Saturday, December 31, 2011

GRAZIE PER TUTTO, ROCCO: The “Final” Interview

It’s hard not to walk into The Blue Whale jazz club in Little Toyko on a late-December evening and not feel a little choked up: there at the brushed-aluminum bar sits Rocco Somazzi in his spiffy leather jacket, sipping lightly on a deep red Spanish wine and scrolling over his everpresent iPad with a private-joke smile on his lips. Last week, he started construction on a new venture that, as we’ve all come to learn somewhat painfully, will not be in Los Angeles.

Yes folks, Rocco has left the building. Or is in the process of leaving. He’s sort of ambigious about it all. He’s still in the final throes of planning his official swan song to Los Angeles, a live New Year’s Eve simulcast from this very club featuring the Grammy-winning L.A. pianist Billy Childs. Rocco and Blue Whale owner Joon Lee plan on around 170 people in the tiny, kabuki-like space. There will be extra tables set up outside on Weller Court and an NPR truck parked on Second Street for the live broadcast. Rocco is planning on jumping behind the grill to prepare the entire multi-course champagne buffet himself. Oh yes, it’s also his birthday on the day of the broadcast. He is not even breaking a sweat.

Since 1998, Rocco has brought powerful and adventurous music to the Big Orange, when he popped up out of nowhere to open his first Rocco club in Bel-Air. He had virtually no experience in either restaurants or music promotion. And he decided to fill the bill of musical fare not with the lush piano jazz or cocktail-lounge fuzak that befitted the spot’s tony environs but with the tempestuous sounds of alt-jazz, edge jazz, improvised jazz, free jazz – and from many artists handpicked from the local underground jazz royalty, including Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia and Billy Higgins. It was bold and ballsy and destined to be a failure. But people still talk about the shows there, the absolute insane effrontery of it all, like a Viking Funeral Ship crashed right into the placid, apple-green hills of monied L.A. They met other refugees from the tired old jazz clubs dotted around the city who hungered for someone (or somewhere) who would give this music the kind of respect afforded it in New York and Europe. They also remember thinking with a secret thrill: This guy is completely nuts.

Rocco's new digs!

Since then, he has jumped his “Rocco in L.A.” imprint to a performance space in a Hollywood theatre complex, the Café Metropol in downtown’s Artists District, the Royal/T Café in Culver City, and many more places around a city that has been – at best – unappreciative and indifferent to his efforts. (He also was once broke and near-homeless, and survived a cancer scare in 2009.) No matter. On the eve of his departure up to the Bay Area for undoubtedly great things, the Swiss-Italian emigré and Philosophy 101 dropout has risen to be arguably the most influential and beloved promoter/booker of creative and improvised music in Los Angeles for the last decade. At least.

If this is at all in dispute, while Rocco gamely shares his wine with the Beast, a gaggle of admiring women approach him. “Ohmigod,” one coos, “I used to go to your old, old place in Bel-Air!” Rocco shows the ladies the floor plan on his iPad -- he might as well have it surgically implanted on his fingertips – pointing out the location for his new co-venture with noted chef Paul Canales, which is set to open (hopefully) in San Francisco in Summer 2012. “It’s at 19th and Telegraph?” ejects a woman named Kathy. “My father owned an Irish bar on Telegaph and 25th! There’s a lot of great architecture down there!” The third woman offers a resigned nod: “The Bay Area has so much more going on than L.A. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”

The fourth woman mourns: “It’s sad to know you are leaving, Rocco.” Rocco responds with a shrug: “I see it more as an expansion than actually leaving.”

THE BEAST: This Billy Childs extravaganza is like your goodbye party, a New Year’s Party and a Birthday party rolled into one. Holy shit!
ROCCO SOMAZZI: Well, I’m doing another event in January, but it’s just a food event with Andrew Zimmer from Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. He’s going to film an episode at the Royal/T. I think the theme is ‘Bizarre Food in Bizarre Places.’ He’s cooking a five-course meal in the kitchen there and it’s a public event, so people can buy tickets. It’s going to be on January 13 of the New Year. Literally the next day I am flying up to the Bay Area on a one-way ticket. But New Years’ Eve is my last music event in L.A. [pause] Wait, that’s not even correct in a way. I have a show I booked here at the Blue Whale in February: It’s going to be Tim Berne, who is releasing a new album on ECM. Then in April, [Brazilian composer] Hermeto Pascoal is playing up in San Francsico, so I’ve been talking to his manager about him doing one date down here.

Power Couple: Rocco and his wife, pianist Motoko Honda
[Photo courtesy of Ganzo]

So wait, I’m confused. You’re still booking music in L.A.?
I guess in my mind I was not even registering that I’m not going to be here, so I started planning stuff. [laughs] My ways of doing things is to get excited and I figure out later how to handle it. Maybe I will do a Skype meeting with the bands or something.

So at least for awhile, you’ll be going back and forth between L.A. and Frisco.
Either I will come back whenever I have an event or find someone to be my double here. I’ve turned down a lot of opportunities to book stuff here, but some – like Pascoal – I just can’t say, “I’m going to be in San Francisco so I can’t do anything down in L.A." I will just have to figure something out.

Speaking of which, what is your advice for “the next Rocco”?
I guess the only advice I have is: “Get ready to get beat up.” It’s not an easy environment. A lot of people come from the mentality that they are trying to create “serious” presentations…Nobody is willing to put their heart and soul in it over the long term. If it doesn’t generate returns or catch on immediately, they will drop it. With me, it is all about just doing it, not about the return or the financial rewards. So my advice would be that even if it seems like nobody cares, even if you are losing time and money and efforts with everything, if you are ready for it, then good; if you are not, I don’t think you can last. It’s hard to find people like that. For me it’s the opposite…I am just so stubborn that I can’t help it!

Trailer from Steve Rudolf's 2009 documentary
The Good Ear featuring Rocco Somazzi

Well, you did last 13 years.
People say to me, “You lasted all these years, you must have been very successful!” and I say, “No, are you kidding?” [laughter] Lots of downs, lots of ups, but for me it is not about “Oh, I am making money now.” It is enough to know that some people appreciate this music, that in my heart I am doing the right thing and what I really believe in. I mean, Joon is just so amazing. He and I share so many traits. He is also so passionate about this music, and for me he is “the next Rocco,” as you say. He is already the next one.

You mentioned that the new place is going to be more of a restaurant and not so much focused on music.
Yes. Unfortunately, now I am a grown-up and I have to follow the business model I just disparaged. [laughs] This project is a serious business; it is not a passion project. All the people involved are very passionate about music, but we know that in order to serve the purpose and present the music, we have to have first and foremost a successful restaurant. The music is not part of the business model for the new space. It’s gonna be something that we do once in awhile, based on a solid business that is sustaining itself. That is something I learned after having my own place and then working at other people’s places – that the restaurant should take care of itself and the music is not something that the rest of it is relying upon. Like my first place in Bel-Air, my primary goal was to create a music venue. The restaurant was attached to it. I put too much emphasis on the music, and that was ultimately what caused the downfall of the place. Unfortunately, I believe L.A. is just not ready yet for something to be sustained like that just on great and adventurous music alone.

So, you’re eventually going to have music in the new spot…
Well, we are actually opening two business next door to each other with two separate entrances, but that are also connected inside. Instead of one big restaurant, we have a smaller one and have this flexible space next door where we'll sell wines and to-go foods. We are building the retail space in a way that everything can be transformed and moved whenever we need to.

You are quite used to those “flexible spaces.” I remember seeing Nels Cline and Scott Amendola at the second Rocco in Hollywood and there was still a giant fishing-boat prop onstage from the theatre company who had the spot during the day.
Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve worked in a lot of flexible spaces. The Royal/T is the ultimate flexible space; it can transform beautifully into all sort of different things. I’ve learned how to redefine the concept of “flexible,” which is to leave it open for different uses, so I know what works and doesn’t, how to set it up right. So first, I want to establish the revenue-generating activities in the flexible space: retail shop, independent coffee shop in morning with just breakfast and good coffee, then change it into a wine shop with tastings and wine classes in the afternoon, and at night maybe eventually we can have the music. The interesting part of the space is that it’s not very big – about 5,000 square feet – but the ceilings are high, so we are building a mezzanine that will connect the two businesses, so you can walk up to the second level and walk back and forth between the restaurant and the retail space and watch the performances.

Clip for "Cookin' It Up" concert at the Royal/T Cafe

Why are you doing this now? Have you been thinking about it for years?
Well, it is an opportunity that I didn’t exactly plan. But last year when we did the "Cooking It Up" event, that was the first time I met Paul Canales, the chef. We had such a great time working together that when he finally left the place he was working [Oliveto] to open his own place, he called me up.

Did you have to think about it?
No, I was ready. [laughs]

I’m trying to think of all the monster players who have left L.A. in the recent years, it's depressing: Nels, James Carney, Danny Grissett, Adam Rudolph, now you – and you’re taking [wife] Motoko [Honda] with you, too!
Yeah. You can add Todd Sickafoose, Ben Wendel, Ambrose [Akinmusire]...It’s funny, I have spent my whole adult life here, and I love L.A. I still don’t sound like an L.A. person, but I feel in my heart that I grew up here. I am still European in many ways, but I had all of the significant experiences of my adult life here. I guess it is a double-edged sword. In L.A., nobody gives a shit about music, generally, so that makes my job harder in a way, but that is the reason why I do what I do.

Are you still going to be involved in the Angel City Jazz Festival?
Yeah, we are booking it right now.

Is there going to be a theme like last year?
We haven’t announced it yet, and it might still change, but the theme right now is: “Respect Innovative Artists and Legends.” The concept is that each concert will feature pairings of innovative artists and the legendary musicians who inspired them.

Like the Alex Cline/Roscoe Mitchell concert you did in October?
Yeah, actually that show was the inspiration for this theme. Again, it might change a little bit. The one band that we have 100-percent confirmation is Myra Melford. We got a grant to present her and she’s chosen Henry Threadgill. Others we’re thinking of are Ambrose Akinmusire with Wayne Shorter, and Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran. But we are just throwing out names. We wanted to get Nels Cline, but he is just too busy, which is too bad, because Jeff had an amazing idea: “Let’s get Nels to play with Jim Hall.” I mean, Nels doesn’t really know Jim Hall personally, but last week Jeff got a text from Nels saying, “I just had lunch with Jim Hall! He lives up the street from me!” But we couldn’t get the dates lined up. That would have been an unbelievable show.

Noize Terrorists: Nels Cline, Tim Berne and Jim Black
at the 2010 Angel City Jazz Fest

The L.A. Times sort of joked that the Bay Area has “stolen you away” from L.A.
In a way, it’s true. I know I’m going to end up doing more stuff there than here. I don’t even know the scene up there well enough to know if I am going to be able to do what I want to do. Maybe there is no need for someone like me up there! My dream is to get more activity going between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I would like to bring more L.A. people up there, and vice versa. I would really like to help be that connection between the two places. There hasn’t been as musch focus in San Francisco on the more edgy jazz that I specialize in. There have been venues that have done things here and there, but like L.A. it's been very fragmented. So we are hoping somewhere down the road to provide a space where we can pull in people from Mills College and Berkeley and create a nice alternative environment. We don't want to compete with places like Yoshi's; we want to have a much more underground vibe, much like the Blue Whale.

So L.A. hasn’t “broken” you…
No no! I still have the core fire that drives me to seek out this music.

It’s still burning in there?
Still burning. Yes.

What do you know now that you didn’t know back in ’98?
Everything! [laughter] I didn’t know anything in 1998! [more laughter] I mean, we will be here all night if I had to list them all!

Okay, how about a look back then: Rocco’s Top Shows* in L.A.?
Well, if you ask me this tomorrow, my answers are going to be completely different. Sometimes it’s not just the music but the circumstances surrounding it. The first one I can think of was the show I most regret not recording. I think it was 2006, the Ben Wendel Group at Barnsdall Art Park. He had just received a grant to compose some new music. Ambrose was on trumpet, Larry Koonse and Darek Oles on bass, Tigran [Hamasyan] on piano, Kevin Kanner on drums and Ben on sax. It was some of the most beautiful interplay I have ever heard. It was one of those concerts where every single note was perfect -- even the silence was perfect. Another one was at the old Rocco in Hollywood; we did Wayne Horvitz’s electric band [Zony Mash], which doesn’t really tour anymore and hasn’t played L.A. in about ten years. We did a multiple-night engagement, and we rented this Hammond B3 [organ] for Wayne. It was the most intense rock-groove-funk-jazz experience! I still have a picture in my mind of Wayne playing that Hammond and using all its effects. It was so emotionally charged.

The opening of Rocco's second club in Hollywood

How about the first space in Bel-Air?
Well, just after my first space and before the second one, I did two shows in downtown L.A. at this abandoned ballroom. We had Erik Friedlander’s [group] Topaz in there. Unbelievable concert, unbelievable. That’s one of the bands I’ve always wanted to get back together, because they really don’t perform together anymore. Then, going back to the Bel-Air era, the famous residency by [Andy Milne’s] Dapp Theory. They did a two-week residency, and it just built up in intensity with each night, and of course the closing night was just amazing. Hands down, the best show when I was at Café Metropol was Satoko Fuji and [her husband] Natsuki Tamura doing a duo. I have a recording of that night that I still listen to; their interaction is so fresh and original. One show that was completely mindblowing was this guitarist Timothy Young and a Russian guitar player [Andre Otraksin]. They were duo called Guitar Monks; they drove from Seattle down to Hollywood and then drove back at the end of the night. I still have their CD, and its was such an inspiring blend of classical-jazz-rock-blues that I felt like I would pass out when I heard that. Like the first time I heard Myra Melford’s Be Bread CD.

Satoko Fuji and Natsuki Tamura, live from Cafe Metropol

May we allow you to leave behind – besides your legacy, that is – some names of local players to watch in 2012?
Before I name them, I have to think: 'Wait, did they move to New York already?’ [laughter] Well, for sure the guitar player I just mentioned, Tim Young. I think he is one of the five best guitar players in the world – and he actually moved to L.A. Another that comes to mind is Slumgum, but somehow I feel I’ve over-presented them in a way, but that’s just because I find their music so inventive and revealing. Cal Arts has a lot of good new people. There’s this trumpet player name Brandon Sherman who I think is doing great things; he has a band called Chord Four. Daniel Rosenbloom, of course, who I’ve done a number of shows with. But there are people playing now at the Blue Whale who I don’t even know – and they are amazing.

That’s a good sign, right?
I think so!

You may not be rich, Rocco, but you’re already prosperous. Now live long.
Gary Fukushima, L.A. Jazz Collective


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

In journalism, the term “clip job” usually connotes a hack who pulls every single article previously written by others on a single topic, does next to no first-hand research or interviews, gives it all a once-over with a Thesaurus, puts it all in a Cuisinart and presses “pureé”, and voila, a “brand new” article. But what happens when a writer does this very well? What do you call it when a writer with an accomplished reputation (Will Hermes writes for Rolling Stone, Spin and The New York Times) who lived through the days and music he writes about and tosses in his own personal reminisces with meticulous anthropological research in order to reconstruct a five-year panoramic timeline of New York City's cultural nightlife? You call it a clip job par excellence.

Well, not clip job per se – a “mash-up,” is more like it. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City combined two already exhaustively researched topics that occured at the same time and place (the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, serial killer H.H. Holmes) into a novelistic narrative and yielded a mother of a bestseller. Ditto Bryan Burroughs’ epic Public Enemies, which spun together running narratives of all the major players in the Depression-era crime wave, not just focusing on the iconic John Dillinger. Hermes’s fascinating and impressively constructed Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber, $30) lies somewhere between those books and Tony Fletcher’s more traditional overview All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York (W.W. Norton: 2009). Hermes, who grew up in Queens, applies the same Robert Altman/John Dos Passos wide-angle lens to grungy-but-vibrant New York during the John V. Lindsay-Abraham Beame Years, a.k.a. the “Drop Dead” years, a.k.a. the Big (Rotten) Apple years of garbage piles on the curb, the seepage of urine and fear on the street, and nasty, black-sock perversions up in Times Square – all seasoned with angel dust and bong smoke and the ecstatic numbness of cocaine.

What Hermes does – through an exhaustive pureéing of local papers, liner notes, YouTube videos, blog posts, his own previous interviews, bootlegs, concert reviews and pop-culture ephemera – is reconstruct in linear, A-B-C detail each year of his 1973-77 timeline. (Different years are different chapters.) He interweaves a thousand stories of a naked city on the edge with its various cultural movements; the most impressive and galvanizing aspect of the narrative is Hermes’ all-inclusive panoramic view of it all – jazz, classical, punk, disco, minimalism, reggae, salsa, hip hop, folk, graffiti, underground journalism, radio, film, art, even urban planning – represented through a Charles Dickensian cast of its most vanguard artists: Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Sam Rivers, Eddie Palmieri, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Robert Mappelthorpe, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Anthony Braxton, Celia Cruz, Kool Herc, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Robert Wilson, The Ramones, Suicide, Patti Smith, David Mancusco, Nicky Siano, Rubén Blades, Afrika Bambaattaa, Debbie Harry, Joseph Sadler (a.k.a., Grandmaster Flash), Talking Heads, David Murray, Stanley Crouch, Arthur Russell, Hilly Kristal. Icons ghost through on their own trips: Miles, Dylan, Sinatra, The Stones, Bowie, Elvis. (Even Blue Oyster Cult makes a surprising number of appearances). All blur through the breezy, 306-page narrative in a facsimile of Mark Alan Stamaty’s dense, cartoonish cover jacket.

Hermes approach to this material also reminded the Beast of Rick Perlstein’s masterful cultural biography Nixonland, where the author manned a Hubble Space Telescope on the rended American fabric of the late 60s/early 70s, zooming like a masterful cinematographer from, say, the wide generational tensions leading up to the Kent State massacre to Neil Young sitting on his manager’s porch in Pescadero, California, picking up the paper and composing “Ohio” on the spot. Hermes takes a similiar Macro-Micro approach, jumping in one sentence from anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s appearance on Donahue to a 28-year-old gay activist shooting himself in the head after watching it, or cutting from an overview of a near-bankrupt New York with quick edits of individual urban psychosis that carry a sort of hideous sense of humor: “At the Emotional Outlet [our emphasis], a clothing store on Sixteenth Street off of 7th Avenue, a customer inexplicably punched a salesgirl in the face.” When the myopic Grammy Committee belatedly added a Latin Grammy category after the success of the first Latin Music Awards, Hermes transports us to a cramped dressing room at the Bottom Line, where drummer Ray Barretto’s band jokes about the committee’s cluelessness:

“Well,” said the trumpeter Papi Roman backstage, “if they don’t like us here, then fuck ‘em; we’ll take the place apart and carry it uptown with us!”
“Hey, you can’t do that, man,” chimed in the flutist Artie Webb. “How would it look?”
“Like the Puerto Ricans did it again!” yelled Barretto.
“See?” said Roman. “Can’t take us anywhere!”

Hermes excels at juxtaposing eyeblink-quick snapshots of mood and atmosphere: Sonny Rollins practicing alone on the Williamsburg bridge; Phillip Petit stepping off the south tower of the World Trade Center onto a tightrope; Laurie Anderson returning from a trip to the North Pole to discover her entire apartment looted and destroyed; both Al Green and Hector Lavoe falling apart onstage at the Felt Forum in different years; Alan Ginsberg writing his poem “Mugging” after actually getting mugged; the Art Ensemble of Chicago frightening its audience at the Five Spot or Sucide’s Alan Vega opening his cheek with a knife before a horrified audience at Nassau Coliseum; Phillip Glass driving a cab after the ’76 premiere of his epic opera Einstein at the Beach and being told by his fare: “Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?”

What Hermes captures most successfully is the sheer rush of proximity—of all this stuff happening butted up against all of this other stuff. Hermes gives exact dates, exact times, exact addresses – we somehow know where everyone is is related to everyone else. He does a craftsman’s job of global positioning historical and cultural moments: Sam Rivers’ Loft Jazz space Studio Rivbea is landladied by Robert DeNiro’s mother and features trumpeter Olu Dara, who brings along his young son Nasir, who would grow up to become the rapper Nas. David Murray and Stanley Crouch room together in a loft space across the Bowery from Studio Rivbea and just around the corner from CBGB’s, where Rashied Ali once played. La Monte Young curates music at a loft space owned by Yoko Ono. Suicide’s Martin Rev studies with postbop pianist Lennie Tristano. Guitarist Lenny Kaye pops up in the audience for Bruce Springsteen’s first band. Jon Gibson plays the giant pipe organ at Washington Square Church while Anthony Braxton hustles chess in Washington Square Park. Television records its first demos at a Times Square studio where proto-gangsta Willie Colon has just finished his landmark salsa LP The Good, The Band and the Ugly. Springsteen records Born to Run at the Record Plant where Todd Rundgren produced the first New York Dolls album. When the Great City Blackout of ’77 strikes, porn star Annie Sprinkle is in the middle of a “blowjob for hire” in a midtown swingers’ club. While Disco Forum revelers boogie down in a hotel ballroom, the hapless Mayor Beame is twenty floors above in a suite, watching the primary returns for his already-lost election to Ed Koch.

Of course, it is a sensory thrill to watch all of this gunk mushed up into a fertile above/underground hash from the comfort of one’s own reading chair, but what does it all mean? It means endless transmutation, that all this rubbing of hips and haunting the same spaces at different times created a new reality where origins don’t matter. All of it, Hermes writes, “made me think about New York as a culture of aliases and personal reinventions.” There are thrilling, you-are-there accounts of DJ battles, street parties and ambitious IRT graffiti runs in the early rumblings of rap and hip hop, where motivated pockets of freaks began rebuilding a crumbling city with their own visions, finding influences in the oddest places: jazz drummer Billy Cobham's funky beats inspired a young Grandmaster Flash; Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" inspired Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"; Studio 54's Steve Rubell being a dick to Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards inspired them to write "Le Chic."

Ultimately though it is about the music, and it is to the author's credit that he focuses not just on influential records but the people who played on them, produced them, sound engineered them, the funky little record stores that sold them, the enterprising DJs who mutated them, the journalists and fans who wrote about them, the street dancers and graffiti artists who formed their art from their liberating influence. And in quick rushes you catch a young kid named Will slinking into Westworld or Soylent Green and Death Wish at the St. Mark's Cinema, collecting Wacky Packages bubblegum cards designed by a young Art Spielgelman and being confused by Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden ("These guys were what, in their thirties?...I mean, what the fuck?”), a wide-eyed, weed-smoking teen in awe of it all and hungry to make it new.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


President Havel was a hero of mine before I ever met him.
I admire him as a writer -- initially a writer, but also as a
real-life hero in a world that needs as many as possible.
Lou Reed

Thursday, December 15, 2011

STINGER: The Essential Hubert Sumlin

“Hubert was too humble to be heard."
Mark Hoffman, Moanin’ at Midnight

“Hubert did not talk.”
Evelyn Cowins, Hubert’s second wife

The great blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who passed away last week in New Jersey at 80 years young, had a personality that was about as far away as the sound of his art and still be in the same time zone. He was a God-fearing and soft-spoken kind of man that could only have been raised in a fire-and-brimstone Southern household, one whose talent did not emerge straight away out of the cosmos but came through sheer hard sweat and multiple failures. Like Jackson Pollock, Sumlin found his niche after many starts and stops, but finally centered on a style no one had before synergised: splats and drips and blots of sound, something that took Postwar urban turmoil and made it as gorgeous as it was foreboding.

By now, the sound of Sumlin’s guitar has been an influence on six decades of American music. Just throw a rock: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (who along with Mick Jagger sprung for Sumlin’s funeral last Monday), Jimi Hendrix, Dick Dale, Robbie Robertson, Robert Cray, Robert Quine, Elliot Sharp (who played live shows with Sumlin), Nels Cline, John Mayer, Dan Auerbach, Jack White, Gary Clark, Jr. (Sumlin even appeared in the recent docuseries Metal Evolution as an early influence on heavy metal!) Sumlin’s sound came at you full force and stung you—like you just injured your thumb in a cold Chicago basement. It ripped the black felt off your old-school speakers. It was primal and strange—an attack, invariable referred to as “slashing” or “snarling” or “slithery” or “lacerating” or “firey.” In many ways, it mimicked the strange and primal vocals of Howlin’ Wolf, Sumlin’s bandleader of 23 years. In many ways, it did this because Sumlin had no choice; in his liner notes to Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box, producer Dick Shurman noted, “What musical instrument wouldn’t be overshadowed by that voice?”

Sumlin (L) and The Wolf at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, England (1964)

Sumlin called his guitars “Momma” and the Wolf called Hubert his “Son.” Wolf, who was 21 years Sumlin’s senior, often spoke of shepherding Hubert’s raw talent in unsettlingly dominating terms, claiming he “came into possession” of him in West Memphis when the young guitarist was playing with harp player James Cotton and “partly raised him from a kid.” Despite a six month detour to Muddy Waters' band in 1956, Sumlin was a “kept” guitarist—quite literally, as Wolf once told a journalist, “He fell in love with me and he wanted to stay with me so I just kept him.” In the early 1950s, Sumlin arrived from the Deep South at Chicago’s Illinois Station on 12th Street on a ticket sprung for by Wolf, who sent Muddy Waters' pianist Otis Spann to collect him. Wolf sent Hubert to study scales at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Sumlin originally played with his back to audience, which was part shyness, part paranoia at having his licks copied. Even when he faced the audience, Sumlin would hold his guitar neck almost vertical to his body (like the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman would later do) and stare down at the strings while he soloed, an oasis of calm and concentration in the rowdy and dangerous world of the Southside Chicago juke joint. Once a gunfight erupted and a dead man fell against him on the bandstand.

Both Sumlin and the Wolf brought the ghost of the Delta bluesman Charlie Patton into the amplified eage, partially why the music they made was so raw and tense. “It is an odd relationship to say the least,” noted writer Peter Gurlanick in Feel Like Going Home. “Sumlin is a peculiarly vulnerable sort of man, and Wolf, despite his pious disclaimers, has never had a good reputation with musicians." One of the many canonical stories of the two men was each of them taking turns busting out each other' teeth. Guralnick concluded: "They appear locked forever in a love-hate, affection-spite, typical father-and-son relationship.” (You can hear Wolf admonish Sumlin -- "Hubert! Turn your amp down!” -- on this year’s 4-disc box set Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters.) Sumlin was charitable when speaking on the record about his larger-than-life boss; for awhile, he was reluctant to play Wolf tunes live after his death. “After he passed, I laid down the guitar,” he told writer Jan Obrecht. “I said, ‘That’s it, no more.’ I just couldn’t imagine going on without him…He seemed like he was everything, like Jesus Christ, to me. There wasn’t any getting over that guy, man. They never made anyone else like him.”

Murderer's Row: Sumlin (L), Johnny Jones, Wolf, Andrew McMahon
at Silvio's, Chicago (1964)

Sumlin’s musical development was bookended by public thrashings: His mother once beat him in front of their church congregation for playing a few blues licks; Wolf once booted him off the stage at Chicago’s Key Largo club when he played “Smokestack Lightin’” too fast with a pick. The latter, he said "was the worst whooping I ever got in my life." Spurred by Wolf's admonishment he developed his “fingers only” approach. Colin Linden, a Canadian guitarist/producer, explained Sumlin’s technique to Sumlin biographer Will Romano: “The thing that was really cool about the way Hubert plays…is if you think about the way you hold your hand on a guitar, your thumb is closer to the neck than the bridge—your fingers are behind the bridge, most of the time. Hubert is almost the other way around. His fingers are closer to the neck and his thumb is closer to the bridge. So, he gets more attack on the side of his index finger that is closer to this thumb. He is the only guitar player I have ever met or heard who has this way of attacking the guitar—not just with is right hand but his left hand too.”

Playing with his fingers allowed Sumlin to turn his guitar into a percussion instrument, snapping off each note like one would knee a tree branch. (Guitarist Steve Freund, who played with Sumlin in the mid-70s, compared it to “a drummer using a stick.”) “Weird and amazing are a good summations of Sumlin’s style,” writes Jas Obrecht in Rollin’ and Tumblin’. “He responded to Wolf’s penchant for building songs around a single droning chord by creating unique bass lines, mantra-like riffs, and jagged, staccato fills. His solos were marked by uncommon vibrato and unexpected twists and turns.” Sumlin’s technique was even at full force years after Wolf’s death in 1976; writing of seeing Sumlin live in the late 80s, Jon Pareles of the New York Times marveled: “Mr. Sumlin is a guitarist of few notes, masterfully placed. With his raw tone and extraordinary variety of attacks, he mixes singing blues phrases and slashes of sheer texture—plunking out riffs, squeezing out delicate sighs in the upper register, making single notes moan, or suddenly swooping down for a metallic shriek. Melodically, his solos are almost abstract; against the chugging rhythms of the band, they are terse and cutting.”

But don’t just believe them! Here is the Beast’s 10 favorite Sumlin/Wolf tracks:


Hubert’s personal fave. Recorded January 1956 at the Chess Studios at 4750 South Cottage Grove. Hypnotic, one-chord (E) vamp and slightly offset beat over Wolf’s seething vocals. It drove the British poet Phillip Larkin to oddly proclaim the song “a pure piece of jazz gothic.” As Sumlin later explained to writer Ted Drozdowski, "Wolf made my ass come up with that shit. Hell, I had to play to God! He always used to put me down: 'You ain't doing this! You ain't got that right!' I said, 'Fuck it, who you think you are? Some fuckin' state trooper?' For 'Smokestack Lightning,' Wolf wrote it, and then he made me come up with that part." If the song sounds familiar, it's because its been used in a series of recent Viagra adds. Iggy Pop, a devoted blues fan, must have heard this droning track when he was conceiving of the Stooges.


Both recorded at Chess in August 1964, a session proclaimed by many fans and critics to be Sumlin's finest hour. "Killing Floor" is Hubert's second-best known riff after "Smokestack": A scraping intro leads into a monster, finger-plucked three-chord riff, with Sumlin turning his notes into vocal-like yelps up and down his guitar neck. "Louise" is a showcase for Wolf's oildrum vocals, but Sumlin and second guitarist Buddy Guy (who had just turned 28 the previous month) nearly take it away from him. Guy was brought in as the only guitarist who could rhythmically follow Sumlin's bizarre patterns. Also worth hearing from the same session: "Love Me Darlin'" and "My Country Sugar Mama."


A mournful, horn-laden slow drag dripping in distortion, with Hubert in a particularly peppery mood. Recorded September 28, 1962. Writes Mitsutoshi Inaba in Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues: “Sumlin’s guitar a very important factor that supports this musical drama. When he recorded the backing track, he was of course not hearing the vocal. While making this take, Sumlin had to assume when and how Wolf would come in and how his complementary phrases would fit the imaginative vocal lines. This is a difficult task, even though the musicians spend hours rehearsing with the vocalist.” Hubert later shrugged to an interviewer: “I got to where I knew what he wanted before he asked for it, because I could feel the man.’”


Recorded August 12, 1962. A jazzy, horn-driven anomaly in the Wolf catalogue. (It was previously recorded by R&B singer Charles Clarke.) Hubert reveals a streak of roadhouse Honky Tonk in his solo, which one writer called "one of the wildest of his career."


Wolf’s scariest song. Recorded December 1961. Sumlin’s wobbly, piercing guitar with its strong vibrato is the partner-in-crime to Wolf’s rapist-stalker persona, croaking the title over and over until it ceases to become love and turns into something much worse.


Recorded June 1960. This is the very definition of Hubert's "stinging" style, undoubtedly listened to and copied by oodles of late-60s/early-70s garage rockers. 


Recorded October 1954. A strange, shuffling military-style shuffle with drummer Earl Phillips hitting the bass drum like a piledriver on the first beat of every measure. But Hubert shows how he can be as restrained as he is fiery. 


Recorded April 11, 1966. A tough metronomic pulse powerful enough to split concrete. Hubert again pops out a hypnotic, repeated riff a la "Smokestack Lightnin" and seasons them with quick runs and wails.


Recorded in the same session as "Tail Dragger." Crying, sharp-as-carpet-tacks solo by Hubert, with some impressive note-bending thrown in for shits 'n' giggles.

“I put the music to those records. I'm proud of that. He let me.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Snerd's Stocking

On Slate this week, critic Fred Kaplan includes the L.A.-based reissue label Music Matters Jazz in its 'Best of 2011' year-end list. Every month since 2007, MMJ's co-owners Ron Rambach and Joe Harley (along with master Masterers Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman) have been releasing two lovingly restored, spine-hinged, 180g virgin vinyl 45rpm LPs from the classic catalogue of Blue Note Records -- which "tend to sound better than the original pressings!" adds Kaplan. They eventually will release 64 different titles through 2012 when all's said and done. Granted, $50 in the current economy for a 50-year-old jazz record ain't nothing to sneeze at, but if you know a jazz audiophile-slash-music-snerd who would rather buy music than food or clothing or grooming devices, odds are s/he will be indebted to you forever.

Chris Barton, our friend at the L.A. Times, also has posted his Year In Review: Best in Jazz list. In turn, our pal Greg Burk gives some of his picks on MetalJazz. If the scattin' and the soloin' and the skipitty-bippity-bop don't satisfy, the L.A Weekly has just posted their Top 10 L.A. Rock/Rap, etc. Albums of 2011 list and former Weekly music editor John Payne has posted his refreshingly uncategorizable Bluefat Aesthetic 2011 List. Happy shopping, you all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Symphony for Awkward in D-Minor

Thanks to our Blog Bud David Ocker, we discovered this terrific website that takes some -- or maybe close to all -- of the mystery and majesty of classical music and steps on it with a giant red clown shoe and accompanying bike-horn sound effect. As it turns out, indie gospel and Christian music albums do NOT have the monopoly on silly, awkward or just plain "WTF?" images. Of course, we couldn't help adding our own commentary. A sampling:

This will soon turn into an equally awkward orgy.
They're hot, yes -- but they're also probably crazy.

 The Hyphenated Trio.

Good Lord, they're about to give Maestro a rectal!

Why Mary Poppins was "let go."

Trying to re-create Bowie's Lodgers cover.

Yo-Ga Ma


A young Jon Hamm realizes he could get so much more laid if...

"You won't believe this! I asked them to get in the pool as a goof -- AND THEY DID IT!!"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

THE ARK@50: Tapscott Hits Hahvahd Yahd

Leading up to The Music of Horace Tapscott concert being held this Saturday at Harvard University's Dudley Hall are two separate Tapscott broadcasts on Boston radio today. You can catch the first in-progress, a seven-hour (WOW!) marathon being streamed live now on Harvard's own station WHRB (95.3) that will continue until noon EST. The second is from 4-5:30pm EST on The Jazz Train show on MIT's radio station WMBR (88.1 FM). Michael Heller, who is leads the Dudley Jazz Orchestra, will be a guest on both programs.