I’m often loathe to participate in Facebook-type “List your Top Ten Favorite Reptiles – then hit share!” But this invitation proved irresistible.
The premise was that the participant would write about a musical epiphany – one a day for seven days. Oh, the hours of my life I lost obsessing on this! But here we go.
Day One – It’s kind of a long story about how I came to love Beethoven and, from there, many composers of the Baroque and Romantic periods. It started with a biography I read from my elementary school library. I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I think. As it happened, Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic at the time, and every couple of months he and the orchestra would host a televised Young People’s Concert. These were amazing shows, and Bernstein was a very engaging educator. One such show was devoted to Beethoven and, among other pieces, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. All of it is stunning, but the II Andante con moto is darkly beautiful. It is supposed to sonically represent Orpheus at the gates of Hades. I don’t think there’s any question!
Why no heavy metal band has stolen the phrases of the menacing strings in the con moto escapes me.
Day Two – I think I was a freshman in high school, and just starting to find out what FM radio was about. I remember hanging in my room on a Saturday, dialing through the FM stations on my oh-so-cool digital clock radio. WGLD was a favorite Chicago station in the very early ‘70’s, and I think it was there that I landed on this beat poet-esque soliloquy, accompanied by only conga drums. For the first minute, I thought the content was funny. By the end, in a sudden, bolt-upright glimpse into adulthood, I realized it wasn’t funny at all.
Day Three – There was a neighbor of mine that the local guys all thought was very hip. He was probably seven years older than most of us. He played the drums (which is why I started playing), and would wash his yellow VW bug with the 8-track blaring something cool from the interior. Some of the tapes were Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die and Jethro Tull’s Benefit – both of which I ran out and bought, and are both still pretty groundbreaking, even today.
But we were talking drummers one day, and he tried to describe a band to me (I later found out why he couldn’t describe them – because it was not possible). I don’t know that he remembered the band’s name, but he somehow recalled that the name of the album was The Inner Mounting Flame. With that much info, I was able to find it. I put it on the turntable, and the first of those nine long, intense, opening chords to Meeting of the Spirits sounded – almost daring you to listen on. By then, the emerging hypnotic, 6/4-time arpeggiated guitar already lured me in. That unchained, phrenetic-but-beautiful album is as amazing today as it was 40+ years ago.
VERY close runner-up: Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys – the guitar solo on “Machine Gun”
Day Four – There was a core of rock musicians in my high school, and most of us jammed in various permutations of over that time. As a junior, I gigged with a couple of seniors who were into blues, but also appreciated jazz. We were jamming at the guitarist’s house and took a break, repairing to his room to listen to some records. He may have asked if the bass player and I had heard of guitarist Joe Pass – I can’t remember. But he put Pass’ Virtuoso on the turntable and cued up How High the Moon, which starts slowly and beautifully. It caught my attention. But by the 2:00 mark I was standing up, staring at the speaker. By 2:30 where the unaccompanied guitarist was walking his own bass lines and strumming a syncopated rhythm guitar line, I’m pretty sure I was audibly yelling “what the fuck????”
I bought it on the way home after our jam. You should find it and buy it, too.
Day Five – Progressive Rock (a.k.a. Art Rock) was kind of the thing when I was in high school. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis… The musicianship was pretty staggering, even if Rick Wakeman’s gold cape and multi-keyboard set-up was maybe a bit more style than substance.
The music was filled with mellotrons, odd time signatures, novel key modulations and Renaissance / minstrel fantastical lyrics (I’m guessing… I’m not a lyrics guy). As a drummer, I loved the challenge of the occasional 15/4 and 9/8 time signatures. But the band that really trumped the genre didn’t seem to get much press. I had read about them before I heard them (maybe around my senior year of HS), and after I heard them, I don’t know why the press even bothered trying to describe what the group attempted.
The first album I heard from Gentle Giant was Three Friends, and the opening cut Prologue. I’m not going to try and describe their music either. It would be futile : ) But when I heard the madrigal voices emerge in the middle of the opener, well…. just listen for yourself at 1:49. And if I hadn’t seen them pull things like this off LIVE… for that reason, they may have been the greatest live rock band I ever saw. Apart from the usual rock arsenal, they brought with them actual strings, saxes, trumpet, descant recorders, vibraphone… and they made serious use of everything on that stage.
Early on they apparently were the opening act for Yes. If I were Yes, I’d have switched that order around in a hurry. Yes was made up of great instrumentalists, but as an ensemble, they couldn’t touch GG. GG’s undoing was probably that their music wasn’t as “accessible” to the listener, as in it was too complex, therefore not marketable. Alas, “accessibility” seems to plague many of the bands I love. But delve into the GG catalog. There are fortunately 35-40 year-old (!) clips of their amazing live and studio work on youtube.
Very close runner-up in same time frame: Zappa / Mothers – One Size Fits All
Day Six – Dan, the same guy who turned me on to Joe Pass (see Day 4), recruited me to attend his small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. We were both night owls, and I would get out of my dorm to avoid temptation (18 year-old drinking age at the time) and show up at his decrepit off-campus house because I knew he’d be studying, and I’d be able to do the same.
It approached midnight one such night and Dan announced that it was “almost time for Cuzner”.
He gave me a knowing “just wait” look, and tuned his receiver in to WFMR, the Milwaukee classical music station.
At the stroke of midnight, you heard the opening piano notes of Duke Ellington’s Solitude, and it would continue, beautifully and uninterrupted, until the formal-sounding Ron Cuzner would languidly announce “Good Morning… and welcome to (the brand new day of the week)”. And at just the right times while Solitude continued in the background, he’d inform you that you were listening to “The Dark Side” of (insert new day here). Well, you can hear it for yourself. Through the miracle that is the internet, I’ve found an actual October, 1976 Dark Side intro. Let the “This is jazz” wash over you.
Throughout my college years, Ron – along with a few gallons of bad coffee and cartons of Marlboros – would educate Dan & I about Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Sonnys Stitt, Criss and Rollins, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Lew Tabackin, Don Byas, Gerry Mulligan, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Joe Pass, Freddie Green, Ron Carter, Jimmy Blanton, Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams… an endless list.
In between cuts, caffeination, cigarettes and study, Dan and I would talk jazz, argue jazz, and just generally revel in the artistic moment while the rest of the campus and country slept.
They were some of the best hours of my life.
(This link opens with the ending of the classical programming. A Blood, Sweat & Tears album cover appears. Stay with it, and do not panic). : )
Day Seven: In the late spring of 1978, just ending my junior year in college, two pals in my class and I attended an older classmate’s graduation on campus, and immediately after the four of us made off in a packed old Buick to go backpacking in the Smoky Mountains.
Adventures involving makeshift car repairs, fearless indigenous wildlife, etc. ensued.
But the musical epiphany happened when the backpacking was done and we still had some days to kill, so we road-tripped to a campground in the Florida panhandle. We drove all night, and in between the mind-numbing you’ll-burn-in-hell! southern Christian radio, we managed to find a college radio station that was playing something instantly familiar – but not.
First I picked out the vocals and bass of John Wetton – a fave of mine who had played with Family and a ‘73-ish incarnation of King Crimson. Then, the drummer in me quickly picked out former Yes and King Crimson percussionist Bill Bruford. From that I deduced that it was a post-Crimson trio rumored to involve Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Wetton and Bruford that I had read about, but never materialized.
Were these the “lost tapes”?
Then through the car stereo I heard the unmistakable guitar of Allan Holdsworth. The elusive guitarist was (and still is) beyond category. I was familiar with his work in Tempest, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Bill Bruford’s solo work and Pierre Moerlin’s Gong, but his output was unpredictable, as he never stayed with the same band for long. You had to revel in his Coltrane-like “sheets of sound” approach when you could find it. Together with former Roxy Music & Zappa keyboardist Eddie Jobson (the only member I couldn’t really ID from the radio) they formed U.K.
I found the album at a Florida record store the next day during a gas stop, and found out what I could from the liner notes, but didn’t buy it until I returned to the Midwest.
Later that summer, I flew to Albany, NY, to visit my girlfriend, and who should be appearing in town at a small theater?
So I got to see them live, very early in their tour. The talent was pretty mind-boggling.
So… what would your Seven Day Music Challenge look like?