It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hey, guys.

After a week off, here’s another Friday playlist. It’s female forward – a big long part toward the beginning features women artists or women-fronted bands. New stuff from American Pleasure Club, Camp Cope, Soccer Mommy, Camila Cabello, Lola Kirke, Margaret Glaspy, Frankie Cosmos, The Orielles, Ratboys (!! love !!), Lake Street Dive, Beach House (whoa), Chvrches & Matt Berringer from the National, Hundred Waters (Spotify Single), The Decemberists, and Ride. Old stuff from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, R.E.M., and Spoon. And the whole thing kicks off with Leslie Feist’s heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” 60 tracks (plus a bonus) this time b/c I couldn’t figure out what to chop. Enjoy.

The cover image? I can’t remember where I found that. It wasn’t on Ello, per usu. Full credit to the unnamed artist, obviously.

Working on the regular monthly posts – everything is mostly done, except classical and jazz. Go fig, I left the hardest ones for last. Have great weekends.

More soon.



The Liner Notes Felsen Interview


Back in November 2017, Liner Notes featuredVultures on Your Bones,” the new single by Bay-area ensemble Felsen. That track kicks off their new album, Blood Orange Moon, which was released last month. It’s great. (And that’s not damned faint-praise. I enjoyed TF outta this record. And everybody, especially my best friend, knows that I’m a music snob.) Listen for yourself. You’ll dig.

Felsen honcho Andrew Griffin and I grew up together in Valparaiso, Indiana. We’re old friends. We recently had a chance to Q&A via email about the new record. Here’s the result – the first-ever LN rock star interview. If you’re expecting Lester Bangs chatting with Joe Strummer, you will not be disappointed 😉

JF: Describe your life path from Valpo to Oakland.  How did a Midwestern kid end up on the left coast leading a rock band?

AG: I moved from Valparaiso to Chicago in 1991 with my Loudflower bandmates after I graduated from VU.  I worked shitty restaurant jobs, and we were really going for it for about another year until the band imploded.  I started taking drum lessons soon thereafter, and that teacher encouraged me to further my education and go to Berklee College of Music.  I moved to Boston in the fall of 1993 with my girlfriend, Norene. I started school in January 1994. Norene and I got married in ‘96 and then we moved to the SF East Bay in 1998. I started working playing drums and teaching lessons.  I worked my way up the food chain of bay area drummers, toured the US with a few different bands, went to Europe a few times. Always working. I started teaching in schools, different music programs, daycare music, you name it, I did it. Plus…thousands of gigs…you’ve got to if you wanna eek out an income.  I played lots of rock, singer songwriter stuff, cover bands, wedding bands, jazz, country, Zydeco, Blues, Salsa, Cumbia, musical theater gigs, Big Band…everything. I learned much along the way. I had a band when I first arrived in the bay area, where I was the songwriting drummer – that being my 3rd valiant attempt with this concept, the first being in Valparaiso with the aforementioned Loudflower.  It never really seemed to work out though. Odd concept I guess – songwriting drummer with someone else singing and fronting the band. I set that notion aside around 2000 and just focused on drumming. I started to produce other people’s music. I was also a busy co-writer with a handful of really talented Bay Aarea songwriters. Mmost notably, I worked closely with Rich McCulley in the early 2000’s.  I was Rich’s drummer, and we wrote a bunch of tunes together, played about 180 gigs from coast to coast putting 70,000 miles on his van (seriously).  The drumming life was good to me.

JF: When did you form Felsen?

AG: I started to record what would become Felsen’s first album, Accidental Drowningin the fall of 2007.  I had no real plan at the time. I was in the middle of a long cancer ordeal, and I guess I was killing time, as I wasn’t working much due to my sickness.  There was also some desire to commit to tape my songs as my health situation was rather grave and perhaps my time was short. I had a newborn son at home at the time, and I wanted to leave something behind just in case.  I thought I would have other friends sing the tunes as I’d done in the past, but when I started to write about what I’d recently been dealing with (life and death and being a dad), I realized I had to sing. I’m still learning.  I’m a work-in-progress. That album took about a year to record, and then a few months of mixing. I got a small record deal with an East Bay label, 9th Street Opus, and they encouraged me to put a band together and make a go of it.  I was now the frontman, singer in a band–didn’t see that one coming. That was in the summer of 2009. I’ve been doing Felsen ever since.

JF: There have been various lineup changes.  I think the last time that I saw the band at Valpo’s legendary Club Coolwood, you were a quartet.  How has the band evolved since then?

AG: It’s really hard to keep a band together.  I’ve done my best. People come and go over the years.  Mainly, they run out of time (or money) or have moved from the area.  I will say, though, that every time someone new comes into the band, the bar always gets raised higher.  The level of musicianship is ever increasing as I’m able to attract better and better players as the band’s notoriety grows, we get better gigs, better money etc. I’m very, very grateful to all the folks who’ve helped me along the way.  In my current lineup I’ve got two people who’ve been with me about four years each. I haven’t been touring as much, mainly playing around the bay area and Northern California, and have had the luxury of playing with a slightly larger ensemble – sometimes up to 7 musicians.  When we tour again, it’ll most likely be a more compact unit, most likely a quartet. Touring is dreadfully expensive. Hey…can we sleep on your floor? Can you make us a vegan meal? Can I get your credit card number?

JF: You played drums in high school, right?  And you were in bands back then. I can’t remember the names.

AG: You are correct, sir.  I’m a proud alum of the very fertile Valpo music scene.  My first band was with Chad Clifford, who’s still going strong in Valpo.  Here’s a few band names: Merge, The Happy Bunch, Blue Elvis, Astral Zombies, Buddha’s Belly, Loudflower.  Anybody remember these bands?

JF: I remember the Happy Bunch, and maybe Astral Zombies, haha. When did you start playing guitar?  When did you start writing songs?

AG: My parents were kind enough/wise enough to allow my bands to practice in their house when I was in junior high and high school.  The guitars and amps, etc., lived in the house, and I guess I got curious about guitar around 9th grade and started fooling around then.  Maybe around 11th grade I could play a little bit. My freshman roomie at Valparaiso University had a guitar and an amp that I was constantly playing.  By my sophomore year, I had acquired a guitar (the borrow-to-own program thankyouverymuch) and basically started writing tunes the same way I continue to.  I was writing lyrics in highschool for my bandmates to sing and started writing poetry and short stories in college. I guess that all melded together. I’ve always mainly enjoyed creating original music. I’ve never been a very good or dedicated cover band guy.

JF: Do you still play drums?  With Felsen? I know you’ve gigged with other bands, too.  Camper Van Beethoven? Cake?

AG: Yup, still quite busy playing a lot of drums and teaching tons of lessons. If you know of anyone who needs a drummer…let ‘em know…I’ll do my homework…but I’m very, very expensive.  OK JK. I’m really fortunate to have lots of opportunities to play great original music here in the bay area (and beyond). I love it very much. The new Felsen album is all me on the drums.  We were going through some personnel changes at the time. Super fun experience for me. And, yes, a few big name gigs along the way.

JF: Describe your process with respect to songwriting.  Are you a notebook guy, scribbling lyrics in coffee shops when inspiration hits?  Or a device guy, recording snippets on your phone? Or are you more structured? Which comes first, chords or words?

AG: I’m pretty disciplined about recording new song snippets on my phone or computer.  Also, I keep folders in my google drive. There’s a random lyric folder where I dump words, phrases, stuff I hear in passing, or on TV, or Netflix or read on the internet or in a copy of the New Yorker (my doctor’s office magazine of choice) or just bizarre stuff my kid says. I then begin to sort through that stuff, sifting it out into more specific files – like a file all about technology or Trump or nature or death or love or sadness. I play guitar and stare at the screen, and, eventually, the words start to coalesce around the music (or vice versa).  I also keep a file of good opening lines and a file of song titles. Metallica starts with titles, and I wouldn’t argue with those dudes. That’s an interesting way of going about business, IMHO. Too many songs have shitty boring titles. I like song titles that could be movies, or novels. Good movies and interesting novels. “The Telepathic Kind.”  That’s a good title. Or “The Secret Life of Guns.” “Blood Orange Moon.” “White Denim Jeans.” Yummy titles. I’d read those books.

JF: I’m a New Yorker fan, too. I regularly snag passages and dump them into a notebook app. Such good writing, particularly about music. (Amanda Petrusich is a god among manboys.) Speaking of words, is there an aerial theme?  Airplane, Airline, Moon?

AG: I just saw Up In the Air again the other day.  Amazing movie. I guess that one really hit me years ago.   It takes years for me to wrap my brain around something. Re: air travel, etc. It’s a lonely world of airports and shitty motels.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the road. i guess I really saved up some of that sadness. I move at a glacial pace processing life events and churning them into songs.

JF: Are the songs on the new record all new? Have you played any of them live before going into the studio?

AG: There was really only one tune that Felsen had been playing on stage before recording the new album: “Poor in a Wealthy City.” I wrote much of that tune in a motel room in the Midwest when Felsen was on tour in the fall of 2013.  I wrote very deliberately for this new album. I did perform a handful of the tunes, as I was writing them. I wrote for two years, and then spent two years recording.

JF: Describe your process with respect to recording/production.  Were you involved on the production end of BOM? If so, what were your goals?  Do you have an idea of what you want a song or an album to sound like when you press record?  I’m thinking of something like Ansel Adams’ concept of previsualization. Maybe preaudialization?

AG: On Blood Orange Moon, I had a pretty clear idea of what I was going for. I started a branch of the Felsen family tree, playing with a few new faces and a few old ones, referring to that unit as the Felsen Symphonette. Incorporating cello, glockenspiel, synth, acoustic guitars and hand percussion – a bit of a departure from the electric guitar-heavy music of previous of Felsen albums. The Symphonette started to perform house concerts and backyards – low volume, lo-fi, and low tech.  Why not write an album of that lower volume stuff? I was inspired by a Rolling Stone review of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that described that album as “music for mountaintops.”  I liked that idea alot. I was also greatly under the musical narcosis of Beck’s twin albums Sea Change and Morning Phase, as well as Songs for a Blue Guitar by Red House Painters. I also heard Serge Gainsbourg’s tune, “Bonnie & Clyde” in an episode of Mad Men and eventually found Serge’s Historie de Melody Nelson. I recruited Allen Clapp of the Orange Peels to mix the album.  This album needed tons of reverb, and Allen has a special understanding of reverb.  He and his studio live on a mountain – music for mountaintops, indeed. Blood Orange Moon’s tempos are slower, volumes often quieter, and I’m often singing in a lower register. The tunes kinda sprawl out more and take more time to unfold.  They’re kinda cinematic in scope. The overall pace of the album is much slower. That’s a good reminder for all of us to just slow down.  Life is way too chaotic and insane right now. Chill out America.

JF: The production on “The Telepathic Kind” is lush in a ’70s way.  (Not a criticism. I love ’70s music.) Intentional?

AG: Yes and no.  It kinda seeps out of me.  I love the early 70’s Pink Floyd – Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon era.  I wanted that tune to be really dreamy and kinda narcotic sounding.  That one also owes much to Sun Kil Moon’s “Ghost of the Great Highway” as well.  Mark Kozelek really knows how to take his time and let a tune slowly unfold.  I love that. It takes courage to do that, too. On previous Felsen albums, I guess I was holding onto the idea that we would someday, somehow, get a song on the radio, and I had been making what I believed were radio-friendly albums (to the best of my ability).  I guess I’ve officially abandoned that idea entirely this time around and just made an album that I enjoy listening to. So…lots of 6 minute tunes this time ‘round.

JF: Guitar solos are pretty prominent on the new record.  Was that intentional? Did you do those?

AG: There’s a few.  I’m OK with it – I’m old fashioned.  Seems like they’re being abandoned, but I’m all for it.  The guitar solos were all done by Dylan Brock. I love Dylan’s playing.  He toured and recorded with Felsen for about four years. He’s got a real unique sound.  I hear Johnny Greenwood and Johnny Maar in his playing. Also a hint of George Harrison. There’s some pedal steel, and that was done by Gawain Matthews, who also engineered a goodly bit of the album.

JF: Talk about the instrumental interludes.  I think of you as a wordy guy, and it was fun to hear a few purely musical tracks.

AG: They’re like incidental music in a movie.  Again, going for kind of a cinematic thing.  I put a lot of thought into the sequencing of the album – I always do, but this one feels really special in that regard.  The album flows from start to finish, and it’s meant to be listened to as an LP, as well. I know that’s a tall order for our overly-stressed-out and frantically-paced society, BUT if you can just slow down and listen to this, you’ll really see it as an album.  I think it holds up. The three, short instrumental interludes really help tie it all together and make it feel more album-like.

JF: “Spanish Jam Sandwich” is like psych-rock Felsen.

AG: Yup.  Felsen is a cult.  That’s our theme song.

JF: What has been the local response to BOM?  I know you played a record release show recently.

AG: Excellent response locally.  We got lots of great press nationwide, and then we had a team of local friends write their own reviews.  My fav review so far has been from one of the bay area’s finest songwriters, Mr. Maurice Tani. My new, all time fav quote re: Blood Orange Moon: “It sounds expensive – back in the day of album rock, an album like this would have cost a mountain of corporate cash and a cigarette boat full of drugs.”  Nailed it.

JF: Any plans to make it back to the Midwest?

AG: We hope to be back in 2018.  Maybe play the Popcorn Festival?  Contact your local congressman and demand Felsen. Also, contact Von Tobels and see if they’ll underwrite our tour.  You never know.

Fwiw, Von Tobels is a local hardware store. For years, the business called itself the “Do-It Center.” I’m sure no teenagers ever had sex in their parking lot just because. Anyway, thanks, AG. I’ll have an influences playlist from him in the next week or so.

More soon.




It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hey, guys. Happy Friday, and Happy March.

I usually compile these playlists for my best friend. Sometimes, she listens to them in her car on Friday commutes. Sometimes (more often), we listen to them together in the kitchen on Friday nights, or over the weekend. This week is different. She’s traveling, so she might not get to this one. If a playlist falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still exist? I guess it does. On Spotify anyway, haha.

This time, there’s new stuff from Wye Oak, Holly Miranda, Yo La Tengo (!), Linn Koch-Emmery (!!), Hockey Dad, Screaming Females, L7, Natalie Prass, Janelle Monae, Kelly Lee Owens, Zola Jesus, U.S. Girls, Hop Along, Ratboys, and Okkervil River. And old stuff from Mogwai, Laura Nyro, Fiona, Boards of Canada, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wilco, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Enjoy.

The header image is by Yancy Way (@echophon on Ello). Thanks to her.

More soon.


A Seasonal Playlist


Hey, guys.

Yesterday was the last day of meteorological winter, so I thought a thematic playlist from a new Liner Notes contributor would be fun.

Back in January, BW, a longtime friend and a regular reader of the blog, emailed a link to a collaborative playlist. B is founding member of the Grateful Dead Clubhouse – one of the core six of us, who dug deep into the band’s history looking for lost gems. Best shows, best versions, best jam segments, etc. (Currently, our website with lists and links is down, but we hope to have it up soon.)

Anyway, B wanted to share some music that was getting him through a rough East Coast winter. He’s a great guy, and agreed to let me post his playlist here. It’s a great mix of new and old, and, even though it was compiled a couple months ago, it’ll still bring some warmth to the first day of meteorological spring. Enjoy.

More soon.


Phish Monthly: Nassau Coliseum – Uniondale, NY 2/28/03


On Friday, February 28, 2003, Phish played a show a Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. It was a great one.

That venue has been covered twice on LN: first, for the Grateful Dead’s 3/15/73 show; second, for the Dead’s 5/14-16/80 run. I won’t repeat the details – the Islanders play there, the Dead played there. Yadda-yadda. Oh, and Phish played there.

Phish’s first show at Nassau Coliseum was 4/2/98, the opening show of their famed Island Tour. It was great. The following night, 4/3/98, was legendary. The band played there twice in ’99, and then…

Well. Y2K started with the epic Big Cypress shows at the turn of the century and ended with a show at the Shoreline Ampitheater on October 7. Then the band walked away from us. And by us, I mean Phans. I wasn’t a Phan back then. I became one shortly thereafter, so I can give you the noob perspective.

At the time, the hiatus seemed sorta permanent. Guitarist Trey Anastasio released a solo record, and a solo live record. Bassist Mike Gordon released a record with Leo Kottke. Keyboardist Page McConnell released an album with his Vida Blue project, and drummer Jon Fishman released an album with his Pork Tornado project. (Those aren’t on Spotify. You’re not missing anything.)

Phish didn’t play another show until 12/31/02.  They did a New Years thing at Madison Square Garden, and three shows immediately afterwards at Hampton Coliseum. Then they plotted an entire winter tour, which opened out west. That’s exactly the time that I turned on. Phish was featured in Rolling Stone, and the band started offering new shows to download on I’d like to say that 2/28 was my first download, but it was my second. (2/16/03 lured me with it’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” but the so-called Viper sold me.)

Ancient history? No, it seems like yesterday to me. My big kid was born in October of that year. By then, I was all-in. Mostly via’s FAQ page, I started learning about Gamehendge, triple nipples, jamming types, and how to rhyme feet with Firenze. And I started loitering on a Phish message board, which is where I met alot of fun people (heighs to Noly and Tabs), especially the GDC crew. (We weren’t initially the GDC crew. We were just a group of guys who hung out on Phish PT and talked about the Dead every day. The GDC label came later after we dubbed our exhausting discussion threads about best shows and best versions as the Grateful Dead Clubhouse. I digress.)

Those core five guys have become life-long friends. Even if I’ve only met most of them once, I email with them all the time. I recently asked them for their takes on 2/28/03. They all have more cred than I do, so I’ll turn over the commentary to them.

BW is from New York. In 2003, he was finishing college in the midwest. He had attended the MSG and Hampton shows, but couldn’t pull off another trip back east.  2/28/03 was the only Phish Nassau show that he ever missed, but his younger brother was there and called at set break about the Destiny Unbound bustout.

ECM considers himself more of a Dead expert than a Phish expert. He was there on 2/28/03, however, and offered his stream of consciousness recollection:

“It was the only Phish show I saw that year – new job, new baby, new house. So my head was not in the game as much as it usually was/is. I think it was the only time I saw them at Nassau. The Dead always played well there, so the stakes were high. Phish did not disappoint.
We got to the parking lot scene late due to my new job. I was the designated driver ,so I was sober for this show. When we arrived, it was dark and it was freezing cold, and there was a lot less activity than usual. Most people stayed inside their cars to keep warm. Nassau Coliseum is an armpit of a venue. Dirty, old, and dilapidated, but it is also one of the smaller arenas in the area, so the views are pretty good everywhere. Round Room had just been released, and I had listened to it alot to become acquainted with the new material. I think that this was the first tour when Live Phish made downloads available for sale the day after the show, so I had heard some of the tour already too which was cool. I remember loving the Mind Left Body Jam in the Cincinnati Gin.
The band came out with guns a-blazin’ in the show opener, Birds of a Feather. Trey completely destroyed his solo and it became very clear to me that this was going to be a very good night for the band. After they played the last note the crowd was cheering so loudly that I had no idea what they were playing when they busted out Destiny. Then, from my vantage point I saw a huge swell in the crowd cheering, fist pumping, high-fiving, hugging, and dropping to their knees in disbelief. People were going fucking nuts, but I still couldn’t make out what the band was playing. I finally figured it out sometime into the first verse. Wow! That was HUGE! Things cooled down for a bit for Horn, which I love, but another big highlight was a mid-set Gin. As I recall, this version had a nice funky jam on the tail end.
After a palate cleansing version of Sleep the band turned things up a notch with Back On The Train. The “go-to” version of that song at the time was the LivePhish release from Drum Logos (6/14/00), but the Nassau version took that for strong! What a fantastic groove. The band closed out the first set with the new “hit single,” Walls of the Cave. [Wasn’t 46 Days the single? I can’t remember what Chicago radio played off RR.] It was a ballsy move, but the band had played everything so well and had the audience exactly where they wanted us.
From the opening notes of Tweezer, I knew it would be a long, exploratory jam. There’s not too much I can say about this version that hasn’t already been said. It is hailed as one of the great ones. The band really took this one for a ride, exploring many themes. One thing that struck me about it is how melodic is was. The transition into Soul Shakedown Party took me by surprise. It was fun, and it would have been epic on any other night, but not on this sacred night when the band’s donuts were all properly aligned. David Bowie was great. So many classics packed into one night. Can it get any better? Round Room was next. A quirky Mike song which somehow seemed to work perfectly. The band reached back into their repertoire of classics and closed the show with Harry Hood.
You know they are feelin’ good when they play a three-song encore. Contact was fun, but Mexican Cousin was even better. The lyrics are silly, but then Trey takes this solo, and I am paralyzed. So, so good. Tweeprise was completely expected and nobody cared.”
And OM chimed in from a conference:
“This was the first tour when downloads were made available for every show, although it was a 3-4 day lag before they went up. I remember that a lot of people saw this show as the first sign that ‘Phish is back!’ after the hiatus. Part of that was how much more slowly the music spread at that point in time. No one was sharing download links the next morning — not widely anyway. The Nassau show got a lot of buzz because it was a great show, and if you were going to download one or two shows from the tour, then 2-28-03 had to be at the top of the list. It’s one of those shows that got overhyped, but still lived up to its reputation. Anyway, the Tweezer still gives me chills.”
Fortunately, you can hear it for yourself, along with the rest of the show, on Spotify. HERE is the direct link, and below is the widget.

Not sure where and when we’re going in March, but it’ll probably be much earlier.

More soon.




The Classical #2: Jean Sibelius’ “En Saga” (Op. 9)


Welcome back to The Classical. This month, the featured artist is Jean Sibelius. And the featured composition is his tone poem, En Saga.

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born 1865 in Hämeenlinna in the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was then an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. His father died shortly thereafter, and his Swedish-speaking mother raised him and his siblings. Sibelius began playing piano at age seven, but switched to the violin at age sixteen. He dreamed of becoming a virtuoso and became an accomplished player. After finishing high school, he attended the Helsinki Music Institute for several years and continued his studies in Europe – first in Berlin, then in Vienna.  Around that time, Sibelius adopted the French form of his name and called himself Jean.

While on the continent, he understood that a performance career was unlikely, so he stopped playing the violin and started writing music. Reflecting his growing interest in his country’s history and politics, his first major composition, Kullervo, is a choral and orchestral piece inspired by the Kalevala, an early 19th-Century epic poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Finnish folklore and mythology.


Sibelus returned to Finland and married the daughter of a regional governor and a Baltic aristocrat. The couple honeymooned in the province of Karelia, which was the setting of the Kalevala. The spirit of that place apparently led Sibelius to start his next major composition, En Saga.


A tone poem or symphonic poem is a piece of music that evokes outside sources – literature, art, nature. Typically, a tone poem seeks to urge listeners to daydream and imagine scenes or moods. Unlike KullervoEn Saga, which means a fairy tale in Swedish, is not based on any specific story or programme. Sibelius later recalled:

En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works. I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time. In no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.”

(I couldn’t uncover what those painful experiences may have been, though I did learn that he had his gall bladder removed while he was in Vienna.)

En Saga emerged from the ashes of Kullervo, which had been an ambitious failure. Sibelius conferred with his mentor, Finnish composer Robert Kajanus, about the difficulties of performing Kullervo.  Kajanus encouraged Sibelius to work on shorter, purely orchestral pieces. In 1891, he started working on an octet for strings, flute, and clarinet, which may have become En Saga. The piece was scored for an orchestra including strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, tuba, and percussion. It was completed in 1892 and debuted the following year in Helsinki with Sibelius himself conducting.

The debut received mixed reviews. One critic called Sibelius’ musical intuition “capricious.” And some of the musicians in Kanjanus’ orchestra even found En Saga as incomprehensible as Kullervo. But Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto, one of Sibelius’ contemporaries, heard things differently:

“[W]hat is new in this En Saga is so worthy that it completely elevates this work above all of Sibelius’s other orchestral works. The extensive fantasy; the masterful handling of the simple, main motifs in constantly new forms; the strength, which swells from the composer’s bosom to quite awesome, yet magnificent heights; the subtlety, which gently caresses the ear and perforce pushes its way into the heart; the richness of colour which comes from the excellent orchestration and imitation of its effects: such are qualities that are by no means of low value. When, in addition to and in the background of all this, appear such beautiful, wafting Finnish motifs tinged with sadness, as in this fantasy-like En saga, in our opinion it shows that Sibelius has taken a remarkable step forward in the noble task of his great soul.”

Sibelius, too, mentioned that En Saga was tied to Finland. He explained, “In that work we are on familiar ground. How could one thing of anything other than Finland while listening to it!” Still, as strongly as he felt about the piece, he was not opposed to revising it. A new, streamlined version of En Saga debuted in Berlin in 1902.


According to the Sibelius website, the later version “makes a stronger impression, compelled by its own inner logic.” Paul Serotsky, a contributor on MusicWeb International, echoes that sentiment in his programme notes on the piece. Serotsky adds that, in En Saga, “everything springs from one thematic cell which spawns one distinctive theme, then another, and another.”  There are five sections to the piece: a slow beginning and a slow ending that bracket what Serotsky calls a Italian-style fast-slow-fast overture. Serotsky’s musings on those sections are interesting:

  1. An atmosphere of expectancy is immediately conjured by swirling (mist-ical?) “sound effects”, unusually for Sibelius not thematically integrated. The main melodic germ is born, protesting, out of agonised woodwind, growing painfully in black woodwind and pizzicato double-basses before blossoming on ‘cellos as the flowing first derivative [A].
  2. As if decisively embarking on some quest, the tempo picks up (an accelerando devoid of the symphonic subtleties which would become his hallmark). A second derivative [B], with a prominent dotted rhythm, soon followed by a propulsive third derivative [C], dominate this part of the “quest”.
  3. Our imaginary hero reins in his steed as he seems to lose the trail (my libretto sees this as an equestrian quest!). [B] dissolves into chamber-music textures. [C], plaintive on oboe beneath strange harmonic overtones, descends into a vale of sighs and sobs echoing the pain of the mother-theme.
  4. The music abruptly takes off like the Lone Ranger: “With the speed of light, and a cloud of dust”, [A] plunges onwards in a cumulatively thundering tumult, suddenly halted . . .
  5. [C], broken, expires. [A] wanders, in numb puzzlement, on lonely clarinet. Finally only [B]’s dotted rhythm remains, a dull, bass throbbing. What has our hero stumbled on? More to the point: how on earth does this grim pool of despond fit in with the Finnish nationalist feelings of the time?

Listen for yourself. (I’m still new to classical music, so I wasn’t sure which version to pick. I went with the Deutsche Grammophon version because I recognized the record label.)

At the turn of the 20th Century, as Finland struggled to break free from Russian rule, Sibelius composed another tone poem, Finlandia. A segment of that piece with added lyrics is now a sort of unofficial anthem.

Sibelius eventually gained a reputation as a symphonic composer – a sort of weirder (per Pulitzer Prize winning music critic Tim Page), Nordic alternative to Gustav Mahler, with whom he was acquainted. Sibelius wrote seven symphonies, completing the last one in 1924. His output ended at that time, though he lived for many more years. He died in 1957 as something of a national treasure. His home is now a museum, and his birthday is celebrated across the country as the Day of Finnish Music.

pay-no-attention-to-what-the-critics-say-a-statue-has-never-been-erected-in-honor-of-a-critic-jean-sibeliusAs usual, Wikipedia was a major source for this post.

More soon.


Jazz Is… #7: Charles Mingus


It’s about time that Jazz Is… featured a bassist.

Charles Mingus is probably the most renowned bass player in jazz history. Shouts to Coltrane sidekick Jimmy Garrison, Jaco Pastorius, and William Parker. They’re fringe hipster choices. The smart money is on Mingus.

Mingus was born on an Army base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922.  His heritage was mixed: His father was the son of an African-American man and Swedish woman; his mother was the daughter of a British man and a Chinese woman.  At an early age, Mingus and his family moved to the Watts area of Los Angeles, where he grew up.  His mother allowed only classical church music in their home, so he began playing cello.  In high school, he switched to the double bass and quickly gained a reputation as a prodigy.


Mingus’ first professional gig was was playing with with Barney Bigard, Duke Ellington’s former clarinet player. In the 1940s, he toured with trumpeter Louis Armstrong and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. In 1953, he joined Ellington’s band until the Duke fired him for an onstage fight trombonist Juan Tizol.  Mingus had a notoriously bad temper, and was sometimes called “The Angry Man of Jazz.”


Around that time as bebop revolutionized jazz, Mingus played with saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.  A quintet featuring Mingus, Parker, Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, and drummer Max Roach played a famed show at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953. A recording of that show was one of the first releases on the Debut label, which Mingus and Roach founded the previous year.

Mingus had a difficult relationship with Parker. The two had a public split at a 1955 “reunion” show of four-fifths of the quintet. That was Parker’s last performance; he died a week later.

Mingus became a bandleader around that time, heading a rotating cast of musicians called the Jazz Composers Workshop or simply the Jazz Workshop. He recorded prolifically and released around thirty albums over a ten-year period from the mid-50s to the mid-60s for various labels. Among his early successes were Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) and The Clown (1957).


In 1959, Mingus and his Jazz Workshop gang released Ah-Um on Columbia Records. Ah-Um is a classic, part of the Library of Congress’ National Recordings Registry. The album offers a snapshot of Mingus’ ambitious and varied compositional style. He once referred to church and Duke Ellington as his biggest influences, and you can hear both on Ah-Um – the preachy shouts in the lead track, “Better Get It in Your Soul,” and the gorgeous swing in “Open Letter to Duke.”  The album also featured tributes to saxophonist Lester Young (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) and pianist Jelly Roll Morton (“Jelly Roll”), as well as diss track aimed at Arkansas’ segregationist governor, Orval Faubus (“Fables of Faubus”).  The latter was later given lyrics and retitled “Original Faubus Fables” on 1960’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.


The 50th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Ah-Um also contains 1959’s Mingus Dynasty.  That album features a beautiful Ellington cover, “Mood Indigo.”

Mingus was a great reinterpreter of his own work. In 1963, he moved to Image Records, where he released a sprawling masterpiece of near-orchestral jazz, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, before returning to older material on Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Mingus 5, as it’s called, featured new versions of several earlier songs. Ah-Um‘s “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” was retitled “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul,” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was retitled “Theme for Lester Young.”  “Haitian Fight Song” from The Clown became “II B.S.,” “Duke’s Choice” from 1957’s A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry became “I X Love,” and “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too” from 1960’s Blues and Roots became “Hora Decubitus.” And “Mood Indigo” reappeared, as did “Celia” from 1957’s East Coasting. (The italics albums are all on Spotify, if you want to track them down.)

Multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy plays on most of Mingus 5, which is a treat. Dolphy’s stint with Mingus’ band is elsewhere documented on Cornell 1964, The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, and a fantastic box set titled The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65.


It’s also documented on video. Here’s a YouTube clip of Mingus’ then-sextet with Dolphy on Norwegian television in 1964 doing Ellington’s “Take the A-Train.” Check out Dolphy’s out-of-this-world three-minute bass clarinet solo that starts around 4:30. The later back-and-forth between Dolphy and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan that closes the clip is also great. (I plan to cover Dolphy as a solo artist in an upcoming Jazz Is… blogpost. He’s incredible.)

Mingus’ output slowed after that period, as he battled obesity and ALS. A late career high point was 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music, which was nominated for a Grammy.  In the late ’70s, Mingus worked with Joni Mitchell on one of her projects to which pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and Jaco also contributed. Mingus died in Mexico in 1979 before it was completed. She later finished the album, which was called Mingus.


Mingus looms large in jazz history, and his legacy lives via the Mingus Big Band, which still plays and tours regularly.


As usual, Wikipedia – the Mingus wiki, specifically – was a major source.

More soon.