Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Politics of Hopelessness

Pick of the Month

Les Paul & the Golden Age of the Guitar

Sony’s Original Jacket Collections

Pete Seeger: An American Master

Celluloid Moments: The Films of Wayne Ewing

Return of the River Ghost: Bob Dylan’s Tempest

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Creation Moon: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos & the Genesis of An Artist

The Krayola’s Dirty Mexican Fights Back

Shana Morrison’s Glorious Joyride


TELL TALE SIGNS. INSTALLMENT 8 OF THE BOOTLEG SERIES. Bob Dylan. Produced by Jeff Rosen. Columbia Records.

Bob Dylan & Band

Original watercolor by Eric Ward, © 2006. All rights reserved.

Even though a smattering of the selections contained in this three-disc set have already made the rounds between bootleggers at the four corners of the globe, none of those homemade copies could hope to come close to the stunning production work of Tell Tale Signs, the 8th installment in Dylan’s famed “Bootleg Series.”

When fans think of Bob Dylan’s music, they most often think of the amazing body of songs the man has produced and the amount of time he has spent on the road: Except for an 8 year hiatus between the 1966 motorcycle accident and the 1974 world tour, Dylan has pretty much been performing live for nearly 35 years straight.

However, the tentacles of Dylan’s art extend so much further than that. In addition to altering the way songs were written and the way that radio was formatted, he also gave birth to the phenomenon of the bootlegger (people who circulate pirated recordings in plain wrappers through the underground networks of the world).

Basically, there was such an insatiable appetite for Dylan’s work fans could not wait for the next official release. Instead, they had to hear it now – even if the quality was pale and the practice illicit. For them, it was all about the music and the holy energy of the poetry; for them, it was only about the secret realms of emotion that Dylan’s voice somehow carried them to.

And thus the “Bootleg Series” was born. In 1991, Columbia decided to finally give the fans what they wanted and they packaged a handsome set of unreleased and live takes that filled in the blank spaces between Dylan’s official life on record and his life on the public stage.

The experience of that first “Bootleg” release was indeed riveting, as we collectively came to be immersed in the creative genius that is Bob Dylan – alternate song takes showing how the impulse of the creative self is formed and honed , how it’s plied and molded, until the flower of poem grows from the mere shape of idea.

Staying true to this tradition, Tell Tale Signs presents a magnificent collection of rare and unreleased recordings spanning the years 1989-2006. The pieces contained herein are the gems that Dylan didn’t feel quite right about, the pieces that somehow didn’t fit into the schematic of an official record.

Still, the circumstances that tell us why these songs were held off official Columbia releases are hardly important. Instead, it’s the music that matters, and hearing this record is like venturing into some great archive of untouched memories, the same as being granted permission to rifle through some drawer full of Blake’s unread rhymes.

If experienced at just the right moment, a song can actually transcend the human world and elevate you to a plane that parallels heaven. And that is just how much of this record plays – on a plane with an invisible as yet unnamed world riding the wings of angels through the misty rain at dawn.

Compiled by Jeff Rosen (one of Dylan’s managers and the driving force behind the “No Direction Home” PBS documentary that outlined Dylan’s early years), the songs on Tell Tale Signs capture pieces of Dylan at his most intimate and stark and searching – the perfect compilation of ‘greatest hits’ that aren’t known to the mass audience.

At the centerpiece of the record is “Series of Dreams” (unreleased from the Oh Mercy sessions). This song, driven by pounding horse-hoof drums, is a clear and crystalline picture of Dylan’s consciousness: Surreal now ice-deep, connected to this hidden murky undefined world of ultimate truths that only reveals itself when we sleep.

In addition, the three versions of “Mississippi” (from the Time Out of Mind sessions) are particularly compelling, for they offer us the rare chance to peer into the mind of a songwriter as a he grapples and fine-tunes, editing and refining, twisting the lips of syllables here and back to there, plying the melody line to build just the right bridge of rhythm to carry the boots of the words forward.

Also notable is the live version of “Ring Them Bells” (Supper Club, 1993). This is one of Dylan’s great latter-day songs, and the piece benefits from the intimate venue, Dylan’s voice soaring and straining and inspired, waltzing through the cradle of its own spectacular vision.

Going still further, “Mary and The Soldier” (unreleased, from the World Gone Wrong sessions) tastes poignant and reflective, a song for times of war and moments of penance, this hymn calling all the living and all the dead to genuflect in a collective gesture of love.

And finally, the live version of “High Water” from 2003 is vintage Dylan – the long-bruised venom wail now has receded to an introspective growl as the aging poet goes searching for the souls that influenced his path across these distant stages of the past.

Obviously, there is quite a lot of music on these three discs, and it has the power to keep you occupied for hours. In simple sum, this record is an absolute treasure – a tour de force of lyricism and endless dimension taking us to secret places beyond words, taking us deep into webs of echo and sound now leaping beyond frozen skeletons of human time into mazes of breath and song.

And these, then, are the places where the angels play and the dead men reign. And these, then, are the places where storms blow in fever-stained circles as old Rock-and-Roll fathers sing the faint whispers of the dawn back to sleep.

Order at bobdylan.com.

by John Aiello

Pick of the Month


Joshua Bell, the renowned violinist, has come up with his 7th album to hit #1 on Billboard’s Classics chart, and it is something truly unique.

Performing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, this new album features Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 4 and No. 7. That by itself isn’t remarkable: Bell’s first performance in 1988 at age 21  with the Academy, and both are noted for their penchant for the strings-rich Beethoven masterpieces.

What makes this full, rich album remarkable is that not only is Bell performing with the Academy, but he is simultaneously conducting them. This is a bit like Pavarotti singing opera while simultaneously dribbling to mid-court and sinking a three pointer.

I have no idea how Bell accomplished all this. But the results are stunningly clear: this is one of the finest performances he or the Academy have recorded. Simply, it’s a must for any serious Beethoven collection.

See Sony Classical for information.

by Bryan Jamieson

Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.

Previously Featured: The Politics of Hopelessness

KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Feature Film. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Annapurna Pictures (in collaboration with 1984 Defense Contractors; Plan B Entertainment; and Chockstone Pictures).

Killing Them SoftlyAt the end of Killing Them Softly, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) flashes his hard dark eyes at Driver and tells him: “America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now fucking pay me.”

It could be a line from the tax man. Or the gas man. Or the bread man. Or the rent man. Could be you talking to me. Me talking to you. Us talking to them. Them talking to us.

In America, circa 2012, now fucking pay me are the words by which each and every one of us live.

Killing Them Softly is billed as a crime-drama. But in reality, it’s a stinging 100-minute statement on our times – a movie that rains politics and clearly states a point-of-view: That the government here doesn’t really give a damn about its people. According to Dominik’s cadre of castoffs, we’re all on our own: Trudging naked through the wilderness – bathed in stillborn darkness.

Ensemble Of Outlaws

Bleak as it tastes, Killing Them Softly is a great movie – brilliantly written and directed, with stunning ensemble acting that takes a fierce stranglehold on our attention and refuses to let go. In addition, Dominik’s direction shines, with his orchestration of the shoot-to-kill scenes echoing Sam Peckinpah’s finest hour.

Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s TradeKilling Them Softly stars a veritable who’s-who of the American cinema: Brad Pitt; James Gandolfini; Ray Liotta; Sam Shepard; Ben Mendelsohn; Richard Jenkins; Vincent Curatola; Max Casella; Slaine; and Trevor Long all have core roles.

And in the true spirit of theater, no one face steals the show here; instead, the faces merge and melt, building into the singular purpose of the story, driving the webs of its rhythms, recasting the collective audience into the sinew of the characters until we become them.

The story, on its face, is about a low-level heist masterminded by a grungy collection of outlaws. But look further, and you hear and see President Obama in the background: Instructing America to feed off of hope and keep dreaming, telling us that we will not be defeated if we refuse to defeat ourselves.

Only thing is – these characters don’t believe any of it. They can’t believe it. You see, guys who haven’t eaten have already been stripped of all shred of hope – devoid of the faith that is the conceptual foundation of country.

Running Out Of Options

Killing Them Softly carves at our senses via an adroit mix of black humor and suspense, telling the tale of three down-and-out criminals with an idea to rip-off a mob-sponsored card game and then let another guy take the fall (remember Jackie Jr. from the Sopranos’ episode #38 ripping off the boss’ poker game?).

The idea for this heist is born in the mind of Johnny Amato (artfully portrayed by Curatola, who captures the shadow of the mobster fallen from the throne). Amato has no where to turn in life; in his late 60s and without options, he literally has to hire losers off the street to do his bidding.

Basically, Johnny Amato is a man without choices. He has no one else to trust, so he trusts the likes of Frankie and Russell. A true scavenger, Amato takes what he can get. And what he can get isn’t all that much.

Predictably, Amato’s plan fails and the mob wants the cash back. Moreover, they intend to make examples of everyone who left them looking foolish. Hired guns are called and everyone’s on the lam to get paid.

Connecting Threads

One of the hired guns who gets summoned is named Mickey. Played by James Gandolfini, Mickey shows us the human side of a killer.

In one memorable scene, Mickey sits semi-drunk in a hotel room. After castigating a hooker for less than adequate service, he recollects the one woman he actually cared about – a woman who eventually ended up in bed with one of his friends. Even though so many years have splashed by, the memory of it all still haunts Mickey, eating at him like thick thirsty pools of acid.

In Mickey, we see that even the heart of a killer can go into mourning – the character serving to remind us that everybody eventually gets betrayed, reminding that there’s a Judas or a Benedict Arnold or a Pat Garrett in each and every life story. It’s the one thread that ties us together on a human level.

The Shrinking Line

So, what do you have to hide? And what’s your dirtiest little secret? So what haunts you in your sleep? And what thoughts are you running from?

These are the real questions and the harsh truths that live the core of Killing Them Softly. In the end, this movie is about unearthing the buried bodies and the buried stories that drive the faces on both sides of the fence – driving the winners as well as the losers.

As we look around at the world today (immersed in the soaring unemployment rates and the foreclosure signs on America’s collective lawn), we see a lot more losers and a lot fewer winners. In sum, the line separating us and them is getting more and more blurred as we struggle to heed the President’s advice to keep hope alive.

But how to you keep hope alive when you’re hungry and out of options?

Some guys unite to rob card games and steal other people’s money. And still others enforce the rules and issue punishment for the sin of betrayal.

Yet, in the in end, the voices always sing the same refrain: Now fucking pay me.

by John Aiello

Return of the River Ghost

TEMPEST. Bob Dylan. Columbia Records.

There’s a storm blowing through Bob Dylan these days – raw bloody-scarlet and full of energy. It’s blowing him across the sky through the deep blue mouth of song. It’s haunting his eyes and heart and mind and reconnecting him to the river ghosts of yesterday.

TEMPEST is Dylan’s 35th studio album, released on the 50th anniversary of his first record (Bob Dylan; released September 11, 1962).

In many ways, this record is about links in a chain – a rich and absolute embodiment of Dylan’s career, this amalgamation of all of his styles rolled into one neat loaf – every piece a sampling and slice of the many faces of Dylan’s music that has guided a nation of wandering hearts for five decades.

If there is one word to describe this record – it’s energy. These songs are alive, Papa Bear guiding his young cubs through the numbers with masterful ease.

Dylan’s band here (Tony Garnier; George Receli; Donnie Herron; Charlie Sexton; Stu Kimball; and David Hidalgo) are a perfect fit for the grizzled old poet. They know each others’ strengths and nuances and play off of each other with a seamlessness that you only hear in the best of the E-Street Band or the Rolling Stones or the Heartbreakers. Obviously, these guys know each other well and derive great inspiration from one another, marrying lick-to-lick with cool spontaneous precision.

Simply, this record is about showing the listener how music moves, showing how country introduces rock and rock introduces blues – the softness of pedal steel flowing into the hot-hum of violin and accordion, one mask peeling away the vastness of the next until a thousand secret worlds scream and bound and flash, unfolding across the barren scapes of the mind big as the lungs of the sun.

There really isn’t a weak cut on this record, but several stand tall: “Roll On John” is mystical kin to “Every Grain Of  Sand” – soft and hymnal, a rolling ode to the saints of tomorrow and yesterday. “Narrow Way” moves like a modern-day “Highway 61” – Charlie Sexton’s loping guitar revisiting the sudsy electric echoes of Mike Bloomfield; a fun hot-lick of a song. Going further, “Soon After Midnight” feels like an extension of 2006’s Modern Times: Dylan going back to his country roots, back to Guthrie and Pete Seeger, back to Sonny and Leadbelly, while “Early Roman Kings” evokes Muddy and “Mannish Boy.” For Dylan, the Blues feels like an old friend who’s always there to console his rusty cold wounds; in sum, this ghost knows him about as well as he knows himself.

Finally, “Pay In Blood” serves as the crown-jewel of the masterpiece, a song belonging to the short list of classics that Dylan has written since his 1960s hey-day. A natural for the FM radio dial, it’s every bit as brilliant in both word and melody as “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Working Man’s Blues” or “Not Dark Yet.”

For both hard-core fans and new devotees of Dylan, Tempest provides a great escape into the heart and mind of America’s last great troubadour. If you’ve always longed to meet Bob Dylan, this record opens the door and extends a hand, daring an introduction.

Hands down, this is the album of the year by the artist of the century.

by John Aiello

Honorable Mention, September 2012


The collaboration between Bob Dylan and The Band was legendary: When these two entities came together, they made rock-and-roll history, creating a feverish almost metallic sound that has withstood the many tests of time. In DOWN IN THE FLOOD, we are presented with a nuanced summary of the work Dylan did with The Band (beginning in 1966 and continuing through the 1970s). This film (which is an unauthorized documentary) artfully stitches together rare bits of concert footage, archived interviews and photographs in order to bring fresh perspective to a story most hard-core music fans already know. Nonetheless, the interviews done with Band keyboardist Garth Hudson and the dynamic Ronnie Hawkins (who worked with the group in the early 1960s, giving them their first taste of sustained acclaim) offer deep insight into just why Dylan wanted to go electric backed by Robbie Robertson and this maverick ensemble who could play any lick while simultaneously keeping up with Dylan’s creative temperament. Additional interviews with producer John Simon and Rolling Stone’s Anthony De Curtis give further body to the movie, putting the music Dylan made with The Band in proper historical context. Many versions of this story have hit print over the last 40 years, and DOWN IN THE FLOOD is the best of them – noted for its depth and for the simple way it sets out to ‘photograph’ a most complex marriage. 114 minutes.

by John Aiello

THE LOST NOTEBOOKS OF HANK WILLIAMS. Featuring Bob Dylan and various other artists. Egyptian Records/CMF Records/Sony-Legacy.

What could be a more interesting journey to take than Bob Dylan interpreting the musical mind of the legendary Hank Williams? In this new release from Sony-Legacy, music fans are granted the rarest of opportunities: The chance to see how Williams unique muse extends to the modern era. Williams died at the young age of 29, leaving behind a tattered briefcase full of half-written songs. About 2 years ago, Dylan got his hands on these pieces and was offered the chance to complete them. Instead of writing the entire album, Dylan chose to do one song and then offered some of his contemporaries the chance to finish the others (while he served in the capacity of executive producer for the project as a whole). The result is a densely captivating record full of wistful gems that document the vast influence Williams has had on modern song. Basically, this record is about showing how art can always inspire – even when left in incomplete skin. Even though Williams did not finish these songs during his lifetime, a group of musicians who followed 50 years later did. And isn’t that the true testament to both the will and the purpose of any artist – that being, to inspire other minds with the half- written shape of his own eye (inspiring via states both dead and alive). Artists include: Dylan, Levon Helm, Norah Jones, Cheryl Crow, Jack White and Lucinda Williams. Obvious highlights: Dylan’s loping vocal as he softly makes his way through “The Love That Faded;” and Jones’ tender, Western-infused “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart.” Also worth multiple plays is Jack White’s “You Know That I Know” – a cut that perhaps comes closest to the layered nuance and hard-boned stylings of Hank Williams himself: There caught somewhere half-way between tears and the hope for a new day.

by John Aiello

Honorable Mention, October 2011

STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. Paul Simon. Originally produced by Paul Simon and Phil Ramone. Sony-Legacy.

Originally released in October 1975, Still Crazy After All These Years remains classic Simon, the wit and lyricism of the master balladeer placed here at center stage. In this re-release, all the tracks on the original record have been re-mastered: Now there’s an isolated crispness to every instrument and we’re suddenly able to hear subtleties in tone and texture that simply weren’t there 35 years ago (listen for the cascading waves of Pete Carr’s guitar and the enhanced layers of Steve Gadds’ drums for immediate examples of this). In addition, the re-release includes two “new” songs – the first-ever demo of “Slip Slidin’ Away” and the first-ever demo of “Gone At Last” featuring the Jessy Dixon Singers): Brand new performances that showcase the elegant and understated beauty of a Paul Simon moment.

by John Aiello

Creation Moon

THE WITMARK DEMOS: 1962-1964. Bootleg Series Volume #9. Bob Dylan. Columbia Records.

Just who doesn’t know these songs? Anyone with even a basic knowledge of pop culture understands that the pieces on this record are tried and true classics – songs that helped to inspire the birth of the folk-rock movement while changing the course of our music.

However, even though you might know many of these songs in their ‘official’ form, I venture to say that you have not heard them quite like this before – ‘demos’ stripped down bare, these recordings mark an array of songs in their infancy now softly taking shape in the heart and eye of the artist.

In Witmark, we are allowed the chance to see Dylan in his the early years: Artist in the midst of the process, interpreting himself, creating a sound on which to carry his poems across the sweet dawn-hour of the skyline.

The Witmark Demos (1962-1964) contains 47 of Dylan’s best early songs – with many long narrative poems that document the visionary sensibilities of a 21-year-old writer who was simultaneously assigning a voice to the youth of a stale America that had truly become detached from its core.

It’s mind-boggling to think that Dylan was able to write these 47 pieces (and droves more!) during a short two-year window in time after he’d invaded the snowy streets of Greenwich Village (journeying to New York City from his home town of Hibbing, Minnesota).

Yet, what’s even more stunning is the fact that Dylan was able to have such a keen understanding of his own writing and how it should evolve from page to tape-reel. In sum, what we have here is a fresh take on Dylan in the studio, strumming and musing, separating skin from barrier of bone, strumming and crooning, baring parts of self in order to create a deeper whole.

Most of the cuts on Witmark stand-out – stalwart versions of Dylan’s early classics. Notable songs include “Hard Times in New York Town” (imagine the 19-year-old Dylan seeing the city for the time and scribbling down these lines in dirty-stained Kerouac-inspired spiral notebook); “Rambling, Gambling Willie” (showcasing Dylan’s ability to narrate and paint a picture in words); a nascent version of “Hollis Brown” (as chilly-cold and barren as the ice on the brows of the South Dakota landscape); and a poignant “Farewell” (imagine the poet, collar turned up against the emptiness of the unknown road).

Still, the two indispensable cuts on the record remain early renditions of “When The Ship Comes In” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Both these pieces differ substantially from the studio releases in that they are driven by Dylan’s fingers against the stark white of the piano keys – the lilt of vocal melting majestically into infinite webs of poetry, sprawling and bleating, painting the sky into a bloody cathedral of memory and dreams.

Both “Ship” and “Tambourine Man” can be seen as early versions of the current Dylan stage show: Recordings that show Dylan in mid-step, reinterpreting himself in the breathlessness of the moment: This poet lost at multiple depths of within, lost in the eye of his own mind, searching for God in the trembling taste of creation.

Like every other installment of the Bootleg Series that has preceded Witmark, this two-record set is a must for any serious fan looking to understand the way that songs evolve into record albums.

by John Aiello

Honorable Mention

THE PROMISE. Bruce Springsteen. Columbia Records. Springsteen’s “The Promise” is a 2-CD set known as the “lost sessions” (the material left-over from the Boss’ legendary “Darkness On The Edge of Town” recording sessions). The album features clean, high-fidelity versions of “The Promise,” “Fire,” “Because The Night,” “Rendezvous,” “Candy’s Boy” and “The Brokenhearted” (among 15 others) – pieces heretofore only available on muddy bootlegs of live shows. But make no mistake – this isn’t some compilation of out-takes meant to raid the vaults of mediocre fodder. Instead, The Promise is a major record full of major songs affirming Bruce’s place in the pantheon of Rock-n-Roll.

1070 (I’M YOUR DIRTY MEXICAN ). The Krayolas. Box Records. Hector Saldana, who fronts the Krayolas, went into the studio to write this song to protest the passage of Senate Bill 1070. SB 1070, signed into law on April 23, 2010 by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, speaks to legislation that, in essence, encourages the government to profile by race and head-hunt Mexicans.

SB 1070 basically requires cops to determine immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion. What’s reasonable suspicion? It’s anyone’s guess what might be suspicious to law enforcement agents looking to nail illegals.

Obviously, giving cops more juice to pull carloads of people over at will because they have brown skin goes against every single thing a Democracy supposedly stands for. Instead, SB 1070 appears to be a throwback to fascist regimes that categorized citizens and excoriated them for being out-of-step.

But aside from slicing away more of our Constitutional protections, SB 1070 has the very real power to strike a cord of hatred in Americans, giving right-wingers a legal basis to scorn Hispanics.

The idea for Saldana’s song grew directly from SB 1070 and was helped along by a fool-hearty ‘tweet’ Dallas sportscaster Mike Bacsik sent through time and the airwaves as the San Antonio Spurs were knocking the Dallas Mavericks out of the NBA playoffs: “Congrats to all the dirty Mexicans in San Antonio,” Bacsik wrote inexplicably.

In the wake of SB 1070 and Bacsik’s senseless meanderings, Saldana’s I’m Your Dirty Mexican says enough is enough.

In the song, Saldana lets us know that Mexicans are mad as hell and they are not going to take it anymore. Like Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” this is a protest song in the truest sense of the phrase – a piece that tells us that just because Hispanic people work the land and are poorer than most, it does not make them less than human.

And Saldana writes:

I’m not going back

Leave us in peace

I ain’t your dirty Mexican

I’m not going back…”

Make no mistake – this song took balls to write; it’s a personal visceral anthem and it burns musty hot with anger, burning on with some of the venom that elevated the Stones “Paint It Black” to that level.

Yet, going beyond the Hispanic experience, the message in the lines of I’m Your Dirty Mexican comes from the mouths of all people who stand on the outside looking in. Ultimately, the song says that just because you’re different the government shouldn’t have the power to create laws that allow cops to come a-knocking, asking questions, making arrests.

And really now, that’s not what America is supposed to be about, that’s not the picture of a free nation. Instead, it’s the bloody-cruel portrait of a police state.

by John Aiello

 JOYRIDE. Shana Morrison. Belfast-Violet Records.

Shana Morrison’s first record in nearly 4 years (following 2006’s “That’s Who I Am”) is going to shock many of her long-time fans, for the album shows a fully mature Morrison moving away from the strict blues idiom that put her face on the ‘map’ in favor of a more roots-based county-inflected presentation.

“Joyride” features 13 songs, 11 of which were co-written by Morrison. What’s striking about this record is the range that Morrison shows in her singing – deftly moving from soft blues to gospel to rock to country with effortless motion.

More than anything, “Joyride” is about growth as an artist and as a person (as many of the songs here speak to the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of the fulfillment of self). Produced by long-time friend and fellow songwriter Kim McLean (who co-wrote 9 of the pieces), the record continues Morrison’s journey in forging her own path as a singer.

Obviously, there are many out there who expect her to to be the ‘oldies machine’ churning out endless covers of her famous father’s hits. However, as “That’s Who I Am” pledged, Shana is not out to remake Van’s classics. Instead, she’s intent on making her own songs resonate with depth and melody.

And the natural vehicle for this mission is her voice, which is the very instrument that propels these songs through the stratosphere.

Opening with “Joyride” (from which the album draws its title), we are greeted with a sheer Morrison vocal that wraps itself around the words and makes love to each distinct eye-lash of music. “Joyride” is a song about passion and love and refusing to let go of the connection. Even though the theme is old as the hills in terms of pop-songs, Morrison nonetheless makes it new by virtue of the way she moves through the lines, weaving this tapestry of images into a symphony that compels us to sing-along, aching to feel just what she feels.

However, as good as “Joyride” is, it pales in comparison to the two classics on the record – “Blue Angel” and “Good Enough For God.”

“Blue Angel” is a perfect hushed hymn, a visionary poem about the world beyond that commands the heart of every artist. Although pop in tone, the piece owes its impeccable rhythm to McLean’s crystalline guitar lines which swirl around the bonnets of Morrison’s voice, accentuating both its grace and depth (as we wonder just how much of this is fiction and just how much is autobiographical):

“She hung her painting

By the window

To bathe it in

God’s holy light”

“Good Enough For God” brings Morrison back to her roots, a mix of gospel and country that, again, forces our focus on the range of her voice. Even though she can belt out a blues number with true Celtic power (rivaling her old man’s pipes), she can also reach the other side of the spectrum with equal precision. With a hushed and humble delivery, Morrison elevates the piano-laced “Good Enough For God” to an elegiac level – it’s almost as if she’s singing from the altar of a cathedral at Sunday morning mass, asking each one of us to assess ourselves in terms of spiritual accomplishment.

Other cuts to pay close attention to include “One Less Monkey” – it’s get-up-and-dance rhythm is truly captivating, with Craig Krampf’s drums and David Hungate’s bass-line driving the line of the vocal through time.

In addition, Jim Lauderdale’s duet with Morrison on “He Won’t Send Me Roses” is intoxicating; it’s almost as if we can hear echoes of Johnny and June Cash dueling at the microphone as Mike Rojas’ delicate accordion fills give the song a bright and hearty sheen.

What’s most impressive about Shana Morrison’s nearly 20-year singing career is the ground she covers and the risks she takes. Most certainly, she could play it safe and be a niche act, covering all the right blues pieces and all the right romantic ballads, in turn guaranteeing FM radio time and a broad, main-stream audience.

But, as “Joyride” proves, Shana Morrison isn’t about playing it safe. Instead, she’s about the body of the music and about discovering the way ‘influences’ intersect. Instead, she’s about singing for the pure joy of the song – inspiring her audience to explore their own roots along the way.

For more information, or to purchase, see shanamorrison.com.

by John Aiello

Grammy News

John Phillip Santos’ Liner Notes Under Grammy Consideration

In my mind’s eye, Bob Dylan’s early 1960’s records made album liner notes an art form. Starting back in 1964, Dylan penned the notes to 5 of his 60’s classics, culminating with the magnificent allegory about man’s futile search for an earthly paradise that graced the “John Wesley Harding” collection (1967).

However, as time passed, CDS replaced vinyl and record jackets fell by the wayside. And while these changes made records sound better, they also served to homogenize their personality, stirring so many individual voices into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ package.

Looking back, what made Dylan’s liner notes so great was that they bloomed as poems spontaneously written in the moment and extending the vision of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (and the other seminal Beat writers). In sum, these pieces speak from the core of the self – passionate statements about the steps men take in these lonely cold solitary hours that rise just before dawn.

And now, in year 2008, music fans have a second  chance to venture back into the sweet infancy of rock-and roll. As collective music historians, we are able to take this ride only because of the brilliant imagination of John Philip Santos.

Santos wrote the liner notes to The Krayolas’ “La Conquistadora” album (2008), and his perceptions sing with a vibrancy and deep passion that is often missing from the techno-laced persona of modern times. Here, Santos releases a sprawling poem which conjures the spirit of Kerouac while simultaneously capturing the Christly images of a tiny moonlit lake rising from the hidden lands of a lost America.

Indeed, Santos’ liner notes are about The Krayolas and the sweet ‘Texas experience’ the band brings to the stage. Yet going further, Santos’ essay also serves as a meditation on our lives and our culture. Simply, this piece is a word-speckled painting about the repentance of a generation as it moves from youth into the middle stage of life.

And going still further, this piece is about the naked splendor and the harsh pain of our collective journey (as so many questions remain): Who am I and who was I? And have I reached my place of destiny?

Quite obviously, these are big questions that do not benefit from a formulaic response. Accordingly, Santos is brave enough to ask, ponder and wonder – without demanding ultimate answers. Instead, he sits back beside us as The Krayolas play on, knowing that the real answers come only when the wind turns back the pages and closes the book for a final time.

In the end, just like Dylan’s great parable about the “Three Kings” on the back of the “Wesley Harding” jacket, Santos leaves you thinking about your place in the world and your relationship with these many hidden selves.

Deservingly, John Phillip Santos’ liner notes for the “La  Conquistadora” album are under consideration for a Grammy nomination. I purposely have not quoted his work here so that you can locate a copy of the CD and discover the beauty of Santos’ writing for yourself in its entirety. Just be sure to open the holy doors to your heart as you read it; my guess is that you’ll stand richer for the experience.

by John Aiello

The Krayolas: A Band To Make You Smile Away

TIPSY TOPSY TURVY. The Krayolas. Produced by Joe Treviño for Box Records.

When I was told the Krayolas were a San Antonio rock and roll band, I settled my mind for a session of steel-gitar shitkicking. Since I like steel-guitar shitkicking, I was looking forward to listening to their album, “Tipsy, Topsy, Turvy.”

Turned out I was wrong. Oh, there’s some Big Texas Beat in there, along with other elements of southern rock, but it blends—almost perfectly—with the Mersey Sound.

In case you’re so young you have no memory of John Kennedy, the Mersey Sound was all those great bands from England, including the Beatles, that showed up and revolutionized American rock in the early sixties.

All right, so we’ve got the bastard offspring of Paul McCartney and Edger Winters, and they’re singing about Gordon Lightfoot. What’s not to like?

One of the tracks, Smile Away was performed so perfectly that I had to Google the song to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. It is a cover, with original done by Paul McCartney on his solo album, “Ram.” I had to look. The Krayola cover sounded like something they had been doing for thirty years. Another song, Run, Rudolph, Run would be right at home on one of the Beatles’ early albums. Sneak it in the playlist of “Meet the Beatles” and people would blink and wonder why they didn’t remember that song. Like much of the Beatles early work, it is a Chuck Barry cover.

I went to their website (thekrayolas.com) and on the “About Us” page, found a picture of the band some 35 years ago, Edwardian suits and narrow ties and mop tops, looking totally Fab. Cor blimey, as they say in Texas.

But it would be a mistake to assume they’re just the latest in a string of hundreds of Beatle wannabe bands. Gordon Lightfoot is more than just homage; it reveals some more of this band’s roots, a strong folk influence. Nor is it all light: 1070 (I’m Your Dirty Mexican) is a hard, well-aimed slap at the anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona. They sing: “Y no voy ser tu cabeza de turco” (I’m not going to be your scapegoat), and it is here where the San Antonio roots show.

All fourteen cuts are engaging, and display a sly wit without being ironic. This is an unpretentious, but very capable band, and this album shows that after many years, they still love their craft and have plenty to say.

See The Krayolas website for further information.

by Zepp Jamieson

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson. All rights reserved.

Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.

Tex-Mex Krayola Style

AMERICANO. The Krayolas. Box Records.

The re-emergence of the Krayolas has been one of rock’s pleasant surprises during the last five years – with the widely-acclaimed 70s muscle-band recreating its face, adding supple layers to its core Texas sound.

Early last year, the Krayolas released Long Leaf Pine, a record that bristled with an old-time rock-and-roll passion that’s largely been lost to the advent of the I-pod and ‘computerized’ music. Given the depth and grace of Long Leaf Pine, a huge question remained: Just where do Hector and David Saldana go from here? Quite frankly, there just didn’t seem to be many untrodden fields left for them to follow.

Or so we thought.

Americano, the latest album from the Krayolas, contains 15 originals written by Hector Saldana (vocals and guitar), ultimately proving itself a worthy successor to Long Leaf in every way.

What makes Americano so good is wrapped up in its bold vision, with Saldana leading the band off in a completely new direction. Once again, the Krayolas have changed their sound, dividing it at the core, calling it closer to the origins of its greatest influences.

On previous records, the Krayolas appeared like they did in the 1970s: A big muscular group with a heavy guitar-drum sound. Simply, they were the embodiment of Doug Sahm’s San Antonio landscape – a band on a mission to make your boots shake as it shook the walls into bloody pools of dust.

And rest assured, there is indeed a hint of that wanton thunder here (“One-Man Foxhole”and “Missed The Last Train”). However, there is also a sweeter more melodic taste to many of these songs that recall none other than the Beatles of the mid-60s.

For example, on “Piso Diez,” Saldana squeezes some of the intangible beauty of Lennon and McCartney into his delivery – the clear-swelling cadence of voice mixing with guitar and guitar devouring word pays homage to both the Beatles and the history of pop music at the same time.

In sum, this record is about the way that language moves and the way that songs mobilize human emotion. As most will agree, the Beatles spoke to the world through the universal tongue of music; it didn’t matter where you were from (Mexico, Italy, New York, London, Paris, Texas), Lennon and McCartney’s songs tied you together with that next guy on that next road and made you kin to him.

And that’s just what Americano is about – tying cultures together into a seamless fabric into a single nation wherein we are bonded by those secret things we see and feel (bonded by the echoes of the songs we sing). In essence, the Krayolas have grown up to continue the work of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie – tying together disparate communities with the invisible voice of song.

And this point is proven in no uncertain terms by the piece at the center of Americano: “Home.”

“Home”is arguably the most relevant song that Saldana has ever written – a poem that speaks to the impulse that drives each of us to keep going through personal tragedy and our constricted individual worlds. As Saldana reminds us, people, no matter where they are from or what language they speak, all crave the same thing – that being, stability and a place to go at night (a home).

Although this need drives and pushes us, it can sometimes also tear us to pieces inside as we struggle to maintain a connection to the bigger meaning behind God’s magic plan. And Saldana writes:

Lost in her

American Dream

She’s just

Dreaming alone

Make you way through Americano and you’ll note that there really is not a bad cut on the album. Still, some some songs stand taller than others. “I’m Not The Man” features some haunting imagery and a sorrowful Saldana vocal that shows his depth and range at the microphone. “Exit/Salida” pays musical tribute to the Sir Douglas Quintet and the San Antonio sound it made famous – with Augie Meyers’ work at the vox stealing the show. “One-Man Foxhole” is pure roadhouse – a raunchy-hot dirty dance number. Finally, “Wall of Accordion” spotlights Flaco Jimenez and takes us on a brilliant ride – Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ given a sultry Latin sheen and revved to the point where the melody all but bursts across the keys of a thousand squeeze boxes.

Obviously, the Krayolas are quite a unique animal, as not many bands could go away for some 25 years and then reappear with a totally different sound cloaked in a completely different package. But Hector Saldana and his players have managed to do just that, making a profound statement with their music along the way (this tale of a band that was born and died and then was born again – this time wiser and more in tune with its audience).

To this end, Americano is meant to reconnect with yesterday, bringing us back to an era when records added depth and body to people’s lives – telling us things about ourselves, providing a tool through which to articulate these random scenes playing out in our heads (as we step back to revisit a time when disparate communities were stitched together by the invisible force of song).

I suggest you give Americano a long hard chance, for it offers a history lesson that fans of the rock-and-roll idiom can’t afford to miss.

See The Krayolas website for further information.

by John Aiello

LONG LEAF PINE (No Smack Gum). The Krayolas. Box Records.

The return of The Krayolas from the land of lost bands has been one of the bright spots in music during the last few years, the group’s once muscle-bound 70’s rock sound honed supple and deep now – awash in an amalgamation of styles that sew 50-years-worth of history into the moment.

Long Leaf Pine represents The Krayolas’ latest effort (March 2009), with some ripe jewels ready to be plucked and savored. In essence, this record serves as a social commentary on the state of the world further serving as a concentrated snapshot of the altar-bound artist in the midst of the creative impulse.

For example, “I Wanna Fall in Love Again,” written by legendary keyboard wizard Augie Meyers, is a Texas dance-hall romp – big muscular and spontaneous, a clear and current representation ofThe Krayolas that also helps redefine the Texas sound that Meyers helped to create.

Hot on the heels of “I Wanna Fall in Love” is “Never Been Kissed” – this song features Hector Saldana’s Dylan-inflected vocals, the melody-line sharpened by some brilliant keyboard work by Luvine Elias.

Going further, to another cover, the Atwood Allen classic “It’s Gonna Be Easy” highlights the harmony and unity of the group, the call-and-response chorus building with great power and intensity until it finally shoots shivers up-and-down the hollow bridges of the spine.

However, as good as these pieces are, they only serve to lead us to the true centerpieces of the record: “Corrido Twelve Heads in a Bag” (about the drug-wars being fought along the US/Mexico border) and “Chola Song.” These are both soon-to-be classic rock songs with a deeper message, shedding light on the challenges that come with cultural integration, these twin statements about the displaced and the dispossessed who roam now in pursuit of the hidden door called heaven.

Given the hard-edged and imaginative tone of their music, it’s no wonder that Little Steven (from Springsteen’s E Street Band) has recently been featuring The Krayolas on his Underground Garageradio show, giving fans everywhere the chance to catch the echoes of a band moving from the shadows of the vast Texas countryside to the center-point of the national stage.

By the end of the album, Long Leaf Pine proves itself a kick-ass record boasting vibrant musicianship (especially David Saldana and Van Baines) along-side some bold singing – this collection of songs that defy the staid state of radio-rock as they leap forward to say something meaningful about the world.

Hands down, this is the boldest independent release of the year.

See The Krayolas website for further information.

by John Aiello

New Voices

Discovering Kaydi Johnson

In the last ten years, all female singer-songwriters are condemned to be measured against the success and depth of Norah Jones. And during the past decade, few have been able to match the raw talent of Jones – whose sultry voice and uncanny ability to capture the emotion of the moment in four-minute pop symphonies has gone largely unchallenged.

However, in terms of pure raw talent, Jones might have found some formidable competition in Kaydi Johnson, a brilliant songwriter who hails from upstate New York. Johnson is, quite simply, the most original voice I’ve discovered in the last several years – her writing sensual and honest, her heart naked on the table, revealed in the tumbling stories that make up the best of her body of work.

Johnson has released three CDS to date (“Tied,” “No goDs Allowed” and “Peasant of The Wreck”), and the thing that really separates her from the pack is the writing. In these ‘moviescapes’ full of bloodied faces, Johnson records the paths of broken people with lost eyes, writing about the ones who have been hit hard but who still somehow remain standing. In sum, these are men and women who have multiple scars but who nonetheless are comfortable with their blemishes – each tear in the skin brings them closer to the edge of the light:

I say acting because I don’t really think he knows who he is. But one thing is sure, he has a body that is very consistent. He might have differences of mind roaming through it but the body moves like clock-work like clock-work. Like music. Like poetry

(From “Eddie”)

“Eddie” is Johnson’s true masterwork as she unravels life into the threads of an epic poem. Here, Johnson stamps out her style with indelible flair as the piece moves back and forth between recitation and soft singing: The poet on stage overtaken by the purpose of her own story takes us deep into the labyrinths of herself. And there she kneels: Making love to each and every image in her mind; and there she kneels, reconnecting with spirits just beyond the tongues of this human sphere:

I turn around to look and see nothing but the dark snatching the shadows of trees as we drive away

(From “Eddie”)

“Eddie” is not so much a song as it is a short story or a musical mini-movie. And herein lies the true beauty of Johnson’s work. At once, her performances simultaneously intersect various genres and mediums, painting pictures of a half-hidden America (see “American Grocery Store”) where shadows stumble about in the ultimate search for self and contentment.

Yet, what’s most haunting about Johnson’s stories is that she actually allows you to see and taste yourself in her lines – the jumble of words frozen on the paper finding their random order as we stop to breathe. Yes, squint hard and it’s not Eddie’s face but your own visage flying down that highway in the moonlight – there, lost among the leaves, thirsty to touch what cannot be named or comprehended.

Still, listeners should not be misled into thinking that Johnson’s work is only about the writing. Instead, you will find her voice absolutely captivating, its petals blooming into a subtle diamond-honed blade, guided by spirits in the night. Like some unique amalgamation of Rosanne Cash, Bobbie Gentry, Suzzane Vega and Nico, Johnson’s delivery soothes and comforts as it searches and aches, polishing the melody of each number into this perfect sun-spotted piece of sky:

Those stars are not really stars, you said, they’re lingering reflections of burnt out lights gone dead, they’re worlds gone by we can still see – the light-blast twinkling pulse of eternity

(From “Night Student”)

The best music-moments have the knack of infiltrating the consciousness, ending as an extension of the listener’s soul. And the best moments in Kaydi Johnson’s songs celebrate this magic ritual. The minute you spin one of her records you’re embarking on a journey back into yourself – because her “Mary” and her “Eddie” are only archetypes of the hidden self as the universal questions of “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” are met head-on and with deep urgency.

But as Johnson deftly shows us, the lesson is not to look for answers – since there are none to be found. Rather, the point of the exercise is about digging through the delicate rubble of skin and bone and confronting your own demons still lost on the shelf.

Alas, the sole point of the exercise is to ask yourself endless questions without turning tail and running away from the stale waves of confusion, fear and isolation:

The more I look the more I see, there’s something hot inside of me. I’m sister to those burning spheres that shine but have been gone for years

(From “Night Student”)

by John Aiello

Ten Minutes With Songwriter Kaydi Johnson

Can you tell me a bit about your writing background and education?

Well, I studied literature and secondary education at the State University of New York and then went on to take my MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

And when did your musical odyssey begin?

I wrote my first song with an old guitar that my parents had in the attic. The thing only had three strings on it, but I grabbed it nonetheless and started picking. And a song came out. I was about 12 years-old at the time.

So did you have any formal training as a musician, or are you self-taught?

I never took a lesson; I do everything by ear, I have to hear a song before I can write and sing it.

And who do you recognize as your greatest influences?

That’s a good question – I ‘d say Bob Dylan. James Taylor. Joni Mitchell of course. And Carole King as well. They’re influences and I listened to them, but I am definitely not likeany of them. They had my attention though, and no doubt influenced me subliminally.

And your literary influences?

Shakespeare! Shakespeare is one of my big influences musically as well. I am so excited by what he did with language and with words – all that had a big impact on my songwriting.

You definitely have an original style in terms of songwriting. Some of your pieces (such as “Eddie”) roll on like movies, compelling the absolute attention of your audience. Can you tell me how this writing form evolved into its present state?

Well, when I was in grad school I was writing short-stories and poetry. And “Eddie” actually started out as a short-story. Sometime after I wrote it I looked at it differently and wondered if I could create a chorus and make it a song. So I wrote the chorus and created some simple music to carry it, this finger-picking rhythm set to a spoken-word format. “Eddie” is long – around 8 minutes. And it really defied the odds, because everybody said it was much too long for radio. But ironically, it’s the one that brought me my first radio air-play.

Were there others songs that started out as literary compositions?

Yes, “Night Student” started as an essay about the cosmos and the stars. I later tapered it down and it became a song. “Ode to Toes” started out as a long poem before I turned it into the song that’s on the record. I guess what I try to do with my records is write a mix of things, giving people the widest variety of material I can.

What do you look to put in your stories, what captivates you?

Well, the character has to carry it. After that, I look for a visual, I look to conjure a setting in my head. And I love metaphor. But as a writer I don’t deliberately create metaphors. They create themselves. And I discover them.

So is “Eddie” real or is he pure fiction?

He’s a bit of both. There is something truly interesting and universal about “Eddie.” There is something in that character that every man can identify with, just as there is something universal in the voice of the narrator that every woman can identify with. I guess it comes down to the human qualities of the voices. [Long pause] Songs are alive. They are not static. They change as we change. “Eddie” is that type of song…

Is there a particular thing you strive for when you perform?

Yeah, I want my voice to be clear. Because my music is lyric-based, the audience has to understand what I am saying. It’s all about me, my songs and the guitar. That’s the nucleus of what I do. And to get something out of the experience you have to hear the lyrics. So I’m looking for that clarity of voice.

And what do you do when you’re not writing or performing?

I like to hike, swim, cook. I love the outdoors. I love to be in nature. My day does not feel complete if I haven’t been outside. It’s one of my priorities to get outside. It always makes me more productive in the writing world…

For more on Kaydi Johnson or to preview and order her CDs, see kaydijohnsong.com.


The Clone Wars soundtrack provides the musical backdrop for the first-ever animated feature from Lucasfilm Animation, while serving as the latest installment in the ongoing Star Wars Saga (this new film serving as prelude to a weekly, animated prime-time television series set to premiere in the fall of 2008 on Cartoon Network, followed by appearances on TNT). This hour-long soundtrack (which includes an exclusive fold-out poster) once again spotlights the work of John Williams, who has created the main theme for this film. Here, the main theme (“A Galaxy Divided”) drives the record – the rising crescendos of sound move in waves about the walls of the psyche before finally overtaking the room. In ancient times, the poets who roamed the naked flanks of the countryside often said that God was sound, or, more precisely – music. And if that idea is true, than the work that Williams has done for the Star Wars series is an extension of the holiest of hands: The line of his melodies crisp and clear, like perfect pools of water, they call forth the parched mouth of the conscience and it drinks. In addition, The Clone Wars features more than 30 separate music cues composed by Kevin Kiner.  Kiner, who came to be known for his work on such televi­sion series as Stargate SG-1, Star Trek: Enterprise, Superboy and CSI: Miami does something truly unique with his contributions to this record. Instead of providing mere background music, he has built the cues around the inner-sense of the characters so as to help them tell their own stories through the hidden lines of the soundtrack (Best cuts: “Meet Ahsoka;” “Obi-Wan To The Rescue;” and “Jabba’s Palace”).

Please visit sonybmgmasterworks.com for more information.

by John Aiello

Upcoming PBS Special Explores the Warner Bros. Legacy

YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: THE WARNER BROS. STORY. A presentation of AMERICAN MASTERS. Written, Directed and Produced by Richard Schickel. Narrated by Executive Producer Clint Eastwood. A Lorac Production in partnership with Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In this upcoming 5 hour epic from American Masters, the life of a revolutionary movie studio is recalled. You Must Remember This traces the steps Warner Bros. took through the nine decades that followed its inception – as award-winning writer-director Richard Schickel artfully tells the story of the country through the films this maverick studio produced. It’s quite a challenge for a film-writer to build a five-hour script around the life of a studio. Bluntly, most viewers are apt to care more about the films it produced than about the vision of the studio itself. However, You Must Remember This is a grand exception to this rule, as the tale it tells recapitulates the heart-song of the greatest film studio in American history. The Golden Age of film? Make no mistake, Warner Bros. was the alchemist behind the collective camera, and through its eye we came to bear witness to films such as All The Presidents MenThe ExorcistCool Hand LukeWho’s Afraid of Virginia WoolfThe Maltese FalconDirty Harry and the insightful music documentary Woodstock. As you can see from this partial list of productions, Warner Bros. was about taking risks and spotting talent – as original and non-formulaic actors like Eastwood and Pacino were given the opportunity to find an audience because this studio was willing to back scripts that did not fit into the ‘box’ (the Warner execs known for turning directors loose and letting the idea of art rediscover itself). And that’s just what Schickel does with this historical over-view of Warner Bros – by letting the studio speak for itself the myriad forces behind the creation of these films are illuminated (as the interviews with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, James Cagney, Ronald Regan, Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet and Jack Nicholson serve to create a living cool seamless narrative of the most influential film studio in the world). 

The AMERICAN MASTERS series is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET in New York. The film premieres nationally on PBS stations throughout the country on September 23, 24 and 25. Check local listings in your area.

by John Aiello

New Series Revisits the Brilliance of Leon Fleisher

SCHUBERT: SONATA  IN B-FLAT MAJOR, D.960/LÄNDLER – Leon Fleisher, piano (original LP release  1956). Sony Music.

DEBUSSY: SUITE  BERGAMASQUE/Ravel: Sonatine /Valses nobles et sentimentales/Alborado  del gracioso – Leon Fleisher, piano (original LP release  1959). Sony Music.

MOZART: SONATA IN C MAJOR, K.330 / SONATA IN E-FLAT MAJOR, K.282 /Rondo in D MAJOR, K. 485 – Leon Fleisher, piano (original LP release 1960). Sony Music.

LISZT: SONATA IN  B MINOR/Weber: Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 70 / Invitation to the Dance,  Op. 65 – Leon Fleisher, piano (original LP release  1960). Sony Music.

COPLAND: PIANO  SONATA/SESSIONS: FROM MY DIARY/Kirchner: Piano Sonata /Rorem: Three Barcarolles – Leon Fleisher, piano (original LP release  1963). Sony Music.

BRAHMS: QUINTET  FOR PIANO AND STRINGS IN F MINOR, Op. 34 – Leon Fleisher, piano/Juilliard  String Quartet (original LP release 1963). Sony Music

A somewhat rare illness tried to silence the music emanating from the heart of Leon Fleisher when a neurological malady called focal dystonia crippled one of his hands in 1965.

However, even though the labyrinth of his nerves were compromised, the drive and impact of this man’s life and work would not be mitigated – as these symphonies that Fleisher created with the delicate and nimble fingers of imagination continue to rage on like the perfect cool dawn-struck wind.

Here, in celebration of the great pianist’s 80th birthday, Sony has digitally remastered and re-released 6 of Fleisher’s most remarkable albums (previously only available as complete works in LP format).

And here, the full brilliance of Leon Fleisher consumes us, the way his hands make love to the keys of his instrument never more striking than in Schubert: Sonata  in B-Flat Major – this record representative of the nuanced flavor a Fleisher performance brewed (layered and vibrant, capturing the secret moments of the soul’s reawakening).

Fleisher, who was born in 1928, was destined to play music. At the tender age of nine, he studied under the majestic mind of Artur Schnabel, refining many of the techniques that would mark his best work. And then, when he was still only 16, Fleisher debuted at the New York Philharmonic – this performance blood-stained with the genius that inspired conductor Pierre Monteux to hail the young virtuoso as the “pianistic find of the century.”

Also notable in this collection is the beautiful Brahms: Quintet  for Piano and Strings in F Minor: The understated elegance of this recording is the mirrored reflection of Fleisher’s approach to the piano – man mastering the keys by becoming one with them, infusing the notes with the resonant taste of his blood.

Today, as we plod along through the homogenized swamps of the new millennium and computers manipulate the way we see things, this collection of recordings by Leon Fleisher look to bring us back to ourselves – encouraging us to rediscover pieces of our own pasts that we may have stepped away from on the quest for instant gratification.

Even though Sony released these records to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Leon Fleisher’s birth, they actually serve as a gift to all classical music fans who will revel in the sweet infinites these concertos are able to conjure.

Please visit sonybmgmasterworks.com for more information.

by John Aiello

The Original Jacket Collections


There has been recent debate among critics as to whether boxed sets are truly worthy of the price sticker and the interest of the consumer. Some hold to the theory that the listener isn’t really getting enough new material to merit the sometimes hefty cost of these boxed releases.

However, that line of thinking is immediately stunted by the powerful evidence these boxes build (the records having been honed and caressed in Sony/BMG’s famed studios that are hallmarks of technical excellence).

Here, listeners are allowed the chance to revisit the works of the reigning masters of the classical form – this glimpse into the nooks and crevices of these legendary careers via a series of representative performances.

The Sony/BMG Original Jackets Collections comprise one of classical music’s truly splendid series: These box-sets feature original discs coolly repackaged into CD-sized replicas of their actual long-play jackets.

Critically acclaimed and recognized for their sweet resonance, each next installment of the Original Jacket Collections is always widely anticipated, with advances in technology taking time-tested classics and rendering them fresh and new again.

Accordingly, these installments are no exception:

 THE ORIGINAL JACKET COLLECTION VLADIMIR HOROWITZ. In a 2003 review, I wrote of Horowitz (the 25 time-Grammy-winner who died in 1989): “Horowitz is known across the globe as a masterful pianist whose blood poured across the keys as he played. Horowitz’s was a music that came from within – from a silent and invisible pool that paid homage to angels and pursued the infinity of the Lord. His music was a magic potion of melody drenched in unnamed sources of imagination, and it commanded the loyalty of his audience who fought to drown in this holy storm of love in these beautiful electric thimbles of inspiration.” As I listen to this new collection of classic Horowitz spanning the entirety of his remarkable career, these words never seemed more real. Here, listeners are presented with a perfect summary of the pianist’s signature performances, including a compelling concert from Carnegie Hall with Arthur Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (featuring Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1). Ultimately, what’s notable about this record is seen in the vast styles it intersects, with Horowitz touching on everything from Clementi’s Sonatas to Chopin’s Ballades – this the statement of a man whose persona was only a mirror of the music: Rich and vital, piercing and evocative, staring at God through the vacant walls of this sky. Also of note in this collection: Horowitz Plays Scriabin (Disc 8, featuring Sonatas numbers 3 and 5).

THE ORIGINAL JACKET COLLECTION ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN. Rubinstein’s playing strikes us differently than that of Howowitz – more intuitive and less technical, more spontaneous and less polished, Rubinstein seems to be revising the lines with the webs of his fingers as he plays (rewriting secret lines of melody with his mind, hunting for some new meaning as steps out to harness each hot invisible flash of light). In this collection, listeners are able to devour Rubinstein’s interpretations of Chopin’s great works, galvanizing them with pieces of his skin until they soar back to radiant fists of life. From a critical standpoint, it is very difficult to cite highpoints, since the record, when viewed as a whole, brims with naked vitality. Notwithstanding this fact, Rubinstein’s renditions of the Nocturnes and the Waltzes are utterly captivating – locking us in a room with Chopin’s ghost and forcing us to dance with the great phantom while Rubinstein’s fingers cut through the bottoms of the wound, splitting open buried pools of blood, rediscovering the innocent heart of the Muse in cold echoes of silence and song.

THE ORIGINAL JACKET COLLECTION ITZHAK PERLMAN. This record captures the vast history of Perlman in its evolutionary form, capturing highlights from both his RCA Red Seal and Sony Classical records and synthesizing them into a seamless ‘narrative’ of violin-driven symphonies. This box is rife with centerpieces and master-performances: Note the 1978 recording of string-trio serenades by Beethoven and Dohnanyi (featuring the work of violinist Pinchas Zuckerman and cellist Lynn Harrell). This record is representative of the visionary brilliance of Perlman, a stunning and insightful performance that moves the heart rather than the mind, driving the listener back to the essence of the self, driving us with the motion of sound driving the poetry of echo into crystalline layers of vibration. Sit back and focus: As cello melts into violin we have come to lose ourselves in this mystical bright holy storm of strings in the light of sun and moon now become one. Also notable is the spotlight disc that memorializes selections of Perlman’s collaborations with Academy-Award winning composer John Williams. It’s all on the Cinema Serenades record (and specifically in the riveting theme from the “Schindler’s List” film): As the music uncoils, both soul and conscience are revived. And the horror of the human condition come alive (the darkness and beauty of man rewoven into a piece of music that goes well beyond the narrow mission of defining a movie). Instead, this is the personal theme of each of our blind and secret histories forever committed to walls of sound.

THE ORIGINAL JACKET COLLECTION JASCHA HEIFETZ. To many, the violin is defined by Jascha Heifetz’s catalog of work. And probably nothing best defines the brilliance of Heifetz more than the solo interpretations of Bach recorded in the early 1950s. In this collection, Sony re-releases three full CDS of Heifetz doing Bach, these records that feature the six solo sonatas and partitas, as well as the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. To hear this music is to journey back in time – back across the sweeping ocean tides of memory into this invisible motion of music. And to hear these records is to embark on a long and holy spiritual quest one man among many gone in search of God. Simply, this music is about building a separation from the human earth as we move into the idea of the self, moving into deep concepts of creation. Simply, to listen to Heifetz’s magnificent manipulation of the violin is to bear witness to an artist on a pilgrimage to rediscover the idea of heaven in strains of echo now melting into song. As many a critic has observed, Heifetz’s playing is technically perfect – tone and pacing as flawless as we have ever heard. But going further, what made him a true master is in his ability to take this technical understanding and bring it dollops of blood from within (this ability to use the violin as a vehicle to reconnect with the wayward ghosts of the great Bach and Brahms in invisible worlds one thousand universes away). Also notable is Disc 4, featuring a chilling version of Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1.”

In sum, these box-sets mark four stunning assemblies of music, and the rest of the classical world will be hard-pressed to match (let alone surpass) what Sonyhas done in resuscitating some of the most inspired music to ever be recorded.

Please visit sonybmgmasterworks.com for more information.

by John Aiello

STAR WARS 30 Years Later: Still a Feast for the Senses


For many, Star Wars was the film – this grand amalgamation of action and fantasy and science fiction that fed the senses from an array of perspectives. And this wonderful artistic ‘stew’ is now back front-and-center thanks to this 8 CD soundtrack collection that marks the film’s 30-year birthday.

Truly, this soundtrack is a piece of memorabilia worthy of the brilliant films from which it was sired: A stunning and elegant feast of sound that lives in its own individually numbered box (sporting brand spanking new cover art culled from the main Star Wars characters).

Astute Star Wars’ junkies will quickly note that the heart-center of the collection is buried in the three recordings by legendary composer/conductor John Williams – for as much as Star Wars is a visual record of George Lucas’ journey as a film-maker, it is also an auditory record synthesizing the heartbeat echoes that pursue Williams in the dead of night, inspiring these symphonies and concertos for consumption by the diamond-blind human soul.

Fans will note that the 8-CD set is comprised of music from Episode IV (“A New Hope” – 2 CDS); Episode V (“The Empire Strikes Back” – 2 CDS); and Episode VI (“Return of the Jedi” – 2 CDS). The 7th installment in the collection is “Star WarsThe Corellian Edition” which stitches together the most popular themes from the first six Star Wars episodes and then releases them into soaring bridles of music that serve to honor the most readily identifiable movie ever screened.

Finally, the 8th CD is an ‘extra’ for all those kids-at-heart: This CD-ROM collects each of the inserts and gatefolds and posters that were included with the original vinyl releases from Star Wars Episodes IV, V and VI – these digitized pieces of artwork bring the whole film back to life in crisp and piercing detail: The pictures melding with the music in seamless fashion to recreate the phantoms and faces and misty silhouettes Lucas was dancing among when he built this film.

Simply, Star Wars is one of those movies that will be called a classic not only today and tomorrow, but for centuries to come (just as this collection of CDs now writes its auditory record: Committing our collective journey through those hidden galaxies of tomorrow to beautiful cool permanent music).

by John Aiello

The Two Voices of the Singer: Marvin Gaye on American Masters

AMERICAN MASTERS MARVIN GAYE: WHAT’S GOING ON. Written, produced and directed by Sam Pollard. Produced for PBS by THIRTEEN/WNET in New York City in collaboration with Isis Productions. 

Marvin Gaye was a rare force in the annals of American music – a singer and performer of great passion whose art was able to transcend the cultural divide while carrying Black music to its rightful place in the pantheon.

In this new documentary from American Masters, Gaye’s music is examined with deft precision by award-winning Director Sam Pollard, as Pollard comes to humanize the myth of Marvin Gaye (while proving this man was so more than a soul-singer).

As Pollard’s film shows, Gaye was an artist whose voice resonated with depth and faith and wonder – this testament to the fact that there is really no Black experience or White experience.  Instead, it’s just people united in turmoil, connected by hunger and the need for love; instead, it’s all just people united by soft invisible threads of music.

As you can see, Gaye was a larger-than-life figure. And his story ends up being the most complicated of assignments for any film-maker. Simply, how do you synthesize a life this big into a mere one hour show? Moreover, how do you bring the intangibles of the creative process to the screen in a form that will hold meaning for a mass audience?

The answers to these questions are provided by Pollard in stunning and graceful terms, as he brings the specter of Marvin Gaye to life in a spirited and enlightened way – placing us in touch with the man who changed how the world heard music.

In What’s Going On, Pollard uses great clarity of focus to paint a living and realistic picture of one of the great voices of our times. But in as much as Gaye was an original voice and a tireless innovator, he was also a troubled man who battled demons down every step of his career. Accordingly, Pollard is able to teach us that great art is often the by-product of agony and rage – the culmination of a spiritual journey through darkness and rain.

What’s Going On sets an archival interview with Gaye against live performance footage in order build the foundation for the film – the two voices of the singer telling this deep and profound story. Additionally, interviews from his sister Jeanne Gay and ex-wife Jan Gaye (along with Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson and Martha Reeves) fill-in the blank spaces between the pages, giving the film both body and a lasting relevance to multiple generations.

At once, What’s Going On strikes the thirsty heart of the viewer – this dark and piercing film that sheds light on a possessed soul whose every breath deepened the healing essence of song.

Yet, most unfortunately, Gaye could not save himself, and his journey ended stillborn in tragedy. However, as this movie evinces, his legacy and its great body work serve to enjoin music fans of all races, creating a vibrant community that still thrives today. And in that regard, Marvin Gaye’s life proves a resounding beacon of triumph, will, beauty and courage.

by John Aiello

Celluloid Moments

Wayne Ewing Films

Wayne Ewing is one of the ballsiest film-makers working today, an artist who is dedicated to the idea of telling some bigger truths no matter who might be rubbed wrong. In my mind, this mission should mark the true driving force behind the concept of cinema (while simultaneously inspiring those who practice its craft). Ewing, who works out of Colorado, is recognized for his documentary films which seek to provide a document or record of their subject in the real-time of a celluloid moment. Yet, going further, Ewing has the intangible knack of capturing the bigger picture of his subjects as they are placed in their proper historical context. In the end, what these movies do is give us an intimate peek into the hidden lives of mavericks like the brilliant yet tormented Hunter S. Thompson – dissolving the myth of Thompson as we come to connect with the soul of the man behind the mask. And that, simply, is the beauty of a Wayne Ewing film: Subtly blends with nuance as a face is created on screen. And while the face on screen tells us its personal story, it also somehow reflects the audience as an infinite new whole (telling our collective story in the process).

by John Aiello

Exploring Wayne Ewing on DVD

BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER. A Film by Wayne Ewing starring Hunter S. Thompson. This feature-length documentary is representative ofEwing’s vast talents, as he reduces the giant that was Hunter Thomson to a life-size figure (humanizing the myth via expertly crafted scenes that catch the journalist at his most raw and accessible). Breakfast was shot over a span of several years as Ewing shadowed Thomson in his quest to test all limits with his vibrant balls-to-the-walls brand of Gonzo Journalism.

WHEN I DIE. Wayne Ewing. This film serves as a beautiful counterpart to Breakfast With Hunter as it chronicles the raising of the Gonzo Memorial – a beautifully crafted documentary that reveals the many layers of the artist and his impact on the culture. Viewers will be captivated by Ewing’s ability to pace the film and move it along to its graceful conclusion.

BENCHED. The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary. Produced and Directed by Wayne Ewing. (with Barry Bortnick as Associate Producer).As good as Ewing’s chronicles of Hunter Thomson are, I will forever correlate his importance as an artist with Benched, a movie that examines the American court system and helps to publicize the corporate takeover of our judiciary. Make no mistake, this movie took guts to make (especially during the Reign of Bush II during a time when Americans have to fear being spied on by their own government). In sum, Benched peels away the hypocrisy of media and partisan politics to show the Grand-Daddy of Democracies sold off to the highest bidder. Anyone interested in why the country is floundering at a historical low-point should go out and find this movie – you will be both shocked and enlightened by what you see.

See hunterthompsonfilms or benched.

by John Aiello

Of Music & Conscience

AMERICAN MASTERS – PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG. Directed by Jim Brown. Produced by Jim Brown, Michael Cohl, William Eigen, Norman Lear and Toshi Seeger. Produced for PBS by THIRTEEN/WNET in New York City.

Time has proven Pete Seeger, once pigeon-holed as a mere folk-act, to have been the true pulse-beat of the country’s conscience, a seminal influence on the growth of the American songwriter.

Seeger, now 88 years-old, has led a vast parade of writers into deeper awareness. Accordingly, this film, directed by the Emmy-winning Jim Brown (“We Shall Overcome” and “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!”) gives many of the voices that Seeger inspired a chance to rise up in honor of him.

In The Power of Song, Brown allows the vision of the dynamic Pete Seeger to take center-stage and help tell a story as vibrant as the idea of music itself. Via clips and rare personal footage from Seeger’s 1960 world tour, we are given a glimpse into the majestic soul of Seeger (who came to influence songsmiths are varied as Bob Dylan, Jim Croce and Tommy Smothers).

In addition, Seeger’s unique style as an instrumentalist motivated many aspiring players on both coasts (just listen to the cricket-like chirp of the late John Stewart’s banjo-picking and you’ll hear strains of the old master – this universal heart of the musician taking form at invisible altars before us).

Going further, The Power of Song offers insight from performers such as Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Mary Travers – and although their voices are different, they are all saying the same basic thing: That Seeger’s life is about stimulating social change through an awareness of community and self.

In Seeger, we have the likes of a man who will never again be seen – this man who, instead of his promoting his own work, offered up the sweet blood of his spirit as a means to insure the preservation of the world and its people. As The Power of Song  documents, Seeger’s existence has only been about planting the seeds of change, his songs a way to illuminate the four-corners of the world and spark a connection between all the souls who share a common path on this earth.

In turn, Brown’s film sets out to finally give Seeger his due. Simply, this is our chance to intimately connect with a brilliant artist who focused his days on two clearly-honed ideals – the depthless love for his wife, Toshi, and the belief that music could alter the course of the universe and thus cure us of these terminal cancers called ‘selfishness’ and ‘greed.’

by John Aiello

AMERICAN MASTERS – JOAN BAEZ: HOW SWEET THE SOUND. Directed by Mary Wharton. Executive Producer Susan Lacy (Mark Spector and Mary Wharton producers). Produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET in New York City (in collaboration with Razor & Tie Entertainment).

Joan Baez has added to popular music in substantial ways: From introducing the songs of a young Bob Dylan to an international audience, to softening the hard edge of Woody Guthrie’s American anthems, she has been singing to us for half of a century – her magnificent voice the utter personification of the 1960s.

And even though her contributions to this soundtrack are beyond question, she really hasn’t been given her due by many historians who continually pass over her biography – failing to recognize that without Baez forging the road the folk movement likely would not have reached all the way across these states.

And that, then, marks the mission of How Sweet The Sound, a new film from PBS’ American Masters that celebrates the life and work of Joan Baez.

In sum, this installment of American Masters (directed by Mary Wharton and executive produced by American Masters creator Susan Lacy), takes the genius and breath-taking beauty of Baez’s artistry and puts it at the center of the stage. Here, Baez is finally given the space to ascend Dylan’s formidable shadow and speak in her own voice on her own terms.

Given Dylan’s astounding body of work, folk-rock fans often think of Joan singing harmony for Bob – forgetting that Joan was already a star when she dueted with Dylan. Still, in all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Dylan was able to find a broader audience for his work because Baez ‘primed the pump’ for him, sharing his songs with her audience.

Above all else, this movie sets the record straight on Baez’s contributions to music and our cultural evolution, painting a real-time picture of a bold and deeply insightful woman whose reason for being has been to test boundaries and further the possibilities of consciousness.

How Sweet The Sound serves as the first comprehensive documentary to spotlight Baez’s achievements as a singer and activist, featuring an array of interviews and ultra-rare concert footage that, when sewn together, revisit the tumult and mystical impulse of the 1960s.

Interviews with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Bob Dylan and ex-husband David Harris throb with purpose and depth, illuminating the face behind the voice, illuminating the woman behind the celebrity – telling the story of Joan Baez in a seamless narrative that compels the viewer to examine the singer’s many sides and many perspectives.

Additionally, Wharton and Spector have captured some vintage Baez performances from her 2008-2009 world tour – segments that document how deep this voice still pierces. These recent concert passages are juxtaposed against archival footage (such a riveting clip of Baez in North Vietnam praying along-side the displaced residents of Hanoi) as a means to give resonate shape to a career that has spanned five decades and touched the myriad edges of social awareness – enlightening the world to unjust wars and corrupt regimes through the softness of poetry and song.

However, what really makes this film notable is Baez’s honesty. Throughout her interviews, Baez proves candid and unwavering – confronting tough questions head-on, her responses placing her life in the larger context of world history.

In essence, the American Masters series has always been about humanizing the celebrity persona, these biographies show viewers that even ‘bigger-than-life’ faces must ascend the darkness of the human condition and break through the tangled chains of the self in order to carve out a place in the universe.

In terms of Joan Baez, How Sweet The Sound chronicles the life and times of one of America’s most beautiful voices while simultaneously allowing us entree into the soul of a woman who has dedicated her life to furthering the course of the human spirit. Like her or hate her, you must admit that Joan Baezwalks the walk – a woman with the guts to sing the sound of her convictions.

And with How Sweet The Sound, American Masters pays an amazing artist her just due, presenting us the film-record of a life that will surely be studied for generations to come.

by John Aiello

The Legend of Les Paul

AMERICAN MASTERS LES PAUL: CHASING SOUND. A John Paulson Production. Directed by John Paulson. Executive Producers: Susan Lacy. Glenn Aveni. Produced for PBS by THIRTEEN/WNET in New York City in conjunction with Icon Television Music.

Les Paul

Original watercolor by Eric Ward, © 2014. All rights reserved.

At 92, the great Les Paul serves as one of the hidden faces of American music, a man whose hands and heart are alive in myriad aspects of our sound, as much a part of the musical landscape as visionaries like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Robert Johnson.

Some 60 years after he hit the scene, Paul’s contributions to music are used and reused, are heard and reheard, on every stereo and on every radio throughout the world. In point of fact, this is the innovator who gave the world the most influential instrument of the modern musical era – the solid body electric guitar.

However, Paul’s ingenious curiosity didn’t stop there, as his cutting-edge ideas on making records found their way into the studio in the guise of the now universal over-dubbing technique that so many sound engineers employ.

In Chasing Sound, which is part of the acclaimed American Masters series that has entertained and educated us for decades, we  finally have been granted a true examination of the dynamic Les Paul and his many revolutionary accomplishments.

“It would be difficult to overstate Les Paul’s influence on popular music in the twentieth century,” muses American Master’s creator Susan Lacy. “He pioneered the electric guitar and revolutionized our concept of what recorded music could be. Ironically, his inventions ushered in rock ‘n’ roll and pushed him out of the spotlight…”

In the minds of many, Les Paul is the rock and roll melody line, his solid-body electric axe the heart that drives the blood through the vein of the song. Consequently, every player owes a debt to his genius: Without his diligence and curiosity and hard-edged drive, our music would sound quite differently (and most certainly would lack much of its wanton bring-down-the-walls passion).

In this film, Paul’s story is told in pure documentary form, but with a twist: Instead of using a narrator, Paulson allows his subject to propel the flow of the piece, Paul painting the picture of his life through sweet remembrances and anecdotes (taking us from the bitter basics of his Wisconsin hometown, to the Depression-sick streets of Chicago playing along side Art Tatum and Louie Armstrong, and then onto Hollywood, days of World War II, where he backed the legendary Bing Crosby on guitar).

Interspersed throughout the production are classic bite-sized capsules of the music Paul helped to make famous, in addition to interviews with the likes of Jeff Beck, the late Ahmet Ertegun, B.B. King and Tony Bennett – these voices who remain indebted to Paul now looking back on him with fond respect, these intimate pebbles of memory serving to give this film-record ‘body’ and ‘shape’ and present-day relevance. Moreover, these interviews offer much new information on multiple levels, helping to humanize Paul in a way that those staid biographies and formulized magazine snapshots never could.

Obviously, there are many reasons why this is an important film, not least of which is the fact that it weaves the bits and pieces of a huge life into a single shard of fabric that is as broad as it is introspective – a true reference point that will enlighten a series of generations. Simply, any kid who boots up his iPod and retreats into a rock ‘n’ roll moment should know who Les Paul is and why his work is considered utterly indispensable to the face of our popular culture.

Ten Minutes With John Paulson

John, let’s begin with a bit about how you started directing films.

I was actually a film-maker at the Smithsonian Institute for 14 years, and that’s how I cut my teeth on the documentary form. That was also where I learned to make films about culture and music and the arts. While I was at the Smithsonian I was able to work with a variety of themes, in a variety of styles. But I always seemed to gravitate towards films which possessed a strong cultural expression. That part of my career came to an end in 2002, when the Smithsonian terminated its film department. And that’s when I became a true independent film-maker.

Some would say that it’s pretty bold doing a film on Les Paul, holding to the theory that it’s a narrow subject-line, since most young viewers probably are not aware of Paul’s place in music history. Given this, how did you come to make Chasing Sound?

You know, that’s probably true – most people don’t have a real sense of who Les Paul is, other than being some dusty name from the past. And that was exactly my mission with this movie – to increase awareness of this very important component of music history. In fact, Les was the first guy playing electric guitar coast-to-coast, the first to ‘electrify’ and bring this music to the radio. Personally, I met Paul while I was at the Smithsonian. Of course, I’d known about him for a long time, with his name embroidered on the necks of so many guitars. And as I got to know him, I found Paul to be an amazing character full of exuberance. And as I got to know him better, I came to understand his special place in history, I came to see that he was indeed a candidate worthy of an American Master’s production.

It must have been a daunting assignment – trying to bring this multi-dimensional man to the screen…

Yeah, it was. There was so much to the story. Plus, I was absolutely stunned by his ability as a guitar player. The layers to his recordings are astonishing. But the story was big and broad; there was so much to say in 84 minutes. As a film-maker, I had to give it everything I had. I didn’t hold anything back, because when you’re working with a legend like Paul, you owe him as much. Really, there’s a lot to Paul that most listeners don’t know about, things like his wonderful sense of humor. I wanted to bring that element out. I wanted to make a film to match up with Les Paul’s rascal-sense of humor.

Why is it important for young fans of the rock idiom to see this movie?

I think the over-all message is important – that you can’t take what came before you for granted. Listen to your soul and your vision and where it wants to take you. Paul heard these guitar sounds in his head that no one else heard and he worked like hell to make them real. He willed them into being, creating technical advances to make them a reality.

After creating this movie, tell me who you think the real Les Paul is…

Paul is a guy who always knew what he wanted to do, and he worked like hell to make these things happen, dedicating many years of his life to his art. And because of his dedication, his contributions to music are permanent.

In terms of making the movie, how long did it take – start to finish?

It took about 2 years start-to-finish, though it wasn’t done continuously. I started it during his 90th birthday celebration and the filming continued for another 6-9 months. After the filming was done, it took another 6 months to edit and shape the movie. I guess it might be hard for some to understand, but with Les, you don’t just rip out the camera and start filming. There’s some camaraderie to the process.

Given Paul’s advanced age, this production could have presented some challenges. What was it like working him? Did you run into any unforeseen problems?

Well, Les’ age wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, Les didn’t even want to make this fim in the beginning, he didn’t want to stop his own work that he was doing. It took me 9 months to convince him to do the project. Actually, Les is really a night owl. He gets up in the afternoon and lives his life at night. Thus we’d start filming around 6 PM and stop around 2 AM. We’d finish and leave, and he’d be off to work on something else. “Chasing Sound” is actually a phrase Paul uses to describe his own quest. And it was a perfect title for the movie. But, really, Paul’s age wasn’t a consideration. He’s still incredibly sharp-witted with extraordinary recall, with such extraordinary memories stored in his mind.

Where do you go from here John? What’s your next project?

As far as I am concerned, music is the fabric of our beings. It’s as important as drinking water. It’s what moves us. It’s what soothes us. And in my eyes the music-makers are standard-bearers for each of  us. I’ve done a lot of music stories in documentary form and I want to continue this work. Art is what moves my soul. And I want to continue on this path…

The commercial DVD version of Chasing Sound is now also available from Koch Vision, and it allows viewers to commit this very important and very influential music documentary to their own libraries. The DVD brings the legend of Les Paul right to your home projectors and captures some rare footage of Paul at work, playing with his Trio at the Iridium Jazz Club. These are the special moments that the film’s director John Paulson alludes to in the preceding interview: Paul’s considerable skill as a musician placed center-stage as he drowns his spirit in sacred ideas of sound and rhythm. Going further, viewers are treated to extended discussions with this ‘architect of rock ‘n’ roll’ as we come to create a very real and very intimate relationship with the man responsible for so much of what we hear on FM stations across our scattered countryside. Aside from its subject matter, the film’s production work stands out – sparkling clarity marks the shape of each and every frame. In addition to being appropriate for fans of the electric guitar, Chasing Sound should be strongly considered for use in the classroom as an instructional aid: Too many younger students of the idiom fail to realize Paul’s place in the history of our music, and this film serves to right that course, reacquainting us with this innovator of many faces and many passions who took the bare-white thirsty bones of an idea and shaped them into a world-wide revolution.

by John Aiello

WE LOVE ELLA! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song. A  GREAT PERFORMANCES presentation. From Thirteen/WNET, New York.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the great ones: A voice and presence so infinitely beautiful she caused everyone who heard her sing to shiver – struck by the tender holiness of the experience.We Love Ella! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song (a GREAT PERFORMANCES presentation from Thirteen/WNET New York premiering June 6 on PBS stations throughout the country) brings a group of Ella’s disciples together to celebrate the anniversary of her 90th birthday. We Love Ella features the work of Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Nancy Wilson and Ruben Studdard – sterling performances by some of the musicians who were so deeply influenced by Ella’s magnet spirit, by her inimitable ability to bring the core of song to multi-dimensional life. This film, directed by David Horn, captures a concert that took place April 29th at the University of Southern California (and co-produced by Phil Ramone, Gregg Field and Mitch Owgang), interspersing streams of music with interviews and recollections of the ‘first lady’ (in addition to show-casing several riveting and never-before-released vocal performances by Fitzgerald herself). The images here rise and swell with movement, motion and energy –the bluesy wail of each particle of memory swinging the sweet jazz of time without past or future: Suddenly, Ella is back with us again, alive in the moment, perfect in the present, guiding her many disciples through the concert of a lifetime. Simply, this is a powerful and engrossing musical tribute to one of the most influential voices of the modern era. Consequently, it will appeal to both hardcore fans and new students of the genre. Mark your calendars – this one can’t be missed.

by John Aiello


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