For many years now two of jazz's most talented and dynamic tenor saxophone players have been Pharoah Sanders and Joe Lovano, teaming with the best modern musicians in the genre to delight listeners with their strong, bold free jazz and hard bop stylings.
But something--maybe age (Sanders is 80 and Lovano, 68), maybe the pandemic (though both remain healthy and creative), or maybe their spiritualism (both have embraced Eastern religions)--has changed the type of jazz each of them is now making. It isn't exactly cool jazz or smooth jazz, although it is much mellower and gentler than their earlier playing, but instead in its inventive way more ethereal and haunting.
Sanders's most recent album is entitled "Promises" where he plays along with Sam Shepherd, a British electronic keyboardist, who records as Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The single musical composition in nine movements was written by Shepherd and has been described as ambient sound, dreamlike, and abstract psychedelia. Whatever it is, I probably won't be dancing to it, but I do enjoy listening to it.
The only time I saw Sanders was at the Village Vanguard sometime around 1970, after he had proved himself the new wunderkind with the fabulous bands of Alabama's own Sun Ra and then with John Coltrane. He did things with that horn I have never heard or seen since, overblowing and multiphonic stuff, holding his hand over the bell, impossibly passing airflow both up and down the body at the same time, and somehow seeming to play two distinct notes at once.
Joe Lovano is not as storied, but definitely one of today's great tenor titans. His fast, brash, loud playing has gained him a devoted following among fellow musicians and jazz aficionados alike. But his last two albums with pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi, aka the Trio Tapestry, are made of subtler stuff. The latest, "Garden of Expression," includes eight lovely Lovano compositions. All lyrical and tender, all sounding like the name of the album's last tune: "Zen Like." Take a listen to this cut from the group's first album, "Trio Tapestry."
"The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg," according to author David Cohn.
I've been missing the northern end of the Delta lately. So I turned to two good sources of inspiration about the rich Memphis music scene that capture the bountiful spirit of that southern city.
The first is the 25th anniversary edition of It Came From Memphis, native Memphian Robert Gordon's fascinating personal history of how blues music migrated up the Delta to the Bluff City and influenced several generations of inventive musicians: from originators like Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Gus Cannon, Mose Vinson, Sleeping John Estes, and others to a host of performers from the 1950s through the 1990s. The story is as rambling and discombobulated as the town and the people who have made music there.
So if you want to get beyond Elvis and Otis and discover the real, largely unsung heroes of Memphis music, this is the book for you. How about Alex Chilton, the lead singer of the Box Tops--remember "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby"?--who sang these megahits at age sixteen and never again attained these heights again, but instead led a stormy, fantastical existence with a long line of strange underground cult bands? Or Jim Dickinson who pops up everywhere, producing or playing on one hit after non-hit, who exclaimed and lived by the motto: "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space."
The band marches on with an outrageous and talented cast of crazy, under-appreciated Memphians: colorful wrestlers like Sputnik Monroe and Jerry Lawler, wonderful and often obscure musicians like Charles "Skip" Pitts (who can forget that perfect wah-wah rift on "Shaft"?), bassist Scott Bomar, Ben Cauley, Howard Grimes, Teenie and Leroy Hodges (ala the Hi Rhythm Section), Fred Ford, Lee Baker, Sid Selvidge, on and on--making music for the ages.
I can only agree with Rolling Stone: "If you haven't read this book, do it now."
A suitable and enjoyable companion to the book is the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, now streaming everywhere, where director Martin Shore gathers a bunch of crack Memphis session musicians to accompany a handful of old blues and soul singers with some of today's young singers and rappers.
So we watch duets by Otis Clay and Lil P-Nut, Mavis Staples and the North Mississippi All-Stars, Bobby Rush and Frayser Boy, Booker T. and Al Kapone, William Bell and Snoop Dogg, Charlie Musselwhite and the City Champs, and my favorite: Bobby "Blue" Bland and Yo Gotti, singing/rapping "Ain't No Sunshine" (I know, I know, I know...).
If it sounds a little weird, well, it is, but that's Memphis! I found it to be great fun, and it appears the performers did as well. And so will you.
Al Green is 75 years old today.
I first saw him at the Beacon Theater in New York City, way back when, before he found God and became a preacher man. After his band warmed up the sold-out audience with a few jazz numbers and an overture of bits of some of his many hits, a red spotlight swiveled its beam to the back of the audience and to the door to the lobby that suddenly swung open. And dancing jubilantly down the aisle came the soul legend himself, red roses in hand, sporting a shiny, bright, white suit, high-fiving those with aisle seats, and then bouncing up the steps and onto the stage while the band blared "Tired of Being Alone," Green's first big hit in 1971. The show then continued for a couple of hours in a whirling blur of sustained southern soul fervor.
I would have caught "the last great soul singer," as some have called him, back in 1967, when he served a brief stint as vocalist for Jr. Walker and the All Stars at the El Grotto Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan, where I was teaching high school English at the time, if I had only known he would soon become the next huge pop megastar. Hi Record producer Willie Mitchell discovered him in a club in Midland, Texas, the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As it turned out, I would have to wait another few years after the Beacon Theater show to see Green again, this time at an outdoor concert in Kansas City, Missouri, in a field behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum in the famous 18th and Vine Historic District, a rib-bone's throw away from Arthur Bryant's famous barbecue joint and from where Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShann, and many other jazz greats held court during the 1920s and 30s.
By the Kanasas City gig, Green was splitting his time among preaching, singing gospel, and touring around the world with his dynamic soul show.
Later, I would see Green again in a huge spectacular outdoor concert in Birmingham, Alabama's Linn Park, not far from Erskine Hawkins's Tuxedo Junction, where it seemed most of the Magic City was in exuberate attendance.
Finally, I spent a cold Sunday morning in January, just before the 2005 Super Bowl, at Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, near Graceland, to hear the good Reverend preach and occasionally burst into spirited song. If you want a taste, view the 1984 documentary "The Gospel According to Al Green," now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Happy Birthday, Reverend Green!
Dear Mr. Archibald,
Thank you for your new book, Shaking the Gates of Hell!
Thank you for speaking out and making sense in a state, a country, a world that all too often makes no sense at all. For helping me to understand my relationship with my own father a bit more forgivingly. For helping me to appreciate my family, my church, my state, and my place in them more lovingly.
These are no small gifts, especially when delivered with such humor, understanding, and compassion.
So...I am pleased to wholeheartedly recommend your book to all Alabamians, all Southerners, all sons, and daughters, all Christians, all...oh hell, everybody. Read this book!
It's that time of year, when the best 64 men's college basketball teams vie for the NCAA Tournament Championship. So this weekend will be filled with eight games, matching the remaining 16 teams at the single-game elimination midpoint. It's usually the most interesting weekend of the tournament, as several low-seed Cinderella teams find themselves matched with higher-seed glamour squads. Like 11-seed UCLA versus 3-seed Alabama. And 3-seed Arkansas against the surprising 15-seed Oral Roberts. As well as my favorite 11-seed Syracuse versus 2-seed Houston.
My other favorite was Kansas, but they were eliminated early, as usual in recent years, in their second game by USC.
I have been fortunate over the years to live in several places where good basketball teams reside. I grew up in Kansas, where my mother and son attended K.U., where basketball was originally played under Coach James Naismith, the inventor of the game, and then under Coach Phog Allen (as in Allen Field House, where K.U. still plays) when my mom was studying in Lawrence.
Later, in the 80s, I lived in Boston, home of the champion Celtics that I enjoyed watching: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, M.L. Carr, and Tiny Archibald (formerly of UTEP).
I moved from Boston to Syracuse, where Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim coached some tough teams and exciting players like Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas, Danny Schayes, Rony Seikaly, and Pearl Washington.
After that I relocated to El Paso where UTEP's legendary coach, Don Haskins, was still basking in the adoration of local fans for his miraculous victory (when the school was named Texas Western) over Adolph Rupp's Kentucky contingent in the 1966 NCAA Championship, considered to this day to be one of the best coached college games ever played.
Next came Charleston, where John Kresse, in white shirt sleeves, was the coach at the College of Charleston and where, at tiny John Kresse Arena, he somehow put together a winning team year after winning year (560-143). The local joke in Charleston was even if you gave Kresse five one-legged midgets he would somehow find a way to win.
But, alas, I finally ended up in Alabama, where football is king and basketball, a mere measly serf. Until this year, when new coach Nate Oats has led the Crimson Tide round-ballers to SEC regular season and tournament championships, with a solid 26-6 record.
As a result, I'm gonna go way far out on the proverbial limb and predict Gonzaga, Alabama, Oral Roberts, and Syracuse in the Final Four. But I'm not betting a single penny on that. Just hoping...against all hope, as they say down here in Alabama.
Today, March 20, is Sister Rosetta Tharpe's birthday (1915-1973), fitting for this month's celebration of Women's History. I can think of few other women (or men for that matter) who have had a greater impact on modern music of most genres--gospel, blues, rock 'n' roll, R&B, and jazz--than this Sister's inspired singing and electric guitar playing. When the Scriptures admonished us "to make a joyful noise unto the Lord," she surely did.
From the age of six, she was regularly performing with her mother at Chicago's 40th Street Church of God in Christ, where, unlike some other sanctified denominations, a variety of instruments, including guitars, brass, and drums, as well as women musicians were welcomed.
Throughout Tharpe's teenage years, she traveled extensively with her evangelist mother, singing and playing at revivals throughout the country. She was soon discovered by New York talent scouts and moved to the big city to work with the Count Basie Band, the Cab Calloway Revue, Louis Jordan's Band, the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, among others, at exclusive clubs and nightspots in the Big Apple, like the Cotton Club, the Savoy, Cafe Society, and the Apollo.
She signed a record contract with Decca that resulted in several big hits, including "Strange Things Happening Every Day" with Sammy Price, in 1944, that many consider to be a direct precursor to rock 'n' roll, with its strong, steady beat and spare instrumentation. And, while I never did get to see Tharpe in person, I did spend many a happy hour at the Copley Plaza Hotel Bar in Boston during the 1980s, listening to Sammy Price play superb boogie-woogie piano.
It is no exaggeration to site Tharpe as the first real superstar of gospel. She was everywhere during the 1940s and 50s. At the marriage to her third husband in 1951 she filled Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., with more than twenty thousand fans for a sensational "wedding concert" to end all weddings. She continued to tour throughout the 1960s and 70s, thrilling audiences, often in Europe, until her death in 1973.
I've been listening to Curtis Salgado's new album this week. It's his eleventh and it's a beauty!
I first caught Salgado at Jonathan's Swift's in Cambridge some time in the 80s when he was fronting an early Roomful of Blues crew. I was hosting a bunch of visiting Swedish librarians on a cold, snowy, New England night, and, after a few instrumentals, a young Salgado, in a trim, black tux, bounded onto the stage to join the band and energetically warm up the cavernous club in no time at all. I don't know who was more impressed: me or the somber Swedes. If you want a taste, listen to Roomful of Blues' 1987 "Live at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel."
Salgado started his career in Eugene, Oregon, where for six years he was lead singer for Robert Cray's band. You can hear him on Cray's first album, "Who's Been Talkin'," recorded in 1980, singing a rollicking duet with Cray on O.V. Wright's "I'm Gonna Forget About You."
While filming "Animal House" in Eugene, John Belushi saw Salgado perform and patterned his role in the Blues Brothers after him. There is still no doubt that Salgado is the coolest white blues singer around, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh's Billy Price.
I've seen Salgado several times in the intervening years, and his voice remains as strong and soulful as ever, despite several bouts of lung and liver cancer and quadruple bypass surgery. One of the most memorable times was on the patio at Humphrey's here in Huntsville, not long after the release of his 2012 album "Soul Shot." He was gracious enough to join us at our table during a break and chat about his career and the state of the blues in America, where he continues to tour regularly, appearing in clubs, concerts, and festivals everywhere.
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.