Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I was just looking at a picture a friend sent, and I remembered that I was in a similar pose in a picture taken when I was in college, at a fraternity party. (You can see it over's "music" header.) So, yesterday and today. What most interests me is that — apart from the eternal fact that skinny guys always look better in suits — the beef of my later years changes the entire structure of my face. It was so foreheady and top-heavy, and now I've got twenty years worth of jowls to balance it out. Strange!

Monday, April 23, 2007


"Sing" is the name of the musical godzilla that I take part in every year up at Baylor U. But its full name is The All-University Sing. It's not a verb, not an instruction, but a noun. (Insofar as a verb can be nouned, that is. Hm... it's not a gerund, exactly, so then what is it? Not really a supine either. Just a nouned verb, I suppose.) Anyway. A sing is a gathering of people who sing, and that's the origin of Baylor's snazzy event.

Other major events, like the annual Messiah Sing at San Fernando Cathedral, I have yet to experience. But this weekend on the way to a gig in Austin, Catherine and I met up with Sean McMains at a Sacred Harp Sing.

I've mentioned my Sacred Harp interest before, but only as an aside. Are you familiar with it? If you grew up Baptist, or Congregationalist, or Church of Christ, then you probably know several of the tunes in it by heart. It's a hymnal.

I'd always thought, inchoately, that the name Sacred Harp referred to the Psalms. Those early Protestants, especially the American immigrants, saw themselves as God's (new) Chosen People, and their literal English translations of everything scriptural occasionally veered into madness. But apparently that's not it. The sacred harp, as any good Church of Christer will tell you, is your voice. It's sacred, ordained by God for his praise, unlike the sinful harp of Jubal, the symbol of our fallenness and the initiator of culture. (Anyone wishing to know why evangelicals so conflate culture with sin need look no further than Genesis 4.)

So, the Sacred Harp was an influential collection of hymns that form an American musical canon. Every great contribution America has made to music, from Aaron Copland and John Williams to gospel, R&B, soul, rock, and — most deeply — folk and country, has at least some connection to it or its cousin Southern Harmony.

Ever heard of shape-notes? The rural folk who sang this stuff weren't educated in music. I can't think of what could be easier than our standard music notation, which works precisely like a graph: as time goes across, the notes go up or down. But for some reason, they considered it easier to put the notes into shapes, so that if you are in the key of C the C is a triangle and the D is a circle and the E is a square, which were then called fa, sol, and la. That to me makes it harder and not easier, but some people still swear by it.

The original version, which I have in facsimile, is three lines, with the middle line being the main melody. Sometime about a century ago, they decided four was better, and wrote alto lines for all the hymns. Saturday, then, we sat in a square facing each other, grouped as baritone, alto, soprano, and melody. (Or, I should say, tenor. The word comes from tenere; that singer tenaciously holds onto the melody.) Sean recorded some of it, which you can hear at the above-linked site, or you can hear a more practised group by clicking around The main index after the splash page has a neat player that allows you to scroll through several complete hymns, which start with all the fa-sol-la stuff before the lyrics begin. You'll recognize a couple of the tunes, including the one pictured above, from the movie Cold Mountain.

The sounds that poured out Saturday were imperfect, sometimes horribly so. But the Platonic ear heard spare, sturdy, slightly weird, raw harmonies, sounds that stir the deep heart of any American.

My voice was beginning to get raw in a non-metaphorical way, and within a few hours I was officially feeling bad. The show had to go on, though, and so I tried to play the evening jazz gig like I was well. I cancelled the other gigs of the weekend, and took it pretty easy, with sternly beautiful music occasionally clearing out my head.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Thursday, the Jazz Protagonists will be throwing down at Luna, where it's easy to find an audience that listens and cares. We always wind up turning in a spirited show.

Friday, I'm gigging with Loretta Cormier, she of the warm-brandy voice and emotionally true delivery, doing those wonderful back numbers from the thirties and forties, at the Petroleum Club.

Saturday, I'm gigging in Austin with Ken Slavin, at a place called Three Forks. Ken and I have been aware of each other for some time, but only last year or so did we ever gig together.

We're putting the finishing touches on his new release, "I'll Take Romance," this week. After that it goes to mastering, where a specialist will apply one last coat of polish. It's been several months now, during which Ken has battled throat infections and other crappy stuff, and during which we've put together a product that I'm really proud of. I convinced him to hire me on as producer at the last possible minute, just a few days before tracking started.

His band, consisting of pianist Morris Nelms, bassist Chuck Moses, and drummer Kevin Hess, turned in some fine performances, augmented by jazz luminaries: Henry Brun, the multi-award-winning, multi-album releasing, rock-solid Latin percussion guru; Al Gomez, an incredibly sought-after and sensitive trumpeter; Pierre Poiret, a New Orleans transplant who can actually make sweet molasses come out of a sax and into your ear; and, on two songs, a string section whose atmospherics were so good that our engineer, a young gun (and drummer for the increasingly popular band The Lemurs) named Danny Reisch, got in the studio on his own time and did Dolby Surround Sound 5.1 mixes, for which the result is cinematically spine-chilling.

Now for the lead singer. Ken has a smooth-as-silk voice and an ebullient spirit that comes through in his every performance. Jazz musicians like to gripe about singers, because they seem to spend so much time thinking about the audience and not so much time thinking about the music. But Ken is one of those few (and San Antonio seems to have a disproportionately high number of them, to our great joy) who can do both. Every note means something, and yet he never turns his back on the people he's singing to.

He's put out albums before, but quite frankly I haven't been satisfied. They never seem to capture the essence of those warm-hearted, light-footed performances that make his live show so fun. This time, though, we'll finally hear the real thing. My favorite moments are when he gets a little un-spiffy. The spiff factor is often high in this kind of music these days, so it's nice to hear a little loose-tie-and-five-o'clock-shadow in the voice.

Here are some sneak previews. Remember, they're just sneak previews. We haven't done the final tweaks on them, and they haven't been mastered, so the levels vary from song to song.

You'll immediately recognize "Manhã De Carnaval." Jazzers know it as "Black Orpheus;" Sinatra/Bennett fans know it as "A Day In The Life Of A Fool;" and there are several other sets of lyrics to it, too. Luis Bonfa wrote it for the movie "Black Orpheus," a retelling of the Orpheus myth set in modern Brazil.

As dawn approaches at the beginning of the fateful day, one boy outside Orfeo's place tells the other that the guitarist who lives inside makes the sun rise with his song. But Orfeo is asleep. The tension thickens, until, finally, Orfeo rolls over and grabs his guitar and starts singing this lovely aubade. See? He made the sun rise! It's one of those magical moments in film. (It's worth the price of admission to see what happens at the movie's end, when Orfeo is dead as a new day comes.)

The original lyrics are, then, in Portuguese: what to do with this catchy, haunting, melodic tune that could make it big right at the crest of the bossa-nova craze in America?

The pop solution, I think, was pretty good: throw out the whole thing and write new lyrics, having nothing to do with the movie or the morning. Perry Como sang another popular set of lyrics, which at least try to recapture the themes of the song, but they're pretty corny. Compare.

So, when Ken expressed a desire to do the song, I suggested that there was another set of lyrics out there, one that is a true aubade, as the song was intended to be: a lover's morning song, intimate, moving, suffused with veined humanity. Then I got busy and wrote a poem for my bride.

I didn't want Ken to feel any weirdness or obligation at all, so I didn't tell him I wrote them till after he chose them to sing. So. The album contains a world premiere, and you get to hear it first.

I'll Take Romance
Thoughts Of Your Smile (Manhã De Carnaval)
I Could Have Danced All Night

Monday, April 9, 2007


Here is how to kill a fly. First, do not wait until it is sitting somewhere then try to sneak up on it. Terrible. Get a pair of boxer shorts, fluff them in the general direction of the fly, and get it to fly around. When it's in the air, come down on it hard with the boxer shorts. Then, stunned, it will fall to the ground, where you can pick it up with tissue and flush it.

I know this technique works, because I myself pioneered it last night, quite successfully, on six flies in a row that were in my bathroom.

Six flies in the bathroom sounds like a lot. But it's nothing compared to the eleven flies Catherine and I counted in the bedroom several nights ago. The night before we left on our anniversary trip, we just lay in bed counting the flies. Eleven! The kitchen had at least ten or twelve, the parlor several, the entertainment room several as well. Why so many flies? Flies everywhere! Is there some Pied Piper of flies that can take care of this? (In fact, there is, and Orkin is coming to get rid of the flies as well as the fleas that have reappeared and the forest friends who've moved in recently, one of whom has also apparently died. Maybe that's why the flies are buzzing around.)

We got back from our anniversary trip late Thursday, rested and relaxed from four days (only four days! ach!) in the Hill Country, only to turn around and leave town the next day for Catherine's family's annual seder. When we awoke early Friday, Catherine stepped out of the shower... onto a fly. This apparently was what is called a "tipping point" for her, and she then and there decided to usher all the flies out the window. She went to open a window in the dressing room, and saw this.

Will someone please tell me what on earth is going on.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

king laugh

Setting us straight on the subject of why we sometimes laugh at those jokes about Mother Teresa or the holocaust or cancer or death, even when we know we shouldn't — and why political and religious people regularly hate comedy — your Great Literature April Fools' Quote for the Day:

Keep it always with you that laughter who knock at your door and say, 'May I come in?' is not true laughter. No! he is a king, and he come when and how he like. He ask no person; he choose no time of suitability. He say, 'I am here.' ... It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles; and yet when King Laugh come he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall — all dance together to the music that he make.

Van Helsing says those words after laughing when he shouldn't. There are plenty of opportunities for just that in Bram Stoker's Dracula.