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The Fierceness of Fred Ho.

15 Apr

The Fierceness of Fred Ho

Out of the corner of my eye in my busy past couple of days I noticed a tweet informing me that the baritone sax master Fred Ho had died.  I felt a pang of sadness as I fleetingly computed what I knew about the man; that I’d once heard magnificent, rapturous music emanating from a neighboring rehearsal studio at Complete Music Services in Brooklyn and had gone to peek and discovered that it was Fred Ho rehearsing his orchestra.  My friend Joseph Yoon was in the studio; he was working with Mr. Ho in a managerial capacity and introduced us.  Fred Ho was beautiful, smiling with a warm handshake and clad in a fantastic, flamboyant outfit fit for an emperor.  I was immediately enamored and told Joseph I’d love to get some lessons from him, but Joseph told me Mr. Ho was fighting cancer and wasn’t currently teaching. The gig I was rehearsing for was the same night as his, but I resolved to check out his music, which I proceeded to not get around to doing for the next couple of years during which time I picked up piecemeal snippets of information about his activism and eschewal of social media.  Upon learning of his death I’m left with a mental sketch of a noble master who was living under my nose and a hope that, having been deeply moved by the video attached to his New York Times obituary, that I will finally get around to learning more about the music and life of this baritone saxophone master.  I’m reminded that while as musicians we almost universally, as far as I can tell, look to our forebears, there are masters living and working among us whose work needn’t be enjoyed posthumously.  I’m really sorry I never got to see Fred Ho play his saxophone.  I’m glad his suffering is over and I hope his spirit will perpetually enjoy generations of celebration and acclaim.



Heute Abend – Satchmo

4 Aug

I haven’t posted much here in a while, but I just found this televised concert performance by Louis Armstrong, the first horn player of my consciousness, from Berlin in 1965. It’s exactly the kind of thing I might have watched on TV as a toddler in Australia. Always, loved him, still love him and went to his house in Corona, Queens a few months back. I wrote a piece about it for an Australian magazine, but don’t know if they ever used it; if not I’ll post it here.


The wonderful Arthur Blythe at Montreux 1981

11 Apr

Alto & Tuba action on a delicious bed of cello, guitar and drums

Curtis Amy — soloist on “Touch Me Baby” by The Doors

17 Jan

This is my first time re-blogging, but I couldn’t have stated Curtis Amy’s case more thoroughly than the writer at Curt’s Jazz Cafe so I was delighted to notice a “reblog” button on the post. I stumbled on this blog upon deciding to try and find out a little more about the saxman behind the iconic tenor solo on “Touch Me Baby” by The Doors. The thing that struck me about this comprehensive blogpost about the life and career of Curtis Amy, whose name is probably unknown by millions of fans of The Doors were there words “toiled in virtual obscurity”. Once again I’m reminded of the legions of fantastically adept, talented musicians who have done and are doing just that. I find this to be a touchy subject and I think about it often.

Curt's Jazz Cafe

Curtis Amy (1927 – 2002)

Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably heard Curtis Amy. If you listened to pop music and pop radio from the mid-’60’s through the late ’70’s, then you heard Amy’s tenor, soprano or flute backing artists from Carole King, to Ray Charles to the Doors. But as a solo artist, Curtis Amy toiled in virtual obscurity.

Born in Houston, TX, in 1927, Amy’s first instrument was the clarinet at the young age of four.  He was drafted and during his stint in the Army, he started to play the tenor sax. When his time in the Army was up, Amy decided to pursue formal musical training at Kentucky State College (now University), from which he graduated in the early ’50’s.  He then taught school in Tennessee and knocked around playing gigs throughout the midwest for a couple of years, before landing in Los Angeles around 1955. …

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Did anyone else see Junior Walker and the All Stars at The Beacon Theater in 1989?

5 Jan

I was lucky enough to see Junior Walker and the All Stars live in concert the second night I was ever in New York City in July of 1989.  My friend and I arrived on a Friday night, I picked up a copy of The Village Voice and saw that there was a soul music concert the next night at The Beacon Theater, $25 a ticket to see Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Picket and Junior Walker.  Coming from Australia, this was unbelievable to me, but it was real and that specific concert is undoubtedly one of the experiences that compelled me to find a way to live in this magical musical city.  To see Percy sing When A Man Loves A Woman, Eddie knock knock knock knock knocking on wood for around 15 minutes and Wilson Pickett resentfully churning out performances of a dozen of his hits thrilled me half to death, but when Junior Walker came out swinging with his own band, The All Stars, and literally jumped right into Shotgun I broke down and wept.  Junior Walker has been one of my favorite sax players as long as I’ve had favorite sax players and his concert was one of the best I’ve seen in my life.  I couldn’t find any lengthier snippet of live footage than this clip of him and the band playing at the Ram Jam Club in London in 1967, but you get the idea of what I experienced and why he’s one of my faves in the first 10 seconds.

Kenny G is all right with me.

19 Nov

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Who’s ever indulged in poking a little fun at Kenny G?  Perhaps without ever having even listened to an entire Kenny G song?  I confess, I’ve done it. Are you one of the 19 million + who Sexy Saxman Sergio Flores cracked  up with his clever  Carless Whispers caper a couple of years back?  Then you’re guilty too.

Truth be told, Kenny G related snickers have been a peripheral and occasional accent in the soundtrack of my life as a musician and human all the way back to the 80s; up close and distant, sax players, jazz people, punk rockers, hipsters and anybody considering him or herself erudite and related whatsoever to my social sphere and aesthetic realm may have been likely to have made a Kenny quip at one time or another.  It’s understood; we all know Kenny G is a figure of fun, whether it be on account of the smoothness of his version of that thing called jazz on that soprano saxophone, his iconic hair or some loosely based in fact idea that he owns Starbucks.  Other than that I’ve never paid him much mind.  It was hardly surprising to me when I sent my mother a copy of my experimental “saxtronica” CD Secret Life Of Secretary that her 2 comments were “I can’t really follow it” and “You know who I like?  Kenny G”.

I wasn’t mad at her.  After all, my mother is an older lady and Kenny G makes old lady music, right?  Or does he?  Were the millions of people who watched this video of his song “The Moment”, which I just listened to for the first time all old ladies?   I doubt it.

But lately Kenny G as a cultural figure and character in life stepped out of the sidelines of my mind and demanded a little more attention.  I was recently (uncharacteristically) watching a video of a master class given by a renowned saxophone player  greatly respected in the jazz world, and Kenny G was mentioned in some context which I don’t quite remember.  I was struck by the collective reaction of the attendees, in a far off land, who snickered in perfect unison. I started to think about the strong effect Kenny G has had on people all over the world since the release of his fourth album “Duotones” in 1986.

Then after a gig on Bleecker Street last weekend I was walking with my section mate MK to the subway and we passed the Blue Note and I noticed Kenny G was playing four nights.  Suddenly I wanted to go.  I asked him if he wanted to but it wasn’t a good week for him.  Then I asked my trombone blowing buddy Smoota to be my date and he was excited.  A couple of phone calls and emails later we were on the press list (which means I have a little writing to do about Kenny G in addition to this blog post).  Imagine my heart attack when the PR manager from The Blue Note asked me if I’d like him to set up an interview.  !!!!!!!  There are a couple of magazines I write for which will run my story on Kenny G next year, but if an interview was afoot I wanted to be able to assure Kenny’s people there would be something published to a wide audience in the immediate future.  I pitched the idea to those where I had contacts and was met with a resounding … er, that’s not really our thing.  Snobs everywhere!

Nevertheless I diligently began to research the life and music of Kenny G and learned a lot.  To me the most mindblowing fact I came across is that in China his recording “Going Home” is often played at closing time at public places or at the end of classes at schools. Mass transit systems in Tianjin and Shanghai play these songs when trains approach terminus stations.  Like, a guy wrote and recorded a song and it replaced the bell at the end of the school day.  That pushes it out of the realm of music and into the realm of symbols!

I listened to a bunch of Kenny G songs and even learned how to play one on bari sax (you may hear me sneaking it in to a future live set).  I was amazed at the simplicity of the songwriting and considered that this is part of Kenny G’s genius.  Because I’ve already acknowledged that Kenny is a genius.

As I eagerly awaited news of the possibility of an interview, showtime approached.  By the time Smoota and I got dressed up in our smoothest attire and headed down to the village to dig some (smooth) jazz last Thursday night, Kenny’s people had said with 8 shows in four nights, Kenny’s time was too limited for an in person interview but he may be able to squeeze in a phone interview over the weekend.

The Blue Note was full, but not uncomfortably packed.  We had great seats.  For those of you who haven’t been there, it’s an intimate supper club style venue which seats a few hundred guests width-wise to the stage so nobody is very far back.

Suddenly Kenny was coming down the stairs.  “There he is!”  I said. He was so close.  He walked right by us to a place in the back of the club as his band took their positions on the stage , his bass player carrying a tenor sax down and putting it on the piano,and then the concert began.  A crazy synth swell and an unearthly long tone from that soprano sax … and then, famously, the long note was held minute after minute as Kenny walked through the club, holding the note, posing for pictures with audience members, putting his horn right up to my ear (at which juncture I heard the pure tone, separate from the strange effect engineered back there by his sound man Monty, and it sounded great); he shook Smoota’s hand on what was probably the fourth minute of the note.  Took a plate of food off a waiter’s tray and put it down on the table in front of the hungry customer.  Putting a smile on every face and a round of applause in every pair of hands.  Suddenly everyone was having fun, but in a very contained well behaved way.

And then Kenny talked.  He talked about the show, about being thrilled to play the Blue Note, about his band all of whom have been with him for more than 20 years (except the drummer who’s only been with him 8) and about his sound guy Monty.  He talked about his Christmas albums and about how he’d been edged out of the pre-Christmas dates at The Blue Note by Chris Botti.  (I didn’t know who it was, Smoota explained later when we spent hours at Cafe Reggio discussing the show and talking about ideas).

By the time the band launched into the first song, Kenny had me.  I was having a great time.  One thing I was aware of, I was so comfortable.  Nothing about the music was jarring or too loud.  While in this review I can mostly not tell you which numbers were performed, since I’m a neophyte to Kenny G’s music, the sound was familiar.  After all, it’s been around me for years in elevators, airports, waiting rooms … all kinds of places where I’m supposed to relax.  But I never found it so relaxing as sitting right in front of the man in The Blue Note, experiencing the music live.

The set was well paced and Kenny talked a lot.  He pointed out his best friend in the audience, told us that last Christmas was a very difficult time for him since his wife had asked him for a divorce and joked that it was more than he had wanted to spend.  There were many jokes,  3 of them about (his) gayness (“just kidding, that’s not what the G stands for”) and one  about penis size, when he switched to tenor … “I know you all really came to see my big one … my best friend’s already seen it, because he’s my best friend … just kidding, that’s not what the G stands for”).  Kenny sounded great on tenor and I was surprised he’s not better known for it.  He included one of his Christmas songs on tenor “even though it’s illegal because it’s before Thanksgiving”.

His band all looked incredibly well-fed, relaxed and contented, like cats.  He introduced his keyboard player Robert Damper as his best friend from Franklin High School and rejoiced that they’d played hundreds of shows together, been around the world a gazillion times playing music and even played at The White House for then President Clinton and a selection of governors, and got to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom.  He introduced the band as the night went on, gave them all solo action.

The feeling onstage amongst the band was to me the greatest part of the concert and the aspect to which I could most strongly relate.  A bunch of friends in the act of jamming together onstage, as is their custom.  I’m lucky enough to have it in my life and I treasure it.  I do it every week, usually several times a week.  And watching Kenny G and his band show up for their gig together go through their second set of the night, doing what they do was as real, awesome and valid as any concert I’ve ever seen.  They were all perfectly seasoned and capable musicians, all guys who’ve been playing for decades, giving it their all, trying to make people feel good and succeeding.

I realized Kenny G is a committed musician who loses himself totally in the moment(s) when he puts his saxophone to his lips and blows.  He’s a joyous soloist and people catch his joy.  He found a way of fitting into the tapestry that is the history of music and millions of people dig it.  He invented a sound that was strange and offensive to a lot of people; they said he wasn’t doing it right.  Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about the rules.  I don’t know, since I never did get my phone interview over the weekend so couldn’t ask him about that.  But I did, along with dozens of his ecstatic fans get to shake his hand before leaving the club and try out the Kenny G E Series Soprano Sax which he played during his set and which he was selling for $1500, the proceeds of which were going to be entirely gifted to the wait staff at The Blue Note.  I really wanted it, but it would have been an irresponsible purchase and I sounded terrible on it. I asked him if it came in other flavors, tenor, alto, baritone and right at that moment, up until which he’d been open, eye contacting, hand shaking and warm, he froze over.  I don’t do it in baritone he said, and I was dismissed, handed over to Monty, the man behind the live sound (what was he doing up in that mixing booth anyway — pedals?).  “I’ve been doing it since 1989”, Monty told me.

I guess I’ll never know why Kenny G suddenly froze me out …. maybe he suspected me of not being a true fan or friend.  That was the feeling.

The fact of the matter is I was impressed on many levels and there’s one song, I don’t know what it is, that I can’t get  out of my head.  It doesn’t matter which song.  It’s smooth and the voice is unmistakable and unique. It’s Kenny G, my mother’s favorite saxophone player.

All the best pop has bari sax – go ahead Elliot Bergman

20 Sep

Here’s Wild Belle, saxman Elliot Bergman’s pop duo with his sister.

My friend Eric Biondo made a masterpiece of recorded music

16 May

Listening to the new Beyondo LP is a great way for me to start this day.  Beyondo is Eric Biondo’s band.  I first met Eric Biondo when he started playing trumpet with Antibalas about 10 years ago.  We played together sometimes in a section, in particular with TV on the Radio, and of course he’s sat in with Rev. Vince Anderson.  He’s a great trumpeter, but when I finally saw a live show by his band Beyondo my mind was blown by his songwriting and arranging; then I got his EP The Gambler which is awesome and thrilled at his song a day songwriting challenge.  I’ve known he’s been working on this album for a while and felt happy for him when he announced it was finally finished and available on his bandcamp page.  But now that I listened to it I feel happy for myself, not only to have discovered a new record to listen to in the summer of 2012, but also to know so many amazing musicians who are a part of this recording … there’s plenty of horn-chic action throughout this record laid down by Stuart Bogie, Alex Hamlin, Miwi La Lupa, John Altieri and Aaron Rockers; there’s also a dazzling array of vocalists and other guest musicians including Meah Pace, Jared Samuel and Luke O’Malley.

Listening to a masterpiece of recorded music featuring performances by some of my friends is a kind of moving experience in itself, but I want to also mention that Siren Science is dedicated to Davy Jones.  Eric Biondo played trumpet and cornet with Davy Jones of The Monkees for 12 years.  I was always intrigued that he had this gig — I loved The Monkees when I was little and thought Eric’s 21st century involvement was a perfect match for his personality.  (Have you seen Head?)  For years I told him I wanted to come and see him play with Davy Jones and finally in February he was able to bring me to a show at BB Kings.  I really loved the show and got a groovy kind of thrill hearing Eric play on songs from my childhood like Daydream Believer, Last Train To Clarksville and Hey Hey We’re The Monkees ….. after the show I met Davy and knew that he and Eric were soul mates who’d found each other.  I think the dedication makes this perfectly awesome album even more completely perfect.  I hope people all over the world will hear it.

St. Clair Pinckney at 33:09

5 Apr

What better than a screeching solo from the late great St. Clair Pinckney to herald a costume change from black tux, black shirt, black bowtie to jade green jumpsuit and jerkin?  Of course I recommend the whole video, but if you’ve only got a minute for now, St. Clair’s solo is the height of horn-chic.  If you’re on leisure time start at the top and enjoy the mindblowing performance by BB King and glimpse MJ in the house too.

Happy Birthday to Aaron Johnson, Micah Gaugh and Michael Kammers

1 Apr

This week 3 of my favorite horn players celebrated their birthdays.  I’ve played with Aaron, Micah and Michael in many projects over the years including Electro Fetus, Rev. Vince Anderson & The Love Choir, TV on the Radio, Mackie Riverside & The Street Pushers and Burnt Sugar .  They’re all amazing fiery players who really shred as well as being great section players.

Micah Gaugh plays alto and a bent soprano sax (sometimes simultaneously, which literally makes women scream) and I play with him in Burnt Sugar; he also plays in Apollo Heights and has a solo project called Puppet. Aaron Johnson plays the hot & steamy trombone you’ve heard in Antibalas, The El Michels Affair and Fela! on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination in his role as musical director, and Michael Kammers is a screaming tenor man who has a prolifically self composed for 14 piece big band called MK Groove Orchestra which also plays out in a truncated trio format, the MK Trio, plays sax, farfisa and bass pedals in The Suite Unraveling and sometimes tours with Easy Star All Stars.

As an astrology fancier, I felt like I was in a furnace when I got to simultaneously play in a section with all three first decan Arians around my birthday last June when we played in INDOMITABLE, Burnt Sugar’s tribute to James Brown featuring Brandon Victor Dixon.

Even though all three of these guys have repeatedly, um, blown me away with their soloing prowess over the years, I recommend you find them live in concert, because I couldn’t find video footage to emphasize their awesomeness strongly enough on the http://www.  Real life is still best!

Here’s some examples of what they do respectively:

Micah in his amazing solo project Puppet:

Here’s Aaron with Antibalas playing Elephant …

Michael Kammers released his first solo EP, The Claustrophobic Noise EP, last year which I was honored to play on.

You can listen to it right here: