Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thank you, Paul

Hearing Paul McCartney at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. last Friday turned out to be one of the watershed experiences of my fifty-two years on this spinning rock.

I had never previously seen Sir Paul, and only made the last-minute effort to grab a couple of obstructed-view tickets for the sake of surprising my fourteen year-old daughter on her birthday. Going in, my musical opinion of Paul's approach to his music was that his band merely cranks through the tunes in a perfunctory manner. Paul McCartney could hire anyone to play with him. Why, I have long wondered, does he not hire artists in their own right to bring some freshness and magic to the performances? It doesn't have to be creatively re-arranged, even -- the same arrangements played by musicians with points of view and real touch would be enough. Peter Gabriel's band, for example, is comprised of peerless musicians who bring depth, intelligence, and emotion to fresh readings of the material. Sting's bands, too. Or think of the superb band of all-star associates Eric Clapton pulled together for George Harrison's memorial concert in 2003. The music soared. In contrast, it seemed to me that Sir Paul's band -- while certainly comprised of competent professionals -- puts on an entertaining-but-non-artistic, revue-style show. Having seen -- and enjoyed -- the band many times on television, I never felt particularly compelled to spend the hundreds of dollars required to be in the same space as one of the most important musicians in human history for a few hours.

But my daughter, a talented young musician herself. absolutely loves The Beatles. Recently, when watching a Lennon/McCartney documentary together, I realized that she knew all kinds of little historical details I didn't know. So, I thought, "amazingly enough, it's still possible to hear Paul live in 2013; I wonder if I can give that to her?" So, a quick search revealed that a D.C. show was coming up in a couple of weeks. No way could I afford the $150 + fees and up (way up) ticket prices, so I grabbed a couple of obstructed view seats for $50 each. And boy, were they -- off to the side affording no angle on the stage. Even the screens were unviewable, save for their ambient glow alongside the ambient glow of the stage lights. All of this would be endurable if the sound was halfway decent. But no speakers were pointed in our direction, thus ensuring that would be exposed to an unintelligible aural muck all night long. So we walked the hallway perimeter until we found a spot where folks can stop and eat while facing the field. It was a flat counter next to a bratwurst stand where we could stand and munch brats, etc. We stayed there for over three hours, soaking in the experience. The vantage point wasn't great and the sound only marginally acceptable, but it was orders of magnitude better than our actual seats. It was doable.

And then the music started.

Eight days a week. Freakin' Paul McCartney singing Eight Freakin' Days a Freakin' Week! My baggage was poised to be thrown out the window. I wasn't adequately prepared for the hugeness of the event, defined by the weight of the songs and and the power of his own mythology. Perhaps Paul understands this and therefore calculates that his very straight-ahead, song- and bandleader-focused presentation is just enough to trigger a depth of emotional response against which further musical and artistic tweaking would be mere trappings. Yes, Paul & Band blasted through 38 tunes, jukebox-style, original arrangements mostly intact and with a more-or-less generic rock band sound. And it was GREAT. Full of energy, joy, camaraderie, and projecting that ol' Beatles positivity, the band elevated all of us. And I'm gonna guess there were 40K people there, easily.

I've spent my life going to concerts, but there was something different about this one. Normally, I feel like I'm a fan of an artist among other fans of that artist; and irrespective of the artist's relative celebrity, it generally feels like we're bonded in appreciation of some sort of secret goodness. We're hip to something great (and even if it's Bruce Springsteen, not everyone is into Bruce Springsteen). But this audience is everyone; this music means something to just about every person. And to many, many, many more people than can afford to attend a Paul McCartney concert It's fairly mind-boggling. So, you look around and you feel connected to everyone on the planet in a way that other big shows don't necessarily make you feel. From toddlers to grandparents, they're all there. Hell, I'm enjoying a wonderful, sustained riverfront breeze in a beautiful new ballpark, and it hits me that McCartney appreciation cuts across more demographic lines than baseball does. The smiles, the singing, the respect for each other's space, the quiet in the quiet spots -- 40K people at their human best at the Church of Music, led by the Pope of Popular Music -- it was truly something to behold.

And the music ... In the interest of time, I'm going to bulletize some musical observations and highlights for you:
  • Dude can still sing, with range and power, in the original keys. And when the compositional diversity spans Yesterday to Helter Skelter, it's even more impressive. Does he sound like he did decades ago? No, but he hasn't lost much.
  • He still plays great on all the instruments he chooses to play: bass, guitars, piano. And on the tunes when he's holding down the bottom end on bass, the band rocks its hardest. The rhythm guitarist generally plays bass when Paul is on another instrument. He's a good player, but the notes don't have the elasticity, power, and articulation as when Paul straps on that Hofner.
  • Foxey Lady jam as the coda to Let Me Roll It. Enough said.
  • Lovely Rita! Now there's a delightful surprise. And it was big, lush, and orchestral. One of the night's highlights, for sure. Your Mother Should Know and All Together Now were the other unexpected inclusions.
  • This night's Lennon song was Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. What a great choice, rendered beautifully by Sir Paul -- the vocals shone against the wonderfully colorful arrangement. And another reminder of the Beatle's incredible music scope. "Oh yeah, I forgot they helped define psychedelic music, too."
  • It seemed to me that the already blistering show notched itself up energy-wise at the exact moment when the the full ensemble kicks in during Something, Paul's expected ukelele tribute to George. He goes through the song form alone, strumming the uke on a darkened stage. After some time, the kick drum begins to reinforce the groove, cymbal splashes and other kit effects accent Paul's reading of Frank Sinatra's "favorite 'Lennon/McCartney' tune". Then, bam, the band kicks in, and the music begins to take flight. It never lost altitude for the fourteen songs remaining. The immediately subsequent Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da would have torn the roof of the sucka, had there been one at Nationals Park. And it made me think of my late father, who loved that song.
  • Back in the U.S.S.R. reminded me of the cold war and how awesomely ballsy it was for the biggest musical group in the world to pen a California Girls-style paen to "the enemy's" women at that that dark and scary time in history.
And so it went: more tunes, more happiness, more realizations of how important this music is and how cool it is to be hearing it delivered with aplomb by a now-71 year-old ex Beatle. My daughter was beyond thrilled. We'd exchange glances whenever the goosebumps would ripple over us. Funny how Band on the Run was her bathroom tune -- it's just not part of the worldview of a 14 year-old music lover in 2013. But for me -- and it was a thrill to be in a concert where my age was the median age -- and many thousands of others around me; this was a tune that was fresh on the radio when I was her age. Another big moment.

Two sets of encores. I'm a sucker for the Day Tripper. And I love hearing those old tunes that evoke John's vocals as much as they do Paul's. So you hear him in the mix just as surely as if he were standing there. Man, I'm getting chills just typing this. "Yesterday" was a highlight for my Sinatra-loving, jazz guitar-playing kid who just loves great songs. And Helter Skelter absolutely shredded. "Oh yeah, they invented metal, too." Seriously, the Cole Porters of their day tossed off a song in 1969 that was heavier than anything Pete Townsend could conceive in his deepest acid-fueled nightmares. Proto-Nirvana.

What would be the perfect ending to all this? Of course, Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End would be. And indeed the iconic sequence was the peak of the show. Superbly executed, it send us out into the hallway singing the challenging parts alongside happy strangers. The young man next to us, clearly born a good five years after John was killed, exclaimed, "Happy Paul McCartney Day!" and gave each of us a vigorous high five. We bid a warm farewell to the lovely young couple and floated out on the Anacostia breeze.

God Bless The Beatles.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Thank you, Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron, poet, was the voice of a people, the conscience of a nation, a progenitor of rap and hip hop, and political activist. But to me, most of all, he was an incredible musician. Brilliant composer, songwriter, arranger, pianist and bandleader. His deeply powerful voice cried out in pain, emanated wisdom, and soared with joy. From dark tales of the needle to incisive political commentary, to his numerous ballads -- often poignant paens to family, dear friends, and ancestors -- to celebratory grooves, Gil effortlessly combined gospel, funk, jazz, and blues into something irresistibly soulful and relentlessly righteous. This was music that didn't tell you that all was right with the world, but that you were right to be in the world. You mattered. We all matter and we all mattered to him. His words took on injustice, inhumanity, inequality, imbalance, ignorance and indifference. He was a serious man, but a serious man with a twinkle in his eye. I didn't know him personally, but at least in concert, there was always a twinkle. He voice could thunder, the music could roar, anger could permeate a lyric; but the connection to his listeners was always warm, always loving, always respectful. He was a man who walked with a grace and charisma one doesn't often see. He carried a profound dignity. Perhaps all the more remarkable considering details of his later life not appropriately focused upon now -- or maybe ever.

He was a fully conscious agent of his own history, a spirit pouring out of his past like liquid spilling into vessels of the present. He knew exactly where he was and he knew exactly where he came from. His strength, his wisdom, his music -- will resonate and inspire me the rest of my days on this rock. Eyes wide open.

I know that many reading this are unaware of this man's music. I urge anyone remotely affected by the words I scribbled above to take the time to listen to a wonderful piece of music. Hear every word and feel every note. I promise you it'll be worth five minutes of your time.

Godspeed, Gil.

Michael Sokolowski

Pieces of a Man

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Song suggestions requested ...

I'm planning a return to playing solo piano live, and need some help putting together the repertoire. I've always had the "American Songbook," original jazz standards, classic rock/pop on my radar, but I really stopped paying attention to contemporary music -- on any level -- about 10 years ago. I think I crammed all my musical geekery into the front 3-4 decades of my life. Whereas I used to hit every worthy concert I could possibly finagle and spent a lifetime collecting and listening to recordings, now I rarely even listen to music.

So, any help you can give me would be appreciated. Typically, I love a great melody, powerful emotion, and a nice groove. In the realm of pop music, I'm not expecting anything harmonically revelatory, but please don't hesitate to send me jazz suggestions. I'm open to anything. If Justin Bieber has a great song, I'll check it out. By the same token, I haven't heard the most recent Bill Frisell record either. I know there are a lot of great artists and bands out there writing compelling stuff (and have been for a long time). If you've heard something that sounds up my musical alley, please post a suggestion here or email me.

Coming up with music other than my own to perform used to be a natural outgrowth of my listening habits, but now I could stand some advice. At least for now; perhaps this project will re-ignite the thrill of the chase for me once again.

Thanks in advance,


Saturday, December 12, 2009

New tracks posted for streaming (reprinted from myspace)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Current mood: excited
Category: Music

Sokoband has posted three songs from their upcoming self-titled CD for streaming on myspace:

1. Coast to Coast.
Belongings-era Jarrett/Garbarek meets Steely Dan? Joyful, uptempo seven-beat jaunt with big horns and smokin' guitar to complement the high-energy core piano/bass/drum trio of Mike Sokolowski, Houston Ross, and Nir Z. Guests include: George Brooks, Bobby Read on lead soprano and alto saxophones. Horn section: David CasT, saxophones; John D'Earth, trumpet; Greg Howard, alto sax; Mark Maynard, trombones. Guitar: Mike Colley.

2. In November Sunlight.
Brisk jazz waltz perhaps evoking Vince Guaraldi and featuring gorgeous soprano sax work from the late LeRoi Moore.

3. Body Home.
ECM-ish improvisational voyage. Rich, shimmering textures and deep powerful bass content carry the listener on a dreamy flight. The great cellist, David Darling, adds poignant lines and harmonies.

The album is scheduled for a spring release. In the meantime, Breezeway Records will be rotating selections from the CD through the band's myspace music player. Enjoy.

Goodbye, John (reprinted from myspace blog)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Current mood: sad
Category: Life

It's been two days and it feels like two months. My brain can't really process that a random series of molecular events on Thursday night pulled my dear friend from this realm. Johnny was one of the most sincerely loving human beings on this earth.

Secondarily, he was a master practitioner of his instrument and a supremely creative artist. Those of us who have had the thrill of making music with him know that the likes of John Gilmore (he really preferred "John" to "Johnny") will not pass this way again. At his best, his playing was like liquid, like glass, like thunder and rain, like ballet. When the music was happening it just rolled, flowed, and weaved -- carrying everyone along. "Traveling music," as Darrell Rose would say. Leroi Moore simply called it magic. Gilley had the magic touch.

Never superficial or phony, John made connections with people. He found the beautiful within a person and latched onto that. He wanted to know you. He reached people to the core. The last few weeks he'd call and ask me to take him to see my father, who is suffering from dementia. I filtered the request though all sorts of rational thoughts -- "Dad won't remember him," "the situation will be awkward," "should I even bring this up with Mom?" Etc. It had probably been ten years since they had seen each other. Turns out Dad was crushed. He remembered. He kept me on the phone longer than usual, struggling persistently to get out his heartfelt sentiments and feelings of sadness. I bring up this personal anecdote only to illustrate something extraordinarily powerful about our friend: the force of his loving personality cut through a decade of memory and cognitive dysfunction in a 90 year-old man. Mom confessed that Johnny (sorry, man -- I seem to need to call you that) was her favorite of my friends.

He saw people -- really saw them. He loved my family -- as I type this I'm dreading the return of my eldest daughter from a backpacking trip. She's known him since infancy. He loved her so much. I could tell he was proud of my kids. Recently, I played him a video of my youngest performing on guitar -- I will treasure the memory of him hunching over my laptop grinning ear to ear, laughing with joy.

Unlike most musicians I know, Johnny never talked about himself, his accomplishments or his supersized helping of talent. I've known him now for coming on 26 years and I don't think I ever heard a self-promoting word from him. He'd tell road stories and he'd tell of some of the friendships he'd make with great musicians the world over, but he was not prideful. He knew he was a badass and he didn't need to say it. His family says he never talked about his career -- he always talked about family. You couldn't share a few minutes with the man without hearing about his parents, his siblings; his nieces, nephews, and cousins. And they always followed the entreaty as to the welfare of your own family. Even if you had spoken to him two days earlier.

He developed relationships with your music in the same way he established personal connections -- he sought the core of it. Once he found it, once he understood what it was all about, he became fierce friends with it. He wasn't above mistreating it or taking it for granted, but sometimes -- often when you least expected -- he'd bestow upon it a field of tulips. The metaphor, unsurprisingly, evokes Van Gogh. And come to think of it, John was a sort of a Van Gogh drummer. Imagine the energy, color, movement, and emotional force of a VG tulip field; that pretty much sums up John's music.

I'm thinking of all the people touched by Johnny and the list is endless. I've talked to people I haven't seen or heard from in over twenty years, and I'm thinking of more and more I want to reconnect with. I ask myself, "does so-and-so know," "how can I find X to let him/her know?" I'm supposed to remember how to play the piano tonight at a memorial event -- the crowd is going to burst the venue, I'm sure. Before I do that, Houston and I have to go to a memorial for the mother of another musician friend. I can't help but wonder if Johnny knew she passed. He'd be so sad -- and he'd be there, for sure. "Gotta pay my respects, Mike," he'd say. That guy never missed a funeral. Never missed a call on a holiday. Never missed a chance to send a card. Postcards from the road, birthday cards, notes left on the door with a foil-wrapped gift of freshly cooked fishcakes. Always written with a calligrapher's penmanship.

For the last year or so, he had been playing in church -- several churches -- and he was so excited about it. It was renewing to him, a chance in a way for a fresh musical start. He would call and talk about the experiences he was having playing in church and would get so excited and the conversation would build with anticipation for a new phase of his life. There's a wonderful local organization -- the Music Resource Center -- that is built in an old church. Johnny wanted to take me in there to record pipe organ/drum duets. "Mike, it's there, just waiting for us." And like the visit to my father, I put it off, figuring we'd find a way to make it happen at a time when I was less busy. Meanwhile he's slipped through some strange fissure in the fabric of the universe.

Damn it.

Anna Gilmore, his beloved mom (RIP), and Curtis Gilmore, Sr., his wise and steady father were always so proud of their son. John's joined her now -- that particular circle is completed as one is broken with his father. But it's really all one circle anyhow. It just sucks to be separated.

If I may paraphrase the words of advice Warren Zevon gave to David Letterman shortly before his death:

Enjoy every fishcake.

I love you, John.


Soko to Sokoband (reprinted from myspace blog)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Current mood: rejuvenated
OK, so after 19 years our name still wasn't original enough and never really stuck. We started out as "Third Ear," until we received a "cease and desist" order from the attorney of a bluegrass band in the San Francisco bay area. We then became "Zoom" for a while, but nobody really liked that. Then Houston said "it's gotta be 'Soko.'" That's what people had been calling me for as long as I can remember, and Houston felt that it was a snappy name (it is) that had to be original (it wasn't). Shame on us -- especially after the "Third Ear" go-round -- to not perform due diligence and find that there was already a groovy funk band by that name from the American south, who had released a successful album called Hurry Up and Wait. We also didn't take note of Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot, nor did we consider the numerous Japanese and American businesses with the name of "Soko." Then, of course, came "SoKo" -- AKA Stéphanie Sokolinski -- the compelling indie singer from Paris, who just blew us out of the water in terms of name recognition. So, finally, we get it. Time to try again.

While it would be fun to brainstorm and vet a bunch of new band names (who doesn't enjoy doing that?), we are falling back on "Sokoband." It's close to our previous name but it's unused -- and "sokoband.com" has been our web URL for 14 years. It only makes sense.

Keep an eye out for a completely overhauled website at that address in the near future, and stay tuned for our next album: Sokoband, featuring our new drummer, the great Nir Z (Genesis, Chris Cornell, Jason Mraz, and others), and special guests: Steve Kimock, Leroi Moore, Tim Reynolds, David Darling, Dave Matthews, and more. The record has been mixed and mastered, so release should not be too far behind.

Thanks for reading,

Michael Sokolowski
and Houston Ross

LeRoi Moore, R.I.P. (reprinted from myspace blog)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Current mood: sad
Category: Music
We are devastated by today's passing of our brother and mentor, LeRoi Moore. Not only was he one of the kindest, most generous, most deeply intelligent and hilarious people one could ever hope to meet, but he was one of the greatest saxophonists ever to walk this rock. He'd scoff at the notion, but those who know, know. We are blessed to have shared air with him. He was also our biggest supporter -- "thanks" doesn't remotely do it justice.

As many of our fans know, we've been working on a re-do of our first album, which featured Roi on 5 tracks -- an album that he prodded us to do in the first place. The re-do of the title track, In November Sunlight, features a solo from LeRoi that moves us to the core. So, here's a non-mix, bass-heavy and not ready for prime time, with an absolutely beautiful LeRoi solo. You need to hear it.

In November Sunlight, 2008
(dead link -- see footnote below)

You gotta listen past the raw, bass-heavy nature of this mix. This is not even a mix, per se, just some tracks quickly exported out of my computer program for us to listen to as we work on the record. In fact, Houston and I had been talking about sending a clip to Roi, but kept holding back, wanting to wait for a nice mix. Big regret, as I think he would have been surprised to know that there was a take that good in the can from those sessions. But I believe that in some way, he's hearing it now.

The thing about Leroi -- and the reason so many millions of people feel a sense of personal loss -- is that his music was completely devoid of bullshit. Like any musician, he had musical peaks and valleys, but he never played an inauthentic note. No musical exhibitionism from Leroi Moore; it was always pure communication. That's why, even though he lurked in the shadows of the bandstand, didn't sing the songs, or rap to the audience, people felt they knew him. And they DID know him -- they knew the essence of who he was, because he made the choice to speak honestly through his horn. To use his horn to actually reach people, and not simply (or simplemindedly) to try to impress them. He could start anywhere in the measure, end anywhere in the measure, and it always flowed. It was an effortlessly beautiful floating and weaving of melody, phrasing and dynamics expertly controlled -- like a captivating storyteller. Never forced. Never clever for cleverness' sake. It wasn't jazz, it wasn't folk, it wasn't rock, it wasn't classical. And it wasn't about eclectically mashing those together in a conscious way. LeRoi's music was the result of a brilliant and open-minded student of music taking it all in and speaking back to us, naturally.

Houston used to tell him that he was in his "top five," and Leroi would scoff at that notion, modest and obviously made uncomfortable by the suggestion. But damn it, it's true for me, too. Sure, you've got your Coltrane and you've got your Wayne Shorter and maybe a couple of others -- absolute unequivocal masters of the instrument -- but if I could have called any living saxophonist to play my music and serve it the way I envision it to be and without having to explain it, it would have always been him. A kindred spirit, a master musician whose level I won't attain in a couple of lifetimes, and a beautiful person who simply breathed when he played. God Bless you, Leroi. I miss you and I think you'll dig this take.

(Note: the version of In November Sunlight referenced here is no longer available. To hear the final "album" version, go to myspace.com/sokoband)