Walter Tunis

Walter Tunis is a longtime music columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.


He Spent the Pandemic Composing, Now There’s an Album: Lee Carroll and C the Beat

A little over a year ago, Lee Carroll bid adieu to the 9-to-5 world, hopped on a plane to Senegal, and pursued his passion for world music in one of West Africa’s most culturally rich countries. But in music, as in life, timing is everything. Within days of his overseas arrival, the world changed. COVID-19 had arrived.

“They shut the airports down in Dakar,” Carroll recalled. “I was lucky enough to get on an embassy plane to get home. I had to leave my compatriot, who was Senegalese, but he lives in Chicago and has a U.S. passport. We looked at each other and said, ‘If we don’t get out of here, who knows when we can leave.’ It was, like, nine months before they opened the airport again in Senegal, so we would have been stuck. So I did get home under the wire. But then I started thinking. ‘What am I going to do now?’”

Beyond Nashville
While Carroll’s devotion to African and global music is considerable, his resume as a professional musician might suggest otherwise. Having grown up in Cave City, he was a keyboard fixture in Nashville during the late ’80s and ’90s, playing and touring with Kentucky celebs Exile and The Judds. Appreciative of the career opportunities but frustrated by the stylistic limits they imposed, Carroll walked away from the music industry to make pizza. Specifically, he relocated to Pennsylvania and became a successful businessman overseeing ten Papa John’s stores for 25 years.

“Basically, every 18 months in Nashville they hand you another album to learn,” Carroll recalled. “That was the extent of it. Musically, that’s very limiting. I’m not complaining – it was a great experience. I got to travel. I got to do the road work. I got to meet with and work with a whole lot of different people. It was a really interesting part of my life. But once you do a record, you play the same thing every night. You do that for 18 months with not much variation at all. So it was very limiting. When I left Nashville, I said I would never play with anybody again who thinks they can ‘make it.’ In a way, when you start thinking about what the public wants, you start making compromises.

“The reason you got into music in the first place was because you loved it. You just wanted to play music. You were drawn toward what appealed to you, then all of a sudden you’re in a band. It’s a commercial band and success drives the whole thing. ‘How do you become more successful? What does the public like?’ And you start compromising. After 26 years in the music business, I walked away. There was no joy in it anymore. I didn’t play music again for ten years. I think it was the best thing I ever did, because when I came back to it, when I started playing again, it was like, ‘Man, I feel like I’m 16 again, but I can play.’ From that point on, it was like, ‘I’m not going to play music I don’t like. I’m not going to play for people who aren’t listening. I’m doing this because it makes me happy. That’s sort of been my driving force since then. If it makes me happy, I’ll keep doing it.”

Back home
Carroll eventually found his way back to Kentucky with pizza as his income and music as a hobby, but a hobby that quickly connected him with some of the region’s foremost music makers. Quickly established was a working relationship with local producer, engineer, and musician Duane Lundy, who oversees what is now The Lexington Recording Company. An ongoing friendship and musical camaraderie led to Carroll adding keyboards to a number of recordings Lundy was producing, which of late includes projects for Justin Wells, Joslyn and the Sweet Compression, and Abby Hamilton.

But Lundy also became a sounding board for Carroll’s newer music. In 2020, having sold his businesses, he was faced with a COVID-triggered lockdown that eliminated performance opportunities for live music. As a result, the keyboardist got to work on composing – a lot of it. With the help from members of his revamped C the Beat band (drummer/percussionist Tripp Bratton, guitarist Robert Frahm, bassist Thomas Usher, and saxophonist Jonathan Barrett), Carroll cooked up a musical potpourri that shifted from a Randy Newman-esque piano reverie (“Cornelia Sweet Dream”) to tropically inclined, pop-friendly fusion (“Cartagena”) to groove-savvy, dub-style jazz ambiance (“Marley’s Ghost”).

Lee Carroll (Photo credit: Kinga Mnich)

“At this point, I’ve written close to 40 songs since this COVID thing started. We’ve gone in the studio and recorded a lot of them. Then the question came up. ‘What do you do with this?’ I started brainstorming with Duane, and he said, “Here’s what you need to do. You have all this material. You come out and release a single onto the streaming service – Spotify, iTunes, and all of that – and two weeks later you release another single. Maybe three weeks after that, you do another one. Then you release an EP with those songs and three more songs.’ I started looking at the material and felt I could do that already. I could do that four times. That’s a year, because each cycle takes about 12 weeks. That’s a good spacing.

“This thing will evolve and change and adapt to whatever is going on. But what I’m going to do is start pushing the music out there. Sometime in the next month, when I have everything lined up and everything is mastered, we’ll put that into play and start releasing the singles. Then I thought, ‘We need an image to go with each single. We need some art.’”

Snake it up
Carroll envisions the release of his new music might culminate in a multi-media vinyl record package and/or book that would incorporate video and various levels of graphic design. But before all of that was art – art that would accompany the initial release of singles and EP collections. For that, he turned to one of his oldest friends and collaborators, Rodney Hatfield.

Cornelia’s Sweet Dream (Artist: Rodney Hatfield)

For many regional music enthusiasts, Hatfield was the harmonica stylist and co-lead vocalist for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars and, with Carroll, the multi-genre Tin Can Buddha. But for the past several decades, Hatfield has devoted himself to painting. Under the nom-de-plume of Art Snake, he has created richly colored, broadly animated works that balance folkish intimacy with dream-like abstraction.

“We were tossing ideas around and everything kept coming back to Rodney,” Carroll said. “We’ve collaborated for many, many years. I love Rodney’s art. For Tin Can Buddha, we always used Rodney’s images, so it just made a lot of sense. Plus, if we use a single artist for this project, then there is a common visual language that ties us together. It just made sense to use the same person. I talked to Rodney about it and he very kindly agreed to let me use images of paintings he had done.

Jazzbo Green (Artist: Rodney Hatfield)

“The point of this is to do something meaningful. After I left the music business, I would find some of the records I worked on in the cut-out bin. It was like ‘Back to the Future,’ when Michael J. Fox looks at the picture of his family and they start fading. That’s how I felt. So when I got back into music and started doing things like Tin Can Buddha, I was like, ‘I want to do stuff that is meaningful to me. I don’t care if it sells or not.’ My son will have this after I’m gone and he can say, ‘My dad did this.’ I just wanted to leave something. I don’t want to fade like that.

“I see this project as really an extension of that same thing. It was time to do something that has meaning to me and can perhaps touch some other folks in the process.”

Check out two of the dozens of songs Carroll is releasing in the coming weeks: click.

C the Beat is performing this new music in concert at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center on Main Street in Lexington on the evening of Friday, July 9. Click here for details.

(Image at top: After Hours EP Cover Art by Rodney Hatfield)

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Tunis: Year of the Plague, Live Music Edition

It was everything one could have wished for on a downtown Saturday night.

The surroundings were sublime – a cloudless sunset with air cool and clear enough to fortify the spring that was very much unfolding. The streets around Broadway and Short were as full of people in motion as they would have been during a weekday rush hour. But the pace was markedly calmer. Some were heading to dinner, others from it. Many stopped and engaged in the sort of unhurried conversation that only seems to commence on a weekend. The lighting was a collage – a mix of the changing blue Mother Nature brought on with the dusk with an artful glow of man-made illumination that included the striking new marquee that greeted Opera House audiences at its Broadway entrance.

Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

A large evening was planned inside the Opera House. Country music renaissance man Marty Stuart and his scholarly trio The Fabulous Superlatives were back in town for their first performance since playing across the street 16 months earlier, also on a Saturday night, as part of a sold-out Rupp Arena bill with Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb. The room was going to be smaller for Stuart tonight, but he was the only act on tap. The night was to be all his.

Outside the Opera House, the mood was engaging. A major concert performance on a Saturday evening with spring in evidence – pretty hard to beat, right? Then something curious happened. A friend walked up to me who I had not seen in some time, but his greeting was unexpected. He didn’t offer his hand. He leaned his left elbow toward me, expecting to me nudge mine to it in response.“I won’t ask you to shake hands, because, well… you know.”

I knew alright. So did the three people in my company and my friend’s wife, who was standing to his right.

Word was already spreading about COVID-19, about its devastating effects in China and its rapid tear throughout the rest of the world. With it came the grim understanding of how contagious the coronavirus could be. A simple handshake, a casual hug, any form of physical intimacy could spread it. But it still seemed far away. Everyone I knew was taking it seriously, but the general feeling was COVID was going to do its damage from a distance. So my friend and I jokingly rubbed elbows, went inside to watch Stuart and the Superlatives bust the place up with two hours of country roots romps, folkish confessionals, bluegrass standards and even a surf tune.

It was quite a night. March 7, 2020.

Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

By the following weekend COVID had exploded, the world locked down, and live music, as we knew it, was extinguished.

Curtain down
Within days, the realities of COVID’s arrival grew rapidly grimmer, as did the extremes of what was going to be needed to combat it. Live music, and all performing arts activities, began evaporating. The total effect didn’t hit all at once, although it seemed like it. Live music still had a few hits left. In Lexington, two fell on the following Tuesday. Both, oddly enough, were jazz performances. Ironically, COVID, in something of a tease, was actually responsible for one of them happening.

Grammy nominated guitarist Julian Lage and Bad Plus drummer Dave King had been touring overseas as a duo. When a series of Japan concerts dates were scrubbed in the wake of COVID’s invasion there, the two high-tailed it home and quickly assembled as many makeup dates before the coronavirus hit Stateside. One such performance fell into the lap of the Lexington-based Origins Jazz Series, which quicky booked Lage and King into The Apiary on Jefferson Street with roughly a week to promote the show. The concert drew well, amply satisfied those in attendance and brought Origins’ third season to an abrupt and unplanned conclusion. It stands as, quite possibly, the only artistic gift COVID has given our city.

Over at the Niles Gallery on the University of Kentucky campus, the long-running Outside the Spotlight series (OTS), which leans more to free jazz and improvisational music, was welcoming an old friend, Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis, back to town. Over the previous 18 years, OTS had presented Rempis at a variety of Lexington venues in the company of roughly a dozen different duo and band configurations.

What brought Rempis back to OTS and Lexington this Tuesday night was a trio called Kuzu that placed him alongside guitarist Tashi Dorji and drummer/percussionist Tyler Damon.

I had already made plans to attend the OTS show when the Lage/King performance was announced. From my Kuzu review: “The room acoustics played a role in this merry chaos, too. The natural echo of the Niles Gallery seemed to magnify the clarity and volume of sax and drums. Curiously, electric guitar, the only amplified instrument of the three, struggled to be heard above its acoustic counterparts. But the ensemble sensibility, full of vigor and invention, never waned.”

Kuzu. Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

That was the last graph of the last review of the last full public performance I have attended. A full year ago.

Sounds lost
What we have lost over the past year is now immeasurable. There have been the artists – most notably John Prine – who have been taken by the coronavirus. There have been the venues, the most locally notable being Cosmic Charlie’s, that have closed in COVID’s wake. There have been the performances, including every major summer festival from the Festival of the Bluegrass to the anticipated second year of Railbird, that were lost.

It goes without saying that there have been valiant and welcome efforts to present at least some level of live music during the ensuing months. A special nod goes to The Burl, which continued to present socially distanced outdoor concerts in its parking lot as late as November. But even with all available precautions being taken, potential patrons had to weigh the risk of exposure. With the COVID vaccine not publicly available through the end of 2020, many music enthusiasts reluctantly stayed home. Being very much in the at-risk category, I was one of them. In most cases, though, the decision was made for us. Many touring acts that attracted arena, theatre or even club-sized audiences remained off the road. The grim forecast of what many venues were predicting was coming to pass.

“We were the first to close. We will be the last to re-open.”

So what now? With the number of vaccinations gradually growing, there is at least some hope for live music’s grand return. But it probably won’t occur soon. Clubs like The Burl are again starting to offer small, socially distanced shows. Anything larger will probably still have to wait. That means more postponements (a Buddy Guy concert at the Opera House is now on its third rescheduled date) with the potential of more summer cancellations very much a possibility. Summer festivals are up in the air at this point, but the decision whether they go on or not may not even be in the hands of their promoters. If acts don’t tour, nothing happens. Beyond that, at this point, it’s wait and see.

One of the sadder and more recent postscripts to the year we have lost was the recent passing of jazz titan Chick Corea. His death on February 9 wasn’t due to COVID but to a rare form of cancer that advanced rapidly after diagnosis.

Chick Corea. Photo Credit: Associated Press, Courtesy Wall Street Journal

What makes Corea’s departure especially sad was that during the earliest days of the pandemic, he maintained an unexpectedly high profile online. For roughly six weeks, he propped up an iPhone in his home studio and let audiences watch him practice at the piano. These weren’t performances, although the playing was often of performance quality. It was instead, a means of simple, honest connection to an audience that felt abandoned by the loss of live music and in shock over a COVID-dictated lifestyle change that demanded isolation.

All of those sessions remain viewable online and serve as some of the most casual yet powerful artistic affirmations to surface during a year that tuned so much music out.

“Keep the spirit up,” Corea said at the end of a practice session he streamed on Easter Sunday. “We’re going to get over this. I know we’re going to get over this.”

Top Image Photo Credit: Cosmic Charlie’s Facebook Page

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Tunis: Jorma Kaukonen is Live and Well at Fur Peace Ranch

Saturday night has arrived at Fur Peace Ranch and Jorma Kaukonen is in a spry mood. The guitarist, song stylist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has just wound his way through Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” It’s a giddy bit of back porch acoustic serenading that couldn’t have sounded sunnier.

But what awaits Kaukonen at the song’s conclusion might initially seem unexpected. It’s silence – several beats of stillness, in fact. But he has a comeback at the ready.

“And the crowd went wild.”

A few claps of approval then erupt, but they belong to the family and crew members in the largely empty room at hand. They are assisting in bringing the performance to life for audiences listening in from almost everywhere else around the globe. On a typical Saturday night, this performance space would be packed with fans cheering on the folk, blues and Americana music Kaukonen has spent the better part of six decades exploring and playing. But since the COVID-19 outbreak, Fur Peace Ranch, along with most every other performance space on the planet, has been closed.

“Hey, at least we’re here,” he added. Then Kaukonen turned to “Heart Temporary,” an original, summery affirmation recorded for his 2007 album “Stars in My Crown” that further enforced the show’s homey feel.

Kaukonen is here because a series of Saturday night streaming shows – Quarantine Concerts, as he calls them – have maintained his performance visibility. Granted, scores of artists have taken to cyberspace during recent lockdown conditions to air occasional, informal shows of varying length. They are often staged from their homes with little more than an iPhone as a broadcasting device. Fur Peace Ranch – located in Meigs County, Ohio – has regularly presented multi-camera, high definition concert simulcasts. As such, Kaukonen’s Saturday streaming shows are essentially standard operating procedure. And since Kaukonen and wife/manager Vanessa also live on the Fur Peace grounds, the programs maintain the homebound feel of other COVID-climate online concerts.

“We’ve got our crew,” Kaukonen said. “We’ve got all our stuff. So we figured, ‘Hey, we’re here anyway. Might as well do a show.’”

“San Francisco Bay Blues” and “Heart Temporary” were the first two songs played at the inaugural Quarantine Concert. As of this writing, Kaukonen has played a total of five consecutive Saturday evening streaming shows with fans tuning in from as far away as Thailand and Italy. While the performances don’t require any kind of viewer fee, donations and virtual tip jars have collected enough funds to pay the Fur Peace staff assisting with the concerts.

“We’re getting about 4,000 to 5,000 views a week from people watching for the first time through. I mean, that’s like selling out the Beacon (Theatre) in New York twice. Now, I know it’s a free show, and it’s going to stay free. That’s the deal. We’re not going to monetize this thing. But people have really been coming through for us and we’re so grateful. I’m actually able to keep three employees out on the Ranch. So for us, it’s a win-win situation. We get to reach out to the world and it gives me something to do.

“I mean, I’m kind of like a court jester. Without a court, I’m out of work.”

Back to the Starting Line
For the uninitiated, Kaukonen is a student of folk tradition, having learned fingerpicking technique from guitarist Ian Buchanan and roots music composition through the recordings of numerous stylistic forefathers that include the Reverend Gary Davis. But it was rock ‘n’ roll that gave him prominence, specifically tenure with the vanguard psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane (hence the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) and the spinoff ensemble he formed in 1969 with Airplane bassist Jack Casady dubbed Hot Tuna. The latter alliance still exists today. But with all touring plans on hold this year, Kaukonen is returning to the folk inspirations that guided his career long before the Airplane took off, sounds that continue to fortify his music today.

“Without a band at these shows, without the production and all that stuff, what we’re talking about is what got me into this music in the first place. I’m not playing plugged in. It really is an acoustic guitar and a microphone. For me, it’s going back to where it all started. That’s something that I really enjoy.

“If I’m going to do a show somewhere, we do it the way we all do it. There’s production, there’s lights, you do your soundchecks – all of that. Here are at the Ranch, we have a great sounding room, we have a crack crew… everything is here. I don’t need to think about powdering my nose or making sure my forehead doesn’t shine too much. I just sit down with my guitars and start playing songs and hope everything works. So far, everything’s been working great.”

But what of the new performance dynamics dictated by today’s social distancing world? They allow Kaukonen to present concerts at the Ranch exactly as he has been, with one major stipulation: he can’t admit an audience.

“Listen, there’s nothing like a live audience. We don’t even need to discuss that. But we don’t have one. I think I’ve adapted to the situation in that I’ve convinced myself there’s an audience out there. The downside to not having an audience is you don’t have an audience. The upside, if there is an upside to this, is that without having an audience, the sound of our room becomes pristine. The quality of the sound we’re sending out to our audience around the world is tops, if I do say so myself.”

But live performances constitute only a portion of Kaukonen’s activities at the Ranch. He and his staff also host seminars with guitar students. Since lockdown conditions were established, he has gone the way of most school environments:  online instruction. That took some getting used to, as well.

“Nobody hates change worse than me, so to have to learn how to use a program like Zoom, even though everybody does it, took me awhile to get into. Fortunately, I’ve got a teenage daughter who knows how to do all that stuff. I’ve been doing guitar lessons on Zoom three times a week and I’ve got more coming up. Again, I think the students and myself have adjusted to the fact that this is what we’ve got, so we might as well make it work.

“I guess the bottom line is that I live here at the Ranch anyway. I don’t have to go anywhere. I might as well be giving a guitar lesson.”

Awaiting Eighty
The big question facing Kaukonen, and essentially every other working musician – and perhaps all performing artists, for that matter – is simple but frightening. “What’s next?” Touring schedules have been irreparably damaged if not scrapped all together while the reopening of arts facilities seem uncertain at best.

“That’s a really good question. We talk about it all the time. Basically, tours have been cancelled for the rest of the year, or rather, my tours have been cancelled for the rest of the year. There are still some things that are on the books, like Locken in the fall (the annual Virginia festival has been postponed from June to October). But basically, we don’t know.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I had a student, a Zoom student, the other day say something that really made sense to me. He said, ‘What’s happening now is not a pause button. It’s a reset button.’

“Listen, we’re going to come back from all of this. Of course, we are. This is not the end of the world. But I think it’s changed things forever in a lot of ways. It’s going to change everything for everybody.”

Through it all, Kaukonen remains hopeful – upbeat, even. In December, he will turn 80, a milestone that seems both remarkable and unfathomable when you witness the assuredness and joy reflected in his playing as cameras zoom in for close ups at his Quarantine Concerts.

“I am pretty upbeat. There are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, children came to me late in life. I’ve got a 22-year-old son and I have an almost 14-year-old daughter. Plus, my wife is younger than me, so the fact that I’m surrounded by younger people lets me know that I’m never allowed to be that old guy.

“At some point, changes will be coming. I understand all that. But while I was waiting for this interview, I took a 30-mile motorcycle ride. I can still do that. I mean, I’m still healthy. My goal is just to enjoy every day as much as possible. I see nothing to be gained by bellyaching about stuff.”

Jorma Kaukonen’s Quarantine Concerts are presented at 8 p.m on Saturdays. Previous performances are still viewable. For viewing info, go here.

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Tunis: Fly or Die’s Jaimie Branch Is Grounded and Fully Alive

Artists have different ways of utilizing critical accolades. The higher up you climb commercially, the more pivotal and important a review becomes, mostly because a favorable one is good for business. Come back to earth and talk to an independent artist whose work has minimal, if any, concern for lofty critical praise and the intent of a review becomes more elemental. A good one, in this instance, serves as an introduction. It lets potential patrons know who you are and what you do.

Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Jaimie Branch discovered that at the close of 2017 when the self-titled album by her multi-directional trumpet/cello/bass/drums quartet Fly or Die took “best of” honors in year-end tributes by The New York Times, NPR, Stereogum, Slate and numerous other publications. Rolling Stone subsequently named Branch as one of the “10 Artists You Need to Know About.”

Jaimie Branch photo by Dawid Laskowski

Heady praise, indeed, but well deserved. The “Fly or Die” album was a sublime blend of indie cool, lean and often chamber-like abstraction, and worldly groove that announced the arrival of Branch as a true musical innovator after years of immersion in a vital Chicago jazz community. Such reception (in his New York Times rave, critic Giovanni Russonello tagged “Fly or Die” as “a work of hardscrabble imagination”) doesn’t slip too deep into Branch’s world, although she understands the practical possibilities it can present.

“For me, I can’t live or die by what anybody says about my music,” she said, “Today, it may be very favorable, tomorrow it might not be, so it would be foolish of me to put too much stock into that. Still, it feels really good to have people talking about my music because that means they’re listening to my music. That’s the whole thing. It’s not about anything other than creating more music going forward. It’s like, ‘This is the life I want to lead, but I need to be playing in order to lead it.’ The more folks listen, the more we play and the more we’re able to play. So I’m grateful.

“But the thing is I’ve been making music my whole adult life. I’ve been playing at a very high level and nobody has ever really taken any notice until recently. So I don’t know. There’s a whole confluence of things that have to happen for people to actually hear your music.”

High Life and Paradise
Perhaps, as Branch suggested, audiences outside of Chicago and her native New York (where she relocated to in 2015) took little notice of her music. But Lexington did. Roughly eight years ago, she first performed here as a member of The High Life, a jazz and groove outfit led by bassist Jason Ajemian. As recently as January 2018, on the heels of her critical breakthrough, she was back as part of a predominantly electronic duo with Jason Nazary called Anteloper. Both performances were presentations of the long running, locally produced Outside the Spotlight series of improvisational and free jazz concerts that have brought scores of artists from New York, Europe and especially Chicago to a variety of Lexington stages.

Outside the Spotlight is again behind Branch’s Lexington return on March 26 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery, an occasion that marks the local debut of the Fly or Die quartet. The show celebrates the release of “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise.” The recording expands the thematic scope of Branch’s music (especially on the topically, socially and politically driven “Prayer for Amerikka, Pts. 1 and 2,” which also marks Branch’s recorded debut as a vocalist) as well as its rhythmic sensibility (the neo-calypso strut of “Nuevo Roquero Estereo”).

“Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise” album cover

“I was really focusing on writing for the band. That was my main thing. Like, I have this band of incredible, virtuosic musicians. How do I take… well, not advantage, but how do I write so I can use everybody’s musical strengths?

“While we were on tour in 2018, the midterm elections were going on at home and the political situation in the U.S. was just getting more and more tense. That was where the psyche was that came out on the record. But everything is the sum of all parts. Musical passages might not be quite so literal as the vocal ones, but there’s still a little veil of abstractness. Everything kind of informs the other thing.”

Ironically, at the core of the Fly or Die sound, on record as well as onstage, is Ajemian. The same artist responsible for bringing Branch to Lexington initially in his band is now a first lieutenant of sorts in the critically lauded quartet she is now leading.

“If you have gotten to hang with the great Jason Ajemian, you know he’s a really rare bird. His bass playing is sensitive, but his sound is so big. He’s got a really lovely, deep bass sound. And he really plays what he hears. He’s one of my closest friends. I’ve played in his bands for years.

“For a long time, I wasn’t really touring much except for when Jason would take me on tour. That stayed with me. Today, he’s got the chair in my band until he doesn’t want it anymore.”

“We all have our struggles”
A Suzuki-trained pianist who began playing at the age of three, Branch gravitated to trumpet by absorbing the inspirations of such vanguard jazz men as Miles Davis and Lee Morgan. But the catalyst, aside from watching her brother (10 years Branch’s senior) work as a musician, was an infatuation with punk music. In watching and emulating rock ’n’ roll immediacy while honoring jazz tradition, Branch’s career path was set.

“The energy from those punk shows, that’s what sealed the deal for me. I was like, ‘Man, I just want to do this for the rest of my life.’ Then my interests changed and I started playing more improvised music, creative music. For a while there, it didn’t really have the energy that those punk rock concerts had when I was a kid. But musically, they were super gratifying. Recently, as in the last couple of years, I’m gotten to that point where I have the music and the energy. That’s just taken things to a whole different level.”

There were pitfalls on the way to seizing that energy, though. Branch fell into heroin addiction, although she eventually discovered an organic stimulation from the music she was making that helped her come clean.

“Well, there’s definitely an adrenaline rush, right, when you’re performing, and that’s a chemical thing. When I was first getting off the drugs, I had to take some time off playing to deal with it. I mean, it wasn’t much time, but with trumpet, two weeks, three weeks, a month – that’s a long time. I was a little bit afraid that it wasn’t going to come back. But quite the opposite came true. I was allowed the ability to focus in a whole new way, to really give a lot to the music, to do it justice.

Jaimie Branch photo by Peter Gannushkin

“The things you learn from a good bout with addiction and the things that come with it, like being homeless, are that you can get up. You can fall down, but you can get back up. And that’s for everybody. A lot of people learn that in other ways. We all have our struggles. I think we can take out of that lessons learned and realize that maybe all of that wasn’t time wasted.”

Horn of Empowerment
In Ben Holman’s short documentary, “Birds Dogs of Paradise,” which follows Branch through the end of a European tour and the beginning of recording sessions for the album that now shares its title with the film, she admits to being anything but shy. Still, when Branch is out in public with her trumpet, her confidence soars. It is with horn in hand that she finds fulfillment in art as well as life.

“I think of the trumpet as my secret weapon. I hate this term, but if people don’t know me from Adam and I have my trumpet with me, I know something can pop off. It’s like, ‘This is what I do. This is what I have to contribute.’

“Hey, if something comes up, if somebody needs an emergency trumpet player, I’m there. Of course, if somebody is passing out on the subway, they don’t ask for a trumpet player. It’s just that I know that when I have my horn with me, the potential for music making is there and that makes me feel empowered.”

Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die Quartet performs at 7:30 p.m. on March 26 at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacobs Niles Gallery, 160 Patterson Drive, Lexington. The performance, sponsored by WRFL-FM, is free.

Top image: Jaimie Branch photo by Peter Gannushkin

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Tunis: Larry Cordle’s Eastern Kentucky Is Always Nearby

It’s a few days prior to when Larry Cordle hits the road again and the phone is ringing.

Calling in isn’t a high profile country music collaborator, although he has been in contact with several of late. An especially noteworthy one, in fact, hails from Cordle’s native Lawrence County.

Similarly, the call isn’t bringing word of another award for his champion sense of composition. That came the previous weekend, when the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (commonly referred to as SPBGMA but pronounced in loosely acronymic terms by bluegrass enthusiasts as “spigma”) informed Cordle that the organization had named him Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year. Again. He took home the same trophy in 2019.

No, on this February afternoon, Cordle is dealing with logistics. He’s on the phone for the second or third time in as many hours sorting out hotel reservations for members of his Lonesome Standard Time band ahead of an impending weekend concert in Alabama.

That’s right. The Songwriter of the Year who is also a member of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and a celebrated bluegrass stylist whose songs have been recorded over the past three decades by the likes of  Garth Brooks, George Strait and Alison Krauss, is arranging hotel accommodations.

“Well, you know the bluegrass business,” Cordle said. “I guess some people can delegate it out to their road managers. But, man, I just wear so many hats that I can’t honestly ask somebody to do this. My life is just too complicated. It’s too complicated for me, so it would be a nightmare to parcel this out to somebody else. And horribly expensive.”

Karma is an intriguing thing, though, even in the world of bluegrass. As Cordle deals with locking down hotel details for his bandmates, one of the country music’s most lauded new celebrities – the hometown accomplice mentioned earlier – is making room for him on what is perhaps Nashville’s most revered concert stage.

The Tyler Connection
The week after the Alabama gig, Cordle will head to Music City – specifically, just a few blocks removed from the legendary complex of record label offices, recording studios and publishing companies he depicted going up in artistic flames on his 1999 song “Murder on Music Row.” In short, Cordle will be playing the famed Ryman Auditorium on a sold-out bill with Tyler Childers, the artist whose sense of rural storytelling detail has made him a Grammy-nominated country and Americana music sensation. He also hails from Lawrence County and has regularly cited Cordle and other regional greats, including Ricky Skaggs (who had one of his first hits with Cordle’s “Highway 40 Blues”), as heroic influences.

The soft-spoken Cordle is both moved but also mildly bewildered by the recognition.

“Tyler is from Lawrence County, like I am and Ricky is. I didn’t know a lot about him at first. About three or four years ago, I worked a show with him in Huntington. It was down on this riverbank at a little amphitheater. We played our set to 150 to 200 people there. It was nowhere near full, but we had a good set.

“A disc jockey I knew from up in that area asked me afterward if I knew Tyler. I said, ‘Well, no I don’t. I’ve seen his name around and stuff.’ He said, ‘Well, he’s building a great following.’ That’s when I looked up on the hill. By that time, it was nearly full for Tyler’s set. He said, ‘Maybe you ought to hang around here and listen to a couple of his songs.’”

Fast forward to the end of 2018. In the midst of a sold-out string of shows at the Louisville Palace, Childers, already well into his transformation into a major concert draw, has picked Cordle as a show opener. It would be a far cry from the Huntington gig and a primer for what the songsmith is about to experience at the Ryman. Cordle simply views all these shows as a collective affirmation of the powerful country muses that have always inhabited Eastern Kentucky.

“I remember making some comment to Tyler’s manager. ‘I can’t believe you sold out all these Palace shows.’ He said, ‘Larry, this is the way it is everywhere. This is not a Kentucky thing.’

“Eastern Kentucky, man. It’s amazing how all that’s come along. I mean, look at Chris Stapleton. He basically does his own thing. No one was running over themselves to help him. He was already making a good living as a songwriter, but the singing career was basically his doing. Same thing for Sturgill (Simpson). Just the fact that all those guys are from within 60 or 70 miles from one another is so strong.”

Curiously, the regional references, imagery and sentiments that have made Childers’ music so distinctive were qualities Cordle felt might isolate the young artist’s music from wider acceptance and a larger audience.

“I could tell Tyler had this real raw bone energy that was really excitable to crowds. But my first thought was his songs were so regional that I didn’t know how in the world it was going to work out for him. He had those things like that Virgie song (“Follow You to Virgie”). Well, I know where Virgie is, but a lot of people probably don’t. I mean, I knew his songs were really great, but I was surprised that they blew up like they did.

“That shows you how little I knew about it.”

Eastern Intrigue
Okay, so Cordle is a better songwriter than fortune teller. Luckily, he remains fascinated by the possibilities of a tune and the kinds of audiences that will take to one he has put his name to. A recent single, a spry string music reverie titled “Breakin’ on the Jimmy Ridge,” wound up at the top of the Bluegrass Today Top 20 Song Chart in December. It will be part of an upcoming album called “Where the Trees Know My Name” due for release in May.

It’s a telling title. As the critical and commercial prominence of artists like Skaggs and Childers, as well as Cordle himself, attests to, there is something whistling within those trees that inspires music of such reverential depth. The rest of the world may cheer on its unspoiled blend of country cheer and candor. But for Cordle, music is a statement of life. It stands as a reflection of the family and community he grew up with and a milestone of faith that has helped him brave a battle with leukemia that been in remission since 2016.

“My parents and grandparents had just come out of the depression and they worked hard. I tell you, a big part of my life was growing up with us getting together and playing music around here. We couldn’t hardly get TV. In the late ’50s and early ‘60s, watching our TV was like watching ghosts. But my grandfathers and uncles on both sides of the family were great storytellers. They had all these great stories to share. I can’t tell how many of those things that I’ve made songs out of.

“The work ethic of those people was incredible. They were so connected to that land, but it was a hard life. We romanticize about the good times – you know, ‘the good old days.’ Well, they were only the good old days because your mother and daddy took care of you. We still had to work hard. Me and my brother tried to get out of there as much we possibly could because it was hard, backbreaking work. But some way or another, that found a firm place in my mind for these songs I’ve written over the years and the stories they’ve told me that I have made into songs.

“I don’t even know how it all works. For some of these things, I feel I was just sitting there holding the pencil. I don’t know. All that comes from a higher place. It’s a reminder of where you came from and not to get away from where you came from. No matter where I live, I’ll always be from Eastern Kentucky.”

Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time perform at:
+ 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville opening for Tyler Childers. The performance is sold out.
+ 6 p.m. Feb. 22 at Meadowgreen Appalachian Music Park, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City with The Tommy Webb Band. Tickets are $15.
+ 4 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Clarion Hotel Conference Center North, 1950 Newtown Pike as part of the two-day Bluegrass in the Bluegrass. Tickets are $45 each evening, $80 for both nights.

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The Spirit of Gurdjieff Lives on in Two Guitars

Bert Lams has come to recognize the look. It’s the one he receives when audience patrons think they know what is in store once he initiates a concert with fellow guitarist Fabio Mittino.

“It’s funny,” the Belgian-born Lams remarked. “Being a guitar duo brings a connotation for people that what we do is always going to be about ‘guitar music.’ They expect to hear flamenco, Spanish guitar music or some kind of virtuoso music. What we do is totally the opposite of that.

“You’ll see it when we start our first piece. You can see the surprise on people’s faces. They have no idea. ‘What is this? What are they doing? This is not what we expected.’ I enjoy that because it still draws people in, but in a different way, from a different angle. A lot of that has to do with where this music comes from. It was created under special circumstances in difficult times. It is very spiritual music with a lot of folklore elements mixed in.”

The Gurdjieff connection
What distinguishes Lams and Italian guitarist Mittino from other duos and ensembles – even the celebrated California Guitar Trio, which Lams has toured and recorded with extensively for nearly three decades – is the source material. The core of the duo’s repertoire revolves around G.I. Gurdjieff, a journeyman whose music was as diverse as the many occupational hats he juggled.

Born from Russian, Armenian and Greek descent, Gurdjieff was, at various times, a merchant, author, philosopher, spiritual teacher, mystic and more. He wasn’t a composer in any traditional sense. Instead, he absorbed songs, melodies and meditations throughout travels in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East in much the same way ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax did in collecting tunes of mid-19th century folk music in rural America.

Lomax preserved the music he found through field recordings. Gurdjieff stored what he heard in his head, then hummed or plucked out single-string recitations on guitar to one of his most trusted proteges, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Much of that music was then “composed” for piano. What Lams and Mittino did, at the latter’s suggestion, was rework it for two guitars.

“Gurdjieff was not a musician,” Lams said. “Still, everything he touched turned to gold. He could sell carpets at the market early in the morning. He could open a restaurant. He was a great businessman, but was also a teacher. He wrote books. He could kind of do anything he wanted, really.

“His father was a professional storyteller. I think that’s where the nature of this music comes from. His father had it in his blood, that oral tradition. He did not write any of these stories down. They were passed on from one person to another. That was his job. I think Gurdjieff inherited some of that gift.

“When he went on his travels, he was able to somehow memorize these melodies and hum them to de Hartmann. There were Aremenian songs, Egyptian songs, Syrian songs. There were these different songs from all over the East. We play a lot of those.”

So what does the resulting music sound like? Well, on “Movimenti,” a newly released second album of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music by Mittino and Lams (the first, “Long Ago,” came out in 2016), the guitar sound is subtle yet exotic with a strong Eastern accent. It is delicately dance-like but powerfully emotive. And short. The duo glides through 11 compositions on the recording in under 20 minutes.

“Yes, these are short pieces. Most of the ones on the second album are designed for movement. There is sort of a dance choreography that Gurdjieff came up with. Fabio and I experienced this last summer. We were invited to Greece to play for participants at a ten-day seminar where they studied these movements every day. They kept repeating these pieces as they studied the movements. Some were repeated for half an hour. Most were played on piano and were played a lot slower.

“Since we’re guitar players, we make this music more of an adaptation for the guitar. It just seems to sound better when it’s played a little faster on the guitar. On piano, you can play one note and it can ring forever. Not on guitar. On guitar, the note is played and it is over, so we have to kind of play it a little bit differently and adapt it somewhat. That’s why most of those pieces are played faster.

“This music is like a painting. It takes me to a place, but I think it also speaks to people in a way that is simpler, a way that is more innocent, than Gurdjieff’s teachings. Even if people don’t know anything about the music, you can tell that it speaks to them when we play it. You can tell that there is something that touches them in the melodies. There is a lot of emotion in this music, a lot of longing.”

Enter Fabio
Lams’ journey to Gurdjieff landed him in two countries before the alliance with Mittino began. In 1987, Lams made his first visit to the United States to take part in a course called Guitar Craft overseen by King Crimson founder Robert Fripp. The studies took him to Claymont Court in West Virginia, a mansion that was (and still is) home to the Claymont Society, which offers retreats centered largely around the teachings of Gurdjieff.

While Lams was focused on Guitar Craft, the Claymont Society and the grounds it called home remained a profound inspiration for a young guitarist just getting introduced to America. Ironically, Lams and Mittino will perform at Claymont Court only two nights after a January 15th concert at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort.

“That’s where it all started for me. It was a big thing, coming to America for the first time, not knowing what I was in for. This country changed my life. Now I live here and work here.”

But it was while residing in England that Mittino entered the picture. Hoping to also become a Guitar Craft student, he reached out directly to Fripp. While courses at the time were unavailable, Fripp referred the Italian instrumentalist to Lams for lessons. That led to an extended friendship, professional alliance and a fascination with Gurdjieff.

“Fabio is about 20 years younger than I am,” Lams said. “He is actually the one who instigated this whole project on the music of Gurdjieff because he had already been arranging it for solo guitar. He made an album of the music and asked me to write something in the liner notes. But I think he felt it would sound a lot better in a duo because some parts were missing with one guitar. That’s when he started having the idea of playing this music with me.”

Gurdjieff in the house
The majority of the performances during the brief tour Mittino and Lams are undertaking this month – a series of nine shows in ten days – are house concerts. The Frankfort outing at the Coffeetree Café, where Lams has played several times before with Mittino as well as with the California Guitar Trio, is one of the few exceptions. But the café’s atmosphere, he said, very much possesses the proper living room atmosphere.

“The house concerts are a perfect situation for this music, because they are very intimate and very much like at the Coffeetree where people are in a smaller space. They’re close by, close up. There is no division of stage and lighting system and sound and all that. We’re in the same space, so we hear what the audience hears and they hear exactly what we hear. Normally, when we do a regular concert with the trio in a larger room or a theatre, for instance, you’re in a separate space than the audience. It’s much easier to connect with the audience with a house concert because you’re right there in the same room.

“The house concerts are like heaven for me. When there are just 20 or 30 people there listening closely to you, it’s special. It’s special every night.”

Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams perform at 7 p.m. on January 15th at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort. Admission is $20. Call 502-875-3009. For reservations, go to

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Tunis: Dining with Justin

There is a word, one almost unavoidably attached to events of the season, that Justin Wells would rather you eject from your vocabulary when he comes home to play The Burl this month.

It’s difficult to omit because the Lexington songsmith’s annual December outing embodies so much of the spirit tagged to the word. The Burl show, dubbed Wine and Dine (slated for Dec. 14) is really two concerts in one. The first is an intimate, acoustic-based, singer-songwriter performance designed as a dinner show. True to the billing, the set differs from almost any other program presented at the venue during the rest of the year as it has the audience seated with a full dinner brought in. Later, after digestion commences, Wells and his band take the stage for business as usual, which in this case translates into an evening of articulate Americana and country-rooted music that is as eclectic as it is electric.

In short, the food is more than a novelty addition. It offers a sense of fellowship – specifically, the sit-down kind that surfaces when family and friends, as the old saying goes, break bread together. And for those who like the old school, rock ‘n’ roll kind of fellowship, there is that, too, to cap off the evening.

So what’s the word Wells would prefer not be pinned to Wine and Dine? Take a wild guess.


Though Wine and Dine, now in its fifth year, comes less than two weeks before Christmas and possesses a sentiment one would like to think seasonal celebrations are supposed to reflect, it is not a holiday-themed evening in any literal sense.

“I try to avoid that word ‘holiday’ as much as I can,” Wells said by phone recently after finishing an opening set for the Texas band Shane Smith and the Saints at the Basement East in Nashville. “I do talk about fellowship because it is about getting everybody together, but there are certainly no holiday overtones.

Photo Credit: Farrah Gardner

“To my knowledge, nobody has ever played a Christmas song at these Wine and Dine shows. No offense to anyone who’s doing that kind of thing. That’s just not what we’re trying to do. We’re bombarded with that already, man. We just came through what seems like two or three weeks of Black Friday. Now we’ve launched straight into non-stop Grinch. So, yeah, I’d like to counter all of that.”

Supper’s ready
Wells makes no secret of what he modeled Wine and Dine after. He borrowed (well, his exact words were “ripped off”) an overlooked aspect of The Band’s famed finale concert The Last Waltz – namely, how the all-star performance, held on Thanksgiving night of 1976, began with a fully catered banquet. Wells was after something a little simpler. In its first year, the meal was a barbeque dinner arranged by his friend Justin Taylor, who now operates the Roll ‘n’ Smoke food truck. Bourbon n’ Toulouse will supply the eats this year.

“I don’t know if feeding everybody was included in the ticket price for The Last Waltz or if it was some sort of additional thing, but I remember liking that idea of fellowship, especially around the holidays. We always try to have that towards the end of the year, just having everybody together. That can be a risky thing to do as a show, though. To do this near the holidays, you’re competing with a lot of things. But that’s where it started, just the idea of sitting everybody down and feeding them, having more of a dinner type show and afterwards having more of what I do.”

The second Wine and Dine outing in 2016 (and the first one to be held at The Burl) had Wells doing double duty – playing the acoustic show as well as the full band headlining performance. That, along with all the production demands of the event, proved a bit weighty.

“I did that for the second year. That was more of a budgetary thing. That night, I swore I wouldn’t do it again because it’s all a little much as it is.”

Then again, Wells may have felt the need to personally uphold what was already a high bar set by the dinner show at the inaugural Wine and Dine. Performing that year was a little known Lawrence County songwriter named Tyler Childers.

But much was in flux when Wine and Dine debuted in 2015. First was Wells’ own professional situation. His band at the time, the Southern soaked electric troupe Fifth on the Floor, was coming unglued after nearly a decade together.

“That first year fell in the midst of many other things, like my band breaking up,” Wells said. “It was already happening, really. In fact, a lot of people mistakenly point to that Wine and Dine as our last show because, in the interim – between those tickets being on sale and the show itself – we announced we were breaking up. We did a couple of final shows a few months later, so Wine and Dine wasn’t our last time playing together, but it was one of the last.”

Then there was the matter of a venue. Wells had planned on introducing Wine and Dine at the Manchester Street venue that had been home to Buster’s Billiards and Backroom prior to its closing in late 2014. But the facility’s new incarnation as Manchester Music Hall was just starting to open on a gradual basis in December 2015. That called for a move to the original Cosmic Charlie’s on Woodland Avenue, which itself would shut down and relocate the following summer. It wouldn’t be until Wine and Dine settled in at its now stable home at The Burl in 2016 that the event became a seasonal happening.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Newsome

“If you remember, the layout of the original Cosmic Charlie’s was a little odd. We got sequestered a little bit in the back. That might have been the vibe, but The Burl is absolutely the perfect place to do this. Certainly we’ve run into date issues there, making my schedule work with their schedule along with other artists’ schedules, but it’s always worked out. If I couldn’t do Wine and Dine at The Burl, I don’t know that I’d be interested in doing it anywhere else – at least not in Lexington.”

The finality of the year thing
With its fifth year at hand and a stable sense of organizational flow in place, Wine and Dine has become an anticipated December event, one Wells feels is a comfortable fit for Lexington this time of year.

“That’s the thing about a town like Lexington where people sometimes move on. It’s not a small town by any means, but it is a college town. People are maybe there for school and then they’re gone. Then again, they may come home this time of year or just have people visiting. Schedule-wise, it would certainly be easier to do something like this at other times in the year. But there’s this whole finality of the year thing.

“I don’t know, to me, the vibe of having people together is what this is about. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, I’ve been every year’ or ‘I’ve been coming since the second year.’ Sometimes, that can be almost more fun than the performance. It’s having people together and getting some good food and hopefully making it a memorable show.

“I mean, I don’t play in Lexington more than a couple of times a year anyway. I don’t want any show to be just another show, much less this one.”

Photo Credit: Tim Shawen

Wells says he also gets a charge out of presenting artists at Wine and Dine that might be somewhat new to Lexington audiences. Kansas City-turned-Kentucky songwriter Adam Lee will handle duties for the dinner show while one of the city’s more remarkable young country stylists, Abby Hamilton, will be featured in the evening. In fact, Wells is so keen on the visibility of other artists at Wine and Dine that he has contemplated bowing out of the event altogether as a performer.

“We built Wine and Dine on the back on my old band’s fanbase and my solo career fanbase. But I would like to keep it going regardless of me. If I’m not in town, if I’m on the road or doing something where I simply can’t be there when I need to be, I wouldn’t want that to keep the event from happening.

“My goal was to be part of this for the first five years. Once the second year was locked in, I was kind of committed to five. I definitely want to keep it going. Will I always be there to play the show? Maybe not. I don’t even know if it’s really necessary that I am. I think the spirit of this event is what it is.”

Justin Wells’ Fifth Annual Wine and Dine will be held Dec. 14 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Road. Dinner show featuring Adam Lee with food from Bourbon n’ Toulouse is at 7 p.m. Justin Wells with special guest Abby Hamilton will perform at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the entire program and $15 for the evening show only. For tickets, go to

Top Image Photo Credit: Joshua Smith

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Tunis: Ben Monder’s Guitar Solo Work Comes to Lexington

Like any great magician, Ben Monder saves his wildest trick as a parting shot.

The setting is the New York guitarist’s current album, “Day After Day,” a double-disc offering that shakes up the well-utilized concept of the standards record. The first disc is just Monder on his own offering a set of generations-old gems by Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel and Burt Bacharach that might suggest – on paper, at least – that Monder is an immovable traditionalist. One listen to his distinctive phrasing and lyrical twists quickly dispels that notion.

The second disc is a more personally curated collection of trio takes on vintage pop works by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, among others. On first listen, the collar grabber of the bunch is a version of the “Goldfinger” theme that pares down John Barry’s orchestral might to a tough-knuckled but melodically faithful brawl that is very much rock ‘n’ roll. You can almost see James Bond and Odd Job going at each other as the groove grows.

Then the last word oozes in – a version of the album’s title tune, a 1972 radio hit by the British pop band Badfinger that completely departs from any musical strategy the album had previously followed.

The sounds enter like distant sirens – echoing at first before gathering into an orchestral ambience that is alternately ominous and warm. The music continues to move in a circular pattern, growing more spacious and intense the closer it gets. Once it formally arrives, the wash of guitar chimes with a thundering intent that surrounds you. Then, as the cyclone passes, tossing one last sonic cry at us in its wake, the tune and the album fade to black.

Somewhere, in that rich, layered fascination, the chorus melody of the Pete Ham-composed tune is offered, but it exists only as a brief wisp of a soundscape that quickly sheds its form before leaping into the squall.

“I had no intention of actually covering that tune,” said a slightly jet-lagged Monder by phone the day after arriving back in New York, following a few weeks of concerts and master classes in Europe. “I was at the end of this session and just wanted to play some random ambient music.

“My guitar broke right at the end of the session. This was during one of the trio sessions for the album. It was no longer functional by the end of the day, so I borrowed what was almost like a toy guitar in the studio. It was like a miniature Les Paul. But I was just determined to do some ambient music as a counterbalance to all the trio tracks we had recorded. I did that thing of turning all my equipment up to ten and then just kind of went for it.

“In the spur of the moment, that melody occurred to me. I’ve played that tune before in a trio setting, so I knew it. But I never thought I would do it like this. I just figured if I could include the melody, it would justify all this being on the record. It would be another cover tune. Technically.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Second fiddle
Monder, who is heading to Lexington for a solo concert that will serve as the November presentation of the Origins Jazz Series, has been a highly prolific and respected member of the vast New York City jazz community for over three decades as both a leader and sideman. He has recorded with scores of jazz luminaries, including Grammy-winning orchestrator Maria Schneider (with whom he still collaborates), saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the profoundly influential drummer and bandleader Paul Motian.

While guitar was not Monder’s first instrument, it was the first one that truly spoke to him.

“I took up violin after my dad,” Monder said. “He was an amateur player. I never really enjoyed violin very much, though. It was like a duty. Then I found a classical guitar, an inexpensive classical guitar, in my parent’s closet. It was much less uncomfortable to play than the violin, so I gravitated to the guitar more and more. I only found out recently that the reason my parents even had a guitar was that my mother was taking classical lessons while she was pregnant with me. I must have been hearing that music even then.”

Jazz records by guitarists like Barney Kessel (especially “Soaring,” a briskly paced 1976 trio album devoted primarily to standards) and Jim Hall (the exquisite trio record “Live!” from 1975) helped establish a musical vocabulary. But it was a vanguard work from the preceding decade, John Coltrane’s immortal “A Love Supreme,” that got Monder digging past the groove.

“That was a big one,” he said. “‘A Love Supreme’ really made me decide that I needed to dive into the mystery of jazz. I may have come to jazz anyway. When I decided to formally start taking guitar lessons, I was studying from a jazz teacher because that was the teacher that was available. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to take jazz lessons. But I grew to love the music itself. I enjoyed the challenge of it.”

Few artists, though, had greater impact in the development of Monder’s musical voice than the great Motian. Infatuated with records by the drummer’s famed trio (with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano) and his equally lauded quintet (which added a second saxophonist, Billy Drewes, along with bassist Ed Schuller to the trio roster), Monder would eventually join one of Motian’s numerous bands to record three albums between 2001 and 2006.

“Paul Motian started helping my voice long before I ever met him. His first quintet record, ‘Psalm’ (from 1982), was just a total sound world that was unprecedented. If you listen, all of his records have that personal element to it. It’s hard to pin down, but they all sound like Paul Motian records. Even with completely different personnel, everyone is in tune with the sound he has and works towards realizing it.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by Jesse Chun

Bowie and Blackstar
While New York has always been a jazz metropolis, it also became a land of self-imposed exile for one of rock music’s most daring journeymen. In 2015, with no interest in living the rock daydream any further, David Bowie scoured the city’s music haunts with the idea of making a new recording aided by jazz musicians. The songs he had composed for the album were still largely pop in design, but were executed with more of a hybrid sound. Bowie had just come off recording a single with Maria Schneider’s orchestra that led to the enlistment of Donny McCaslin. That, in turn, brought Monder to the recording sessions that gave us “Blackstar.” And that, unbeknownst to all parties involved with its making, would be Bowie’s final studio album. The rock titan died on January 10, 2016 – two days after the release of “Blackstar.”

“The tunes David wrote were very specific with a very clear vision of what he wanted,” Monder said. “At the same time, they were easy to adapt to. It never felt like I had to step into somebody’s else ideas. “When I say ‘specific,’ I guess I meant there weren’t that many ways to interpret the parts, but I still had a lot of freedom in how I was able to add things. Also, Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime producer) had lots of ideas.

“There was one day where I went in the studio without the other studio musicians and we came up with parts for almost all of the tunes I was involved with. I had free reign to add layer upon layer. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, we would just throw it out.”

So for a full day, it was just Visconti in the studio with Monder?

“Yes. And David.”

A studio day alongside David Bowie and Tony Visconti? Seriously? How enviable a work environment was that?

“It was a lot of fun.”

What stands as a colossal understatement is indicative of the earnest soft sell Monder gives his music. From the far-ranging stylistic reach of “Day After Day” to the career victory lap that was “Blackstar,” his playing speaks for itself in a manner that welcomes anyone mindful of musical tradition but with ears open enough to not be anchored to it.

“You know, I have no idea how many people have heard my music or what they think of it. I get enough feedback to feel like I’m reaching a few people and that’s fine. If nobody responded, that would be a problem. But if I can reach just a few people where the music really means something to them, then that’s very gratifying.”

Ben Monder performs at 7:30 p.m. on November 22 at the Lexington Friends Meeting House (Quakers), 649 Price Ave. Tickets are $20 at

Title Image Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

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Tunis: Ickes and Hensley Ride An On-Ramp to the Blues

On a Wednesday evening, having just crossed the state border from Tennessee into Kentucky with a final destination of Fort Wayne, Indiana, still hours ahead of them, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley found it only natural to talk about traveling – or more specifically, where their travels have taken them this fall.

Just a few days earlier, Ickes was back on home turf. He was playing one of his native San Francisco’s most prestigious music festivals, the gathering known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There, the artist who the International Bluegrass Music Association has named Dobro Player of the Year no fewer than 15 times (making him the IBMA’s most awarded musician to date) and his current musical compadre, guitarist and rock solid country vocal stylist Hensley, rubbed performance elbows with the likes of Americana giant Buddy Miller, country songwriting veteran Bobby Braddock, rock icon Robert Plant, and pop/blues vocal mainstay Maria Muldaur.

“It was,” said Ickes in an instance of jovial understatement, “a pretty fun day.”

A few weeks prior to that, Ickes and Hensley were right next door in Versailles, sweating it out with fans in the 90-degree swelter of a performance at the Kentucky Castle. It was a preparatory appearance ahead of their third album, an immensely spirited record titled “World Full of Blues.”

It’s a curious title for a duo whose music was born out of bluegrass and country. It might also cause some head scratching from blues enthusiasts, as well, as the record hardly adheres to time honored traditions of the blues. But, it’s a big world out there and the mission of “World Full of Blues” was to explore the sounds sitting within it in ways that only a dobro, a guitar and a voice can. Well, that, and with the help of some high-profile pals.

“We’re thrilled with it,” Hensley admitted. “I guess we started on it last October, but finished it up pretty quickly. We’re thrilled to finally get it out there. It’s a pretty exciting time, for sure.”

Off the Highway
First, some history. If you know bluegrass, you know the name Rob Ickes, the Tennesseean transplant from the West Coast who joined the prestigious string band Blue Highway in 1992. Over the course of 21 years, he took a love of the dobro that began with a listen to a Mike Auldridge record to a level of innovation that has made Ickes the most recognized modern day ambassador of the instrument after Jerry Douglas.

But after two decades, he was ready for a change. An alliance with Hensley, a guitarist with a solid-as-oak vocal command of country tradition, began in 2014 as one in a series of side projects for Ickes. But this endeavor took root. Following his departure from Blue Highway in 2015, work with Hensley became top priority. Now with their third album together out and another Lexington stop slated for October 28 at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Ickes is enjoying life off the Highway just fine.

Left to Right: Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley

“A couple of years ago, Trey and I had a little time off in the fall where we got together. I’ve got a buddy who has a nice cabin outside of Leiper’s Fork near Nashville, so we went up there with pieces of songs and ideas for songs. We wrote a bunch of stuff that ended up on the record.

“One of the goals was just to write more. Our first two records had a few originals, but on this one, nine of the eleven songs were written by one of us or both of us. That was kind of a goal for sure.”

First to join to the party was songwriter/producer/engineer Brent Maher. As a record producer, his client list includes albums by Kathy Mattea, Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. Of perhaps greater interest to the Kentucky country contingency, Maher also produced every studio record by The Judds.

But Maher also had an ear for sounds made outside of Nashville. As a recording engineer he had a hand in creating records by everyone from Gladys Knight and Diana Ross to Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. Among his most notable engineering credits: the hit crossover cover of “Proud Mary” fashioned by Ike and Tina Turner in 1971.

“Brent is a super cool guy,” Ickes said. “We got together at his studio in Nashville. We recorded, just Trey and I, about 23 songs. Then the next day, Brent had the top 11 that he felt would fit together. Those were the ones he liked the most, so that’s what we recorded.

“He wanted to focus on Trey and I and not have any other instruments on the record as far as strings went – no fiddle, no mandolin, no banjo. But he said he could really hear a B3 organ on some songs as well as percussion. Those were all his ideas. We thought they worked just great. We felt it would make for kind of a funkier sound, something a little more R&B almost. But it all began with Brent just focusing on our acoustic instruments and Trey’s voice. He wanted to work from that sound. We thought, ‘Fine with us, man.’”

Then the guests arrived.

The Blue World
The elemental duo sound that sits at the heart of the music Ickes and Hensley make is best reflected on “World Full of Blues” by a solemn country lament called “There’s Always Something to Remind Me of You.” It’s a sterling bit of heartbreak led by the understated clarity of Hensley’s singing, which sounds like the neo-traditionalism of Randy Travis’ early records matched with the stoic storytelling command of vintage Merle Haggard. That Ickes’ dobro work follows the forlorn singing around like a ghost adds to the tune’s timelessness.

“It’s funny,” Ickes said. “Trey and I were thinking about having drums and stuff on that to make it something that really would sound more like a Randy Travis song. But when it was finished with just the two of us, it went to this Jimmie Rodgers kind of a sound. When we heard that, we wanted to go in that direction. It’s just bass, guitar, dobro and organ on that. It was pretty sparse, but I think that really fit the lyrics great.”

“But there were also songs where we really tried for a bigger sound,” Hensley added.

“We were looking at adding the B3 and the percussion, but it also extended to the style of the songs. On our other records, we leaned on the bluesier side of country and bluegrass, but I think there is a natural progression on this record.”

How far did that progression extend? Well, let’s start with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women” and a cameo by the country artist least likely to become a Dead Head – Vince Gill.

“We had Vince on our last record, too,” Hensley said. “He’s been a good friend of this project from the very beginning.”

“I don’t think he knew the song or was very familiar with the Grateful Dead’s material,” Ickes added “But he sounded great on there. Now he loves the song.”

Then there was the title tune to “World Full of Blues,” a work that cried out for the accent of a blues stalwart. Enter the great Taj Mahal, whose gritty vocal grind offers a fun contrast to the unsettling reserve of Hensley’s singing.

“We knew we wanted a guest on the third verse,” Hensley said. “Rob and I made lists of who we would want as vocalist on the song and at the top of both of our lists was Taj Mahal. We played him the track, he loved it and he flew to Nashville. That day in the studio with him, that was a highlight for sure.”

“It’s just fun to work with great artists like that,” Ickes said. “It’s a thrill for us. It’s nice to get a pat on the back from those guys. There’s kind of a mutual admiration thing going on, you know?”

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, along with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, will perform at 6:45 pm on October 28 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third, for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call 859-280-2218 or go to

Walter Tunis writes about music for UnderMain. He is a music columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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Tunis: Old Time Is the Best Time for The Zinc Kings

It’s a perhaps natural expectation.

The sight of stringed instruments, the focus on traditionally based melodies and harmonies and a performance setting that often favors a social backdrop – meaning, in many instances, a festival. Put them all together and you have bluegrass, right?

Not so fast. Granted, that kind of reflex thinking might hit prospective fans of The Zinc Kings, especially those unaccustomed to the tradition, location and inspiration of the music this North Carolina quartet favors.

“Everybody thinks we’re a bluegrass band,” said guitarist, mandolinist and banjoist Mark Dillon. “When you play music with banjos, people are going to think you’re in a bluegrass band.”

The Zinc Kings, L to R: Mark Dillon, Christen Blanton Mack, Ryan Mack, Dan Clouse

The Zinc Kings’ traditional sounds are devoted more to pre-bluegrass country, folk and the assimilation of generations-old sounds collectively referenced as Old Time. Such traditional music ensembles are plentiful around the country. Most, though, operate so far under the mainstream radar that bluegrass becomes an accessible, available but ultimately misleading tag for audiences to pin on the music.

“It’s a bit of a novelty, I suppose,” added fiddler Christen Blanton Mack. “People who are not engaged in traditional music and they see a banjo, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, there’s that thing.’ It’s a symbol of something people don’t always connect with. They latch onto this idea of ‘Oh, they’re going to play bluegrass.’

“We played at a festival in New York and I knew a bunch of people there. They had been hearing me talk about the guys that I play with and what it’s like being in an Old Time band. They’re going, ‘Yeah, bluegrass is cool.’ I was like, ‘Dude, really?’ Because of where we’re situated and because we have access to a lot of really great local tradition, it makes for an easy connection. It’s not such a huge community, though, that you can’t find commonalities.”

In many cases, especially in Kentucky, Old Time music is passed down through families and communities, a lexicon built around fiddle tunes and folk songs that serve as the DNA for what later evolved into bluegrass and country music. It’s the music of rural regions, of working environments and often of spiritual worship. It’s the music of the mountains – the Southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, primarily. The Zinc Kings, playing as part of the Appalachia in the Bluegrass traditional music series at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery on Sept. 20, have their own mountain inspirations to work from, their own music to play and their own ways of finding a new audience for it.

Piedmont calling

The Zinc Kings were spearheaded by members of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Old Time Ensemble that set out, beginning in 2010, to explore the folk traditions of the Carolina Piedmont. The band, completed by banjoist Dan Clouse and bassist Ryan Mack (Blanton Mack’s husband, who joined in 2011), wasn’t made up exclusively of natives from the region. Still, they were quickly fascinated by the Piedmont’s accents of harmony and instrumentation, its distinctive string sound and, perhaps most importantly, the music’s adaptability for projects that weren’t strictly traditional in design.

“For us, the catch is that we live in central North Carolina,” Dillon said. “We don’t live in the mountains. We just recognized there was a pretty rich tradition that was happening with Piedmont.

“When you look at the history, a lot of people from the mountains were coming down into mill villages. A lot of African-Americans were coming into the mill villages, as well. When you get there, you start learning about artists like Charlie Poole (the North Carolina singer and banjoist whose late 1920s music would strongly influence succeeding folk generations). These guys were blending blues with North Carolina Appalachian music. We found there was a niche that really no one else, or very few people outside of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, were looking at.”

For the classically reared Blanton Black, the music of the North Carolina Piedmont meant the study of a style with a looser, more socially inviting discipline. But the sense of devotion she gave it equaled what was demanded of her classical studies.

“I didn’t start going to festivals right away,” she said. “For me, the natural habitat for traditional music was just making music with your friends.

“When you put old time music on a stage and people don’t know what they’re listening to – because a lot of times, people might not – you present that music in a way that you would if you were playing that music in a jam with friends. We like energy. We love singing. Both help to connect you with an audience.”

But the music of The Zinc Kings isn’t locked solely into string sounds. Clouse, a Michigan native, studied tuba in high school before pursuing a Master’s degree in music theory at the University of Tennessee. That’s where and when he was drawn to the banjo. As such, he adds tuba and even washboard to the band’s string sound. In fact, The Zinc Kings take their name from a washboard – specifically, a brand dubbed “the Stradivarius of washboards” by the Bone Dry Musical Instrument Company.

“I didn’t grow up with Old Time music,” Clouse said. “I never saw a banjo until I went to school in Tennessee. I didn’t come to it with these ideas of what the music should sound like.”

“All the world’s a stage…”

On The Zinc Kings’ third album, 2017’s aptly-titled, “Piedmont,” the inspirations of such Carolina stylists as blues singer Blind Boy Fuller, gospel/blues artist Blind Joe Taggart and musician/folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford are explored with the music’s blues, folk and Celtic roots blended into a deliciously unspoiled Old Time fabric.

But the band isn’t anchored to its homeland. “Piedmont” also reaches out to Kentucky by honoring famed Monticello fiddler Clyde Davenport with a lightly percussive and beautifully paced version of “Lazy John.”

Similarly, the band’s Old Time sound has sometimes taken flight from expected concert settings. A case in point: The Zinc Kings composed a score of traditionally inspired music for a 2013 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” undertaken as a collaboration between Raleigh Little Theatre, Bare Theatre and the traditional music organization PineCone.

“For Shakespeare, we had to work really hard to make the Shakespearean text fit the traditional Appalachian influences,” Blanton Mack said “But the meter that’s in Shakespeare did kind of lend itself to the music. We tried to stay really true to the text of Shakespeare but have the music feel participatory and inviting in hopes that people would want to sing along with us because that’s something that everyone can do.

“There are bands into traditional music who do similar things to what we do. They’re into traditional music but also are writing songs, composing music and working with composers and theatre companies. The tradition presents itself as being pretty straight forward and simple. The forms are really accessible, so we try to take the things that we love about traditional music, like the danceability or the sentiment of the song or the ability to tell a story like you might hear in a ballad, and just put out own stamp on it.”

The Zinc Kings perform at 12 noon on Sept. 20 for the Appalachia in the Bluegrass series at the Niles Gallery of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky’s Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library. Admission is free.

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Tunis: Travels With Tim

The life of most working musicians, if they strive for any kind of notice outside their hometown following, involves being a journeyman. Tim Easton is no exception, although in his case, the traveling comes naturally.

Whether it was the seven year stretch he spent gigging though London, Paris, Madrid and more or the scores of Stateside locales he has called home, stretching from Akron to Joshua Tree, Easton has remained an artist on the move. In fact, after he makes a return visit to Lexington via a June 19 concert at The Burl, he will be off to shows in Alaska, the Netherlands and Estonia before 2019 winds down.

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

It’s no wonder then that “Exposition,” the latest in a series of sterling solo albums by the veteran songsmith, was also made on the road. Travel, it seems, is more than a mere work requisite. For Easton, it’s an integral part of his existence.

“It started out young,” he said recently by phone during a brief “nesting” stay at a rented country home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. “It started out when my parents moved to Japan. I, being in the second grade, had to go with them. So what started out as something in my youth has now grown into a lifestyle. I feel comfortable traveling. I love to see new places and mostly the people in those places. It has made me, I suppose, something of an armchair anthropologist.”

Protect Me
Easton’s travels have taken him to Lexington on a regular basis for over two decades, whether it was through introductory shows as a member of the Haynes Boys at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club or high profile opening act sets for artists like Lucinda Williams to more distinctive shows and settings. Among the latter was a 2007 stop at the Christ the King Oktoberfest where Easton offered a song titled “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” It stood for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers.” “Not all of them,” the song went in a sheepishly confessional tone. “Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.”

Fortifying those performances were recordings rooted in folk-related narratives and accents that shifted from Byrds-like lyricism, such as 2006’s “Ammunition” (the record that featured the original version of “J.P.M.F.Y.F”), to the unadorned solo acoustics of 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” (which featured a starker update of the tune retitled as “Jesus Protect Me”).

“The life of the songwriter or writer involves constant observation, note taking and a fair bit of travel, I’d say,” Easton said. “With all of my favorites, from Hemingway to Woody Guthrie – with any writer, really – there seems to be a fair amount of traveling in their lives. Mark Twain had a lot to say about it, about the traveling, about what it does for you.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I feel the same way about America, about our country. I wish more people could actually see the third world just so they could be grateful for how great we actually do have it here, even though all around us, everywhere, there is extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Yes, the balance is difficult. But going to a third world country really helps put it all in perspective.”

Easton’s newest album, “Exposition,” due out just five days before his Burl concert, takes even further advantage of traveling as a modus operandi for making music. It was cut in very portable fashion at numerous locations favored mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical appeal. Among them were the Okemah Historical Society (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie) and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues giant Robert Johnson famously recorded in 1936).

“Today you can record almost anywhere you wish simply because technology has made it possible,” Easton said. “So pop-up studios, or setting up studios in a house or a comfortable location, become so easy. You wake up, make some coffee, have some breakfast and get to work. It’s like anywhere else. The room definitely dictates the vibe.

“I had a plan to make two very stripped-down folk albums in a row (“Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” being the first) in order that I might be able to survive in the modern music business. In other words, the plan was not to spend above my means in regard to fancy studios, backing bands and producers. Instead, I wanted to make the kind of record that I would love to listen to around the house, which are solo folk albums. Really, that’s what this was all about. I plan on returning to the full band and all that for the next one. But in the meantime, I wanted to make two stripped-down folk albums of exactly the music you would expect when someone saw me live and said, ‘I’d like to buy some music from you.’ You can hand them basically what they just saw and heard.”

Plot Exposition
The 10 songs making up “Exposition” play out in varying ways. Some possesses a theme that is detectable within its title, such as “Don’t Speculate, Participate,” a call for action at election time or, as Easton terms it, “an apathy busting anthem.”

“If you don’t give a damn, then you’ve nothing to say,” Easton sings a manner more soft-spoken than scolding. “If you won’t give a damn, step out of the way.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody who to vote for. I just have this feeling that if more of us participated, more of us would be satisfied with the results. If more people participated, it would just be a happier society. Also, that entire expression came from when I was marching in London way back in the day. I was marching to raise awareness for a guy who was in prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. All these big artists – Big Audio Dynamite, Boy George, Sting, Billy Bragg – sang at it. At one point, this guy with a green pointy haired mohawk said, ‘Don’t spectate, participate.’ So I filed that phrase and used it to kind of address voter participation. Simple as that.”

Balancing such directness are “Saint Augustine” and “New Year’s Day,” less obvious requiems for a battered soul whose life tribulations largely mirrored Easton’s own.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“A lot of times a song will be autobiographical, but in such a way that it could be about anybody. In this case, I woke up in Saint Augustine and wrote those words down. Then I finished the song in Spain months later on a train. No one else was in the compartment with me, so I just finished it there. It’s definitely a requiem for the destructive life I was living.

“As you’ll see in ‘New Year’s Day,’ I’ve had gone through some personal things in the last couple of years. I got divorced. We have a child, so it’s been an interesting nesting period for me. I’m just happy to say that we all get along and we all want to support each other in the work we do.”

Glorious perseverance
For the better part of his career, Easton has been an independent recording artist. There was an extended period spent with the Americana-leaning New West Records (distilled on the fine 2013 anthology “Before the Revolution”), but even then, he worked far afield from major label pull and promotion.

Today, Easton is the CEO of a one-man operation. That means on “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” and “Exposition” Easton handled nearly everything on his own, from the recording to the packaging to the distribution of his songs.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“By music business standards, I’m not really selling the kinds of numbers that enable a whole record company to carry on. But with my little folk stuff, I’m able to live comfortably and really enjoy myself as a traveler. I’m able to blend into society enough to be able to observe it. So it’s, like, the best. I don’t have financial stress, but I work hard. I travel a lot. I perform a lot.

“Also, as president of the record company, I give myself the occasional bonus. That occasional bonus is to go fishing somewhere, eat a good meal every so often and treat myself with respect. I struggle, but then I also persevere. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but mostly it’s glorious perseverance. How about that? Really, I’m very lucky. I get to travel around the world and play music.

“I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I can pick a guitar just fine and I have stories to tell. I’ve honed my solo act into way more of an entertaining time because of observations of people and my heroes at work over the years. I’ve learned to put on a better show as a solo artist. I can do it by myself, so why not? It’s way easier on the company payroll, too.”

Tim Easton performs at 7 p.m. June 19 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets are $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to

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Tunis: liddle’s A Lot

Back on American soil for only a few hours, Brian Krock is already feeling the tension and anticipation that comes from life in New York.

“My anxiety has really spiked and I just got back. The city just has an anxiety provoking thing about it.”
But the saxophonist has translated a New York existence into a remarkably fruitful and far-reaching career, from initial gigs in orchestras for Broadway shows to a current juggling act of several adventurous jazz projects. One, as part of former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s ensemble for a Beatles-rooted ballet called “Pepperland,” had him traveling Europe for the past seven weeks (“One of the longest periods I’ve spent away from home”). Another is a project of his own, a stylistically daring quartet called liddle, that he will bring to Lexington for a May 15 performance at J. Gumbo’s.

Brian Krock
Photo Credit: Desmond White

“Like everyone else who lives here, I have a love/hate relationship with New York,” Krock said. “But like any other job, you can’t just jump in and immediately do your best work. You have to work your way up. So I feel lucky that I’ve had a variety of really challenging gigs so far in my life, from subbing on Broadway to teaching private music lessons and doing music copying and editing.

“There are the financial constraints of living in such an expensive place, meaning that we all need to have a million different hustles. It can be really hard, but it forces you to grow pretty quickly. It can make you think, ‘What could I possibly have to offer that isn’t already here?’ But then having to constantly wrestle with that question also forces you to think really hard about who you are and what is that you want to contribute to the world of music.”

The liddle things

To understand the band liddle, you first need an introduction to Big Heart Machine, an 18 member troupe assembled by Krock that meshes horn orchestration, free-informed dissonance, pop overtones and much more. The rhythm section of that ensemble – guitarist Olli Hirvonen, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – form the touring version of liddle. But the smaller group actually predates the larger one.

“It wasn’t called liddle at the time,” Krock said. “I had a band for years called Heart Machine. Then when I expanded that, I decided to call it Big Heart Machine. The rhythm section of Big Heart Machine includes pretty much my closest friends. They’re the guys I go get a beer with and talk life with.

“We spent a lot of our time these past few years rehearsing together because the music was so complex and required a lot of practice. We didn’t really approach the project with any goal necessarily. I just wanted music that would give us challenges we could work towards that would also play to my friends’ strengths. Olli, Marty and Nathan are growing into their own artistic aesthetics as leaders and as composers, so I wanted to write music for them.”

L to R: Marty Kenney, Nathan Ellman-Bell, Brian Krock, Olli Hirvonen
Photo Credit: Luke Marantz

Within the broad soundscapes of the quartet’s debut album, “liddle,” which was released April 26, the music shifts from the Zappa-like bounce and eventual electric glide of the opening “Flip” to the spacious fusion cool of “Memphis” to the dizzying sax runs in a playful update of “Opus 23b” (a 1974 composition by one of Krock’s prime musical heroes, Anthony Braxton). Topping it all is “Please Stop,” a fascinating requiem of sorts that closes the album in an ambient wash of guitar and bass clarinet.

Krock’s prefers not to view the album’s many styles in specific or separate terms. He sees it all as part of a more singular musical vocabulary for liddle.

“We, as jazz artists, are obligated to deal with all of the history we are aware of that has come before us. So I don’t try to make value judgements. ‘Is this atonal? Is this tonal? Is this swinging? Is it fusion? Is it heavy? Is it straight ahead? Is it free?’ I love all of those kinds of music. They all inform who I am, so I guess the fact that it’s the same four people playing the music is what ties it all together.

“But I hope, as a listener, you will go through a journey with the music, where the contrasts between the individual songs will highlight what is interesting about them. For example, ‘Please Stop’ is really tonal. It almost has a folk song quality. I love having that at the end of the record as a sort of cleansing thing after you’ve heard all this chaotic and crazy music. That song gives you a chance to come back to reality. I guess I just didn’t try to overthink things.”

Jazz and Joyce

One of Krock’s foremost artistic inspirations isn’t a jazz artist at all, yet it figures in the designs of at least two songs on “liddle.” It comes from the famed Irish writer and poet James Joyce. The quirky piano/reed rumble “Saturnine” references “A Painful Case” while the gently unsettling ensemble skirmish “Spondulics” takes its name from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Both Joyce works are part of his 1914 short story collection “Dubliners.”

Perhaps fittingly, the day we spoke with Krock began with the saxophonist in Dublin.

“I went crazy with the James Joyce sightseeing. I basically did Bloomsday (the city’s annual Joyce celebration), even though that happens in June. I did it on my own. I visited all the places that are in his books. I visited the Martello Tower that he lived in for awhile, which is in Sandycove. But I also spent the entire seven weeks of the Pepperland tour working my way through Richard Ellmann’s famous biography of James Joyce, which is a masterpiece.

“While I’m deeply fascinated and inspired by Joyce. I’m not really interested in trying to mimic his style in my music, that sort of stream of consciousness writing that was very controversial but sort of made him famous. But I am interested in the grandiosity of his ideas and the rigor with which he follows through with them. He spent 10 years writing ‘Ulysses’ and then spent 17 years writing ‘Finnegans Wake.’ As his plans for his books developed, he was forced to study all kinds of different things, from Latin and Greek to completely other disciplines. He let every aspect of his real life bleed into his work. So all of those and more are things I try to emulate in my life. There is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want to emulate, of course. He had a lot of dark struggles, but his work invites you, as an audience member, to participate in a really interesting way.

“He actually said something that sounds very egotistical and arrogant, but is also kind of amazing. He said his challenge for his audience was to for people to spend their entire lives engaged with his work. I mean, I’ve spent maybe 10 years engaged with his work, reading and re-reading it. It’s challenging and it forces you, as a reader, to view parts of your own psyche that maybe you don’t like. It’s not necessarily fun all the time. Sometimes, they’re a drudge to get through. But I think after engaging with James Joyce’s work, I’ve grown in some way by knowing a little bit more about myself. That’s a pretty high hope for my own work, but at least it’s something to strive for.”

The crystalized idea

With Iverson’s Pepperland tour of Europe complete and liddle, briefly, on the front burner within a career that is continually in New York motion, Krock feels content with the artistic progress he is making and the general acceptance of his myriad performance related projects.

Specifically, the word he used most often in describing such development was “lucky.”

“Living and working in New York is sort of like a pressure cooker that forces you to spread out all the things that aren’t important. It leaves you with a crystalized idea of what it is that your goals are. So with each recording project and each opportunity, you get a little bit closer. You sort of chip away at the big marble rock that you’re hoping to turn into a beautiful sculpture. Every year, it gets a little bit better.

“I’m very lucky to be working with so many heroes, having had the chance to work closely with (Canadian born, Brooklyn based composer and bandleader) Darcy James Argue, Ethan Iverson and (New York by way of Pennsylvania pianist, composer and improviser) Matt Mitchell. I’m also lucky to get to work with my peers and my best friends, like Olli and Marty and Nathan, and on top of that to be able to make a living. I’m lucky not to have to have a day job anymore.

“For those things, I’m very grateful. So, yeah, I’m just going to keep on doing my best and enjoy the ride.”

+ Brian Krock’s liddle performs at J. Gumbos Lex, 808 North Limestone at 8 p.m. May 15. Admission is $10 for the concert only and free to dinner customers. For reservations, call 859-286-9239.

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Tunis: OTS Features Musical Brothers Tim Daisy & Dave Rempis

Tim Daisy doesn’t want to use the word “telepathic.” But in describing the two decade-plus musical partnership between himself and Dave Rempis, few other tags seem to fit as securely.

Both are longstanding members of a prolific indie jazz scene in Chicago. Both are prolific composers, bandleaders and, above all, improvisers. Both have run their own record labels for several years as a means of releasing their own decidedly non-commercial music in a timely and uncompromising manner. And despite a juggling act where each performs in numerous ensemble settings, many of which have played Lexington over the last 16 years as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of free jazz and improvisational music concerts, both have regularly shared the same stage in the same band.

That won’t be the case in April. Percussionist Daisy and saxophonist Rempis will be here for separate OTS concerts a mere four days part. Yet the music they play apart from each other has most certainly been informed by the work they have done together.

“I’ve been working with Dave since ’97,” Daisy said. “We’ve been playing together for so long and working in so many contexts together that when we sit down to work… I don’t know. I really don’t want to use the word telepathic, but I don’t know of any other musicians that I play with here or anywhere where the work is as comfortable, focused and engaging as it is with Dave. With Dave, I really do feel like he is my musical brother.”

Tim Daisy and Dave Rempis (Photo by Andrej Chudy)

“With us, it’s almost like a married couple,” said Rempis with a laugh. “There are so many subtle things I’m aware of in his playing and, I’m sure, vice versa. He always knows exactly where I’m going to land. It’s something that changes over the years as people go through different phases of life, like having kids. Our lives are so different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but what’s so great about that is how those life changes inform the music and how the music transforms everything.”

“Creating by Yourself”
Watching Tim Daisy play a solo is like viewing a vintage film of a building collapsing that is quickly rewound so you can view the demolition in reverse. He forges sound on a percussion arsenal by adding and discarding instruments at a dizzying pace. It could be a cymbal or a gong placed on a drum head. It could be a dash upon the drum kit using every available surface – a snare, a rim or even a stand. A rhythm might emerge, but if it does, it most certainly recedes into a new idea that has already loaded itself into his playing awaiting dispatch.

If he is playing alongside another artist, the outside element might serve as a foil, as in his duet exchanges with Rempis during their collaborative music in the Rempis Percussion Quartet, the Daisy-led Celebration Sextet or the times they record or tour simply as a drum/saxophone duo.

For his solo performances, Daisy’s singular vocabulary becomes remarkably expansive, incorporating everything from percussive accents on marimba and bass xylophone to more happenstance sounds emitted from a transistor radio.

Tim Daisy (Photo by Emma Daisy)

“I just love the solo format,” he said. “I’m huge fan of visual arts and paintings and admire the fact these artists can work by themselves on a canvas. Don’t get me wrong. I love collaborating with other people, but I love that solitary moment of just creating by yourself, whether it’s composing or improvising. I think that a solo format for a musician comes closest to what the format would be for a painter working in a studio on their own. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to it, especially in the compositional aspect of the music. Secondly, playing solo is the most challenging format to me, especially in performing. There is no one to fall back on but yourself. It’s quite easy to fall on your face. I’ve done it a number of times, but I’ve become a better musician by putting myself in these uncomfortable solo settings. I find when I go back into a situation where I do collaborate with other musicians, I’ve learned something and I’m able to apply that into my collaborations.”

Daisy’s return to Lexington on April 12 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery reteams him with pianist, composer and UK Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Raleigh Dailey. The two cut a trio album with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, “Opening Lines,” in 2015.

“When we played together, I felt this amazing curiosity in sound exploration. It felt to me like Raleigh was going, ‘Wow. This is stuff I can use that I’m really excited about.’
“It’s easy to fall back on old habits when you’ve been improvising with people over a long period of time. But when you throw someone new in the mix like Raleigh, suddenly all the music gets kicked around in new directions. That’s what I felt happened. Jason and I had been playing together a lot, then we did this thing with Raleigh and it felt great. The music felt fresh and new. Ever since that happened, I’ve been meaning to get back down to Lexington to work with Raleigh some more.”

While “Opening Lines” is an exception, the majority of Daisy’s recorded music has been released through his own Relay label.

“I’m sure you’ve seen in the last 15 years how much the music industry has changed and how many musicians are starting their own labels, especially in our world where we don’t sell thousands and thousands of records. We sell three, four, maybe five hundred. I’m happy to sell that many, so I couldn’t be happier having my own label.”

“When I release something, I don’t want to wait a year to put it out. With the other labels I was working with – Okka Disk, Clean Feed, all great labels – you’re going to be waiting about a year between when an album is made and when it comes out. I’m more interested in trying to document my creative process in a shorter time scale. And who can release my records faster than me? No one.”

“Happily Developed”
In performance, Dave Rempis is something of a volcano. It doesn’t matter if his weapon of choice is alto, tenor or baritone sax, the sounds he conjures are, shall we say, combustible.

Dave Rempis (Photo by Geert Vandepoele)

Some of that comes from playing alongside such veteran Chicago sax stylists, improvisers and bandleaders as Ken Vandermark (Rempis and Daisy were members of his acclaimed Vandermark 5 band until its dispersal in 2010). But the mix of immediacy and intensity in Rempis’ musicianship has also been evident in the many ensembles he has either led or collaborated with for OTS shows in Lexington, a roster that includes The Engines, Triage, Gunwale and perhaps most frequently, Ballister.

During shows with the latter, the muscular tone and free-inspired phrasing of his playing becomes almost punkish, yet the sense of sharing and collaboration with bandmates is unmistakably jazz-like.

“I have happily developed as an artist, if that makes sense,” Rempis said. “I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve been doing this awhile, so I know my way around the block. I feel confident in my ability as a saxophone player and an improviser. There are so many fantastic musicians out there who I’ve gotten a chance to work with, and that’s incredibly rewarding to get all that great energy from them and to share some of their stories and knowledge.”

“It’s also special for me to be part of this generation and to see things from a different perspective, from a perhaps longer perspective. Once you’re around this music and start thinking about things that way, it makes sense to say, ‘Well, where are we going to be in 10 or 20 years and how can we help shape things?’”

The bio material from Rempis’ Aerophonic label describes “The Early Bird Gets,” the debut recording by a new trio with bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Ryan Packard (the group the saxophonist brings to Lexington on April 16 for an OTS performance at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall) as one of his “jazziest” endeavors.

Brandon Lopez, Dave Rempis, Ryan Packard (Photo by Erika Raberg)

“It’s funny,” Rempis said. “Many or most of the projects I do are completely improvised where we are not bringing in any material. This band is the same way. Generally, what makes a band stick out to me is if it has a sound to it. This band, at the beginning, felt like it had a distinct territory that it was carving out. It really had a group sound that was unique from any of the other projects that I was doing. I think part of that came from exploring rhythm in a very kind of fluid way. We’ll really be in a groove but then we’ll figure out ways where we can slowly stretch it out. It’s almost like what a classical pianist does when they’re playing rubato, but we’re in a group context where we’re really stretching the grooves out, speeding them up, slowing them down in very fun and creative ways. That’s probably what makes the music feel so jazzy. We are working so much with rhythm, but not in this type of fixed way that a lot of jazz bands might play in.”

Like Daisy, Rempis enjoys the ability to get his music out to public ears in a timely manner with his own label. But Aerophonic offers another equally important attribute – artistic control.

“I can put out whatever recordings I want on whatever schedule I want. To have that freedom is great. I also have the chance to communicate. I do all the shipping and everything for the label, so I can be in touch with the people who are actually buying the music directly, which is really fantastic. In trying to build an audience base with this kind of music, I get to find the people who are honestly interested in it. It’s very encouraging for me as an artist to get that kind of feedback. It’s heartening to know there are people out there who actually care about what we’re doing.”

Re-Exploring the Relationship
Curiously, just after our conversations, Daisy and Rempis headed overseas together for a seven-date concert tour of Europe with the Rempis Percussion Quartet, an ensemble the two have collaborated in for 15 years of their two-decade long friendship and musical alliance.

“Dave and I try to challenge each other,” Daisy said. “We push each other, but there is real respect there, so it’s not antagonistic. It’s real. I feel like we have really similar goals in trying to grow as improvisers. It’s been a wonderful relationship, one where I feel like, after we take these breaks from each other and get back to playing again, there is a very fresh quality to our work. He has grown as a musician since I’ve last played with him. I have, hopefully, grown and changed, as well.”

“Tim is somebody I just have so much respect for,” added Rempis “In the over 20 years I’ve known him, he continues to really push himself. He has an incredible amount of artistic integrity, so it’s always great every few years to go back and re-explore that relationship.”

+ Tim Daisy and Raleigh Dailey perform at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery in the UK Fine Arts Library at 7 p.m. April 12, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.

+ Dave Rempis/Brandon Lopez/Ryan Packard perform at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, 720 Bryan Ave. at 7 p.m. April 16, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.

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