Les Paul at Iridium

From the “good-things-come-from-Waukesha” department:

Not to be ghoulish about it, but the death of Bobby Short yesterday created a real sense of urgency about seeing Les Paul do his regular Monday night gig at Iridium. I had lost my chance to see Bobby, and wasn’t going to miss out on seeing Les. As soon as the box office opened, I made the reservations. If you’re not an electric guitarist, you’re forgiven if you don’t know that he is the living patron saint of the instrument. He was monstrously famous as a performer in the 50s, but he’s equally important for the engineering and design work he did in the early days of the electric, culminating in the creation of his namesake guitar, which is one of the true icons of Rock and/or Roll. But what’s truly amazing about him is that he’ll turn 90 this June and he still gigs, doing two shows every Monday night…

Iridium is tucked away into the basement of 1650 Broadway, which cyberkrunk insiders know as the original home of the studio I helped to found. It’s also a famous old music building where people as diverse as Irving Berlin and Don Kirshner worked. Kind of an annex to the Brill building, which is just down the street. After hanging out for a while in a line that was already startlingly long at 9:30, we were whisked in and seated at a long communal table front and center. It’s a mid-sized club that probably seats about two hundred; the site lines and sound are both good. They’ve made some effort at putting together a menu, but I especially liked the wine list and found a nice Croze-Hermitage with which to settle the drink minimum.

Les plays with a quartet now. Les’ main sideman for the last 20 years is guitarist Lou Pallo. Lou is just a kid, he can’t be more than 65 years old. He’s an amazing guitarist in his own right, and seems to have an extremely humble approach when playing with Les. Rounding out the combo is Nicky Parrott on bass and John Colianni on piano. They play really well together, do a lot of listening to each other, and just make it all work.

To be sure, Les no longer plays the way he used to, but he still plays damn well. Since his fingers are no longer so nimble, he has stripped out the pyrotechnic figuration that used to be one of the cornerstones of his style–this duty has been taken over by the group’s pianist. Instead, Les focuses on the melody and some simple comping. But he’s still got his characterstic phrasing and flourishes and above all, simply beautiful tone. Any guitarist can learn a lot from watching him play. We were very close to the stage, so I could see clearly what he was doing. There was a lot variation in where he picked the strings, often picking close to his left hand over the fingerboard. A lot of variation of pickup selection, too. His left hand technique looked a little strange; I’m guessing that he has lost strength in his fingers and makes up for it by doubling one finger over another. But the really strange thing is how much he uses his left hand thumb. Almost everything he played on the sixth string was with his thumb; I only saw him use regular fingering on the sixth string in one passage in one song. He rarely touched his vibrato bar. I was also extremely surprised to see that he seemed to be using nothing but stock effects pedals–he even made a joke about buying them all at Sam Ash (a couple of blocks away on 48th street). The effects were used spraingly and tasefully, mostly delay, a bit of tremolo. The volume level was quite low, so low that Colliani was playing his piano with a closed lid and a leather cover.

There’s a style of Jazz gig that seeks to create the ambiance of a chamber music recital. Man, this wasn’t that kind of gig! Les had a TV show in the 50s and I’ve never seen it, but it must have been something like his gig last night. The group played a few numbers, then started hamming around and bringing out guests. When you’re 90 years old, you can make any kind of tasteless joke and not only get away with it, but get a laugh too! Bassist Nick Parrott is very easy on the eyes, so inneundo jokes with Les are expected, even though she could be his great-grandaughter. Sometimes Les will bring out a Keith Richards-cailbre guest, but tonight we weren’t so lucky. We had a Nashville couple playing a Beatles medley, a vocal beatbox artist, a sax player, who did “Lester leaps in” for his second number, a harmonica-playing dude from Wisconsin, and a 7-year-old who, while cute, really couldn’t play too well. Even though it wasn’t a stellar bunch, we all had fun–it was a great vibe, just like hanging out and jamming with friends.

Knowing full well that most in the audience are there just to worship him, Les sets the standard for making himself available to his fans. I’ve never seen anything like it! Flash photographs are allowed throughout the show. Following the second set, Les meets with every single person who wants to see him, whether they want him to sign an autograph or just shake his hand. A long line formed as soon as the set was over, maybe half of the people at the show. Lots of them were carrying guitars for Les to sign–would it be in bad taste to bring in an SG? Apparently, some nights, this goes on for hours and hours, maybe til three in the morning. He’s more than fifty years older than I am, and I’m no kid anymore. Not only that, but he had a cold tonight, and his runny nose didn’t phase him a bit. When I grow up, I want to be Les Paul.

Since it wasn’t midnight yet, we decided to press on for a blues nightcap. After a brief diversion scarfing a slice at Ray’s on 8th Avenue, we headed down to 42nd street. That is, the new 42nd street, aka the Disney block. Generally this is a place to avoid at all costs, but our destination–the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill–is one of the few exceptions to this rule. Downstairs at Lucile’s bar, they have free music every night. This is a very good thing to keep in mind! We caught the last 45 minutes of the Jr. Mack band’s set. Jr. was playing a mixed bag of blues, rock and some gospely pop (poppy gospel?), but he really had the BB guitar style down pat. It’s really great to be able to stroll in at midnight on a Monday night and hear some really great music for no more than the cost of a couple of over-priced drinks. The scene was a little weird, a few working stiffs, a couple, and thirty-odd Italian exchange students. It’ll be worth another visit, and the man himself if playing there this summer.

Fade out to Bobby Short singing “I happen to like New York…”

10 great movies

From the “There-are-better-things-to-watch” department:

I’m marking the occasion of America’s annual celebration of mediocrity at the movies known as the (trademark, copyright, I’ll probably be sued just for mentioning them without the express written permission of Major League Baseball) Oscars, by writing about some great films. These are all films worth seeing again if you’ve already seen them, and these are films that you should rush out to see if you haven’t. In fact, if you haven’t seen most of these films, then you really don’t know film yet… but perhaps there’s still hope for you. First, a note about the “top 10 list” format: it’s stupid. At any given moment, if you asked me what my all-time favorite film was, it might be any of the first four films on this list, most likely the last one I had seen. But English doesn’t lend itself to four-dimensional expression, so a sequential list is a good fall-back. There’s probably a great deal of correspondence between this list and others, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. I think that the British Film magazine Sight and Sound does a decent job. I also think that AFI generally gets it horribly wrong.

Continue reading “10 great movies”

Gates of heck

New York is the best city in the world, and I don’t mean just to visit. If you don’t already know this, then I’m not going to try to explain it to you. The importance of Central Park to this wonderful equation can hardly be overstated. We sometimes refer to the park as the “lungs” of the city, but it’s really more than that. It’s the whole thorax of the city, its heart and soul and maybe even its brain too. To mess with the park on such a grand scale as that perpertated by Chrisco takes some, uhm, chutzpah. But fear not, because it takes more than $20 million worth of polyester to wreck this place. In fact, that’s one of the first things you realize when you see this art work, that the scale is somehow all wrong. Chrisco can wrap the Pont Neuf in fabric and change it in its entirety. But here, he’s not wrapping up the park, he’s just dabbing it here and there with some splotches of color. It’s like an over-ambitious painter buying a giant canvas and then realizing he doesn’t have nearly enough paint to fill it. I’ve heard the orange described a few ways, but to my cynical mind, it recalls the color of Gitmo jumpsiuts…

For some reason, many hundreds of people thought that capturing the act of unfurling a gate would make for a great picture. But it really didn’t:

Before seeing the gates, you try picture in your mind’s eye the massive scale of the thing. But it’s very difficult to find a good vantage point. Here, we’re looking down from Belvedere castle, the highest point in the Park. It still dissapoints me. I’ve seen a satellite photograph, and it also left me unmoved.

So, am I being too critical, or did this thing really just suck?

Composer John Sherlock declared Leader and/or Dreamer

Toronto composer John Mark Sherlock will be featured in an upcoming issue of Maclean’s magazine, which is roughly the Canadian equivalent to TIME magazine in the US. This issue, part of a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the magazine, will profile 100 Canadian leaders in fields including the Arts, Sciences, Business and more than likely, puck-handling. John has been a fixture on the Toronto contemporary music scene for more than a decade now, fulfilling many commissions including works for chamber and dance groups. He and I met in guitar master class, and then had the good fortune to do the Array Music young composers workshop the same summer. John’s music often showcases his amazing collection of antique keyboards, which includes Rhodes pianos, Hammond organs, Yamaha Clavinets, and if I remember correctly, at least one Pianosaurus. If we are lucky, we will convince John to do a story about his collection here. We really shouldn’t do this, but one of our operatives went digital dumpster diving and turned up a PDF preview of the piece. Congratulations, John!

George Tsontakis wins Grawemeyer

George Tsontakis has been awarded the 2005 Grawemeyer award in composition. This is very nice to hear. I, along with half a million other student composers, studied with George at the Aspen school; in my case back in the summer ’89. In addition to being a brilliant composer he is a brilliantly funny person–and he does an infamous Peter Falk impression. That humour often comes out in his music, which usually has a very effective kind of American neo-romantic style. In particular, I like his string quartets and the Galway Kinnell songs.

The full title of the honour is the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award For Music Composition. Carrying a prize of US$200K, the award is as prestigious as it is lucrative. Previous winners include Kaija Saariaho, Aaron Jay Kernis, Pierre Boulez, Toru Takemitsu, Karel Husa (who told me he liked my piece Wind and Silver, so he’s alright too), Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Witold Lutoslawski. George is in very good company.

Welcome to the new site

From the “wow-this-took-longer-than-I-thought-it-would” department:

Welcome to the new home of cyberkrunk! As you can see, we have gone completely from one extreme (simple html) to the other (a full-function blog~portal). I hope that everyone finds useful and entertaining stuff here…

What should you post here? Well, how about news, upcoming gigs, CD releases, reviews (music, books, films, concerts, restaurants), or whatever else you’re working on and would like to share. Click on the ‘contribute story’ link at the bottom of the page to get started.

Stay tuned for more to come.