Not many seven-year-olds are nostalgic for times past, but I was. There were summer afternoons spent lying on the hammock listening to my little transistor radio with the one tinny speaker, religiously writing down song titles on a yellow legal pad for no other reason than that I could look at that list later and remember that day. Later, there was a reoccurring memory I had as a ten-year-old of some other summer when I was very small, laying on the beige, corduroy couch at the lake condo my parents shared with friends. There was a crystal pendant hanging in front of the sliding glass door beaming flickering rainbows across my hands. Christopher Cross’s Sailing was playing on the record player. I was happy. The people around me were happy. No cares in the world. But, there was also a photograph of me in my baby album taken around four or five-years-old laying on that couch in the rainbows. Was this a real memory—or an invented one? It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was I was happier then. Life was easier, made more sense. And somehow, at ten, I knew it would never be that good again.

Hence, nostalgia­–believing that all the good moments are already gone and feeling the constant ache of the current moment sliding away while you helplessly age–has always been a part of me.

I have started to put together a list of songs that capture this feeling of nostalgia to me.

1. Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy

Debussy wrote this gorgeous solo piano piece when he was 28, a bohemian in Paris hanging with Symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme. In fact, Debussy originally named his song Promenade Sentimentale (Sentimental Stroll), after a Paul Verlaine poem. Symbolist poets, much like Impressionist painters of the same period, longed to capture feelings and small moments in their works  rather than portray reality or make grand statements. And, to me, the memories captured in Clair de Lune (moonlight) are rich and visceral, even if I don’t actually know the memory behind the notes. My first exposure to Clair de Lune was on a my grandma’s Swiss music box that rested on the dressing table in the guest room at their grand old house. After doing a brief search on youtube, I’ve sadly discovered that Clair de Lune has been co-opted by the teenage vampires of the Twilight series. Sigh.

2. September Song – Kurt Weil

Kurt Weil, famed German composer of Berlin’s Cabaret heyday in the twenties, is probably most famous for composing the music for the Threepenny Opera, a collaboration with legend Bertold Brecht of Theater of the Absurd fame (the opera features Weil’s most famous song, Mack the Knife). He wrote September Song after he had moved to New York in 1935 to compose for Broadway and Hollywood, narrowly escaping the War. September Song was his first American success from the Broadway Musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. I first heard this song as a small child; my grandma used to play it on the piano, sans lyrics. The melody is sad–in a minor key. A song about the changing of seasons and time marching on, September Song is rich with nostalgia. In fact, it’s one of those songs that predicts the feeling of nostalgia one will have later in life when “these precious days” are gone. A classic  jazz standard, September Song has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan to Lou Reed. Here’s a link to 38 different versions. My favorite has to be Ella’s though. Strange, because I don’t usually love Ella’s ballad’s. But this one is special.

3.  Stardust – Hoagy Carmichael

Could there be a more fitting homage to nostalgia than Stardust? Composed by Indiana boy Hoagy Carmichael in 1927, the song wasn’t actually recorded until 1931 by Bing Crosby. It was an instant hit. The lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish, beloved Tin Pan Alley lyricist who also wrote the words to the Christmas favorite, “Sleigh Ride” and another of my favorite standards, “Sophisticated Lady” (a Duke Ellington tune). The lyrics center on dreamy memories of young love: “When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.” Here’s Nat King Cole’s seminal performance.

My 45 Minutes of Fame

April 22, 2010

You know that secret dream you have deep down inside–the one you’re afraid to say out loud because it might sound silly? Mine has always been to be an expert commentator on NPR. Today, my simple dream came true. I had the honor of appearing on WNYC’s excellent music talk show, Soundcheck, with British Ska Legends, The Specials (p.s. They’ve aged a bit since this photo was taken).

Brian Wise, a producer at Soundcheck, contacted me after he read an article I had written on ska music that was published on PopMatters. That was a shocking day. In the weird world of cyberspace, you never think anyone is reading what you write. I did the interview from home in Boulder, Colorado–was nervous as hell–but pulled it off pretty gracefully. Host John Schaefer even called me “an authority” on ska. A great day indeed!

Star Wars: The Musical

December 13, 2009

If you’re a Gen-Xer, I can bet you love Star Wars. It was our Harry Potter–our morality tale of good versus evil, our way of relating with kids on the playground and finding common ground in unfamiliar situations like sleepovers and summer camp. Empire Strikes Back was probably the first movie I ever remember seeing. My dad took me; I was four years old. By the time Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, I was bona fide fan. My brother, cousins, and I saw that movie at least three times in the theater. We had the action figures, the Millenium Falcon, the Ewok village, the comic books, the bed sheets, the posters, the awesome t-shirts with the iron-on decals, and of course, the soundtrack. Last night, for the first five minutes of Star Wars in Concert at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, I was transported back to that thrilling time of Star Wars wonder and mania.

The “Star Wars Main Theme,” as performed by the Royal Symphony Orchestra can still invoke magic and emotion, albeit slightly bittersweet when mixed with childhood memories. It was lovely to see Gen-X parents with their young kids last night, both generations enjoying the drama of John Williams’ beloved score. Without John Williams, George Lucas would probably be some guy who directed a decent movie. The marriage of music and film in Star Wars is sublime and still powerful–to hear it performed live is a rare treat.

Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) narrates

Anthony Daniels, the voice of C-3PO, narrated the two-hour event, which features a large screen behind the orchestra where scenes from all six films are projected in tandem with the music. Daniels’ background in live theater is evident. He’s corny but believable. The man obviously loves being a part of this event. Though it did run long, and the pieces featuring the prequels are considerably more boring, Star Wars in Concert ended on a high note—a reprise of Dark Vadar’s Imperial March. In the words of George W. Bush, it’s quite obvious Lord Vadar “hates freedom”….just listen to the music.

Let ‘er rip!

November 13, 2009

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There are a couple of different types of music I generally cannot stand: techno, contemporary Rn’B, but nothing comes close to my distaste for smooth jazz–instrumental music with all the interesting edges buffed out till you have a kind of cloying white noise perfect for the dentist’s office. So imagine my surprise when I ended up at a Rippingtons’ concert yesterday at Indy’s Music Mill. Granted, the tickets were free, and I had been told that these legendary kings of smooth jazz were actually a jazz fusion band. However, any element of jazz improvisation was ripped from the Rippingtons long ago, and replaced by tightly orchestrated melodies seemingly written for corporate videos.

perfect-strangersThe Rippingtons are the aural equivalent of a Perfect Strangers episode. You could imagine their music in some humorous montage of Larry and Balki strolling in Central Park. Unchallenging and mushy, there’s something almost Soviet or propagandistic about The Rippingtons’ sound–music created by big brother to reassure the populace that their every move isn’t being controlled. Does that sound paranoid and libertarian? But really. How can people possibly enjoy it? I just don’t understand. And people were REALLY enjoying it last night…dancing in the aisles! Giving standing ovations! Take a listen. I know the following video is from the 90s’, but, believe me, they sound just as lame today.

It’s so soulless! All their songs are named after postcard pictures of beautiful places: Los Cabos, Kilimanjaro, Morocco, A Night in Brazil, Weekend in Monaco, Tourist in Paradise. It’s Conde Nast Traveler set to music. I think it would be fun to hear the Rippingtons’ take on Southeast DC or Detroit. Would they still kick up the reverb on the acoustic guitar or give it a grittier sound?

Sax player, Jeff Kashiwa, plays tenor and soprano sax in the Kenny G/Dave Koz style. But last night, he played mostly the EWI (electric wind instrument), probably one of the most annoying instruments known to man. The painful screeching of the EWI was exacerbated by the fact that sound man had no clue how to mix this band, favoring instead a hard rock sound–all drums and bass at excruciating decibel levels. I put bar napkins in my ears! At a Rippington’s show!

About an hour in, all my companions were in agreement that we should leave. One of them, a musician and jazz fan, said of the Rippingtons’ sound, “It’s not free at all.” He’s right. It’s contrived and artificial–evocative of safely-contained emotions. But, to me, the experience is far from pleasant.

A Brief History of Ska

October 6, 2009

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Yesterday, the popular online magazine Pop Matters published my ska thesis, The Ska Will Go On. For this article on the rise and fall of ska music, I interviewed several of the scene’s movers and shakers including musicians, record producers, and DJs. The piece is already spurring controversy in certain ska circles because it fails to mention some bands and gives too much space to others. But, all comments have generally been positive. It’s always hard to write a comprehensive history of a cultural movement, because, ultimately, cultural histories are subjective. Just look at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. My video about the Three Floors of Ska event held at the Knitting Factory in NYC is posted here and on the Pop Matters site.

Indianapolis Indeed!

September 23, 2009

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It’s that time again. Oh, wait. Not really. The Indy Jazz Fest, usually held in July, has moved to September.  In fact, we’re in the thick of jazz mayhem right now. And it’s divine…

The Indy Jazz Fest launched last Saturday night with a concert at Clowes Hall by famed saxophonist, Joshua Redman. Last night, I attended a record release concert featuring Mark Buselli’s Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen. And I was blown away. This is a world-class big band, smack dab in the middle of the heartland. Buselli, who also joins in on flugelhorn and trumpet, writes gorgeous arrangements of standards, contemporary jazz compositions, and orginal material. Last night, he had a 17-piece band–14 horns in all. The sound is powerful, like a wave of sparkling brass washing over you and the smile plastered on your face. Another new discovery last night was the vocalist Kelleen Strutz who joined the band for two numbers each set.  Her rendition of Angel Eyes was stunning thanks to her mix of va-va-voom 40s’ sex kitten style and dynamic vocal chops. I particularly enjoyed the moments where vocals and brass sang duet on the same harmonic line. Beautiful!

Mark Buselli

Mark Buselli

My two favorite moments, however, were the band’s renditions of two Charles Mingus tunes, Fables of Faubus and Pussy Cat Dues. The exquisite joy of hearing hard bop played big and loud by a tight orchestra–with solos by Indy’s best sax player (and up there as one of the best playing today) Rob Dixon. Was I moved? Let’s just say, there were goosebumps. And then my goosebumps had goosebumps. Afterwards, I thought this is just what I want to hear when I walk through the gates of heaven–weird, wonderful Mingus like I’ve never heard him–even if it’s just on my celestial iPod.

This weekend marks the culmination of Indy Jazz Fest–two days of live music downtown at White River State Park. On saturday (the day I wouldn’t miss) check out Soullive, Pancho Sanchez, and Branford Marsalis.  Saturday, the headliner is Marcus Miller. I saw him back in 2005 in St. Petersburg. High-energy funk.

I’ll be there both days volunteering. Let’s pray for sun!

SkaCast!

September 4, 2009

PRESSURE-SOUNDS-163Wanna learn more about the ska scene in Russia? But of course! The great Gabe Paredes interviewed me on his latest episode of Pressure Drop Soundcast.  I discuss my band, St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review, playing music in Russia, and my experience touring Europe. The interview begins about 30 minutes in. Check it out!

Get your skank on!

May 22, 2009

Ska music, born in Jamaica, raised in England, and transplanted to America, has long been the soundtrack to an active subculture. Syracuse ska concert promoters, SkaDanny and Brendan McCarey, discuss ska fashion. From British mods in the 60s to two-tone ska kids today, ska style is constantly evolving.

This is a video I recently made for my Fashion Communications class. I’m currently working on a thesis article about ska music in America today.  Watch out for more ska posts.

blancospic6_04_300dpiLos Blancos, as the Spanish name suggests, is a group of white guys who play the blues. Formed twelve years ago, the successful Syracuse quartet tours nationally and still packs the house at local haunts like Al’s, Empire Brewery, and Shifty’s.

“I think that people get stuck in a cultural vortex where you have to be, you know, a black guy to sing blues music,” said lead Singer and guitarist Colin Aberdeen. “I think that blues music, in the same way as great literature, is universal. It speaks to all people and all times.”

In a denim shirt and tan Stetson, Aberdeen looks like a slimmer John Popper of Blues Traveler. Both on stage and off, Aberdeen’s got an easy smile, and an even easier demeanor. He’s friendly, open, willing to share. Sometimes he shares too much and tenses up. After a lengthy interview for this article, he politely asked that certain anecdotes, stories from his past, be stricken from the record. I obliged. These are events that happened during his teenage years and early twenties. At 43, Aberdeen is older and wiser, a self-proclaimed graduate of “the school of hard knocks.” Like any honest bluesman, he’s done things he isn’t proud of. Like any good bluesman, he sings about them with brutal honesty.

“It spoke to me as a young guy,” said Aberdeen. “The blues is a great vehicle to write about your life and experiences.”

Born in London, England to an American expat mother and an Australian father, Aberdeen moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was five years old. He’s traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Australia, where his two older sisters live. “A down soccer player” as a child, Aberdeen didn’t feel like he had much aptitude for music growing up.  He learned a little piano and saxophone but firmly planted himself on the soccer field until his family moved to Syracuse when he was fifteen.

“I ended up playing music with a bunch of rednecks I met out in Manlius who lived on a dairy farm,” said Aberdeen. “They all played. Nobody sang…it’s like the hardest thing in the world to do for a young person—let their voice out. So, I wound up being the de facto singer.”

Aberdeen began learning guitar when he suggested songs for the repertoire that the rest of the band didn’t know. They played mainly rock: Grateful Dead and Neil Young covers. “I always gravitated towards the bluesier stuff,” he said. “Eventually I got into ‘Where’d that come from?’ and chasing it on down the line.” By the time he was 19, Aberdeen was listening exclusively to records made in the 1920s’ and 30s’.

He launched his own project, The Westcott Jugsuckers, soon after.  A band that played ragtime and old jug band music, The Jugsuckers were a regular fixture at Westcott’s favorite dive bar, Taps.

Aberdeen remembers when Syracuse had a heavy blues scene back in the late 80’s and 90s’. Local bands like the Kingsnakes, who eventually toured with legend John Lee Hooker, and beloved Syracuse icons, Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders, played weekly. Guitarist Robert Cray and The Fabulous Thunderbirds were at the top of the charts. “It was a great time because a lot of the progenitors were still playing,” he said. “You could see, like, ten really good blues bands any Friday or Saturday night.  There was tons of work for musicians.”

Los Blancos evolved from an open mike held at the Inn Complete on South Campus in the mid-nineties. Aberdeen was jamming with current Los Blancos bassist, Steve Winston, and a young guitar prodigy from Mexico City named Jose Alvarez.

Alvarez and Aberdeen had met a few years previously at the National Guitar Solo Workshop, a kind of guitar summer camp based in Milford, Connecticut. Aberdeen was on the faculty; Alvarez was a participant. They struck up a friendship when Aberdeen noticed Alvarez’s Gibson Les Paul—a classic blues guitar. “He took me under his wing,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. “If you were friends with Colin then you were cool, especially as a kid. Colin was the first blues player I was really exposed to. He knew all the roots of it.”

After graduating from high school in Mexico, Alvarez moved to Syracuse at Aberdeen’s urging to play with Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders. He was only 17 but showed huge promise. “He was a galvanizing force,” said Alvarez. “Had I not met him, my life would have been completely different.”

Today, at 32, Alvarez is a Grammy award-winning guitarist who plays with Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience. Currently based in San Antonio, Texas which he refers to as the “safest neighborhood in Mexico City,” Alvarez is on the road six to eight months a year. Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience won a Grammy last year for their album, “Live! Worldwide” in the new category they helped establish, “Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album.

Alvarez and Aberdeen remain close friends. “Colin is like a brother to me,” Alvarez said. “He is definitely the guy to call if you have something going on. He will immediately drop what he’s doing and come help.”

True to form, our interview was interrupted several times by calls to Aberdeen’s cell phone from a friend going through a rough patch. “Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the clergy,” he said with a sigh. “It’s crazy. Trust me. I wouldn’t be asking me for advice.”

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Los Blancos’ latest album, Just This Once, released in 2007 is the band’s ninth.  Recorded at the Subcat studios in Skaneateles, Just This Once is an independent release available for purchase at live shows or via the band website (www.casablancos.com).  Polished and professional, Just This Once, is an eclectic mix of blues styles and zydeco, a traditional Creole music that features accordion and washboard.  The current lineup consists of Aberdeen on lead vocals and guitar, Steven T. Winston on vocals and bass, Mark Nanni on keyboards and accordion, and Mark Tiffault on Drums and percussion.

For the most part, the band records live in the studio. “We do as much live as possible because we’re a live band,” said Steven  T. Wintston. “The studio is kind of an alien thing.”

All the tracks are originals except for the blues standard, Memphis Women and Fried Chicken. Aberdeen’s vocals are rough and rocking; Nanni’s riffs on the Hammond organ are funky and inspired; the band is tight. There’s a strong Southern rock/blues influence in this disk, a la ZZ Top. The band plans to record a new album sometime this year. “We play over 200 gigs a year,” said Winston. “So sometimes it’s hard to get everyone into the studio.”

The audience at a Los Blancos show is diverse: white, black, young, old, even Native American. “We get everybody from little hippie music heads to old school New Orleans music and R&B fans,” said Aberdeen. “We play country music. We play funk. We’ll go from a Merle Haggard tune to an original song to a James Brown tune.”

Los Blancos went on their first major tour last year: ten dates across the South. All members of the band are professionals, who have long since quite their day jobs. However, the current economic crisis has hit smaller bands hard. “It’s a very difficult time fiscally right now,” he said. “A lot of clubs are shutting down or doing no live music at all.”

Aberdeen has a lot of reasons to sing the blues. Along with weathering a tough recession, he’s going through a divorce and caring for his 20-month daughter, Marley, who was born with cerebral palsy. Much like the players before him, the music keeps him going. “I think the highest praise is when somebody requests a song that you wrote,” he said. “When somebody can relate to what you are saying and it helped them get through the day…either through sadness or joy.”

The Arrival of ABBA

February 21, 2009

Tonight, I felt the spirit of ABBA: the ’70s glam, the joy, the silliness, and the ultra catchy melodies of Sweden’s world-famous band backed by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. ABBA has arrived and they brought their disco ball with them.

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ARRIVAL, from Sweden, is only one of nearly fifty well-known ABBA tribute bands across the world (and it isn’t even the only one called ARRIVAL.) However, ARRIVAL From Sweden is the only band that has exclusive rights to wear exact replicas of ABBA’s original costumes.

And what costumes they are! White satin ponchos over shiny spandex bodysuits, thigh-high boots, and purple shimmery bow ties adorn the lead vocalists, Victoria Norback (Frida) and Jenny Guftafson (Agnetha). Bell-bottom jumpsuits, sequined scarves, and white platforms for the men, Rolf Ivraeus (Benny) and Henrick Paulson (Bjorn). The members of ARRIVAL wear their costumes with reverence, like Marines suiting up in their dress whites for a formal dance with their sweethearts. You can’t help but love them for their earnestness and dedication to the cause of spreading the gooey goodness of ABBA’s sound and style. They are global ministers of peace in troubled times.

ARRIVAL played all the hits: Knowing me Knowing You, Dancing Queen, SOS, Fernando, Mama Mia. They played them so convincingly and with such heart, I often got chills. And then I felt ridiculous. But, then again, Fernando is just a freakishly good song.