Ravings on Twin Peaks “The Return” Episode 8 and Penderecki’s “Threnody”

It is a rare encounter with art that leaves an audience member at once recognizing the music/image as being highly effective, yet also so original, unusual and confounding that you really aren’t sure what exactly it was that you’re talking about in the first place. Such it is with episode 8 of Twin Peaks “The Return”, aka season three. Of all the many things to speak of, the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” as the viewer is taken into the center of an atomic test blast stands out as one of the most striking moments in television.

CHAOS-LYNCH

Penderecki’s Threnody seems to defy its own definition (song of lamentation for the dead). Surely the piece is more representational of the incomprehensible chaos and death associated with the atomic atrocities at Hiroshima than reflective of those that grieve for those that suffer(ed). The music seems beyond fear and loss, containing perhaps the most devastating and sustained dissonances in western orchestral music.

As a Westerner it is especially difficult to describe the context this piece places itself in. The music, let alone the events, are constructed by the reader as a distant, from afar mental recreation of what must have happened there. Even with military films of atomic blasts, and the gruesome news reels of the aftermath, anyone who wasn’t on the ground really doesn’t know what the bomb looks/sounds like up close. If the listener connects this music to the event then that inconceivable surely is reflected in the extreme dissonance of the orchestra.  This is music that could never be mistaken for something pleasant, yet it is moving in it’s uncompromising attack on tonality and tradition. It is as if Penderecki has found a way to partially compensate for the listener’s lack of direct contact with history through his undeniably brutal sonorities.

Similarly, Lynch’s imagery has little to comfort the viewer. The opening black and white, innocent text and countdown are violently disrupted not by the sound of  the blast (which is eerily absent) but by the flash of light and the sudden shock that accompanies the beginning of the music. The alien landscape emerges as we (or at least the viewer’s point of view) is hurled toward and into the mushroom cloud, quickly loosing sight of earth as we enter into the maelstrom.  The viewer is subjected to several minutes of visual chaos, with little continuity or conception of the images.   The viewer loses all context of where we exactly they are, how they could be there, why they would be there in the first place. The unanswered questions abound, leaving no footing to contextualize the unpredictable use of texture and color. Similarly, Penderecki’s music has no key, meter, or even obvious pitch content by with to understand the violent and unpredictable shifts in dynamics.  The montage is an onslaught of visual chaos in concert with all that is sonically damned.

mother-e1498463456678My own experience of this scene (and the entire series) caused me to give up any of my own feeble pursuits of what these images and sounds might “mean” within the context of history or this series. I though later that there seem to be two paths to choose from when thinking about much of Lynch’s work here, either 1) try to invent explanations the story which have no definitive resolution or meaning, or 2) give up the pursuit all together (if you can) and accept that you are along for the ride. The beauty of episode 8 is that choice has been made for you.

“Yes I Can, No You Can’t” by Lee Morgan

My nomination for the funkiest groove created by a jazz artist in the 1960s.  From the 1965 Lee Morgan album The Gigolo, here is a transcribed score for the lead off track “Yes I Can, No You Can’t”.  Bob Cranshaw’s line in the first 8-bars is played with such an incredible depth it is almost eerie, and when compared to the vamp at the end you realize how remarkable this opening really is.  This intro alone is worth the price of the album, but the rest of the track is on fire as well.

The piano part is a work in progress.  Obviously some notes are quite difficult to hear, and my intuition regarding these things is still developing.  Please add thoughts on Harold Maybern’s part in the comments below!

lee-morgan-the-gigolo-f3lee-morgan-the-gigolo-r1Yes I Can, No You Can't1

 

 

Yes I Can, No You Can't2Yes I Can, No You Can’t2Yes I Can, No You Can't3Yes I Can, No You Can’t3Yes I Can, No You Can't4Yes I Can, No You Can't5Yes I Can, No You Can't6Yes I Can, No You Can't7

Musings on “Scrapple From The Apple”

Students ask so much better questions than we “experienced artists” could ever think of; the ones that are especially simple, obvious, and the most important are usually the ones that we never fully consider until our answer might have the ability to help someone else.  For this and many other reasons the act of teaching is vital for personal development.  Sometimes in our arrogance we subconsciously assume that we already know the answer so we don’t bother even asking or investigating that question in the first place.  (I’m reminded of a quote from Kaufman’s excellent “Wired To Create” that describes exceptionally creative people as those that come up with the better questions, the better problems, rather than the better answers and solutions.) This week totally kicked my ass last with a question regarding the tune “Scrapple From The Apple.”

“How do I work on improvising over this?”

Of course this question was asked everybody was running out the door, including me, so I had about 30 seconds to try to answer. I think whatever I said was long-winded, rushed, and probably not very inspiring, hence the reason for this do-over in the form of a blog.  It won’t be 30 seconds, and will definitely be long winded, but hopefully this will be a good start and as direct as it needs to be.

1) Check out the recordings!  They are amazing!

There are some versions of this tune I really love, and it’s those in the groove they contain the foundation of why we do this.  I love the version Charlie Parker recorded back in the 1940s, as well as recordings by Dexter Morgan, Blue Mitchell, the Keith Jarrett Trio, and Tom Harrell among many others.  I think if you were practicing from the perspective of, “what are they doing? How are they getting this sound?” You’ll always be inspired and motivated to continue deepening your room and chops on a tune like this. If you are practicing from a more intellectual place, out of a pressure or duty to put something together perhaps for a performance, you just won’t be able to joy and excitement is easily felt on these recordings.  I know it is an obtuse thing to say, but try to find the vibe and play from that always.  By the way, a little research reveals that it was based on an old standard written by Fats Waller called “Honeysuckle Rose.”

2) Know your melody and scales, COLD!

If the basic building blocks of this song, i.e. the melody and scales inside of it, are not so together that you can play them easily without much effort, then anything else you try to do is going to be almost impossible.  (Improvisation is either easy or impossible right?)  Issues that come up usually involve us making the tune harder than it needs to be.  We do this by isolating small parts, trying too play too fast, or attempting to play things in time when we are still struggling to find notes, fingerings, and basic phrases.   Work through the melody, slow and so that you can feel the phrases, home tomorrow, beautiful harmony contained within the line, and all the instrumental and physical techniques and sensations you need to play it out of time.  That starts to feel effortless then putting it into tempo can be the easiest thing in the world.  That is unless you are still working to get it out of your horn.  Always practice from a place were you definitely feel challenged, but you also feel immense satisfaction because you are playing at least 80% of the music without much effort.  Then, practice becomes an endless joy rather than a grim duty.

Take the same approach basic skills involved in the song. In this case there are a few Mixolydian scales, a major scale, and the often-overlooked harmonic minor scale.  This is where, if you have practiced your major scales on a regular basis, we reap the payoff.

scrapple-from-the-apple-etude

3) Work through somebody else’s improvisation as an etude.

There are a million books and teachers in the world that can spend countless hours giving us important knowledge about scales, theory, harmony, the history of bebop, rhythm, technical information on the most detailed level, and ideas for practice for a dozen lifetimes.  You can obtain a great majority of this knowledge intuitively if we use a master solo as an exercise.  I’ve included the Charlie Parker solo below as an example.   Obviously, in this case the tempo on the recording might be too fast for many of us to play initially, but that’s ok.  Playing through even a few phrases very slowly Will allow all of the advanced rhythmic and harmonic elements experience directly first, rather than explained.  Adding the theoretical stuff to the sound is easy; working from the other direction is much more difficult and often leads to a unique brand of jazz mental illness where musicians ignore their intuitive knowledge of the music and try to shoe horn it in to an theoretical idea that flattens the music and belies what they actually hear.
scrapple-from-the-apple1
scrapple-from-the-apple24) Blow!

Use small sections of the tune and improvise, using small parts of what you have learned from the above.  What sounded good?  What made you stop and ask, “What is THAT?”  This is where you discover, and adapt preexisting melodies and lines to your own musicality.  This is the fun zone 🙂

I love Bird’s solo, because it makes so much musical sense, yet is complex and makes me dig in my ears and head for why it is so logical to the ear, if not always to the brain.  Take his solo on the bridge in m. 11-13 as an example:

scrap1

Why does this sound so good to me? Breaking it down into some parts we can see hear that the first part of the phrase uses a really slick turn centering around the F#-G-F#-E, then descends the scale.  While he is using notes from the A Mixolydian scale,  when we listen closely we and hear what  notes  fall on the beat, we discover the sound is closer to E Dorian (E-7), the “important minor” that is tucked inside our dominant/Mixolydian sound:

scrap2

Much like all of the G-7 sounds contained in the first 4 bars of the melody, this “scale inside the scale” is the jumping off point for the beginning of the line. It certainly sounds different than starting on the root of the chord!  He then connects this line to the 3-5-7-9 arpeggio of the A7 chord, really outlining the sound of the chord clearly, but also spilling over the bar line into the next measure. Bar lines are like rules: made to be broken!

scrap3

Here are just a few of the many “movements” through this tune: playing off the “important minor” (5th of the Mixolydian), connecting the 3-5-7-9 arpeggio, and being able to play within and over the bar line. That should be more than enough to practice in one month let alone a week or a day!  Of course if the notes of the parent A Mixolydian scale are sketchy, lack certainty or confidence, or have some technical issues yet to be worked out, then the above is totally impossible. If you own them however, then it is completely easy and fun to play and work this stuff up because it sounds really good and you can’t stop playing it.

5) Play time!

Once you have gotten some phrases under your belt, it’s time to groove and really feel why all of this harmonic stuff is amazing;  It’s connected to the beat!  For example: put on a drum machine, a recording of the tune, a metronome clicking on beats two and four, a loop, or an app such as the amazing “Drum Genius” and play your improvisation in time, really feeling the pulse and where your notes fall, whether the upbeat or the downbeat, inside or over the bar line. Feel the rhythm’s that you are creating as they relate to this external reference.

6) It’s not about you.

Listen to your place in the tune, how you relate to the musicians, and make the solo not about you but all about them. Make the people or sounds you are playing with sound good; now and always. People listen to music more often not just to learn something about the musicians who are playing, but rather to discover and feel something new about themselves. This isn’t about you, which I know sounds strange if you are the one who steps up to a solo mic to take a solo, but tap into the experience of it feeling so good when you play to make the people around you sound good rather than worrying about what people think about “your” playing.

Way too many words, but hope this helps.  Practice and let me know what you come up with!

Two Choruses of Mastery: Johnny Hodges “All of Me” 1963

A recent transcription taken from the album “The Great Paris Concert”(1963) by the Duke Ellington OrcheTheGreatParisConcert.jpgstra; the Johnny Hodges feature on the standard “All of Me.”  The arrangement is only two choruses (plus a tag) and is sublime in its development, dynamic, subtle use of harmony and repetition, form, articulation, patience, swing, and highly developed blues playing.  Check out the shapes he uses to articulate various dominant chords, adding natural 9ths to create color and contrast, and the long form terraced dynamics that so effectively build to the arrangement’s climax. Ellington’s orchestration is perfect in it’s support and minimalism, matched perfectly with Hodges improvisation and seamlessly blending the two into a single musical impulse.

all-of-me

all-of-me-2-hodges-1963all-of-me-3hodges-1963

The Bob Cranshaw Project pt.1

This series of blogs will be covering material related to a project I’m calling “The House That Cranshaw Built: Bob Cranshaw, the 1960s, and Blue Note Records”  which will outline the 100+ recordings Bob did for Blue Note records, as well as every recording he participated in at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio.  While his 50+ year relationship with Sonny Rollins is arguably his most visible discographical entry, and the depth of collaborators goes far beyond what is included in this corner of his career, his contributions to the Blue Note catalog and the community or artists it represented are some of his most influential work and contributed significantly to the defining of jazz in that decade.

His first entry in this discography is the album “Little Johnny C” by Johnny Coles.  The full personnel and track listing is below.  The tracks “Jano” and “Heavy Legs” stand out for the driving on top and aggressive grooves created by Cranshaw with both Walter Perkins and Pete LaRoca, as well as the remarkable Joe Henderson improvisations. The evenness of his sound, bounce, and pointed linearity of his bass lines don’t sound like anyone else from this period and contribute a singular character to this record. His ensemble playing on the beautiful “So Sweet My Little Girl” is the definition of supportive, rhythmically as well as helping stabilize the intonation of the ensemble upon his entrances.

Little Johnny C

Englewood Cliffs, N.J., July 18, 1963
Johnny Coles (tp) Leo Wright (as,fl) Joe Henderson (ts) Duke Pearson (p) Bob Cranshaw (b) Walter Perkins (d)

Tracks:
Little Johnny C
Hobo Joe
Jano
So sweet my little girl
Heavy legs*
My secret passion*
So sweet my little girl*

*Englewood Cliffs, N.J., August 9, 1963
Pete La Roca (d)

 

The Notorious Hancock/Peacock/Shorter/Williams Bootleg

A bootleg performance has circulated amongst jazz collectors for decades, apparently the only known recording of members of the leaderless Miles Davis 1960s quintet (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams) featuring Gary Peacock on bass. I received my copy excitedly from Jacob Garchik many moons ago, at which time it was labeled as being recorded at Slugs in August of 1965. I’ve alternately found copies that purport to have come from the Village Vanguard, and like eveything else is now on YouTube. The leader, date, personell, and location have each in turn been disputed, and are often reproduced without much reference, as shown here:

The tracks include “The Eye Of The Hurricane,” “Just In Time,” “Oriental Folk Song,” “Virgo,” “Fran-Dance,” and “Theme” (a quick statement of William’s “Tomorrow Afternoon”). Many educated listeners, including members of that band, have attempted to confirm the location, date, and personnel but with often puzzling and contradictory results. The bootleg is an enigma, taking people who obsess about such things down a discographical rabbit hole. I’ve been fixated on this recording for sometime, and here is what I have managed to find out and hypothesize in hopes perhaps the truth might be confirmed.

What is Known

What is certain about the recording is that it features Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams who are each unmistakable in their individual performances. The subject of whether or not it was indeed Peacock on bass came up while researching my doctoral dissertation on Peacock’s early 1960s New York Period. It would seem the most straight forward way to confirm this set would be to ask him directly during our interactions, but alas his response was lacking any degree of certainty:

“I recall doing the Vanguard with Miles though he might have not shown later in the week. … I’ve heard one bootleg tape but couldn’t say for sure if it was me on bass.” (Personal correspondence, Gary Peacock 2013)

In this regard Peacock is referring to his appearance at the Village Vanguard with Miles in May of 1964, shortly after debuting with the group, substituting for the absent Ron Carter. Many sources have reprinted the erroneous account in Billboard Magazine of Peacock also playing the Vanguard with Miles over Thanksgiving of 1965, which could be a source of some of the confusion, a report disproved by first hand accounts published soon after in Downbeat. Peacock had performed with the band a couple of weeks earlier in Philadelphia, but Reggie Workman was to join the band in New York for the Holiday run.

Peacock’s Fingerprint

The audibility of the bass is problematic, and does not sound professionally recorded.  It is doubtful it is a radio broadcast unless excessive duplication has degraded the quality, and great pains have been taken to remove announcements and advertisements. Except for one solo on “Oriental Folk Song” the bass is difficult to identify with clarity. During this solo however we hear many of Peacock’s trademarks and unequalled virtuosity (the ballad playing on Shorter’s “Virgo” also bears striking similarity to Peacock’s work on the 1963 take of “Getting Started” recorded with Paul Bley and Paul Motian.) What also seems likely is that no one musician was the leader here, as the collection of tunes feature contributions from Hancock (“Eye of the Hurricane”), Shorter (“Virgo”, “Oriental Folk Song”), Williams (“Tomorrow Afternoon”), and Miles (“Fran Dance”), which suggests a collective presentation unlikely for a gig under a single musicians name, especially when considering the prodigious output of Hancock and Shorter in particular. The inclusion of a Davis composition completes the compositional representation of the quintet’s regular members. As the band was also known for performing the matinee sets as a quartet it seems even more likely that was the presentation here.

1964 or 1965?

It would seem logical that this recording comes from 1964 and not 1965; Perhaps the bootleg has been mislabeled and is off by a year. This seems likely based on several factors:

  1. 1964 coincides with a period where Miles was notorious for missing sets, reported as such in local press around the country (see Chris DeVito’s excellent Miles Davis Chronology). Miles missing a set or an entire gig would force the collective to put together a set of compositions that featured their writing talents in a more or less equal fashion. This would explain the sharing of space represented in the set.
  2. Most obviously, 1964 coincides with when most of these tunes were either recorded or released (two tracks would be recorded in September on the Shorter Album Night Dreamer and Williams would record “Tomorrow Afternoon” in August with Peacock on Bass).
  3. Peacock was with the group in May of that year, and does recall the Vanguard and Miles missing at least one set. While the poor recording quality makes it difficult to hear the Vanguard’s trademark acoustics, it seems possible based on multiple hearings.
  4. The slight idiomatic inconsistencies in Gary’s playing could easily be attributable to some of the significant health issues he reports happening beginning about that time, and could result in the variances heard throughout the summer European tour with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry.
  5. The sound of the group is much closer to that heard a few months earlier on “Four and More” than what would evolve into that heard in late 1965 at the Plugged Nickel. By then the musicians had become adept masters at stretching within and outside the bounds of a tune, where as here the presentation seems ironically conservative in comparison.
  6. The cymbal Tony Willams is using, that would become famous in the ensuing years, makes its earliest appearances about March, at least before the “Point of Departure” album but after the February Four and More concert. This supports the plausibility that May is a possible recording date.
  7. There is no published advertisement from Slugs or The Village Vanguard in August of 1965 that features Miles or this lineup of the band.

However there is one glaring issue with this hypothesis:  all accounts point to Wayne Shorter not joining the band until September at the Hollywood Bowl.  As Peacock was in Europe with Albert Ayler until the end of the year this means, that if it is a Miles-less band, that it would need to be from 1965.  The caveat here is much of Shorter’s accounts of his first days with the band (such as being in the studio one week after his debut with Davis) are incorrect yet repeated often without scrutiny.

Peacock did perform with the band in November 1965 in Philedelphia, perhaps the source, but the strange choice of compositions recorded a year earlier remains strange considering the intense compositional activity of all the groups members.  Still, when comparing what is audible of the acoustics of the performance space with the existing bootlegs of the John Coltrane Quartet from the Showboat in June of 1963 an audible similarity, personel, and timeline points to this being the most likely source of the recording.  GIven that Miles was coming back from a long illness and was prone to leaving early, this is the most likely location and date.

Art Davis?!?

Perhaps if Peacock could not confirm his participation, other living members of the band could. In the Summer and Fall of 1965 each of these musicians was on temporary hiatus from the Quintet due to Davis’s forced sabbatical and related health issues. Each musician was recording individually and appearing as leaders and in various collaborative combinations. Hancock, Shorter, and Williams would rejoin the trumpeter in November, with documented performances in Philadelphia, Detroit, and the Village Vanguard before appearing at Bohemian Caverns, Washington, D.C. and recording the “Live at the Plugged Nickel” performances in Chicago that December.

Wayne Shorter, in correspondence with producer Bob Belden (personal correspondence with Belden in January 2014)  apparantly reported he played the Vanguard in 1965 with the trumpet-less band and Art Davis on bass, recorded for a WBAI-Radio broadcast in August and that this is the recording in quesiton. I believe Shorter is in error here, perhaps the statement refering to another engagement with Davis on bass. The biggest reason for this is the recording itself; Art Davis has an extremely identifiable sound, as the Coltrane and Max Roach recordings from this era testify. There is little if any resemblance in tone, rhythmic concept, or facility that connects Davis to these performances.   Further, where was this performance of Shorter and Davis? If advertisements are to be believed, it was not the Vanguard or Slugs during the second half of 1965.

1965 Bootleg Image

According to the Village Voice in 1965, the only Wayne Shorter Quartet gig in August or September was at Harout’s Restaurant, not at the Vanguard.  This particular gig did feature Herbie Hancock, but it was Reggie Workman on bass. No other personnel are listed. Of course musicians substitute for one another often, but with Peacock’s relocation to Boston that year to study macrobiotics the likelihood of coming back and not remembering the trip become increasigly unlikely.  This draws into question whether the location on the bootleg is suspect as well, and obviously the Village Voice is hardly a detailed record of all performances.  For all we know it might have been recorded in another city, but as of yet there is nothing pointing in that direction.

Tony Williams was at the Vanguard that month as a leader, but advertised with a trio, not a quartet, and would certainly feature more of his original compositions than just the closing theme of the set.   Only during the week of August 26th are members of the Quintet advertised for the Vanguard, but the pressence of Ron Carter seems disqualifying.

There was a Herbie Hancock performance at the Vanguard earlier that year, but it was from May and June. For the first two weeks only Williams and Shorter are listed as sidemen. The third week it is Richard Davis (not Art Davis) that is advertised playing bass. If the performance came from this gig, then the bassist’s names have been confused (not an unheard of occurrence), and the date of the recording is off by two months. But once again, there is absolutely no way anyone could confuse Richard Davis, Art Davis, and Gary Peacock; three of the most identifiable bassists of all time, and there is nothing “Davis” about this bass playing in either respect.

Albert Stinson?

In conversations with John Patitucci the expert bassist speculated the bassist could be Albert Stinson, an intriguing hypothesis. Stinson did fill in with the Quintet in 1967 University of California (Berkeley) Jazz Festival, California, and was in the NYC area to record with Chico Hamilton and Charles Lloyd in 1965. Still, when comparing the playing heard on Charles Lloyd’s Of Course of Course (tracks with Albert from 1965), Chico Hamilton’s El Chico (1965) or Bobby Hutcherson’s Oblique (1967) there is little resemblance to the bass heard on “Oriental Folk Song.” Since there is no documented or recorded evidence of Stinson playing with members of the group between 1964-65 this hypothesis becomes increasingly remote.

Herbie Hancock

To my knowledge, Hancock has not weighed in as to the details of this recording. He is notoriously difficult to contact regarding scholarship of his career, yet his insights could be invaluable and perhaps put all of these issues to rest.

Conclusions

I believe this recording is a non-professional recording of the Miles Davis Quintet, minus Miles, but labeled with either an incorrect date or venue.  Based on similar recordings done from the era, and Peacock’s confirmed participation, the November 1965 gig at the Showboat in Philadelphia is the most likely source.  There were reviews written about this gig in the now extinct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin which I am trying to obtain.

I would love to hear any additional opinions on this recording, or any new information! If you have some please send it along and it will be included in a follow up blog.

 

DVD Review: Nick Didkovsky Pretties For You (Live at the Stone) ****

DVD Recorded Nov. 8th 2015

Info: http://www.didkovsky.com/pfy/

Nick Didkovsky – guitar (GB’s parts) Nick Oddy – guitar (MB’s parts) Adam Minkoff – vocals, keyboards Max Johnson – bass Glenn Johnson – drums Paul Bertolino – vocals

Original album recorded June 1969: Alice Cooper – lead vocals, harmonica Glen Buxton – lead guitar, Michael Bruce – rhythm guitar, backing vocals keyboards Dennis Dunaway – bass guitar, backing vocals Neal Smith – drums, backing vocals

PFYFor those that have heard the legend of, or think they know thealbum Pretties For You (the thrashing proto-glam 1969 debut from the Alice Cooper group) Nick Didkovsky and his freakishly virtuosic band’s live performance will be a revelation. Indeed, for anyone who is a fan of the original Alice Cooper group and the most daring of late 1960s experimental rock, this recording is a sonic kick to the solar plexus that delivers the full impact of what the original album’s production often never sonically could, and brings roaring back from the dead some exceptionally original and

daring material that was to be discarded shortly after (during the original band’s more successful Warner Brothers years). Didkovsky and co. display the wild and insane musicality needed to restore the songs to their ravaging and surrealistic glory, and with remarkable authenticity that should be heard to be believed.

I had the chance to be at this show live back in November and the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of the recently released DVD. I believe this recording re-contextualizes the importance of the material, draws attention to the insane amount of skill and dedication needed to pull off this performance, and how being present for a live performance fundamentally changes the essence of what those songs are. First, some context…

It is not uncommon to see an established band performing a beloved album in its entirety. Stevie Wonder presented his iconic Songs in the Key of Life as the centerpiece of his last tour, The Who revisited Quadrophenia, Lou Reed had his Berlin concert, and Roger Waters has built and torn down “The Wall” on too many occasions to count. These events seem to provide fans an opportunity to hear material that hasn’t been played in decades, perhaps never in sequence, and to relive these note for note recreations in a concert atmosphere with other rabid fans. Of course it isn’t a bad business decision either, providing an often safe and satisfying way for established artists to create interest in older material.

It is much more rare to see an artist, with absolutely no possibility of financial gain (let alone recoup significant costs of rehearsals, production, and time spent obsessively practicing) recreate an album of someone else’s work, and an album that had little (if any) commercial or critical success upon its initial release; an album that was essentially forgotten about by much of the mainstream listening public and, if set lists are to be believed, even the band itself.

good press pic
good press pic

For guitarist Nick Didkovsky the energy, challenge, and bizarreness of such a project fit perfectly with the creative DNA of “Pretties For You.” As a part of his residency at the Stone in New York City this past November, Didkovsky and a collection of killer musicians (with guidance from members of the original band bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith) dedicated one of his twelve scheduled performances that week to a complete note for note restoration of the avant-garde and at times surrealist album, in the process realizing, rather than just recreating, the blistering rock spectacle and underappreciated potential within the songs themselves.

The want to undertake this project may rest in the often-imperfect quality that mars the production of the original album, and only a handful of bootleg recordings of the material played live. At times rushed and uneven, with pronounced bleed and mixing issues, the album would become the antithesis of what the original band would later be known for. This is certainly the case when comparing Pretties… to the later albums produced with Bob Ezrin for Warner Brothers that would bring the band their greatest musical notoriety (Love it to Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies). Dennis Dunaway, is his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, describes the chaotic nature of the first recording day and working with Frank Zappa, to whose label the band was signed:

We were still setting up when Frank said, “Run through the songs so we can adjust the levels.” Caught off guard, we blasted through three songs. We were still tuning up along the way and were ready to do another when Frank’s raspy voice came in over the studio intercom. “Come in for a listen,” he said. “It sounds great. We’ve got some takes.” Some takes? Who was doing any official takes?

It is self evident that Didkovsky is a great fan of the album, but perhaps “lovingly obsessed” are better words, something that would be necessary before dedicating the hundreds of hours necessary to learn some of the most unorthodox guitar parts of the era:

“The first Alice Cooper record has grown to be my favorite over many years of listening. The inventiveness and sheer musicality of this record is unparalleled. It was an extremely exciting time of their creative life: they were stoked to work with Zappa, had a bunch of well rehearsed & bizarre tunes under their belts, and were poised to take over the world. The result was a record that is one of the most urgent and honest documents of a creative musical collective that you could ever hear. I love it to this day and hear more in it every time I listen to it.”

Even for a caliber of musician such as Didkovsky (whose credits include Doctor Nerve, Häßliche Luftmasken, Vomit Fist, being a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, composing for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Meridian Arts Ensemble, ETHEL, and performances with DITHER Guitar Quartet, John Zorn, Billion Dollar Babies, and Blue Coupe amongst many others) the details involved in learning all of Glen Buxton’s original guitar parts and solos required a love and dedication to the material that bordered on compulsion. The fact that the project would appeal to similar die-hard fans of the album was also a motivating factor:

 “That’s the power of being on the total freakin’ fringe of the bell curve, as far as popularity is concerned,” Didkovsky says. “To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me. If he were the only guy in the audience, that would be good enough.”

Songs such as “B.B. on Mars,” despite originally being only 1:17 in length, illustrate the demand placed on Didkovsky and the group. A torrent of guitar flurries all over the neck dominate the first several seconds before a series of unpredictable breaks and lurching shifts punctuate the verses, mixed in with odd poly-tonal chord interjections and solos that contain the group’s highly original brand of chromatic playing. Here Didkovsky and Oddy’s frighteningly accurate interpretations, bends, dynamics, blend, and authentic tone (insights into historically accurate gear were provided by Dennis Dunaway) jumps out of each section, and not just recreating the original articulations. The extreme preparation is evident in the authority with each delivers their part, and that authority acts as much like a glitter embossed sledgehammer.

Striking throughout is the power and effortlessness by which drummer Glenn Johnson leads the group through the a-metric stops and tempo changes. Johnson’s drives the band with an extreme sensitivity to dynamics that locks the band into even the most unpredictable hits, completely internalizing every nuance of Neal Smith’s original parts but adding a modern power that the original band could only foretell. Make no mistake, this music is hard, but never sounds that way during the show. The band allows the listener to reel in the impact of these petulant rhythms instead of ever noticing the high wire musical juggling act that is taking place in front of them.

The band takes advantages of songs like “Swing Low Sweet Cheerio” to opening up solo sections, stretching and expanding the already dramatic dynamic arch of the song. As in every tune, the vocal harmonies recreated by lead singer Paul Bertolino and keyboardist Adam Minkoff are as sharp and accurate as the blade of a guillotine, a staggering feat considering that the band was performing without a proper vocal monitor system. Indeed, Bertolino has one of the most challenging tasks in that he is recreating a stage presence and vocal style of one of rock’s most iconic front men. Aside from having a range and technique that seem to make every line seem effortless, Bertolino’s experience and authority lend something to the vocal that the original never could; experience. While by 1969 the Alice Cooper group had several years of heavy performing under their belt, they were still relatively young, with Vincent Furnier yet to realize the full range of what would later become known as the character of Alice Cooper. Bertolino’s slips into the Alice skin, dare I say, as authentically as the original, and brings the confidence and vocal chops a young Furnier perhaps was not as yet consistently capable of. His skill and confidence allows the vocal to sneer, growl, hiss and pop with the subtle impact that was to only be developed later. And while unfortunately the band chose not to recreate any of the notorious stadium-filling feather pillow explosions that were typical of the band in 1969, Bertolino’s masterful small-scale manipulation of gesture, movement, interpretation, and perfect dynamic balance within the ensemble, more than represent the dramatic element of the original band.

Didkovsky realizes that a core ingredient of the material is an uncompromising musical originality from performers, a quality necessary for these musicians to realize while still remaining faithful to the songs themselves. Hearing these musicians expand solo sections, fill, or adjust subtle nuances adds a new dimension to the project that draws attention to the ability of the songs to live apart from the musicians that created them, an unexpected internal strength of the material to be shaped by other musical personalities. Max Johnson epitomizes this with a masterful interpretation of Dennis Dunaway’s bass parts but with an original sound and ensemble skill that is a major component of what unites this DVD performance together. This is evident when one realizes that the impressively balanced and detailed sound of the DVD was produced solely through the use of room mics and no multitracking. In such a fragile recording environment the ability for Johnson to jump out and drive without obliterating other musicians, or support passages without getting lost in the mix is impressive. Bass and drums match the independent energy of the original rhythm section but consistently blend with each other in a manner the often-inconsistent mix of the original record couldn’t represent. In particular, the groove produced from the rhythm section on the DVDs highlight, “Fields of Regret” is as heavy as anything the original band ever recorded, and should help to cement this song as one of the heaviest of the era, by any group, including all primordial heavy metal emerging concurrently from Birmingham England.

Above all, the most striking element of Didkovsky’s DVD is just how ridiculously tight the band is. Dunaway’s testimony of the recording process describes how at times various elements were not able to be fixed, tuned, or mixed to the band’s liking; in contrast Didkovsky’s group executes the songs with seemingly effortless precision and a fist to the throat level of impact. This is some extremely heavy musicianship, with amazingly vivid dynamics, pocket, drive, balance, and never leaving a note out of place. When coupled with the unity of sound a single band in a single venue on a single night can provide (some appropriately heavy in person volume) the songs sequence in a way that to these ears actually has more continuity than the original album could have. Didkovsky’s group also has a palatable excitement and sense of danger in attempting the feat that was not present on bootlegs of the original group, a band that played the material with the familiarity of nightly performances and a deliberately loose and wild approach. That unity helps to create an arching impact to the material. This of course doesn’t take away from the quality of material the original Alice Cooper group created, in fact it ferociously illuminates it and shows listeners up close what was there once and also what is there thorough a fresh interpretation.

With Didkovsky’s band taking obviously large amounts of time to craft these elements, along with having a great live mix, consistency from song to song, and a wall of copious physical sound vibration coming at you, the result is an experience that changes what those songs are in a fundamental way. It’s raw rock and roll, loud and in your face, with moments where your head seems to spin around 360 degrees without dropping a beat. It dawns on you that this originally was not a young band trying to be weird simply for its own sake, an element that can get lost in the muck of the original recording. Didkovsky summarizes his realization of this, and what it must have sounded like when the original band played in person, the role of live performance vital to actualizing these elements:

I have always wanted to hear this material live. Imagining the opening chords of Fields of Regret exploding at concert volumes, hearing Levity Ball in high fidelity without track bleed, experiencing the open improv sections of songs like Sing Low Sweet Cheerio take off in a live setting…

What was befor an album, spirit, nerve, and singular period in rock history created by five musical rebels has been brought back by a kindred group of six. It really needs to be played again and again, live, and for more and more people. Perhaps Didkovsky is right in pointing to the vitality of music such as this when it lives out on the edge of the bell curve, but this DVD shows the music has the balls to move as far into the middle as it wants, and without compromise. That is, if people have a chance to hear these guys do it again. If you can’t get to their next show, buy this and play it with the volume up (considerably of course) and hear why for yourself.