Category Archives: music

Her River Runs Through Me

 

“Part of you, flows out of me

in these lines from time to time”

    Joni Mitchell

  Metaphorically, a river is often used to represent movement, connection or coming home, like “ a river to a sea.”  In 1971, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the song “River,” describing it, from the perspective of her upbringing in Saskatchewan, Canada, as a pathway to escape her problems and a longing for something more.  It simply began:  “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.  Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

The complete song was self-revealing in a way that was unprecedented, especially for a woman dealing with the societal ceiling of the times.  Although we have never met, I would, over the next forty years, develop an intimate relationship with Joni Mitchell through her words and her music. They became an ongoing inspiration to my soul as it revealed itself to me.  I often found solace in her words that helped me to think and write poetically.  Without trying, she often reminded me that I could be a better, more enlightened person.  She was my muse.

A few days after my twenty-fourth birthday, I returned to my apartment to find a thin, wrapped twelve-inch square package lying across the threshold of my doorstep with a note from my brother-in-law attached that read, “Happy Birthday, there’s great music in the world that isn’t jazz.”  

Kerry had recently returned from combat in the Vietnam War and was living the hippie life in the hills of Los Gatos.  Unable to expand my psychedelic horizons, he became determined to broaden me musically beyond my limiting obsession with jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist Herbie Hancock.

He had some success with my college graduation gift of the album, “On the Threshold of a Dream,” that turned me on to the innovative music of the Moody Blues and thought that Joni Michell’s latest 1972 release, “For The Roses,” would be the next logical step in his plan to open me up.  Those instincts were auspicious  and, at that time, he may have known more about my inner self than I did.

Unfortunately, Kerry fell into life-long drug addiction, the cumulative effects of which led to his death, at age sixty-five, from a heart attack.  As a few people gathered at his gravesite, I delivered some brief remarks and credited his birthday gift of “For The Roses” as life changing for me.

It is one thing to write from the heart and another to write unafraid, willing to reveal and expose your vulnerabilities. For me, Joni Mitchell did that better than anyone. 

The album, “For The Roses” included a few catchy songs like, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Barangrill,” that used wit and alliteration to tell  young love stories.  Pulling me deeper into her expressive self, another piece, “Lesson In Survival” was a different type of love song that spoke of the complexities of relationships, isolation and the fear of incompatibility. 

She wrote: “Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s sensitivity.  Your friends protect you, scrutinize me and I get so damn timid, not at all the spirit that’s inside of me.  I can’t seem to make it with you socially, there’s this reef around me.”

The song, “Lesson In Survival” set-up one of her most poignant pieces, “Woman of Heart And Mind.”    

“I am a women of heart and mind, with time on my hands, no child to raise.  You come to me like a little boy and I give you my scorn and my praise.”

In the early seventies, the roles of men and women were more defined, like the walls of a cage.  Joni’s words made me question why I couldn’t be a little boy and lean on my young wife sometimes.  Current norms only placed importance on me being a rock for her to lean on, something that seemed counterintuitive to what makes a lasting relationship. 

Women had already figured this out, judging by the new movement for equality that they were creating.  I understood the concept, but Joni’s lyrics became the voice in my head that rose up from time to time when I needed to be reminded that I could think and do better.

The song’s assault on the perceived “Mad Men” roles of men and women that existed forty-five years ago continued with lyrics from the modern female perspective.   

“After the rush when you come back down, you’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high. Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers, don’t it leave you on the empty side?”

In the 1990s, my two young boys would giggle when they heard that verse of “Women Of Heart And Mind” playing on my home or car stereo.  Today, at ages forty and thirty-three, I consider both of them to be open and sensitive men.  Thanks, in part, to musical pioneers like Joni Mitchell, they grew up in a society where the archaic roles of men and women were more blurred and less defined. 

The song, “Woman Of Heart And Mind” concludes not like an arrow, but a dagger to the heart of early-1970s norms as Joni became introspective and personal.    “You criticize and you flatter, you imitate the best and the rest you memorize.  You know, the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t try, when you don’t even try.”

I refused to look in a mirror for days while my young mind digested those words.

The lessons of “Woman Of Heart And Mind” were reinforced later, in 1977, with the song “Jericho,”  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self expression.  I need that too.  I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time, in return I’ll give you mine.  Sweet darling, it’s a rich exchange it seems to me.  It’s a warm arrangement.”

These words continually emerge as a voice in my head, usually when I am not living up to the message.

A few weeks after receiving it, I shared my excitement about “For The Roses” to a visiting friend who was familiar with Joni’s music.  When I returned from work the next day, he gifted me her three earlier albums.  I became full-on Joni Mitchell and couldn’t get enough of her music or her poetic messages.  Even though she stopped writing and recording music in 2007, her lyrics have their own drawer in the Dewey-decimal system of my mind, easily retrievable.

In her album, “Blue,” recorded one year before “For The Roses” in 1971, Joni’s lyrics were slightly less refined, but revealing of her emerging themes. In the song, “All I Want,” she wrote/sang:  “All I really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you.  I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you, again and again.”

While Joni was, most likely, referring to an personal relationship, my take-a-way was that more than being present, I needed to consciously be there, again and again.  As the superficial pressures of becoming a sensitive, white male were mounting, Joni offered a cautionary reminder:  “When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company.”

My wife Karen shared a passion for Joni’s words that would evolve, over time, into an artistic threesome.  As we all grew and changed, her lyrics became less of a guide for our relationship and more of an appreciation of expression. 

Although passion was still present, our desire to bathe and shampoo together gave way to “I just want to soak in the tub and relax for a while.”  As a young relationship is often driven by passion, one that is maturing acknowledges growth as people, allowing more space for independent thought as well as a relaxing bath.  After all, it was Joni who reminded us of the need to approve each other’s self-expression.  

Joni’s declaration:  “…you want stimulation, nothing more, that’s what I think” became, at times, mutually acceptable.  Our deep love was engrained and with the fear of incompatibility diminishing, an appreciation for individual expression and a desire for exploration of mind and body burst forth.

  Joni was also evolving. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities, her words began to express a deep sense of independence and wanderlust that, admittedly, resulted in both peace of mind and regret.  Years earlier, in “River,” she blamed herself as she wrote/sang:  I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.  Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.  I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

Her epic 1976 release, “Hejira,” revealed a more determined independent spirit as she wrote/sang:  “In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed.  So now I’m returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed. We’re only particles of change I know, orbiting around the sun.  But how can I have that point of view, when I’m always bound and tied to someone.”

Ironically, shortly after hearing those words for the first time, Karen and I, after being together for eight years, decided to make a baby.  

No worries, Joni, we would always be there for you and approve your self expression.  We needed you, too, now that our lives were about to change forever.

“No one’s going to show us everything, we all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”

Joni Mitchell

Ryan Christopher, our first child, was born on a rainy morning in San Francisco at the close of 1977. Elvis Presley was dead, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the skies welcomed the space shuttle and supersonic commercial flights on the Concorde. For the next few months, our lives were a dichotomy between being indulgent new parents and wanting to stay relevant in the cafes of adult conversation.

Although we loved this baby above all else, we had spent the 1970s developing a friendship circle and still yearned to remain a part of the social gatherings, dinners and discussions that would create a balance between our past and present lives.

We sought some clarity listening to Joni Mitchell, although her recent lyrics were poetically self-revealing of a lifestyle at polar opposite to ours. She was independent, exploring several relationships with little expectation.

“I met a friend of spirit, he drank and womanized and as I sat before his sanity, I was holding back from crying. He saw my complications and he mirrored me back simplified and we laughed how our perfection would always be denied. ‘Heart and humor and humility,’ he said, ‘will lighten up your heavy load.’ I left him then for the refuge of the roads.”

Joni was not my role model in understanding the new feminist perspective, but her words were the three glasses of wine that I needed to be open-minded. Her unending diary was unbolted, now telling of an independent woman, sometimes in a relationship, sometimes not, sometimes looking, sometimes not.

“Anima rising, queen of queens, wash my guilt of Eden, wash and balance me.  Anima rising, uprising in me tonight, she’s a vengeful little goddess with an ancient crown to fight.”

Through dealing with dichotomies in our lives, we found Joni’s.  As her lyrical compositions evolved, they became more lucid and seductively inviting.

In her autobiographical song, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” released days before Ryan was born, she wrote/sang:  “The spirit talks in spectrums, it talks to mother earth to father sky, self-indulgence to self-denial, man to woman, scales to feathers, you and I, eagles in the sky, you and I, snakes in the grass, you and I, crawl and fly, you and I.”

Exposing herself to the world with no boundaries, she used contrasting images to describe the inner conflicts and the depth of her character.  Like Shakespeare, she drew a fuzzy line between good and evil.

By exposing herself, she spoke to the duality in all of us:  “Behind my bolt locked door, the eagle and the serpent are at war in me, the serpent fighting for blind desire, the eagle for clarity.  What strange prizes these battles bring, these hectic joys-these weary blues, puffed up and strutting when I think I win, down and shaken when I think I lose.”

She reminds that blind desire and clarity can be gateway drugs to each other. 

“Big bird dragging its tail in the dust…snake kite flying on a string.”

Joni’s inner conflicts are not black and white, left or right-brained, on or off. They are in the same soup of her soul, of our souls, there to be embraced with grace and balance.

Although we will never fully understand the motivation and intimate meanings of Joni’s lyrics, she provoked my creative imagination and helped bridge the gap between the real world and my abstract self. It was reassuring and normalizing to hear: “It seems we all live so close to that line and so far from satisfaction.”

Joni often used references of a personal relationship as a metaphor that spoke to something larger.  My perception of the simple words: “And you put me at the top of your danger list just for being so much like you are” was meant to expose the 1970s good ol’ boys network for what it was.

In those times, there were more threatened men who resisted women’s entrance into the workplace with gender-biased perceptions and role expectations.  Many men claimed exclusive seats at the boardroom table because the norms of the day dictated it.  When men heard the question, “Do you want your wife working late at the office?” they had horrific thoughts of creepy predators, changing diapers and, heaven forbid, having to cook a meal.  

In her typical fashion, Joni’s words didn’t demand inclusion, just magnified the fact that insecurity was the root of the problem.  She was never a leader of the feminist movement, but a willingness to write openly of her fears and vulnerabilities enabled us all to think introspectively, become more enlightened to re-think the barricades to change.  

When a glass ceiling breaks, some focus on what’s beyond, others cover up to avoid the shard’s falling around them. Joni’s lyrics peeled back the layers of existing norms and exposed the right side of history.

She wrote/sang:  “I come from open prairie, given some wisdom and a lot of jive.  Last night I saw the ghost of my old ideals, re-run on channel five.”

While the unpredictable winds of change were blowing hard, Joni used another relationship metaphor to caution us of the risks to intimacy. 

 “You and me are like America and Russia, we’re always keeping score.  We’re always balancing the power and that could get to be a cold, cold war.”

A lengthy solo by jazz tenor saxophone great, Wayne Shorter at the end of a new piece foreshadowed Joni’s brief collaboration with legendary composer Charles Mingus during the last few months of his life.

Putting words to the Mingus’s jazz classic, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” Joni recounts mid-century society reactions when saxophonist Lester Young married a white woman.  She ended the piece with another poignant and universal message:  “Love is never easy, it’s short of the hope we have for happiness.”

Joni also included a haunting original piece about her impressions of Mingus’s multiple personalities that, once again, spoke to some duality in all of us. “He is three, one’s in the middle unmoved, waiting to show what he sees to the other two. To the one attacking–so afraid and the one that keeps trying to love and trust and getting himself betrayed. In the plan—oh the divine plan, God must be a boogie man.” 

As she aged, Joni used an introspective style to discuss her mortality.  The song, “Sweet Bird,” began:  “Out on some borderline, some mark of in-between, I lay down golden-in time and woke up vanishing. Sweet bird, you are briefer than a falling star.”  She continued. “Behind our eyes, calendars of our lives, circled with compromise. Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing, up on your feathers laughing.”

Another polarity of life is the nexus of an aging body and an expanding mind.  Well into middle-age, Joni, as we do, became more reflective and often cynical about both the past and present.  Now speaking to a larger audience, her current state-of-mind was revealed through a hard-edged, whimsical love song.  “If I’d only seen through the silky veils of ardor what a killing crime this love can be.  I would have locked up my heart in a golden sheath of armor and kept its crazy beating under strictest secrecy, high security.”

Sensing, early on, a nation divided, Joni began to speak to our perceived invulnerability, not by advocating changes in policy, but openly reflecting on what we all had become.  

  Years ago, in “Borderline,” she observed: “Everybody looks so ill at ease, so distrustful so displeased.

Running down the table, I see a borderline, like a barbed wire fence strung tight, strung tense, prickling with pretense, a borderline.”

Changing mine or anyone’s position was never on Joni’s agenda.  She was only there for thought-provoking insight.  

“Every notion we subscribe to is just a borderline. Good or bad, we think we know, as if thinking makes things so. All convictions grow along a borderline”.

Borderlines were something Joni wrote of but never subscribed to.

Joni’s well-timed last lyrical message came in 2007, something I relished then and now.  Imagining that it was our final conversation and I was seeking any sage advice that would sustain me, she responded with:  “If you can dream and not make dreams your master. If you can think and not make intellect your game. If you can meet with triumph and disaster

and treat those two imposters just the same.”

Like any long-term relationship, there is no real ending.  What we take from it lasts throughout our lives and maybe gets passed on to another.  Of the people who I have long admired but never met, Joni’s profound impact in my life is unmatched.  Like a martyr, revealing her own vulnerabilities conjured up introspection and balance in our lives and, perhaps, in the lives of others.

 

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The Rhones

 

While reading a recent Wine Spectator magazine article extolling the virtues of the current releases from the Rhone Valley in southern France, I was reminded of our recent travels to Chateaunef-du-Pape and of how much I favor the blends from the southern valley.

The approach to winemaking in the northern Rhone Valley is simpler because they focus only on syrah and a few white varietals. The exceptional syrah from known appellations like Cote du Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage and Cotie-Rotie is arguably the world’s best.

Wine Spectator has given the entire 2016 vintage a rating range of 94-97 points, comfortably in the “classic wine” designation.  The earlier 2015 vintage was awarded an astounding 99 points.

In contrast, the wines from the southern Rhone are all blends of seven grapes for the reds and six for the whites.  The renown southern Rhone red blends from

Tasting in Chateaunef-du-Pape

Chateaunef-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and others north of Avignon, feature a backbone of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The other permitted red varietals, counoise, cinsault, clairette and carignan are used mainly in a supporting role.

White Rhone blends, whether from the southern Rhone Valley or California have become, for me, a consist alternative to chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. The most recognizable grapes used in the white blends are grenache blanc, marsanne, roussane and viognier.  Lesser known varietals picpoul and bourboulenc are becoming more present in blends featured on restaurant wine lists.

As is commonly the case, most of the credit for these great Rhone valley wines is given to the soil.  During a recent visit to the Chateaunef-du-pape appellation, I was surprised to see large stones covering the top soil looking like they were purposely dumped there.  These stones, described as galets, consist mostly of limestone and

Stone galets in a Chateaunef-du-Pape vineyard

serve to insulate the roots from the region’s cool evenings.  I have not seen soils like this anywhere else.

As one may guess from the current ratings, Rhone Valley wines are very expensive and sometimes rare. Some recent research revealed their availability ranging from moderately priced to more high-end.  Also, we are fortunate that regions in California, including Paso Robles, are producing world-class Rhone blends right under our feet.

The following wines from both France and California are accessible on-line and in many wine outlets, representing some of the better values.

I am always interested in highly rated wines that sell for under twenty dollars.  The 2013 Château de Montfaucon “Baron Louis” Lirac $19/90-pt), a blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault, got my attention.  From the Lirac cru, located across

2013 Château de Montfaucon “Baron Louis” Lirac $19/90-pt)

the river from Chateaunef-du-Pape, this wine has been defined as “comfort food in a glass” and promises ripe fruit and spice flavors.

We were fortunate to have tasted the 2015 Chateau de Vaudieu “Val de Dieu” Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($65/95-pt during our visit to the region last year. It was complex from the bouquet through the finish with intense, but balanced fruit, floral and spice flavors.

Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth recently wrote of an opportunity to barrel taste each varietal separately prior to blending into a future Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunef-du-Pape release. Chateau de Beaucastel is an iconic winery

Chateau de Vaudieu

estate that is a patriarch of rhone wines in both France and California.  I am envious, but feel fortunate for our 2016 private tasting at the estate.

I found two releases including the 2009 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunef-du-Pape ($55/96-pt), a grenache and mourvedre dominant blend that fits the mold for a highly aromatic, full-bodied wine with impeccable structure.  Also available as a classic for collectors was a 1990 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunef-du-Pape ($200/96-pt).  Apparently, the 1989 and 1990 vintages were as outstanding as the current ones and this wine became part of Wine Spectators Top 100 Wines of 1993. Critic Janis Robinson, at that time used descriptors like “generous, concentrated, intense and mouth-filling” in her review.

Decades ago, Chateau de Beaucastel and the Perrin family partnered with the Haas family to create Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, one of the early producers of fine Rhone blends in California.  They offer three traditional blends beginning with

2014 Tablas Creek “Cotes de Tablas Rhone Blend

the 2014 Tablas Creek “Patelin de Tablas” Paso Robles Rhone Blend ($25/92-pt) comprised of mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise and awarded 92-points from Wine Enthusiast magazine.   The acclaimed mid-range, medium-bodied release, the 2015 Tablas Creek “Côtes de Tablas” Paso Robles Rhône Blend ($32/92-pt) is primarily a grenache, syrah blend that adds ample spice to the other layered flavors. A good value.

Among my favorite white Rhone blends, vintage to vintage, the 2015 Tablas Creek “Côtes de Tablas Blanc” Paso Robles White Rhône Blend ($28/91-pt) is an equal blend of grenache blanc, viognier, marsanne and roussanne.  It consistently has nice perfume aromas, with complex stone fruit, citrus and spice flavors.

Their finest large production Rhone blend, the “Esprit de Tablas” is, vintage to vintage, one of the finest blends in Paso.  Although I have not yet tasted the 2014 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Tablas” Paso Robles Rhône Blend ($50/92-pt) it has been consistently reviewed in the low to mid-nineties with familiar comments about floral tones on the nose, ripe berry flavors, balanced throughout with some mineralogy and spice on the finish.  Decanting this wine for a few hours will fully consummate the relationship with your palate.

With small productions of 800 and 880 cases respectively, two high-end Rhone blends, the Tablas Creek “Panoplie” $95/95-pt and the Tablas Creek “En Goberlet” ($55/92-pt)have eluded my palate but should be of interest to anyone serious about the Rhones.

At times, some California wine makers like to experiment with tradition and add

Orin Swift “Abstract” Rhone-style blend

their own mark.  From a respected winemaker, the 2015 Orin Swift “Abstract” Rhone Blend ($30) adds petite sirah with grenache and syrah to create concentrated, balanced  flavors and a full mouthfeel.  Petite sirah is not permitted in the Rhone Valley, but is often used in California blends.

The Yorkville Highlands appellation in southern Mendocino County actually separate the Alexander Valley in north Sonoma County from the Anderson Valley.  The 2015 Halcón “Esquisto” Yorkville Highlands Rhône Blend ($28/92-pt), from that region, is a grenache dominant blend with mourvedre and a touch of syrah that has ample pepper and spice notes throughout.  Sterling, complex flavors make this wine a good value.

In early November, I receive shipments of a few special wines that I have purchased throughout the year.  Today, I received one of my indulges:  two bottles of Saxum “James Berry Vineyard” 2015, arguably the finest Rhone blend produced in this country, if not beyond.

Saxum “James Berry Vineyard” Rhone Blend

Owner/winemaker Justin Smith, known as Paso Roble’s coolest winemaker, first received acclaim from this blend when it appeared within the top ten on an annual Wine Spectator list of exciting wines. In 2010, the Saxum “James Berry Vineyard” 2007 was named Wine Spectator Wine-of-the-Year. Since than, Smith has produced 38 wines with ratings of 95-points or higher.  The current release is a blend of grenache (33%), mourvedre (32%), syrah (24%) and counoise (11%) all sourced from his hilltop vineyard in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles.

Justin Smith, owner/winemaker at Saxum

Rhone blends from Saxum are expensive and difficult to acquire, but the best needs mentioning. Now I can enjoy my vintage 2014 bottles.

With regard to northern Rhone-style single-varietal syrah, there are many readily available options in California.  With the potential for overly complex spicy flavors, I prefer that they are fully balanced and integrated.  Two of my personal favorites are the Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Syrah ($50)from the Russian River

James Berry Vineyard in Paso Robles

Valley and the Rusack Syrah Reserve Santa Barbara County ($44) from the Ballard Canyon Estate near Solvang, CA. Both need some time to breathe before serving.

Short ribs and a fine Rhone blend was one of my most memorable food pairings. The Rhone wines will also stand up to a holiday roast or prime rib. They also partner well with both aged sheep and cow cheeses or can just be savored with friends and a warm fire.

 


Mr. Jones Revisited

Mentors are like artists or writers, sometimes their impact is not fully appreciated for decades.  Then, at times, it is passed on and lives for generations.  This could be the story of Mr. Ron Jones, a very normal looking young high school English teacher in 1965, with a fresh credential, trying to enlighten a class of 4th-year English Seniors, some looking for inspiration and others waiting for it all to end.  Though I found him an interesting teacher, it took years to fully understand the profound effect our time together had in developing some of my lifelong passions and, in many ways, guiding the way I look at things.

Mr. Jones had a typical mid-1960s high school teacher image, short hair, gray slacks with cuffs, a button-down dress shirt and tie and tweed jacket.  His look was preppy, but intellectual, one that would drastically change for teachers in the next few years. Jones had chosen, as one of his extracurricular requirements, to help with the football team and I would often see him at practice.  He was athletic and knowledgeable about the game, but his classroom persona revealed much more than just a jock teaching English.  The fall of 1965 was at the cusp of massive cultural and social changes in this country and, I believe, as a young man, he sensed and embraced them early.

During a week-long segment on poetry, Mr. Jones veered from the classics to discuss some new contemporary poets.  “Ya’know, he said, “many of the writers and poets today are singers and songwriters.”  Then, poetically, he recited lyrics by Buffy Saint Marie and Leonard Cohen, prose of a new day.  Half the class continued to be bored with both the new and the old, but Mr.Jones had my full attention.  In this moment, a teacher was about to inspire a student.  Months earlier, with no expectations, I had gone with a friend to a Bob Dylan concert.  The profound effect of his music had led me to other songwriters of the emerging folk rock movement and Mr. Jones just legitimized them all.

For the next few weeks, students were allowed to bring in music on Fridays.  We listened seriously to songwriters, discussing and interpreting their poetry the best we could.  Some students never understood or cared about it at all, foreshadowing future oblivion or a difficult adjustment through the next decade. At times, I thought Mr. Jones and I were having a conversation and others in the class were just listening. A typical classroom discussion was best summed up by one of my Friday submittals, Bob Dylan’s song, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” from his new album, “Highway 61 Revisited”:

You raise up your head

And you ask, “Is this where it is?”

And somebody points to you and says

“It’s his”

And you say, “What’s mine?”

And somebody else says, “Where what is?”

And you say, “Oh my God

Am I here all alone.”

But something is happening here

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

Passion for music of all kinds has continuously enveloped my adult life, always leaving time to explore the lyrics of great contemporary song writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and others who have chronicled our time so eloquently.  Amid many musical influences, Mr. Jones steered me in their direction and gave me permission to be open and accepting of something new.

Weeks later, this engaging teacher offered an intriguing extra-credit opportunity, one that got the attention of my friend Steve and I.  “There is a film playing at the Towne Theater, it’s called, ‘The Pawnbroker,’” Mr. Jones announced, “it’s not required but if any students are able to watch it and write a brief description of your impressions, I’ll give you fifty extra credit points toward your grade.”  With SAT scores lower than expected, we were both focused on our GPA’s and justifying a week-night movie as the road to an A was appealing.  “If you wanna do it, I can pick you up at 6:30,” Steve said as I nodded affirmatively.  Steve’s dad had recently given him a brand new, burgundy-colored 1966 Pontiac GTO as an early graduation present, vastly increasing my transportation opportunities.  The car was a beast that delivered less than eight miles to the gallon and even with fuel priced at twenty-nine cents per gallon, lack of gas money often restricted our travel.  Luckily, tonight was about extra credit and Steve’s mom pitched in a few dollars.

I loved the movies, especially when Paul Newman overcame adversity and prevailed over the latest antagonist or Jerry Lewis would portray a character among his breadth of idiots.  I loved movies, but had no concept of film as an art form until that rainy January night, my first time inside the Towne Theater, at the time San Jose’s only art and foreign film venue. The featured film was director Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” a dark portrait of a soulless man, the survivor of the Nazi concentration camp where his wife and children were killed.  The main character, Sol Nazerman, played by young actor Rod Steiger, operated a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem that also fronted for a pimp.  His experiences had left him totally detached from others or the world around him. I was expecting a more dramatic Hollywood ending where we watch significant changes to Sol’s life unfold into happily ever after. In this film, real change came slowly or not at all, with a small glimmer of hope left to the interpretation of the viewer. The “Pawnbroker” was stark reality, but, at seventeen, the most poignant film I had ever seen, a film that heightened my understanding and awareness of the Holocaust.

Eager to write a brief review of the film to secure the extra credit, I described the use of visual flashbacks to horrifically reveal Nazerman’s past, they helped me to better understand his behavior.  Unlike today, information and reviews were not available to the masses.  Viewers had to rely on their own perceptions. In a later discussion, Mr. Jones, admittedly a fan of Sidney Lumet, described how the director used various techniques to create a more powerful message.  It was the first time I understood the role or appreciated the contribution of the film director.

Remaining somewhat interested over the ensuing years, my curiosity re-emerged after I met my wife, Karen, an undergraduate student who also had an interest in film.  Hers was influenced by her parents, who would go to the Towne Theater to watch art films and mine from Mr. Jones.  Karen and I have remained avid film buffs for 47 years, beginning in 1969 with watching art films on campus or at the old Saratoga Theater, a metal quonset hut nestled against the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the village of the same name.

I never communicated with Mr. Jones after graduation but like to remember thanking him and telling him how much I enjoyed his class. Moving on with my life, I remained unaware that he had touched and opened a side of me that could have remained dormant forever.  Questions will always remain of what became of Mr. Jones.  Did he continue teaching in the public school system or drop out and live in a commune for the next ten years?  He may have written the screenplay of a film that I enjoyed, not that credits for someone named Ron Jones would raise a red flag.

Whatever became of him, Mr. Jones will always be remembered as a wonderfully effective teacher, one that opened a young mind to appreciate artistic expression of all kinds.


“Spark of Life”: Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joakim Milder

The new ECM release, “Spark of Life” is the second extraordinary project for the Marcin Wasilewski Trio this year, showcased earlier with lead guitarist Jacob Young on the multi-dimensional recording, “Forever Young”.   The new recording, their fourth,  continues the trio’s evolution while maintaining the alluring

"Spark of Life"

“Spark of Life”

melodic stories that began with the first “Trio” CD.   Here, on several pieces, they collaborate with tenor saxophonist Joakim Milder, who gained recognition in his work at ECM with the late trumpet player, Tomaz Stanko.  Admittedly a fan of their musical style,  this current release is nearly flawless, especially the empowering percussion of  Michal Miskiewicz.

The album opens with “Austin,” a beautiful tribute to the late young prodigy, Austin Peralta where Wasilewski’s haunting melody is precisely  augmented, showcasing their skills in the trio format.  Marcin’s soulful finish is exquisitely  enhanced by the percussive work of Miskiewicz, foreshadowing his brilliance.  Wasilewski contributed five other original compositions, with “Three Reflections”and the alternate version of the title tune continuing to exhibit the trio.

Milder’s deft integration with the group is first presented on “Sudovian Dance”…his solos seem effortlessly woven within the trio, allowing for individual expression but often syncopated.  Listen carefully d43fd9d24bd22fd5019d7ab7035129ef38cf1adaas the piano brilliantly interplays with the other instruments.

Two disparate versions of “Spark of Life” are presented in both quartet and trio format.   It would have been a mistake to choose  one.  While Milder’s tenor adds a dimension to the composition, the interplay of Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz always binds this beautifully melodic, yet evocative free composition.

No better way to showcase the trio’s intensity than a brisk version of Sting’s castaway tale, “Message in a Bottle.”  This is straight ahead, uptempo jazz as bassist Slavomir Kurkiewicz delivers an impressive transition to some highly energetic interplay between Wasilewski and Miskiewicz.  Enjoy this ride!

"January"

“January”

The most alluring quartet piece is a ballad from a Polish grunge-rock band named “Hey.”     I will not attempt to interpret, just know that  “Do Rycerzy, do Szalchty, do Mieszcan”  is probably the most accessible piece of the recording, melodically delicate, but featuring some fine improv work by all.

Krzysztof Komeda, the revered Polish jazz musician/composer, is known for composing the music for Roman Polanski’s 1968 film, “Rosemary’s Baby.”   Komeda who died in 1969 at age 38, is also credited with bridging US and European jazz during that time period.

The groups rendition of  Komeda’s “Sleep, Safe and Warm,” from the film, leads with the trio before Milder’s tenor sound transports us to the seashore in a 1960s black and white European film.  Beautiful piano-tenor interplay, a notable bass solo, all driven by Miskiewicz who controls the tempo (or tempos).

"Faithful"

“Faithful”

There are two pieces reminiscent of past Herbie Hancock groups, the later composed by the piano master.   “Still” has the appearance of a modern take on music from the quintessential Blue Note recordings like  “Maiden Voyage,” an anthem of my early exploration of jazz.  Herbie’s distinctive style is evident on “Actual Proof” with Miskiewicz’s skillful performance seemingly paying homage to drummer Tony William’s great work with those early groups.

Each release of this group has explored new, innovative territory and it has been a joy to experience their musical evolution, including their extensive work with

"Forever Young"

“Forever Young”

Manu Katche’.  To my viewpoint, “Spark of Life” and  “Forever Young” are two of the most significant jazz releases from ECM or any other label in 2014,  though I am nothing more than an expert in my own taste.


“Desperate Rain” – The Daniel Castro Band

 

Wherever Daniel Castro entered the vast continuum of blues music, he certainly looked back before forging forward with his style, bent through the affects of life.  The new release from The Daniel Castro Band, “Desperate Rain” offers a collection of original songs influenced by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, the 60’s British blues invasion among others, delivered through a modern, contemporary blues trio seeking out creative methods of releasing the music’s potential.dcb-1

Admittedly, I have a preference for the trio format in contemporary blues music, requiring each musician to be fully engaged with each other.  The tautness of these musicians is clearly expressed in “Almost Gone”, with hints of Clapton-Bruce-Baker of Cream and more recently, the John Mayer Trio. Drummer David Perper’s driving intro foreshadows what follows and Daniels’ stylized transition seems to search for the bass of Johnny Yu before shifting into a relentlessly resolute rhythm throughout the final note.

 

The individual and collective skills of this trio is also exposed in Daniel’s classic “No Surrender”, adding some nice vocal harmonies to their efforts.

 

From someone who was blessed to discover and recognize the value of blues music at an early age, listening to tunes like “Chrome-Plated 44”, “Worried Baby Blues”, and “Good Lovin’ Woman” renders me helpless to focus on anything else. Unswerving heartache, failed love affairs, hopelessness abound as the trio musically celebrates the faithful acknowledgement:

“I’ve got a good lovin’ woman,

She knows how to treat me right.

Ain’t no other woman in this world

Can keep me satisfied”

 

 

David Perper, Daniel Castro and Johnny Yu

David Perper, Daniel Castro and Johnny Yu

Tunes like these can still drive one to level-8 on the treadmill, get you to dance for first time in years and amp up the car stereo of youth, quickly turning down the volume during red lights to be less conspicuous.

This time through, one’s sense of the musical nuances, the arrangements and the musicians’ intuition are more acute.  The result is tracks like “Worried Baby Blues”, modeling the classics, now wrapped in a clean, present-day package that enhances Daniel’s unique style.

Dave Rubin of Guitar Player Magazine described Daniel as “one of the greatest guitarist to come bursting out of the highly competitive West Coast scene.”  He spent his childhood in the L.A. area listening to the likes of B.B. King and Albert Collins, paying his dues in the South Central L.A. blues clubs, backing many great artists of the time.  After relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area, Daniel soon became a fixture among North Beach blues artists, forming his first band in 1995.  Those early days in North Beach are celebrated in “Johnny Nitro”, a tribute to a fellow musician.

The new Daniel Castro Band evolved as a trio after reuniting with bassist Johnny Yu, who also contributed to the new arrangements.  Veteran drummer David Perper later became the last piece of the puzzle, commencing a new synergy that projects the passion and control defining Daniel’s music.

The opening phrases of the title track, “Desperate Rain” expose a more graceful and precise trio, with a nice interplay between guitar, bass and percussion. The piece intensifies into, instrumentally, one of their most complex arrangements.

The antonymic “Mr. Lucky” is another example of the trio flourishing.  Yu and Perper lay down the “bread crumbs,” allowing Castro to be adventurous and still find his way home. Daniel’s inexorable guitar is present throughout, seemingly crying the hard luck story:

“My mother asked the preacher

          Please pray for my son.

          Preacher told my mother

          Ain’t nothin can be done”

 

 

 

The harmonic opening of “Shelter Me” evolves into a persuasively stylized groove similar to Warren Zevon and later Bob Dylan recordings.  The depth of Daniel’s guitar style isDaniel-Castro-001-667x500 evident here, both ambitious and restrained.

The down-tempo, haunting “Dark Train” reminds us of our mortality and of the thin line upon which we all walk. The guitar solo, woven with Mid Eastern nuances, strikes a chord with the great Eric Clapton solo recordings.  As the final track ends, we leave with a firm impression of Daniel’s multifarious guitar style.

Castro’s life has been about “paying dues”, a thread woven within his music.  This recording with the new band is the result of hard work and persistence with assembled musicians who are capable of presenting the music with the respect it deserves.  The Daniel Castro Band consistently performs in Bay Area blues clubs and is just the thing for the “escape night” that you deserve.  Need we all be reminded that nothing is more inspirational and therapeutic than the “blues”.


Wine and J.S. Bach

 

          

 

 

It was billed as Bach & Bachanal: A Music and Wine Pairing Recital featuring nine pieces by composer Johann Sebastian Bach paired with seven European wines ranging from a sparkling Brut Riesling to an unusual Italian blend featuring two disparate grapes.IMG_0249

Peter Nelson, co-owner of Monopole Wine in Pasadena invested significant time researching the nuances of the music and thoughtfully used his skills as a master sommelier to pair it with fine European wines.  For example Bach’s Allemande E flat Major (Suite IV) is described as “a dance, both serious and amusing”.  In a 1739 review, Johann Mattheson called it “a serious and well-composed harmoniousness in arpeggiated style, expressing satisfaction and amusement, and delighting in order and calm”.

Defining it “an exceptional wine, serious, yet playful”, Peter selected the 2009 Von Buhl Sekt Brut Riesling, a German sparkler from Pfalz that immediately draws attention to its acidity and bubbles so as to lead you through balanced, citrus flavors, the calm in the music.  And so the evening began.

If one devotes an evening to attend a wine and Bach pairing recital, it’s best to be as trusting as possible. A totally open mind, an amenable palate and good listening skills can facilitate immersion into the moment and help to feel the beauty of the music with the texture of the taste.

None of this can occur unless the quality of the music can stand up to the wine.  Fortunately, we were privileged to have cellist Jevgenji Raskatov and violinist Amaruka Hazari to aptly manage the melody while enjoying each wine with us. I overheard someone say that Jevgenji was a biochemist in his day job, which I assumed was music.  Great minds and talent seem to abound in the Pasadena area surrounding Cal Tech.

Referencing Peter’s extensive research and knowledge, let me share my perceptions of the wines that were selected to enhance the unaccompanied cello and violin suites of Johann Sebastian Bach.bach-y

Music: Allemande E flat Major (Suite Iv)

Wine:  2009 Von Buhl Sekt Brut Riesling, Pfalz, Germany

 

As previously described, this wine is a highly acidic sekt, the traditional sparkling wine of Germany, Bach’s homeland.  The refreshing crispness does not 41t1+fyv+CL._AC_AA100_overwhelm as pleasant flavors of citrus fruit pass through the finish. This sparkler would also pair well with cheeses like Mahon (cow’s milk) or Humboldt Fog (goat’s milk), as both can be “serious, yet playful”.

Music:  Prelude D minor (Suite II)

Wine:   2009 Markowitsch Blaufrankisch Spitzerber, Austria

This piece seems to have been inspired by the joy of a walk on a crisp autumn day, an ambience of soft rain falling that our cellist superbly captured.  Quite possibly because it’s October and I took a late afternoon walk, I could feel the described “autumn earthiness” of the 2009 Markowitsch Blaufrankisch Spitzerber from Austria.

Apparently blaufrankisch is the country’s most dignified grape known for concentrated fruit flavors and an earthiness or “Teutonic” character. The wonderful aromas alone, balanced while casting a candied fruit bouquet, would have been a sufficient pair with this music.  Priced below $20, I was also inspired to bring a bottle home.Markowitsch_LogoRed

Music:  Sarabande G major (Suite II)

Wine:   2005 Chateau Canon, Fronsac, Bordeaux, France

The piece is a slow, purposeful dance that, although exquisite and full, is sad.  In Peter’s mind, it needs a nice red Bordeaux, “dark, earthy and just a little brooding, but very satisfying”.  While it has some age, the 2005 Chateau Canon, Fronsac is not over-powering, but has some depth and smokiness to its flavors.  There is a strong recommendation that this wine be consumed with this music by candlelight or an appropriate mood lighting app.31PEJwucAPL._SL500_AA300_

Music:  Allemande, Partita No. 2 BMW 1004

Wine:   2010 Schonborn Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Germany

 

The description of a Riesling Spatlese Trocken tells us that the grapes were harvested at their ripest form, just short of late harvest or “noble rot”, botryris.  However, they are not sweet, maintaining full pure fruit flavors and a perfect minerality.  It was noted that Schonborn has been producing wine since the 13th century and that Bach could easily have been enjoying a glass while composing this piece.  Peter’s aim was to pair “purity with purity” and the results were ideal.  When people speak of great German Riesling, this wine is what they are referring to.10413131t

 

Music:  Adagio, Sonata No 1, BWV 1001

        Sarabande in C Major (Suite III)

Wine:   Bert Simon Muller-Thurgau Beerenauslese. Germany

 

As we spoke earlier of the Spatlese Trocken, harvested at their fully ripened form, the Bert Simon-Muller-Thurgau Beerenaulese takes them beyond ripe, with a “botrytis” affected very late harvest. The result was aptly designated “nectar of the gods” and “made from the tears of angels”.  Rich, opulent, full-bodied, full-flavored, Peter sees the internalization of this wine and music leading to purification of the soul.  I see this wine having the same effect with Mozart, Sinatra or even Coldplay. As Peter defined the sonata as “utterly cathartic”, I was convinced that he found the proper therapeutic wine.

 

Music:  Bouree in C Major (Suite III)

        Minuet in G Major, 1 and 2 (Suite I)

Wine:   2010 Bouchard Auxey-Durresses, Burgundy, France

 

These pieces, both of French origin, are defined as lively dances with some seriousness. Selecting a traditional French wine for a French dance, the Bouchard Auxey-Durresses is a nice red Burgundy from the pinot noir grape.Bouteille_Auxey-Duresses_LesDuresses_300

The Burgundy region produces elegant wines with bold red cherry flavors and a soft minerality.  According to Peter, “the wine is clearly mimicking the dual character of the minuet”. To me, both were uplifting.

 

Music:  Prelude in G Major (Suite I)

Wine:   2006 Zenato Cormi, Veneto, Italy

 

The final piece, one of Bach’s most famous, features a series of motifs that “start with a quicker tempo and continues with great energy and melody and builds to an urgent climax before finishing in perfect balance”.

To this end, Peter has chosen a bold Italian blend from the Veneto region, not only because it completes a normal progression of our tasting, but because it combines merlot and corvina, grapes from French and Italian origins, expressing the influence of Italian soil. The results were highly intense fruit with a rich, cormi-lgcreamy finish.

Aside from being Jevenij’s favorite wine, Zenato Cormi is also known to pair well with our final surprise:  fresh creative chocolates from Pasadena-based “Mama’s Gone Cacao”.

Raskatov and Amaruka continued to play a few encore pieces that, along with the chocolate and wine, was a superb finale to a captivating evening.  The concept of pairing good wine and classical music is intriguing and, under the tutelage of a master sommelier, one can begin to feel the connections.  At a minimum, it is an opportunity to enjoy good music, fine wine and pleasant company.

Monopole Wine, located in Pasadena’s theater district, presents special tastings and classes on a regular basis that are describeded on their website.

 

 


“Wine, Women and Song”


 

Hotel Cheval

Curiosity, and the Hotel Cheval property in Paso Robles led me to accept an invitation to attend an inaugural event called “Wine, Women and Song”, promoting a new book and wine company from author, entrepreneur Deborah Brenner and actress, singer/songwriter Rebecca Pigeon’s new release, “Slingshot,” due out in October 2011. Aside from promoting their wares, the two have embarked on a national tour supporting the Farm Aid effort.

Hotel Cheval is a charming inn, with 16 intimate rooms, located steps from the Paso Robles town square.  It’s perfect for those who want a pampered wine tasting weekend.  A quiet apéritif after dinner around one of the outdoor fireplaces or meeting friends for evening tastings at the Pony Club outdoor patio are both experiences that the property can deliver.  Well-appointed, luxurious rooms complete the upscale, relaxing encounter

Actually, Rebecca Pigeon was an attraction for me, having enjoyed many of her films including “State and Main,” “Red” and her memorable role as Susan Ricci in the classic “Spanish Prisoner,” directed by husband David Mamet.  This evening, her song writing and vocal skills will be showcased to 100 wine tasters, outdoors on a beautiful night.  No pressure there.

 

Deborah Brenner

During the writing of her book, “Women of the Vine,” Deborah Brenner met and conferred with several prominent women in the wine industry.  Women like Merry Edwards, Heidi Patterson Barrett, Amelia Ceja and others not only gave her inspiration to finish the book, but to initiate an original company to unite several top women wine makers contributing wine under the new brand, “Women of the Vine.”

The “Women of the Vine” label gives sustainable growers and female wine makers a collaborative setting that has provided opportunity to bring their wines to the marketplace.  Thus far, some high-profile wine makers are contributing some very good wines.

Alison Crowe, who “cut her teeth” in winemaking for Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyards, produced two white and three red varietals, her WOTV Sauvignon Blanc Central Coast 2009, in my opinion, leading the way.  In addition, some high-end single-varietals and blends, from noted wine makers, stole the show.

Winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett is part of Napa lore as a member of the Barrett Family, who’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay helped establish some dominance of California wines at the 1976 Paris Tastings.  She has earned her own reputation by upgrading Beuhler Winery to produce reasonably priced, high quality wines and from her work with Screaming Eagle.  Her WOTV wine is the beautifully balanced, spice-driven 2006 Napa Valley Syrah ($65), terrific from nose to finish.

Dorothy Schuler, known for her Spanish varietals under the Bodegas Paso Robles label, contributed the WOTV 2006 Paso Robles Tempranillo ($34), well-balanced with a nice “jolt” of vanilla on the finish.  Her WOTV 2003 NV Napa Rojo ($52) blend was not available but the mixture of dry-farmed touriga, graciano, tempranillo and tinto cao left me intrigued.

The tasting also included a variety of wines from Napa Valley’s Miner Winery and J Dusi Wines from winemaker Janelle Dusi who’s family has been an integral part of the Paso Robles wine community for decades.

Miner Family Winery

The Miner Family Winery has develop a reputation for creating fine wines, especially their meritage, “Oracle” ($90) from Napa Valley.  Tonight, we tasted a soft, accessible 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, the small lot 2009 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($40) and the unique 2008 Sangiovese Gibson Ranch($24) from Mendocino County. Plantings of Sangiovese, the dominant grape of Italian Chianti, has expanded in California over the past decade, not necessarily in the cool northern coast.  Releases from the Miner Family Winery should interest all serious wine enthusiasts.  Of note, Miner is now producing Pinot Noir from Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

J Dusi Wines

The Dante Dusi Vineyard has played an important role in providing grapes for several high-end Paso Robles zinfandel wines since WW11.  Dante’s granddaughter, Janelle has expanded the family repertoire into winemaking through the release of her own label, J Dusi Wines.  Vintages 2007 and 2008 J Dusi Zinfandel offer proof that she can consistently create good, old-fashioned jammy, Paso Zin.  A must to try from J Dusi is the luscious zinfandel port wine.  It is a dessert in itself.

The tasting was both educational an enjoyable, but it was time to take our glasses and ourselves to the patio to enjoy the musical portion of the evening.

While reviewing her CD, “Slingshot”, one critic compared Rebecca Pigeon to the legendary Joni Mitchell, not musically but for imaginative lyrics. As she opened with “Get Up Get Out’, a song about change, I found her musical style to be as elusive as it was creative and charismatic.

Rebecca Pigeon

Beautifully produced by Larry Klein, “Slingshot” is a compilation of short stories that evoke visual images that one may find in a film. The haunting “Kiss Me”, with a melody reminiscent of early Janis Ian and the deceivingly upbeat, “I Love No-One” illustrate the diversity of her music, tied together with self-revealing, meaningful lyrics and an expressive voice.

Ms. Pigeon references acting as a metaphor for real life hypocrisy in “Is Anyone”, melodically set in a 30’s French style which leaves us with the following thought”

“And we play out the scene

And our heat sears the screen

Are we really what we seem

Oh well, Is Anyone?”

“He’s as young as Prozac, he’s as old as the wheel“ describes Rebecca’s “Disintegration Man”, a rock ballad filled with witticisms and edgy modern references.  Her signature piece at the concert and on the CD is a poignant cover of the late Warren Zevon’s classic ballad, “Searching For A Heart.”  Briefly commenting on Zevon, she then paid tribute through her beautiful rendition, a lasting end to the concert and our evening.

Both the “Women of the Vine” and “Wine, Women and Song” collaborations support and promote the Farm Aid benefit, donating a part of their profits to help sustain the American farmer. This event was the first of a national tour through October featuring wine tasting and Rebecca’s music, a combination I would willingly experience again.  More information on both artists can be found at www.womenofthevine.com and www.rebeccapigeon.com