Category Archives: MTH-V

annotated video series

MTH-V: “MacArthur Park” Live

It’s been a while since adding to this series. To do so, here’s an epic take on an equally epic pop song. Like “Stars Fell On Alabama,” I came to know this song through a rather circuitous route.

One of my favorite albums in late elementary and early middle school was Weird Al Yankovic’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, a collection of his songs — both originals and parodies — from the early 90s. One of the songs was “Jurassic Park,” a sweeping number with pop-tinged verses and choruses and grand orchestral interludes. The lyrics are nothing short of clever and entertaining. For example, the first chorus:

“Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark,
All the dinosaurs are running wild.
Someone shut the fence off in the rain.
I admit it’s kind of eerie,
And this proves my chaos theory,
And I don’t think I’ll be coming back again.
Oh no…”

For years, little old me never heard the original on which the parody was based. So, imagine my surprise when, much later while out shopping with a friend during my college years, I heard Donna Summer’s disco cover of “MacArthur Park” playing throughout the clothing store. I could hum along with the melody to the entire song (except for instances of “park”), and for a few minutes my world had turned upside down.

The disco bit confused me, as Yankovic is quite talented at musically and stylistically convincing parodies. (For an actual song parody, one example among many is “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies.” For a stylistic parody that’s an original song, see “Germs,” in the vain of Nine Inch Nails.)  He and his band, in my view, are criminally underrated. Few pop bands can comfortably cover such stylistic breadth and depth (especially live and in the same show).

Anyway, some search engine sleuthing when I returned home that day (using the terms: disco, park, cake) eventually led me to the title, and I soon heard a recording of the original recording by Richard Harris. Yes, the lyrics are quirky, however I can’t help but still enjoy the song (though perhaps not Harris’s voice). Having grown up listening to musical theater and oldies, I’m a sucker for the pomp and circumstance involved in the arrangement and orchestration. Here’s the first chorus from the original (to compare to Yankovic’s parody):

“MacArthur Park is melting in the dark,
All the sweet green icing flowing down.
Someone left the cake out in the rain.
I don’t think that I can take it,
‘Cause it took so long to bake it,
And I’ll never have that recipe again.
Oh no…”

This past winter, the song got stuck in my head for days. To purge the fixation, I went looking for footage of live performances and I was delighted by what I found: a performance by Paul Shaffer & The CBS Orchestra joined by the song’s composer Jimmy Webb along with orchestral strings, winds, and percussion. Though it hadn’t been appointment viewing for me for many years, I was always a Letterman guy, and I’ve long had a soft spot for Paul Shaffer and & The CBS Orchestra (including Tom “Bones” Malone and charter member Hiram Bullock)  — see Shaffer and Malone here. Bassist Will Lee pulls double duty on bass and vocals, demonstrating his commanding range. (Lee is also know for The Fab Faux and his myriad session work. He tears it up on this Brecker album, for example.) Felicia Collins gets a chance to let it rip during the instrumental breakdown.

Beyond his style of humor, which I very much enjoy, this performance is a solid example of what I enjoy about Letterman: mounting such an involved performance ostensibly for his own pleasure, complete with a giant green cake…



MTH-V: Candy Dulfer & Chance Howard

I mentioned a few posts back that Candy Dulfer may be coming. As promised, here she is. The Dutch queen of smooth jazz saxophone may not be the first one to come to mind for regular readers of this blog, but she has her place. If you don’t recognize her solo work, you may at least recognize her from her work with many big pop acts including a long-running association with Prince and even sharing the stage with Pink Floyd.

Overall, I’m no fan of smooth jazz. However, I do like some folks that walk that line, Marcus Miller being the biggest for me personally. Marcus was one of my first posts in this video series, and he’s received some of the most appearances and mentions (see him in action here, here, and here). For me, I love Marcus as a sideman or a live bandleader (i.e., when he’s playing his bass with a killing band), both his playing and his ideas. The studio is another story if he’s calling the shots. Many of his albums and/or producing credits are so overproduced and overly overdubbed – he plays most instruments himself in the studio – that I have a hard time getting into it. That, and his solo albums trot too far into the smooth jazz territory. Just a tad too much cheese and fluff at times. And even when it’s not, it still lacks something organic. I mean, I appreciate Miles Davis’s Tutu, which Miller produced, but I don’t often listen to it for fun. This is following a thought that deserves its own post, but hopefully you get the idea…

Back to Candy. For me, she’s sort of the bizarro Marcus Miller – overall her playing’s not my thing but sometimes I’m really into it. Though, that’s mostly because of the style. Perhaps my biggest gripe with smooth jazz is that much of it seems to be trying to be something it’s not: vocal music. When you have a good vocalist, the horns should just lay back and let the pop hooks come through. It’s why “Just the Two of Us” is far and away the best part of Grover Washington, Jr.’s Winelight. (Though, I do like the rest of the album.) Similarly, the thing I’ve most liked by Candy’s solo band features voice. This particular voice is that of fellow Prince alumnus Chance Howard. (Prince experts may also recognize drummer Kirk Johnson, another former member.) And what a voice it is. As my wife says, “it’s pure butter.” How he’s not better known is lost on me. Regardless, he delivers a commanding rendition of Bobby Womack‘s “Daylight” in this live performance from Germany. This may be Candy’s band but it’s Chance’s stage. Candy lets the horn fit in well without butting her way in. She lets the song itself shine without trying to make it a sax feature. Other than the shoe-horned hip-hop breakdown towards the end, this is pretty great. I’ll admit that when I got my new stereo, this is one of the first things I listened to to test the surround sound.

To tie Candy in with another post, here’s a clip of Lydia Kaboesj sitting in with her band in Amsterdam for another rendition of “Just Friends (Sunny)”:

MTH-V: Bob James Live | UMS Debut on 11.15.14

This post is also a plug for a show happening in Ann Arbor this Saturday. Legendary keyboardist Bob James will be returning to his alma mater for a night of music in a quintet setting. This performance caps off his recently being awarded the 2014 School of Music Theater & Dance Hall of Fame Alumni Award.

Some readers may consider James to be an odd choice for this blog, but there is a related thread that’s run through a few posts here. I do have a soft spot for so-called “smoother” styles. For example: an early video post featured David Sanborn, Marcus Miller has had a couple posts, a recent post extolled the virtues of Steely Dan, and Tom Scott & The L.A. Express have also been highlighted. And, coming down the pike, I intend to throw more Sanborn, some blue-eyed soul and more yacht rock, and even a dash of Candy Dulfer into the mix. What does this have to do with Bob James? Well, though I was completely unconscious of it at the time, his “Angela” was the first tune to get that sound in my head while I regularly watched Taxi reruns as a small boy. And I remember the first time I knowingly heard the full studio cut of “Angela” in the wild (on the radio), and having a name to associate with the tune, was while night-driving solo through Seattle in my early twenties. (I had heard Fourplay and other groups of his, but didn’t really put the pieces together to know it was him.) I remember thinking that after so many years of hearing short clips of his music, I was very impressed – stunned, even, – by just how hard it grooved. And, coming full circle, the aforementioned “smooth” figures and their associates, many of whom have been featured on this site in some capacity, round out the Bob James milieu of the late 70s, having been in his orbit in one way or another. 1978’s Touchdown is a good example of this.

Here’s a somewhat recent live clip of James performing in Seoul, South Korea with bassist Nathan East and guitarist Jack Lee. It’s nice to hear him performing it on piano:

I mentioned at the outset that this is also a plug for his upcoming show at University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium Saturday night as part of this season’s UMS series. (UMS has provided great memories for me over the years as well as some good content for this blog, particularly regarding Einstein on the Beach – one of this site’s through lines – and Charles Lloyd.) In fact, it will be the alumnus’s UMS debut. He talks a little about his music, background, and upcoming show here:

I particularly enjoy (and agree with) this quote: “You gotta make people dance first. If [the audience] are not pattin’ their foot, there’s something wrong with what we’re doing: we’re not in the pocket.” Piggybacking on that, UofM’s Professor and Chair of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation sums it up nicely:
“There are these straight-ahead jazz artists and their aficionados who can sometimes become snobbish and talk about categories – they can be snobbish in their tastes and look down their noses at music with wide appeal. But every time I put on one of Bob’s ‘smooth jazz albums’ or other albums, I’m constantly noticing the hip chord progressions, the slick arrangements, the fantastic rhythm section playing, and the wonderful improvising.”

Catch Bob James Saturday at 8:00 PM.

MTH-V: Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”

Over the last several weeks I’ve gone down the Steely Dan rabbit hole. (And you could arguably say that I’m still in it.) It started with the blind purchase of Gaucho, followed quickly by Aja, Katy Lied, and Pretzel Logic. And I’m sure that others will soon follow. For years Steely Dan has been little more than a George Carlin punchline for me, having only a peripheral knowledge of their music at best. It seemed that the closest I got was the deluxe edition of Elton John‘s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the full live performance of which (on disc 2) includes Jeff “Skunk” Baxter sitting in.

For whatever reason I decided to explore the band’s material, and I began with 1980’s Gaucho simply because of the personnel, particularly: Tom Scott, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Don Grolnick, Michael McDonald, and Steve Gadd. (Many of these are folks have been featured on the blog before: Tom Scott here and here, Breckers here, and Sanborn/Bullock/Grolnick here.) Honestly, my initial impression after one listen was: for a band (core members Donald Fagen & Walter Becker) so obsessed with production and studio perfection, you’d think Fagen would be a better singer… Anyway, that aside, I was immediately attracted to the songs and arrangements. I don’t know if I’d use “jazz rock” to describe Steely Dan, but it’s a close description. Interesting harmonies and melodies, catchy tunes, and solid players. There are some occasional misses (e.g., the rendition of “St. Louis Blues” on Pretzel Logic…yuck), but overall I’m quite taken with the library.

A song that quickly became one of my favorites is “Black Cow” from 1977’s Aja. It features the aforementioned hooks and complexities, and the studio recording features an outro solo by Tom Scott. Here’s a very nice live version from possibly 2003 featuring solos by keyboardist Ted Baker (whom I may have seen at Einstein on the Beach – I’ll have to check my program) and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.

MTH-V: “Stars Fell On Alabama”

Somewhat piggybacking on my last post, sometimes you just can’t predict how you’ll get from point A to point B, or what styles and/or artists will leave a mark. An example of this is 1934’s “Stars Fell On Alabama,” one of my favorite standards.

Aside from it being a preferred tune to play at jazz gigs (including one just this past weekend), I enjoy renditions by Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, oldies by Louis Armstrong, and more. But, to be honest, the first time I remember hearing and committing the song to memory was as a little boy listening to my mom’s Jimmy Buffett CDs. Yes, Mr. Parrothead himself recorded a semi-popular version of the iconic standard with Toots Thielemans. Imagine my surprise when, years later, I heard a version by Louis Armstrong performed decades earlier. I immediately thought of Buffett’s version that I carried from childhood and my mind was mildly blown. The Great American Songbook had burrowed deep into my brain as a child and I didn’t even know it. Buffett’s version is no longer my preferred interpretation, but I must say that I still have a soft spot for it.

So I thought it’d be both interesting and entertaining to post two starkly different versions of the tune. Nothing like a learning experience for both jazzers and parrotheads alike…

This first version is by Louis Armstrong & His All Stars featuring Jack Teagarden on trombone and vocals. It’s a live performance from Boston in 1947:

And now Jimmy Buffett & The Coral Reefer Band live on the short-lived Fridays (note Mark Hamill on the dance floor…). The song definitely suffers without studio magic and overdubbing, but here it is nevertheless. Kudos to Jimmy for including the verse: