Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Last Call

I have mixed feelings about this month's Omen column. I'm sad when I look back at 2011 and note the musical artists who have gone on to what Pink Floyd called the “great gig in the sky” during the past year. On the other hand, this occasion gives me a good reason to revisit the lives and work of some truly great artists -- those who lived fully in what Leonard Cohen calls "the tower of song."

You've read the big names in other publications: Amy Winehouse – a wonderful singer who often seemed to be channeling Janis Joplin in more ways than one – joined Janis in the “27 Club” in July. Clarence Clemons – often the most entertaining person at a Springsteen concert – split about the same time.

I don't have the space for a terribly long list here, but here are some of the people whose passing June and I noted this year:

Paul Motian was the drummer in the legendary jazz trio that included Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro. His playing was innovative, yet often so subtle and supportive, audiences didn't notice him. Unlike most drummers, he seldom took a solo. Paul had a long career with many of the most important figures in jazz: Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, Monk. Here he is with Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden in 1972, including a rare Paul Motion drum solo:

Two very interesting and influential composers set down their pens for the last time in 2011: Milton Babbitt and Peter Lieberson.

Milton Babbitt's compositions are gloriously complex. He liked to call himself a “maximalist” to highlight the contrast between his music and that of minimalists like his contemporaries Phillip Glass and John Adams. His titles alone make fun reading: Septet, But Equal; The Joy of More Sextets; Sheer Pluck (a piece for guitar); Whirled Series. You may not find his brand of serialism to your taste, but you might enjoy this documentary about Babbitt:

Peter Lieberson was a student of Babbitt's and began his career as a composer in very much the same vein as Babbitt Рhighly structured, programmatic pieces which were highly regarded in the musical community. In the early 1970s he was drawn to Buddhism and studied under the tutelage of the eccentric Ch̦gyam Trungpa Rinpoche. His Buddhist practice had a strong influence on his compositional techniques; his compositions became fresh and emotional, and far more accessible for most of us than those of his old mentor Babbitt. Lieberson wrote an article for Shambala Sun in 1977 which describes his journey: A nice remembrance of Lieberson Рwhich includes a recording of a poignant performance of his "My love, if I die and you don't," performed by his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who preceded him in death Рis on Alex Ross's blog:

Other people we should have listened to more when we could:

Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, bassist and guitarist with Hall & Oates for 30 years. Here's a sweet tribute from H&O, where they simply intercut old video of Tom with a tune they are doing after his passing:

Montserrat Figueras, Soprano and co-founder (along with her husband Jordi Favall) of the Hesperion XX early-music ensemble:

Phoebe Snow, singer, who chose to care for her disabled daughter rather than pursue her career:

Gil Scott-Heron, poet and musician (was his funeral televised?):

Poly Styrene, punk diva:

Nickolas Ashford, songwriter (with Valerie Simpson) and singer, owner of the Sugar Bar in NY City:

Jerry Leiber, co-writer with Mike Stoller and others of some of your favorite songs, including "Kansas City", "Stand By Me", "On Broadway", and “Is That All There Is?”

George Shearing, pianist and composer of “Lullaby of Birdland”:

Pinetop Perkins, legendary blues pianist:

Ferlin Husky, singer:

Wilma Lee Cooper, singer who popularized “Big Midnight Special”: