful Dead tunes, and I'm revisiting my own opinion of that controversial band.

The Grateful Dead were a social phenomenon as much as they were anything else. Is it possible to consider them separate and apart from their audience and look at them just as a band alongside other bands? Is it possible to like some things they do without being an out-and-out Deadhead, and is it possible to not like some things they do without absolutely hating everything they do?

No other band, before or since, is so identified with its audience, because no audience has ever identified so strongly with a band. People who saw the Dead play 80 or 100 times refer to the band members by their first names, and that band is as near and dear to their hearts as their own friends. The very tone of Jerry Garcia's guitar transports these people back to happier times, when they were young and away from home.

And on the other hand are the people who are so turned off by the Deadheads, so turned off by the devotion, the single-mindedness of the audience, the often-silly iconography, the skulls, the bears, the tie-dye, that they can't bear to have anything to do with that band and end up holding it in contempt.

As for myself, I lived among Deadheads, I saw the Grateful Dead a few times, and I heard many hours of bootleg tapes, and as I said earlier, I'm neither a true believer or a hater, and I have played many of their tunes in front of people, so I may be in a position to consider them simply as a band.

For a moment, let's leave the audience out of it, if we can. How good were the Dead? For sheer magnitude, you have to count them among the great U.S. bands that emerged between 1965 and 1969 -- Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges. Even if you don't like the Grateful Dead, you have to give them that much. The Dead belong in that company.

What puts them over are Jerry Garcia's benevolent vibe and his cool, wired way of singing, and the handful of truly beautiful tunes that he wrote. "China Cat Sunflower," "Althea," "Eyes of the World," "Loser," "Jack Straw," "Scarlet Begonias," "Bird Song," to name a few -- these are strange, pure songs that have a lot of integrity, and Robert Hunter's lyrics seem to have been carved in wood. Only when I sat down and learned some of these tunes did I realize how good they are. Garcia's best tunes stand up next to the best tunes of any of those other heavyweight bands of that era.

That said, they are a very frustrating band. For me, the biggest problem is the drums. For a band with two drummers, they don't swing very hard. Kreutzmann and Hart are so busy, they're all over the place, and they just don't groove me. The Dead are good players, but they're slovenly and sloppy, and not in a good way. They sing out of tune when they know better. And Garcia's guitar often sounds as though he's running out of breath before he reaches the end of the note. They could play better than they do, but it seems they're just not interested. On the album version of "High Time," another beauty of a Garcia tune, they sing so out of tune, it's a shame. Come on, guys, sing the song!

The Dead's best moments were on stage, not in the recording studio, and in the dozens of album-length concert recordings that have been released, the versions run hot and cold. (By the way, I do like this video clip of the Grateful Dead in 1970, playing "New Speedway Boogie.")

Of course none of this musical judgment matters to the millions of people around the world who forgive the Grateful Dead's excesses the way they forgive their own friends' quirks. To judge the Dead on a strictly musical basis is perhaps in bad taste.

And so, whoops, we're back to the audience again. And maybe you can't separate the Grateful Dead from their audience for very long after all. Since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, a whole generation has grown up in thrall to that loopy, bouncing, unruly, ungainly, often shapeless and occasionally beautiful sound.

All I'm saying is that it's rare to hear an opinion on the Grateful Dead that isn't pure love or pure hate, because the Dead were and continue to be such a social phenomenon. I feel I'm one of the agnostics who occupy that sparse middle ground. Maybe I just like Jerry Garcia, but that band of his really bugs me, except for maybe bassist Phil Lesh. When you get past the endless, meandering jamming, you find some very fine tunes, but you have to wade through an awful lot of jamming.

As I said before, the tunes are what matter the most, and if you consider the Dead just as a band that brought those songs into the world, you have to count them among the front rank, whether you like them or not, and there's nothing you or I or millions of Deadheads can do about it. They may not be the best band of that heavyweight class, but because of Garcia's best original tunes, they may not be the worst either.

Grateful Dead skull, version 3

A couple of weekends ago, I had fun playing with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band at an outdoor party in Sheffield, Mass. It was a big spread, lots of land, the Berkshire Mountains in the background. We played a long daytime set of mostly Grateful Dead repertoire, because that's what the people wanted, and it's what the Mousers tend to do.

The Grateful Dead must be the most polarizing band in the history of rock and roll. On the one hand, you have the millions of people for whom music equals the Grateful Dead, and the Grateful Dead equals music, and if it isn't Dead-related they aren't interested. On the other hand, you have the people who, upon the very mention of that band's name, spit in the dirt. When the punk-rock revolution came through in 1977, the Grateful Dead were the first to be lined up against the wall.

Is it possible to like some Grateful Dead stuff without regarding them as a lifelong spiritual quest? Is it possible to criticize them without passionately hating them?

The Grateful Dead will never be completely all right in my book. For a band that has two drummers, they don't swing very hard. Worst of all, they have no sense of proportion. Jerry Garcia solos longer than Sonny Rollins between verses, noodling endlessly in a shapeless mass. When they stretch a four-minute song into 16 minutes, sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's most definitely not good. Their vocal harmonies are sloppy and lazy. And Bob Weir's onstage personality is that of a total douchebag.

As for the endless jams and the "drums in space" and the freeform improvisation, you either get it or you don't, and most of the time I don't. I've never been able to sit still and let the surface charms of that music wash over me. Then again, full disclosure, I never saw the Grateful Dead while tripping on acid, so maybe I just missed it.

And that's not even talking about their audience, but let's leave the audience out of it, because you can't blame a band for its audience. Nor can you blame the Grateful Dead for the prevalence of tie-dye.

From the late '70s to the mid-'80s, I saw the Grateful Dead about six times, and maybe one of those shows, -- in Lewiston, Maine -- was actually good. I used to be amazed at how little effort Jerry Garcia exerted on stage. Sometimes it seemed as though they had put a stuffed Jerry Garcia onstage, and the real one was out back somewhere...

And yet, and yet, you can put all of that on one side of the scale, and on the other side, Jerry Garcia wrote a handful of songs that are not just good but beautiful. That's not just the Grateful Dead's redeeming quality, it's the most important thing any band can do. "China Cat Sunflower," "Eyes of the World," "Scarlet Begonias," "Jack Straw," "Loser," "Bird Song" -- each of those songs is a piece of unfolding wonder. And there are others. Garcia's best tunes have a purity about them, and they make sense, lyrically and melodically.

Sure, you could pick out some silly lyrics to Grateful Dead songs -- you could do that with anybody. If you're going to judge somebody, it's only fair to judge them on their best stuff, not their worst, and the Grateful Dead's lyrics are good more often than not. And there's nothing at all wrong with the words to "Bird Song."

You can make fun of the Grateful Dead all you want, and heck, I'll join you, but the main question is, do they have any tunes? Like them or not, the Dead had the tunes.

At that party in Sheffield, I ran into an old housemate from college whom I had not seen in about 20 years. This guy was a true Deadhead who had seen the Grateful Dead about 80 or 100 times, following them from city to city. When I lived in the house with him and a few other Deadheads, back in 1981, cassette tapes of the Dead in concert were playing in that house day and night. So I have heard hundreds of hours of the Grateful Dead in concert, and I still can't accept them or reject them completely.

(One of my other housemates at the time had a tape of the Grateful Dead playing in Egypt, at the pyramids, during a total lunar eclipse. I said, "Oh, so that's why they were playing at the pyramids." He said, "No, that's why there was an eclipse.")

Even when the Dead get on my nerves, they're just musically astute enough that I can't dismiss them out of hand. Maybe I'm in the minority, but after years of intense immersion in the Grateful Dead, I'm neither a true believer nor a hater.

At the party, I was talking with the wife of my old housemate, and she feels the same way that he does about the Grateful Dead. Since the Mouser Band had just played all those songs, she and I got to talking about the Dead, pro and con, and about how unusual it is to have an opinion about them that isn't one-sided.

She said, "What do you mean you don't love them?"

So you see, it goes both ways.

(To read Part 2 of this blog post, please click here.)


Play Me, I'm Yours

This note comes to you too late to do anything about it, but it may work as a thank-you note or a review.

If you live in New York, you know this, but for the rest of you, I'll tell you that for the past two weeks, a profound musical and social experiment took place in the city. The British artist Luke Jerram acquired 60 donated pianos, and from Monday, June 21, until July 5, 2010, he arranged for them to be placed in public spaces around the five boroughs, to be made available to anyone to play. The project was called "Play Me I'm Yours," and the idea was as beautiful as it was simple.

So for the past two weeks, I, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, have been on an outdoor piano-playing expedition, and I have enjoyed listening as much as I have enjoyed playing.

Some of the best experiences come from watching and listening to people who can hardly play at all. In McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a spinet piano painted yellow, in a sort of taxicab theme, was parked under a streetlamp in the southwest corner of the park. One night last week, an older Polish guy was sitting at the piano, playing two notes with his left hand and doing little chromatic steps in his right hand. He didn't quite know what he was doing, but the sound was sincere and appealing. And he was so into it, he had no idea that anyone was watching him.

After a while, two young guys came along and asked if they could play. One guy sat down and played a Chopin etude, and the older guy was positively transported, humming along and conducting with his hand.

Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good, but the whole event is so democratic that to judge anybody's playing in a negative way would just be mean-spirited. The worst you can say about someone is that they went over their suggested 10-minute time limit.

At City Hall Park, a chubby Asian kid, about 12 or 13 years old, was playing the exercises he had just learned at that week's piano lesson, and he was pretty good. His younger sister, who was about 7, was dancing around and trying to get his attention. She said to me, "That's my brother." I said, "Wow," and I meant it.

What I've learned from watching and listening is that what matters most are rhythm and a singing quality to the melody. All the fancy chords in the world won't help you if your rhythm is off. Some young kids sound better than the adults who know a lot more chords.

Late last Friday night, I was walking through McCarren Park, and no one was near the yellow piano, so I sat down and played some bluesy ragtime stuff, just making it up as I went along. An intense young woman in her early 20s came by, and I asked her if she wanted a turn. She played a few simple chords and sang a dirge-like original tune. She said she was more of a songwriter than a pianist. Then she said, "Play what you were just playing, and I'll sing." So I went back to my rootie-tootie in F major, playing a sort of stride bass, and she extemporized some lyrics about going back to Kentucky, or whatever. It wasn't great art, but it was fun, and it wouldn't have happened if not for "Play Me, I'm Yours."

The next day, Saturday, while on my way to the farmer's market, I walked past that same piano, and in 10 minutes I was playing a four-handed tango-like tune with a guy who was visiting from Argentina. A little while later, a group of four people arrived with a video camera on a tripod, plus a guitar, and they made a little music video around the piano. It was goofy but well-rehearsed.

Last Thursday, on a lunch hour in Lower Manhattan, I went to check out the piano at Battery Park, near Castle Clinton. It was a nice old upright in decent shape and in decent tune. A woman was playing "Let It Be." For some reason, you hear a lot of people play "Let It Be."

When she was done, I sat down and, to stay on the Beatles theme, played "Here, There and Everywhere," then stood up to go back to work. A middle-aged woman came over and pointed to her two friends and said they all enjoyed it. I hadn't noticed that they were there. Is it OK if I say that that made my day?

On Sunday, July 4, the next-to-last day of "Play Me, I'm Yours," Amy L. Anderson and I went on a piano expedition in the East Village.

At the piano at St. Marks-on-the-Bowery, a guy with salt-and-pepper hair sat down to impress the woman he was with. He played some jazzy chords while ogling her. His rhythm was terrible, and he was really banging on those keys. But if a little showboating helped him with his date, more power to him.

I sat down and played "Big Butter and Egg Man" in honor of Louis Armstrong, who would have turned 110 that day. To play piano outdoors while the traffic was whizzing by on Second Avenue was a nice feeling. Hundreds of people walked by as though seeing somebody play piano was the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is.

At Astor Place, near the subway station, was a spinet piano painted in psychedelic colors. A guy was singing and playing "Let It Be." What is it about "Let It Be" that so many people play it? Maybe because it's in the key of C. Anyway, he was really stretching out "Let It Be" into many, many choruses, and it was clear that this guy was not going to give up his turn for anybody. So I had to ask him if I could play. Part of this social experiment is that sometimes you actually have to deal with other people.

That piano, as I said, was painted psychedelic, and the hippie coffee truck was parked nearby, so I played Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women."

The "Let It Be" guy said, "I feel stoned just listening to you."

You're welcome.

From there, Amy and I walked down Essex Street, where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown. In Seward Park was the best of the outdoor pianos that I had seen. The paint job on it was pretty sloppy, but the piano sounded good and had good tuning and good action, and only a few keys were out of commission. Maybe I was feeling patriotic on July 4, because I ended up doing a medley of "There's No Place Like Home," "Home on the Range," "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." Some little kids were splashing around in the sprinkler, so I busted into some "Old McDonald." Kids always go for "Old McDonald."

Anyway, those are just a few random experiences, and thousands of other people had thousands of other experiences with the "Play Me, I'm Yours" pianos. Many people were surprised to hear that the pianos were going to be removed. "They should be out here all summer."

So thanks and hats off to Luke Jerram, who had this magnificent idea, and to the many people who drove the trucks and tuned the pianos and dealt with the city officials to make it happen. The experiment was a smashing success, and many of us are hoping he repeats it.

Duffy Combo, Lakeside

Hi, I'm delighted to announce that on Thursday, June 24, at 9 p.m., the Jim Duffy Combo will return to the Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B in Manhattan.

This group came together a few years ago to record some original instrumental pop tunes, and after a few years of intermittent performing, it really sounds like a band. It's all blending together now.

The lineup is as follows:

  • Jim Duffy: keys
  • Dennis Diken: drums
  • Paul Page: bass guitar
  • Lance Doss: guitar, lap steel


The Lakeside is our favorite venue for cutting loose and swinging that music as hard as we can. We'll be playing a set of grooving and bouncing instrumental tunes, including an obscure cover, and maybe a surprise or two.

So you'll get sparkling music, an intimate setting, friendly bartenders, no cover charge, and when we're done, you get to play the most rocking jukebox in New York. Come on down! That's Thursday, June 24, at 9 p.m., Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B.

(Photo by C.S. Gray.)

Lee Feldman

Hello, I'm Lee Feldman, or at least I will be Lee for a few minutes on Sunday evening, June 13, at 8 p.m., at the Living Room, 154 Ludlow St. in Manhattan.

As I hasten to explain, most of the time, Lee Feldman is Lee Feldman. He is a composer and pianist whose musical activities have at least three distinct sides. He writes and records songs that sound quirky and eccentric at first, but as you listen closer, a disarming candor comes through. Lee's surrealism comes straight from the heart. His tunes are not slices of life as much as they are pieces of cake.

On the other hand, Lee is an accomplished interpreter of Western classical music. He knows how to make a Beethoven sonata roll and roar. On the third hand, if you will, he makes music for films and video projects.

Being Lee must be a demanding gig. And being the generous guy he is, Lee has offered some of his friends and associates a chance to "be Lee" for a while. In fact, this will be the second annual Be Lee Festival. So on Sunday night, nine other musicians, including yours truly, will take turns not just playing Lee's tunes but "being Lee," assuming his persona, to the extent we can.

Though of course we'll be playing his tunes, too. I'll be playing a tune called "Always Till Always," which is from Lee's first album, "Living It All Wrong." I'll be on piano, and on percussion will be Santo Mollica.

The other protagonists of the evening will include such interesting characters as Amy Allison, Howard Fishman, Jim Allen, Pete Galub, Carol Lipnik and others. And Lee will be there too, doing what he does best.

Have I given you the idea that this will be a unique evening of music and extreme psychological transference?

My only question is, while I'm Lee, who is going to be me? Any takers out there? I'm in decent shape and have hardly been used, and I make a good rice and beans...

Mousers, 1978

(The Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band, 1978. Left to right, Chris Jenner on guitar, Pete Bosco on guitar and vocals, Brian "Bone" Marra on bass and vocals, Chris Kelley on drums and vocals, Brian "Herman" Hess on keyboard.)

More than thirty years after I first saw the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band, I’m about to play my first gig with them.

The Mousers were the wildest thing I saw I the year 1979. Even then, I was late in getting hip to them. Back then, I was 19 years old and had retired from music. No more of that childish rock and roll for me. I was an assiduous English major and a member of the English Department Student Committee. Our committee would book scholars and poets to appear in the mock-gothic stone buildings of Boston College. When the visiting scholar was done speaking, we’d all applaud politely, then retire to the lounge for Pepperidge Farm cookies and bad wine that came in big glass jugs with screw-off tops. The collar of my shirt peeped out from over the sweater. Something was missing from my life…

Somehow, one Saturday night, I ended up going alone to a party at the notorious Red House, which was down the road from the campus. The house party was in full swing, and who were all these people? Here were all the best-looking women at the school, the guys with the best record collections, the best stereo systems and the best drugs. The atmosphere was freer and more evolved than what I had been breathing. People were dancing and laughing and having a lot more fun than I had been seeing. From the basement came the plangent sound of a band grooving away like they would never stop, led by the clear tone of a single-note electric guitar going around and around and around...

Down the stairs, the Mousers were playing a stretched-out version of some American rock and roll song, possibly Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night." Chris Jenner was just barely holding on to that guitar, which seemed to be squirming and leaping and trying to escape from his hands, as if it had a life of its own. Behind him, that deep, growling sound came from Brian “Herman” Hess, who played a Farfisa organ through a rotating Leslie cabinet. At the mic was Chris Kelley, the baritone-voiced rabble-rouser who was the organizing force in the band. And the guys in the band, Pete Bosco on guitar and vocals, Brian "Bone" Marra on bass and Joe Marx on drums, were so into it, you had no choice but to go with the flow.

After I had seen the Mousers, I sent for my bass guitar and went back to music. That’s what I wanted to do, man. The groves of academy were not the groves for me. The burnouts were having much more fun!

As I said, I was a bit late in getting hip to the Mousers. I’ll skip around in the story, if you don’t mind. Jenner left the Mousers, and they continued without him, still rocking, but without the “floating” sound that had been their trademark. Filling in for him was Ned Luboja, a fine guitarist who had been the band’s soundman.

Meanwhile, I began playing and singing with a guy down the hall. We were doing a lot of Grateful Dead repertoire, because that was the only game in town. Our big break came one night when the Mousers were playing an on-campus party. My musical partner had arranged for us to do a couple of tunes at intermission, backed by the Mousers’ Joe Marx on drums and Hess on keyboards. We went up and played “I Know You Rider.” It probably wasn’t great, but it was the first time I ever got to jam with those guys. And they couldn’t have been nicer about it...

Spin the clock forward through the years. The Mousers graduated and went their separate ways, I become friendly with Brian Hess, and he and I hatched the idea of starting a band that would play original music. He recruited Chris Kelley of the Mousers to sing for us. The band became Rods and Cones, and we ended up making a few records and performing in the Boston area and around the Northeast for six years…

The Cones came out of the Mousers, if you care to know. And as the clock keeps spinning, the years turn into decades, life unfolds in all its beauty and tragedy and frustration and irreplaceable moments. In 2004, Brian Hess dies. People reunite under sad circumstances. Meanwhile, I have switched from bass guitar to keyboard -- my main instrument is the 1960s Wurlitzer electric piano that Brian played in the Mouser band. And I’m starting to develop a brand of instrumental pop music…

Somehow, in 2007, Kelley rounds up the rest of the Mousers, and they play their first gigs in many, many years. To top it off, Chris Jenner reappears, playing better than ever. The Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band is floating once again.

When Kelley asked me to fill in on keyboards, I jumped at the chance. So 30-plus years after this band first blew my mind, I’m going to be playing my first gig with them. This must be some sort of record.

It’s a private event on the Boston College campus, on Saturday, June 5, so there’s not much point in me publicizing it to you, unless you happen to be in the Boston College graduating class of 1980.

Playing with the Mousers is a gas. Everyone plays in a rather simple style, except for Jenner, who goes to the moon and back on his guitar, and when everyone synchs up together, you can't help but feel it in your knees and hips and elbows. It’s a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts. And we’ll be playing more events soon.

The expanded lineup is as follows:

Chris Kelley: vocals, harmonica

Chris Jenner: lead guitar, vocals

Pete Bosco: guitar, vocals

Ned Luboja: guitar , vocals

Brian “Bone” Marra: bass, vocals

Joe Marx: drums

Curtis Kelley: drums

Jim DiNardo: percussion

Jim Duffy: keyboard

I’ll have more to say about all of this. Meanwhile, to find out more about the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band, please go here or here.

Hank Jones

Some people just have the touch. This became clear to me one day in late 2004, when Hank Jones was conducting a piano master class in an auditorium at New York University. Young pianists from various music schools would play for Mr. Jones, and he would comment on their playing.

A young Juilliard student came up and played an Art Tatum-like extravaganza on the blues, impressive in all its decorations and fast runs. From my seat in the auditorium, the sound was rather cold and brittle. I figured it was just the condition of the Steinway or the acoustics of the room. When the student was done, Jones applauded with the audience and congratulated the student on his talent and hard work. Then he said, "In that bridge section that you played, why don't you try something like this?" Jones put his then-86-year-old hands on the keys and played a few simple chords, and the whole auditorium filled up with a warm, full sound that just bathed you. Same instrument, but it sounded like an entirely different piano.

Maybe Hank Jones was born with the touch, but he certainly spent a lifetime working on it. At that master class, the jazz writer Gary Giddins introduced Jones, saying his career stretched back to the 1940s. Jones thanked him for the introduction but said he had a correction to make. He said he played his first gig at age 9, in Pontiac, Michigan, so his career actually started in the 1920s. Everyone in the auditorium inhaled in astonishment.

Jones was so charming in his demeanor -- making little harmless jokes and puns from behind the back of his hand, like an old, mischievous uncle at the dinner table -- that it was easy to forget that he was not just an excellent pianist but one of the all-time greats. He played the ballad "The Very Thought of You" and ended the tune with a tasteful little note in the bass register. He said, "That last little note you heard is called a 'button.' Without a button it all gets..." Then a gesture of the tail of his jacket coming apart. Then he shakes his head at his own joke.

He played his highly chromatic arrangement of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and carried the rhythm with chords, playing only occasional bass notes. He played "Don't Blame Me" with some light-fingered stride action. On "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," he was working both pedals and keeping time with his left heel. He did "Monk's Mood" with warm pads of chords -- he let some chords ring out to comic effect, and put a "button" at the end. And he ended with a gently swinging "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Jones said his own style is "a distillation of influences. I hope there's not too much influence." He had come to New York in the 1940s, just as swing was evolving into bebop under the leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and Hank Jones performed and recorded with both. He said he wanted to be identified with the bebop trend without losing his two-handed pianism.

A month previous to the master-class event, I had seen Jones perform with a quartet at a little joint called Fat Cat on Christopher Street. Surely this was a misprint -- that little hole-in-the-wall in the back of a pool hall couldn't book the one and only Hank Jones, could it? But there he was, and on tenor sax was Frank Wess of the Count Basie band. All for ten bucks.

The music that night was simplicity itself, all connected to the blues, all very comprehensible. No showing off, no wasted motion. When he wanted to emphasize something, he played it more softly. It was Christmastime, and during "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," he quoted "You better not shout, you better not cry" from "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," then broke off, shaking his head at his own joke. You left the place walking on air.

The the spring of 2005, Jones conducted another master class on a Saturday afternoon at the Blue Note. He sat at the Bosendorfer and played tunes and excerpts from tunes and fielded questions from the audience. He said a two-handed style is essential if you're going to play solo, not so much if you have a rhythm section. He said the stride style gives you a balanced presentation -- you can supply the rhythm and the harmony at the same time. Try to keep the melody intact, he said, but the rhythm can be changed any way you want.

He said the better the technique, the better the improvisation, and technique comes first. He said lyrics can help in interpretation of a ballad. He played some of "The Talk of the Town" and recited some lyrics before playing each part of the tune.

Someone asked if he had a favorite among his own recordings. He mentioned the "Something Else" album with Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis.

He said some bass players are possessive about the lower range. He said that if a bass player wants him to stay out of the bass range, he pretends he didn't hear that and plays in that range anyway. You have all 88 keys to choose from, and the bass player shouldn't inhibit you. He'll just have to find other notes to play!

Someone asked him about Charlie Parker, and he said, "Charlie Parker was a consummate musician. He knew harmony backward and forward, he had an unlimited supply of ideas and such facility on his instrument that he could play anything he could think of." A rather definitive statement, no?

Someone mentioned Thelonious Monk, and Jones said, "We used to call him "Thelonious the Onliest." A little bad English there.”

Someone asked him if he liked any rock music, and he said there's some good rock music -- not the early stuff, but after it developed.

He played "If I Had You" and turned the beat around on purpose, "Just wanted to see if you were paying attention."

I'm typing from notes I took at the event, and I won't keep you much longer. This is by no means a definitive statement on Hank Jones. But I do want to pass along what he said about the "continuation system," as he called it:

Extend whatever phrase you're playing. Not chromatically -- stay in the parameters of the chords. To illustrate, he played an improvisational passage with a recurring figure that moved through the chords. This gives your playing more of a "line." This was all so simple and effective, and it was news to me.

That's it for now -- no big wrap-ups or conclusions. Hank Jones had a great career, and he appeared on hundreds of records, and you should try to hear some of them. A couple of years ago, I saw him with his trio at the Blue Note, and as he was swinging out on Charlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche," I couldn't help but think that he was playing that tune in 1946, when it was brand new. He kept performing all the way to the end and passed away last Sunday at age 91.

Ted Mack


The gentleman in the photo is Ted Mack, the wise and benevolent host of "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour," which was broadcast on various TV networks from 1948 to 1970. In some ways, the "Original Amateur Hour" was a forerunner of today's grotesque showbiz-competition gladiator matches, but with two key differences.

First, the "Original Amateur Hour" featured not only singers but instrumentalists, tap-dancers, jugglers, comedians, people who made sound effects, a spoon-and-harmonica player, Dixieland bands, people who spun plates on the ends of sticks, ballroom-dance exhibitionists, card-tricksters, ventriloquists, yodelers. Was this vaudeville's last stand? Viewers would vote by mailing a "signed postal card" to Box 191, Radio City Station, New York. In later years, viewers could telephone their votes on JUdson 6-7000.

The second and more important difference is that if you won, the payoff was not a movie deal or a life-changing jackpot but rather a little glimmer and a few bucks. Contestants who won three weeks in a row were awarded $1,200 in 1960 money -- about $9,000 today. Then they'd return to their day jobs -- quite a few elevator operators on this show, for some reason.

A few contestants did go on to bigger things. In 1949, a young violinist named Louis Walcott performed on the "Original Amateur Hour" He was later known as Dr. Louis Farrakhan.

By the way, many of these contestants spoke with regional accents such as you don't hear anymore -- Midwestern accents and Boston and Brooklyn accents. The mass media had not yet homogenized speech patterns in the U.S.

The show was famously sponsored by Geritol, the over-the-counter remedy for "iron-poor blood." I'm discussing Ted Mack not to praise Geritol -- I'm not quite ready for that, thank you -- but to raise the subject of what it is to be an amateur.

The true amateur has no choice but to yodel or spin plates on the ends of sticks or pursue some other peculiar line of activity, with little or no thought of fame or remuneration. The true amateur must keep making that yo-yo "walk the dog," or else he will go mad. Maybe he is already half-crazed.

I'll gladly count myself among their number. When I see the clip of the baton-twirling sensation Judy Kassouf of Lakewood, Ohio, I feel that this is what I aspire to in some small way.

The amateur doesn't do it for the big break, though going after the big break can be a beautiful thing too. When you're 22 and you've got that first serious band sounding good and you're vying for that record deal or that pressurized showcase, and it's your own small group against the big world, that's a heady experience. Heck, you see some of those aspiring young bowl-haircut rock bands from 1965 on the Ted Mack show. When I think back on my own 1980s band in Boston -- as I have been doing maybe too much lately -- the image that comes to mind is a Saturday afternoon we all piled into a car and went to the old E.U. Wurlitzer store on Newbury Street, just to help the keyboard player buy a new instrument. Great times, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.

These days, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when I see three or four young people walking up Bedford Avenue with guitar cases on their backs, scheming among themselves to conquer the world, I can appreciate that feeling, even if I'm not crazy about their music.

That's all nice, but it's a non-amateur phase. The great majority of performers, even the ones who get to quit their day jobs for a while, begin as amateurs and end up as amateurs. The irony, of course, is that if you pursue music all that time with any vehemence, you play better as later-phase amateur than you did when you were trying to impress a record company. For one thing, the pressure is off. As an amateur, I'm free to get my records sounding as good as I can possibly make them, no matter how long it takes. I don't have to please anyone but myself, and if the records don't please me, they won't please anyone else. The amateur can afford to be pretty damned ruthless, even if the music is bouncy and ear-friendly, and maybe especially then.

To get it right, sometimes I have to work with real professionals, on the bandstand and in the studio, and on a good day I can keep up with them. I'm unschooled and I lack technique, but maybe a certain amount of passion and determination cuts through and can move the listener in some way.

And that points to the day-and-night difference between the amateur and the mere hobbyist. Again, this has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with intent. The true amateur is out for blood and will continue to pursue this peculiar activity to the death. The hobbyist is out for relaxation after a hard day at the office, or to recapture a lost opportunity from youth. Which is fine. But the hobbyist isn't trying to learn anything new, or can't get to a place where he is learning anything new.

(For more on the weekend-warrior musical hobbyist, please refer to the Bottle Rockets track "White Boy Blues." Disclosure: That's me on the organ.)

So yes, I'm an amateur. When the Jim Duffy Combo performs at the Lakeside Lounge, I'm not shy about passing the silver champagne bucket for tips -- I'm not that much of a purist. Anyway, the tips are for the cab fare -- I play for free, and I'd be playing anyway. The tips are compensation for moving the non-musical parts of your life out of your way so you can do this. Maybe Ted Mack wouldn't dig it, but this is how I understand "amateur."

Someone who is reading this may snicker and say that "amateur" is just another word for "never got your big break." And you know what? I'll accept that too, without batting an eye.

Cones at Lyman's

(1982, left to right, Jim Duffy, Chris DiNardo, Chris Kelley. Photo by Brian "Herman" Hess (RIP).)

(Editor's note: The piece below concerns the early days of the 1980s Boston band Rods and Cones and our encounter with the starmaker Maurice Starr. This piece appeared in the New York Press in 1995.)

We weren't exactly a funk band, but we had our funky side. We were white guys, but that never stopped anybody from trying to be funky. It was a strange time to start playing music, the early 1980s, and we played the dancy beats that brought out the young women in those days. We played loud, our clothes were terrible, and we fit in nowhere, but we were somewhat popular because we threw a good party.

We felt especially funky when Sidney, the sound engineer for the real funk bands, said we were all right and that he could make us sound great in the studio for only $100, plus tape. We took him up on it.

The studio was called the House of Hits, and it was up on a hill in Roxbury, which was one of the de facto segregated black neighborhoods of Boston. Sidney booked us from midnight until 8 a.m. The House of Hits was a narrow walk-up apartment building with an eight-track studio on the ground floor and funky musicians living upstairs.

When we arrived, Sidney was mixing and remixing a sappy ballad that went nowhere. He had been awake for a couple of days, and his curls were hanging low. He said he'd be all right, though, and he'd be right with us, once he had a little sniff. We loaded in our gear and got set up. Funky musicians were coming through the front door, going up and down the stairs, leaving, coming back, looking for a sniff so they could keep playing funky music. Somebody told us that we were the first white band to come to the House of Hits, and we tried to not act too cool.

We were a six-piece band. We waited in the lounge and passed a joint until Sidney could wash his face and freshen up.

The House of Hits did actually have a hit to its credit. Maurice Starr, the local impresario who would soon go on to bigger things, had masterminded a dance groove called "Pack Jam" by a group called the Jonzun Crew, recorded right there at the House of Hits, and he promoted it as a 12-inch single that got played all over the country. We didn't know it at the time, but Maurice Starr's current project, New Edition, featuring future heartthrob Bobby Brown, would soon remake the old Jackson Five sound into platinum.

Sidney kept us waiting, and we began to grow restless.

Then into the room walked Maurice Starr himself. He did a little double-take when he saw us, just being funny, then gave us a winning smile. "Hey, whoa, what do we have here? You guys a hard-rockin' band? Gonna play some of that old rock and roll?"

He was a bigger-than-life figure, Maurice Starr, with big, expressive gestures, a loud, disk-jockey voice, a big smile, shiny suit, shiny hair. In a moment we were all standing around him in a circle. "So you guys a heavy-metal band? You do the big guitars and the light show?"

We said no, we played mostly dance-style music. We had a boombox, and we played him a cassette of the instrumental track from our big song, "Don't Let That Girl Pass You By," and we sang the vocal parts for him, right there in the lounge, acting it out a little more than usual.

"Hey, that shit hits!" said Maurice Starr. He put his arms around us and shook our hands and gave us the showbiz smile. "Hey, let me see that bass," he said to me. He took up my bass and played some very, very good things on it. "Yeah, I was into the rock and roll back in the '60s and '70s. I played with Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker. I played with all the guys. I'm on all the Jack Bruce records. You know that album he did with Carmine Appice? I'm all over that. But hey, you guys got your own thing going. Keep playing, there's no reason you all can't be big stars. That shit hits! Look at you, a bunch of young, cute white guys playing funky music. You've got something there."

He joked with us, told us each what rock star we resembled. He said our keyboard player, Herm, who wore rimless eyeglasses, looked just like John Lennon. Then he shook our hands all over again, and as suddenly as he had appeared, Maurice Starr was gone.

Sidney was finally ready for us, and we spent the night recording "Don't Let That Girl Pass You By," and the recording went so badly that we couldn't even listen to it.

But the point of the story is this: A few short years after that night, after New Edition had gone worldwide, that same Maurice Starr assembled a group of young, cute white guys who sang funky music. They were called the New Kids on the Block. I've always felt partly responsible for that, and I'd like to take this opportunity to get it off my chest and apologize.

Herm at the Rat, 1986


(Photo of Brian "Herman" Hess at the Rat, Boston, 1986, by Tom Schneider.)

(Editor's note: Below is a reminiscence of a strange day that Brian "Herman" Hess and I spent in the fall of 1981 when we decided to write an album together and start a band. As you'll see, the album never got written. But we did start a band called Rods and Cones that performed and recorded in the Boston area throughout the 1980s. I wrote this little piece in the mid-'90s, and it appeared in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based "zine" called The Curse (paper, pre-Internet) that was published by Daisy DeCapite. When the piece appeared, I mailed a copy to Herm, and he seemed to approve, so I'll pass it along here. Herm passed away in 2004, so this goes out to him.)

Herm and I decided to write an album together. We talked about it at a party one night and made plans to meet the next morning. So when the time came, I went down to Allston and rang his bell with my bass guitar under my arm and a hit of LSD in my pocket.

He forgot I was coming over. It was a cloudy, dark day in November.

He plugged in his Wurlitzer electric piano, and I plugged into his amp. Then we split the hit of acid and ate it. We sat down and played for five minutes, then trailed off. Herm rolled a joint, and we smoked it. For inspiration, we put on Iggy Pop's LP "The Idiot" and watched the record spin around on the turntable. One of us said, "Feel anything yet?"

It was almost noon, so we went across Commonwealth Avenue, to the "package store." We chose a variety of imported beers, three or four apiece. We reflected that everything we had done that day so far was for the purpose of getting more and more wasted.

We went back to his apartment to play again, but it was no go. We decided to go into town. As we walked to the trolley, Herm observed that human beings are all self-contained, self-propelled units, a fact at which I still marvel today.

We spent the day walking all around Boston. It was dark all afternoon, a Saturday, I think, the first real cold day we had had. We saw a guy walking down Newbury Street in an enormous raccoon coat that he was showing off. As we passed him, we said, "Nice coat," then broke up laughing. We ran into that same guy two more times that day. We stopped every couple of hours to smoke another joint and comment on the passing scene. Forget about writing an album, the important thing is to make a band. We hashed out the band concept, tossed some ideas back and forth about what kind of band we would have if we could have anything.

Herm had recently returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel, and he was telling stories about that, how there was a bar in Cairo that had a tremendous jukebox that played rocking, greasy American rhythm and blues. I made some notes in a reporter's notebook that I used to carry with me.

We decided to "look for a guitar player." This afternoon seemed to be going on forever. We figured we'd find some guy playing pinball in a bar, he'd be our guitar player, and we'd be all set. We ended up in Beacon Hill, at a pub called The Sevens. We didn't find a guitar player, but we were still tripping quite nicely, sipping pints and throwing darts.

We wound up at a rock and roll club that night, a short-lived place in Allston called Streets, which would burn down a few months later. The Neats were on the bill, with their original bass player. It was 1981, and we were young. I went to the pay phone and called my girlfriend, who said she would join us there. When she arrived, she said, "Well, boys, did you have fun playing in the sandbox?"

(To be continued. I say "Part 1" because I'm sure I'll have more to say about this guy.)

(This piece originally appeared in Sound Collector in 2003 and is republished by permission.)

tatum grand master

Art Tatum, Piano Grand Master, Proper Records (Properbox 60) (UK), four CDs, 2003

Is sheer astonishment enough? That's the question posed by Art Tatum.

Tatum sounds not like a great pianist but rather like two or three great pianists playing together. What boggles the imagination is not that a mere human being can play the piano this well but rather that anyone can do anything this well. You can't quite believe what you are hearing, but there it is.

When Tatum plays "Stardust," he's not playing "Stardust," he's playing Art Tatum. You don't "hear" the lyrics. No one else has run "Tiger Rag" or "Indiana" through so many harmonic shifts or found so many alleyways. He ventures further out on the harmonic ledge than anyone except maybe Charlie Parker. To say nothing of his sheer speed. Tatum is throwing fireballs with both hands, implacable as the Sphinx, infallible as the pope. Listen upon these works and despair.

This four-CD set covers the front half of Tatum's recording career, from 1934 to 1951. His famous "Willow Weep for Me" is here, in its definitive version. Yes, he can play ballads. His softness is softer than anyone's, with delicate filigree of articulation, every note distinct. Then he turns on the burners. Tatum takes "I Wish I Were Twins" at a tempo way, way up from Fats Waller's, and he drives it home with the most advanced left-handed Harlem stride ever recorded. Holy mackerel.

Is sheer jaw-dropping astonishment enough? Can you have too much of this? Maybe, and maybe. New York composer/pianist Joel Forrester said, "A friend of mine gave me a CD of infinite Art Tatum. He thought he was doing me a great favor, but now I just want the thing out of my head."

The overall effect is astonishment itself, or outright surrender. Sometimes the only possible response is laughter. If you play piano, you may want to close the wooden cover on the keys and never try again.

To criticize Tatum is to expose your own covetousness. You could say Tatum lacks deep, soulful feeling, but as the critic Martin Williams wrote about Tatum, "to expect that would be to miss the point." When you hear the precision jeweler Tatum doing session work behind the rough and ready Big Joe Turner, of all people, the results are downright peculiar. So, OK, maybe don't match him with Big Joe Turner.

You could say that Tatum isn't a great ensemble player, and you might have a point, but is it his fault that no one this side of Coleman Hawkins could keep up with him? Then again, listen to the tracks by the Art Tatum Trio, with Slam Stewart on bass and Tiny Grimes on guitar. Whereas, say, the Nat King Cole Trio lulls you into an expansive cocktail mood, the Tatum Trio spins your head around with lightning exchanges. Their explosive "I Got Rhythm" is a wonder of modern science.

You could remind the class that Tatum was not a composer, so his achievement is a degree of magnitude lower than that of Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. But that's a reach outside Tatum's scope of activity. In discussions of pianists, Tatum, who disliked being referred to as a "jazz pianist," has to be disqualified. Who is the best pianist, except for, of course, Art Tatum?

Wait, maybe Tatum's limit is that he's a trick pianist par excellence. But no, here comes an austere version of "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," just the melody served straight up, so he can do that too, if he wants. Tatum wins again.

Maybe the best way to cope with this phenomenon is to sit back helplessly and let those fizzing glissandos wash over you. Bask in the glow of his "Someone to Watch Over Me." Feel those notes pouring out of the piano. That is, until Tatum is ready to pulverize you again with that left hand.

After he recorded these sides, Tatum had a two-year hiatus from the studio. He returned to record a huge amount of material for the Verve label in the last three years of his life. Art Tatum died in 1956, at age 47.

If you make it to the fourth disc of this set, and if you aren't pleading for mercy, you'll hear Tatum working his magic in front of an audience at the Crescendo Club in Los Angeles in 1950. For the sake of your own grip on reality, you might be grateful you weren't there.


"What kind of music do you do?"

My usual answer is "instrumental pop music." The longer answer is "moody and bouncy instrumental music." Since I don't really play jazz or classical or avant-garde music -- though I am a fan and an attendee of all of those -- most of the music that I run into has lyrics and singing.

And of course there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I wish I could write lyrics. Over the years I have written a few lyrics and even sung on some records but ... well ... my lyrics never made a whole lot of sense, not even to me. They're kind of vague and impressionistic. For years I tried to get better at it.

So I have a world of respect for someone like my friend Kevin Kendrick of A Big Yes and a small no, who can sing:

Yesterday, I robbed a bank and blew it all on flowers

While you were gone I talked about you for hours.

But that's way out of my reach.

So the main reason I don't have singing in my music is that it took me 20 years to realize I have no natural gift for writing lyrics. Maybe I don't have a lot to sing about. I'm not the worst singer in the world, as long as I can just go "ooh" and "aah" with one or two other people in the background.

For years, this felt like a limitation. Then one night in 1999, a light bulb appeared above my head, marked "instrumental pop music." Suddenly the no-singing went from a limitation to a gateway of possibility. Anything can happen. You can get away from verse-chorus-verse song forms. The concept of the tune is no longer limited by the parameters of the singer's personal problems or love life. The music can be "about" anything, or it can be just what it is, without pointing to something else. And it becomes immediately more acceptable to people who do not speak English. And when no particular human voice is front and center, you can finally hear the bass guitar. When you get to the gig, you don't need a sound system. You don't even need a microphone. When it comes time to make a record, you can mix it in half the time.

From then on, I've been pretty earnest about making three-minute pop tunes where you don't miss the singing.

I have said enough, so I'll stop talking and play you a little tune on the Wurlitzer...

Lakeside, December 2009


On Tuesday, March 30, at 9 p.m., the Jim Duffy Combo returns to the fabulous Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B, Manhattan. This is our favorite venue for cutting loose and playing sparkling and swinging instrumental tunes.

Jim Duffy: keys

Dennis Diken: drums

Paul Page: bass

Lance Doss: guitar

We'll be doing one set starting at 9 p.m. Expect moody and bouncy tunes, deft interplay, tube-warm sound. Intimate space, friendly bartenders, no cover charge. What is not to like?

I could go on and on about honored I feel to be playing with such ace musicians, but let's dispense with the formalities and say that everybody is on board to make this a night of sweet music.

If you're reading this, I hope you'll come down and check us out!

(Photo by C.S. Gray)

Deluxe Reverb Silverface

Last summer, I was on my way to play a duo gig with Mike Ferrio, the elegiac songwriter who may be best known under the band name Tandy. Mike had said he would bring an amplifier for me to use. As he was driving us over the Williamsburg Bridge, the amp in the back seat was his early-1970s silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb, and I was a little worried.

Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn't play a keyboard through a guitar amp. The low notes can overwhelm the amp and blow out the speaker. Or it just won't have enough bottom end. Mostly I was worried about damaging Mike's vintage gear.

But when we got to the 11th Street Bar, the amp played like a dream. Then again, I'm not Rick Wakeman, grinding out low notes that shake the seats in the second balcony. My specialty is the short-scale, 61-note keyboard, where the lowest note is the the second C below middle C. That amp sounded sweet, and even though I played plenty of wrong notes that night, the tone was such that even the wrong notes sounded good.

(By the way, "If you hit a wrong note, it's the next note you play that determines if it's good or bad." -- Miles Davis.)

A month or two later, I put my friend Chris Gray on the case of finding me a good Deluxe Reverb. Some weeks went by, then he spotted one on a music-gear site, a 1968 "drip-edge" (this refers to a cosmetic detail, the chrome strip around the front grill).  A few emails later, I bought it, from a nice guy in St. Joseph, Indiana.

From there it went straight to Main Drag Music in Williamsburg, where technician Pat Kauffman outfitted it with a fresh set of 6L6 tubes, a new 12-inch Jensen speaker and a few minor wiring fixes.

When I carried that amp down to the rehearsal space and switched it on and started to play, the sound came leaping out of the speaker. I had to rein it in. So dynamic, so responsive, and also fearsome and raunchy, even at low volume. For the first time ever, I actually had to tone down the keyboard sound, to civilize it.

I'm dwelling on this because keyboards on a live gig can be a dicey proposition. Unlike a guitar, which is a well-crafted piece of wood that acquires character and mystery over time, a live-gigging keyboard is typically a plastic box with a microchip inside, and it loses value the minute you carry it out of the store. And I simply cannot carry my heavy, fragile Wurlitzer to the gig anymore. It gets banged up, and you can't find replacement parts anymore. Digital keyboards on a live gig can sound so cheap and plinkety-plink. It's very often a compromise, and a poor one.

But this spooky '68 Deluxe Reverb rendered all of that irrelevant. This amp rocked. When I played softly, it sounded as though the keys were being plucked and strummed like the strings on a harp. When I played fortissimo, the sound was mean and snotty, like a watchdog with a head cold.

A few days later, I took that amp to the Lakeside Lounge to play a gig with the Jim Duffy Combo, and it sounded fantastic. While we were playing, Chris Gray approached the bandstand with his camera. The Combo was in the middle of a tune, and I tried to look handsome for the camera. Gray kept coming forward, then he took a sharp left and snapped a shot of that '68 Deluxe Reverb. Granted, that amp is a lot cooler than I am...

A couple of weeks ago, I took that amp up to the Boston area to play two shows with my old band Rods and Cones. The second of the two gigs was a party at the Real School of Music in Burlington, Mass. The afternoon of the party, my bandmates loaded in the gear. When I met up with the guys, our guitar player Mike Napolitano said, "I put your Deluxe on standby." So for four hours, those tubes had a chance to warm up before I ever played a note.

When it came time to play, those tubes were glowing, and that amp played like butter.

The Cones and with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band played three long sets of music, ending at about 1 a.m. By the end of the night, that Deluxe was playing like 22 watts of butter and cream.

Speaking as someone who is not a gear aficionado, and who is not handy, and who is not a collector of vintage gear, I'm simply glad to have a keyboard sound that I can accept without reservations. And that Deluxe should keep scaring the daylights out of people for at least another 42 years.

DiNardo at Real School, resized

Thanks to everyone who came out last Thursday night to the House of Blues in Boston for the V66 Reunion concert. You all made it a memorable night for Rods and Cones. We had not performed live in 22 years, and we did put some effort into making the set as powerful as we could. To see so many old friends and new friends made it all a rare experience.

Special thanks to Brian "Bone" Marra for doing quick study on bass guitar, to Curtis Kelley for swinging the drums for our rehearsals, Granny (soundman extraordinaire from the Rat), Un-Ted Murphy (for his organizational abilities), John Innamorato (for behind-the-scenes work that we didn't even know about), Tom Schneider (our once and present manager, God help him), Pete Newman (thanks for watching my bass, Pete) and to everyone else who pitched in or danced or simply added their good feelings.

Also, there were fine performances from vintage Boston bands and performers. I heard an especially soulful sound-check from Woody Giessmann and Right Turn, and I also enjoyed the rocking sets from O Positive, Digney Fignus, the Fools and Animotion. If I failed to mention any other fine performers, forgive me -- it was an eventful night.

Playing music with my old mates Rods and Cones for five days and nights has certainly turned my head around. All that bass-playing is going to make it hard to go back to the keyboards, or it may influence my keyboard playing, such as it is. Rods and Cones is the most overtly rhythmic band I've ever played in. Everything fell right into the pocket. When it gets grooving, the music has a lot of air and space in it, and that dual-percussion lineup has a homemade sound.

To get a sense of that night, please go here.

To make it all even better, on Saturday night we re-convened for a party at the Real School of Music in Burlington, Mass., where we shared a bill with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band, which features the incomparable Chris Jenner on guitar. Rods and Cones then played a more jammed-out and perhaps less professional set of music. Then, for an over-the-top third set, the Mousers and Cones joined forces, and we mixed and matched performers and played everything under the moon until the wee hours of the morning.

I'm hoping we get to do this again before another 22 years go by.

Keep those Deluxe Reverb tubes nice and warm!

(Photo of Chris DiNardo taken by Chris Kelley at the Real School of Music)



1984 -- Rods and Cones

Rods and Cones is coming out of the woodwork, with a vengeance.

Go check out "Education in Love" here, freshly available!

The band, in its first iteration, performed and recorded from 1982 through 1988. One track, "Round Room," from 1983, appeared on the compilation "Boston Rock and Roll, Volume 3." Then came our self-titled, five-song EP in 1985, featuring the Boston-area hit "Education in Love." Finally, in 1988, came our swan song, the full-length album "New Breed." Some live material was also released on the short-lived CBGB label.

None of this music was ever released on compact disc. And now that CDs are going the way of the 8-track cartridge, it's getting a bit late in the day. We skipped a format! Ah, but in this interconnected world, nothing gets lost forever. These tracks will soon be available, via MP3, at a screen near you.

Aside from our eventful live performances, Rods and Cones was best known for the video to "Education in Love." We had written the tune very quickly, in the spring of '85, and we recorded it at Polymedia Studio on Newbury Street in Boston, engineered by Alec Murphy. Our guitar player, Gary France, arranged for a couple of talented film students from Emerson College, Kris Hockemeyer and Peter Martinez, to create a video for it.

As I said, check it out here.

I'm the skinny guy on bass.

Back in '85, the timing for this video was fortuitous. The local UHF music station V-66 had just gone live on the airwaves, and they needed local material to broadcast. Thanks to "the V," this tune got lots of play.

And also thanks to "the V," Rods and Cones will be appearing in Boston for the first time in 22 years. On Thursday, Feb. 11, we will appear at House of Blues. We'll be playing "Education in Love" and many other tunes from that era. If you were there, or if you are curious about what it was like back then, come check us out.

Otherwise, you may not get another chance until 2032.


What did we think we were doing? The beats were funky and chomping. Mike on guitar was doing a sort of low-rent James Brown vibe, Herm was putting his Farfisa organ through a phase shifter. We had a two-brother percussion team, and I was playing a clunky Guild bass guitar through an Acoustic 301 cabinet that was as tall as I was. In front, Chris Kelley was at the mic, singing, "Excuse me, do you have change of a Kennedy half?"

We were in a basement on Duval Street in Brighton, Mass. Or maybe it was all a weird dream. Maybe it didn't really happen. Then again, the evidence exists in a box of dusty cassette tapes, so maybe it really did happen after all.

The year was 1982. The aura of Grateful Dead hung over the Boston College campus like a cloud of day-old patchouli. Herm had returned from a trip to the Holy Land, and we both had ideas about starting a band that played original material. We recruited Chris Kelley from the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band to be our baritone singer, and we already had a happening rhythm section. We weren't exactly "going punk" or "going new wave," whatever that was, but something had to change.

The results were decidedly weird. All these strange songs came rolling out. Songs that would never be properly recorded -- titles like "Centipede Crawl," "The Baby Elvis," "Careers," "Zap-Pow," the aforementioned "Excuse Me," "Living in Fear," "Slice of Heaven," "Feel It" ... those titles won't mean anything to you, but they're all rushing back to me like an involuntary memory. Revisiting these old tunes is a head-trip, and for the first time in half a lifetime -- a strange symmetry at work here --  I'm relearning these tunes on the bass guitar.

The fact is, Rods and Cones will be performing in Boston for the first time in 22 years on Thursday, Feb. 11, at House of Blues. As we prepare for the gig, Chris Kelley has been sending us MP3s of rehearsals of these odd songs that we used to play at the Inn Square Men's Bar in Cambridge.

Why didn't we go to some little eight-track studio for a day and document what we had? This is lost history. So much goes unrealized. Why didn't we record all that stuff? It was our strange, early period. We could have made an oddball record to make Captain Beefheart blush. Instead of recording everything, we spent months and months (and months) doing overdubs and mixes on one tune, "Round Room," which was released on a vinyl compilation, and which holds up pretty well.

Rods and Cones went on to change and to go through two or three distinct phases. Mike left the band, and when Gary came along, we became more "rock" and more acceptable, and that stuff was just as valid. But it's the early material that gives me the willies.

When we appear on Thursday, Feb. 11, we will have Mike and Gary in the band at the same time, for the first time ever. And we will be playing tunes from our early, middle and late periods. I'll be switching between bass guitar and keyboard. (That's a story for another day.)

This past weekend, Rods and Cones spent two intensive days rehearsing this material. Since I have sworn a blood oath to not tell you anything specific about what we will do, all I can tell you is that you really ought to come to this show.

Duffy bass 1987

(CORRECTION: In the original version of this blog post, the photographer was mis-identified. My apologies.)

To the right is an image of yours truly, in about 1987, playing a Guild Pilot bass guitar that is long gone. The photo was taken by Kristen Westhoven at the Channel. I am no longer that good-looking. And I haven't played much bass in the past 15 years or so. I switched to keyboard in about 1995 and have had my hands full with that.

But sweet necessity calls, and I have a bass gig next month, on Thursday, Feb. 11, at House of Blues in Boston, with my old colleagues Rods and Cones. So now, in addition to keeping up with the electric piano, I'm plucking those four bass strings, one at a time.

The bass is more physical than a keyboard instrument. You can rock out on the bass. You can shake the floor, and if you have a good drummer, you can get people moving and swaying. And you have that whole lower sonic range all to yourself -- no one else can play down there, even if they want to.

So for now, every night, I'm strapping on my 1971 Fender Telecaster bass (much classier than that Guild anyway), and plucking those flatwound strings, trying to regain some muscle memory and building up some calluses. And although it may be simpler, it requires just as much work to get it sounding right. So if you're reading this and you are a bass player, I'm feelin' ya.

Back in the 1980s, Boston was a great place to be a local band. In Kenmore Square, the Rat was spawning punk rockers, in Cambridge, the Inn-Square Men's Bar was featuring creative music every night. Further out on the fringes, thousands of college students were looking for a good time, and the drinking age rules were not enforced the way they are today.

In those days, Boston radio stations -- not only college stations but commercial stations as well -- would play records by local bands. You could be a big fish in a small pond, flopping around merrily.

In the midst of all this, a local TV station blinked onto the air, on the other-worldly UHF dial. It was V-66, and it was a free version of the then-new MTV. You might have to move your antenna around to tune it in, but it was music on TV, and it was free.

The band I was in, Rods and Cones, arrived at the right time. We had had something of a local hit with our tune "Education in Love," and our guitarist, Gary France, arranged for some Emerson College film students to create a video for that track. For a long stretch of time in 1986, V-66 was broadcasting it every day of the week.

Great memories and high times. There are worse ways to misspend one's youth.

So ... V-66 is coming back, at least for one night, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010, at the House of Blues in Boston. A video documentary about V-66, called "Life on the V" will be released that month, and the hard-working people who produced that film will show the world what it was about. Rods and Cones will regroup for that one night, with yours truly on bass guitar.

Rods and Cones 1984

Other Boston bands from that era will be performing that night, including O Positive, Lizzy Borden and the Axes and a few others yet to be announced.

Well, if you live long enough, you become an oldies act. But Rods and Cones will not be sleepwalking through it. No! We're already undertaking a strict health regimen, jogging, skipping rope, punching the heavy bag. In fact, we have all secluded ourselves at a training camp in a remote part of Massachusetts, subsisting on whole grains, carrot juice and meat that we have hunted ourselves.

OK, I exaggerate. But we are going to be kicking it at that gig. More soon.

In the past three years, everything I have learned about harmony, and I should say everything I have learned about music, has come from learning and playing the Riemenschneider book of 371 Bach chorales. This is the standard collection of German religious tunes, some dating back to the Middle Ages, from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, as set into four-part harmony by Johann Sebastian Bach. The book in its present form first appeared in 1831.

The Riemenschneider contains many familiar tunes -- you get three versions of "Ein Feste Burg Est Unser Gott," a.k.a. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," composed by Martin Luther himself. You get "Befiehl Du Deine Wege," or "Entrust Thy Ways," which was later ripped off by Paul Simon and labeled "An American Tune." (Has he no shame?) Many other tunes are Bach originals or were used as the basis for Bach's cantatas.

Once again, I'm conducting my own musical education in public. I'm a nearly illiterate piano player. As a child I had four years of piano lessons, and quit at age 9. From age 15 to age 34 I played bass guitar in rock bands and never read a note. At age 34 I returned to keyboard and soon realized that if I didn't learn to read music, I'd never get any better. So I started with some elementary J.S. Bach pieces and soon found my way to the chorales. I bought my paperback copy of the Riemenschneider for $12.95 at the old Patelson music shop on West 56th Street (now gone), and it has kept me busy every day for the past three years.


It's all here -- composition, melody, counterpoint, voice-leading, phrasing. This is my crash course. Most of the pieces are very short -- 12 to 20 measures of music. And there's no end to what you can do with each one. You can find dozens of ways to play each one, staying loyal to the score, and the melodies are so strong and time-tested that they never wear on the ear. Once you get a feel for the book, open it anywhere and go to town.

I'm still a long way from being able to sight-read four-part harmony, but the gain in reading ability is another benefit I have gotten from the Riemenschneider. And that in turn helps one's rhythm, of course, giving each note its full value.

And there's more -- you learn to think in terms of four-part harmony. You get a natural feel for counterpoint -- keep the hands moving in opposite directions. Then, of course, this is the essential textbook for harmony. I'm still finding combinations of three or four notes that I have never played before.

If I'm lucky, I can get an hour or two of practice early in the morning, and I'll get to spend some time with,  say, "Wo Soll Ich Fliehen Hin" ("Whither Am I to Flee"). At first, it's slow going, getting the tune under my fingers. As I'm reading the notes, coordinating that with the movement of the fingers, the brain feels fully lit up. The tune is concise enough that you can keep playing it over and over. Slowly it comes together. After a couple of mornings of this, it starts to sound and feel like music. Keep going, and eventually you just hear the tune playing itself, and you just happen to be there while it's happening. You forget you are playing. When I get to that point, that sets me up nicely for the day.

Having grown up in the era of 1960s hit radio, I have a deep appreciation for the tightly arranged three-minute record. A great three-minute record glows like a gem. There's no wasted motion. It's like a dream that you can return to again and again.

Over time, and having listened to many other styles of music, I found that many hard-bop records of the 1950s and early 1960s, the early LP era, had such great vibe and hi-fi sound to them -- the whole band is performing live in the studio, and there's such great feeling and playing. The only trouble is, those records have so much soloing and take so long to get to the point.

The idea may not be original with me, but I wondered, what if you tried to get that great vibe and feel and musicianship of those great jazz records, but had the concise, tight structure of a three-minute pop tune?

When I had the opportunity to make my first record of instrumental pop tunes, "Side One," the sound engineer, Greg Duffin, understood all of this immediately. Greg had earned a degree in broadcast engineering, then worked for Lou Whitney in Springfield, Missouri, in an all-analog setting. Greg knows a warm tube tone when he hears one.

What's a bit odd about all of this is that the recording group of myself, Dennis, Paul and Lance is sort of a rock band. We can't help it -- we came up through the rock basements. As much as we may try to stretch away from a rock background toward other forms of music, the rock will always be there. So there's a bit of tension that I believe benefits the records -- a rock band stretching toward other forms.

The term I tend to use is "moody and instrumental pop music." Instrumental music engages the listener in a different way from vocal music -- you don't have to process verbal information. Plus, not too many people are making instrumental pop music in a non-retro way, so the field is wide open.

Since there's no vocal in the center, we're free to move away from verse-chorus-verse song forms. This opens up all kinds of possibilities and allows for bits of improvisation. If it gets "jazzy" at times, it's as a style, not as an art form. The composition comes first. This is pop music, and that means that anything can happen.

With the second record, "Mood Lit," the production is more stripped-down, more immediate, fewer overdubs, and the band may be swinging it a bit harder. We just grooved and rocked and had fun and tried to swing it as hard as we could. Some of that feeling made it onto the tape, I believe.

To make swinging, grooving and moody instrumental music in the form of three-minute tunes -- it seems like such an obvious thing, but not many people are doing it.

(New York) The Black Hollies, from Jersey City, N.J., may have a misleading name. They don't sound like the Hollies, but they do sound like the Yardbirds, or the Zombies or the early Kinks, or the pre-"Tommy" Who. They stepped out of a time machine, from the era when bands had long hair but still wore suits -- 1965 or '66, but not '67. They're young-ish guys, too, playing vintage gear. Only the band members themselves were manufactured after 1970.

They capture a particular vintage sound, and they are dead-sincere about it. No spoof act here. They put on a tight, well-put-together set, one song right into another, and beyond the fuzztone guitars and Farfisa organ, they have some real tunes. On their first full-length album, "Casting Shadows," I like every single track.

My girlfriend Amy and I first saw them as an opening act, and they were way better than the headliner. We've gone back to see them a couple of times and have not yet been disappointed.

So, first of all, check out the Black Hollies. Second, even in this era when so much music is available for free, if I like a band, I want to buy something, and I don't think I'm alone. A couple of weeks ago, we saw the Black Hollies play an early set in New York, and the cover charge was very low. And they wailed. They played a set that gets you rocking and puts a smile on your face. They have a new drummer, who apparently went to school on Keith Moon records. So it all keeps getting better.

When the set was over, I wanted to buy something. The cover charge was so low that I wanted to give them something. A basic human impulse, to open the wallet. For centuries, buskers and public-house minstrels and Beatles have survived on this impulse, and free digital file-sharing won't erase it anytime soon.

So I'm at the merch table, talking to the guitar player (I don't know these guys at all), and he starts talking and talking about the band's wares, how they make their records and so on. He keeps talking, because he knows that the more he has me listening, the more likely I'll buy something. So I buy the band's new album, "Softly Towards the Light," on vinyl, for $10. And it's a fine record. In fact, it may even be a little better than "Casting Shadows."

What's the point? In this day and age when music is given away for free, and when there's so much of it that you can't possibly get to it all, then when you find something you like, you don't mind paying. Or at least I don't. I'd rather pay for something, to feel like I'm supporting it or participating in making it happen, in some small way. And to get hold of a genuine artifact.

Not a very original observation, but it's a data point, at least. (Some of these comments are from email correspondence with my friend Jimmy Guterman in Boston, who is an astute observer of music and media and the world at large.)

(Albuquerque, N.M.) Another term that gets bandied about is "Muzak." Or perhaps "elevator music," "dentist office music." People use these terms to deride a certain type of instrumental music that consists of cover versions of popular tunes, done in a deliberately bland style. These tracks were recorded by a small orchestra, and the arrangements were apparently knocked out one after another, by an expert who needed some quick cash.

But how much of that old Muzak do you hear anymore? You don't hear it in elevators or dentist's offices. You don't even hear it when you're "on hold" or waiting for a conference call. Instead, what you get is that damnable "soft rock."

Of course, Muzak is a specific company that manufactured this "background music" for office buildings and retail establishments. Still, the generic term sticks. And the music is generic, or at least it was. Muzak, and the music resembling it, is vanishing before our ears.

The other night, while driving across northern Arizona on I-40, I was flipping the FM dial, trying to escape from Phil Collins. Suddenly, what is this? An instrumental version of the Lettermen's "Come Saturday Morning." Then a soporific version of Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue," which had a pseudo-classical piano break. Then an acoustic-guitar-and-strings version of Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers." When you hear a sleepy orchestra cover Burt Bacharach, you know you're getting mellow.

This was vintage Muzak, or something quite like it. You may call it hack-work, but you know what? The arrangements were pretty cool -- one verse on the trombone, next verse on the flute, bridge on the strings, then modulate up. And the performances were spot-on. All these anonymous players were likely moonlighting jazzers or members of regional orchestras who were out for a few extra bucks. But they could play!

The radio station was KAHM -- as in "calm" -- which broadcasts out of Prescott, Ariz., at 102.1 FM. This station has the lonely job of carrying that low, flickering torch of instrumental background music on the public airwaves.

KAHM's slogan is, "Music as beautiful as Prescott." I've never been there, but if the claim is true, then Prescott must be a gorgeous retirement community.

According to Wikepedia, the Muzak company no longer produces its own content. Instead, it's in the business of designing soundscapes for businesses, using licensed material. That's why the sounds you hear on KAHM date to the late 1970s at the latest. One imagines a locker full of old reel-to-reel tapes.

And that's why you won't hear a string section doing a pizzicato version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Stick around, and you'll hear Percy Faith's "Theme From 'A Summer Place.'" Keep listening, and you'll get Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

Sure, you can laugh at Muzak and at this type of background music, but it's vanishing. As with the term "lounge music," it's something people refer to in a derogatory way without having heard it in years.

According to the same Wikipedia article, the Muzak company is currently operating under bankruptcy protection.

The next time you're driving across I-40, or for that matter on historic Route 66, forget that caterwauling classic rock. It's dead, man; it's over. If you want to capture some of the spirit of the old America that is fading away by the week, tune into KAHM, 102.1 FM, in Prescott, Ariz., while you still can.

(Los Angeles) -- The term "lounge act" gets used and abused, but how many true lounge acts are out there anymore? The hotel chains don't book live entertainment the way they used to, and if you're lucky, you'll get a piano player. But even those are going the way of the dodo.

Everyone here in L.A. already knows about this hidden treasure, but for a visiting New Yorker, Marty and Elayne at the Dresden provide an eye-opening experience. They've been at it for decades, and their material is time tested, from "Summertime" to "I'll Remember April," from "Whatever Lola Wants" to "Come Fly With Me." The sound is a bit odd -- the sound system is strictly from hunger, and the upright bassist maintains a low, rumbling murmur.

But the spirit is there, in spades. Marty croons the night away, and the stage patter comes naturally: "Give us your requests. If we don't get requests, we'll just play jazz, and then everybody goes home early."

Elayne plays bebop-derived phrases at the piano, then startles you when she leaps up to the Yamaha DX7 and throws herself into a synthesized guitar solo. She also doubles on flute.

Are they kidding us? Is this all a huge put-on? No, and no. They have done this gig thousands of times, six nights a week. Who else maintains that kind of schedule?

The crowd is young and hip and pretty. A group at the bar says they're from Vancouver, and they want to hear some Hank Williams. Marty: "Did Hank Williams write 'Make the World Go Away"? No? It must have been Boris Karloff..."

Next, a request for "Stardust," which Marty and Elayne turned into a Hoagy Carmichael medly with "The Nearness of You."

I just happened to be there one of the thousands of times that they have swung into "The Summer Wind." And you may have to live through a version of "My Way." That might be a good time to get a drink. Marty and Elayne get terrible reviews in the local press. The L.A. Weekly took a shot at them just the other day.

But if you want to see some sincere practicioners of a dying art, you get to do it, every night of the week except Sunday, for no cover charge, at the Dresden on Vermont Avenue. They don't make them like Marty and Elayne anymore.

P.S., save the date -- Thursday, Dec. 10, at 9 p.m., the Jim Duffy Combo at the Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B in Manhattan.

[Edit: In the original post, I forgot to include the date. Ay, carumba.]

More soon,

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 The latest release  from Jim  Duffy is "Pale Afternoon," a  collection of 11  moody and bouncy  instrumental pop tunes. Buy CDs here.

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