Culture Counter Culture, Pt. 2

Culture Counter Culture, Pt. 2

What is it about the music industry that seems to dissuade so many talented artists? Some suggest that physical beauty might place an insurmountable obstacle in the way of an artist being accepted as such. But it could just come down to money … or could it?

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

As I get ready to spend the next two days in that rarified performance space, the recording studio, as part of an eight-piece ensemble called Lyric Fury, I find myself mulling over how the people who make American music are a diverse lot, plying their craft across an ever-expanding factionalized (and fractionalized) workplace that makes not only strange, but often unknown, bedfellows of us. The recording studio has been especially good for inspiring this sense of intimate disconnectedness that can test an artist’s social skills as much or more than their musical ones. Just one of many examples I can relate was playing in part of a string section that was assembled to recreate Sinatra-style arrangements for the punk rocker Richard Hell, who was probably convinced by his handlers that recording selections from the Great American Songbook could boost his career. Hell must have had a time the previous night that lived up to his name because, at the end of the session, he fell asleep on the floor of the studio with his arms around my bass and I found myself waiting until he woke up before I could leave. (I didn’t have to wait long, but it makes a heck of a story!) But great friendships and collaborations can be forged in the recording crucible. Vocalist Roseanna Vitro met her husband, producer-engineer Paul Wickliffe, when he was recording her demo tape in his tiny 8-track studio on West 28th Street in Manhattan. And the rest, as they say …

Lyric Fury’s leader, Cynthia Hilts, began talking about recording her music almost ten years ago; but, a disaster intervened that underscores one of the comments from last week’s post (that “almost every one of the musicians I know who make their living through music are under stress”): the Greenwich Village building she lived in fell prey to an errant wrecking ball that sheared off one of the outer walls of her apartment. She eventually settled into Brooklyn and reassessed the project while booking as many concerts as she could to keep us rehearsed. The group has played at venues as diverse as the Douglas Street Collective, The Firehouse Space, a month-long residency at Somethin’ Jazz, Cornelia Street Café, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, and a now-defunct coffee shop on Atlantic Avenue that I don’t remember the name of. As the continuing decline of the economy has negatively impacted the greater music community (and many others as well), Lyric Fury, like many independent ensembles, turned to an internet-based fundraising company via Indiegogo to underwrite the project. This seemed like a better choice than KickStarter because Indiegogo doesn’t make it necessary to achieve a target goal of pledged support before funds are made available for a project. This isn’t to say that KickStarter is a weaker option when a large amount of money, like in the case of the New York City Opera needing seven million dollars, is involved. If the target is not reached and the project dies, the pledged support is never collected. That’s much easier and neater than having to return what could be thousands of individual donations!
Needless to say, the members of Lyric Fury have been long awaiting this chance to document what we believe is very special music. Hilts, a graduate of Berkelee College, writes in a style all her own and she has assembled a group of musicians for the date that come from a broad range of backgrounds and professional experience. Her orchestration is terse—the only doubling of instruments occurs between the two saxophones: alto/tenor and baritone/soprano—but her use of contrasting textures and fearless approach to harmony and counterpoint has given her a voice all her own. Her imagery is earthy (“Dog In A Red Pickup”), reflective (“Teacher”), and philosophical (“Peace Now”). While I don’t speak for everyone in the group, I doubt anyone will disagree with the appraisal that Cynthia’s music is powerful, different, and that she means it.

My preparation for the recording included a much-needed adjustment of one of my basses (I’ll be bringing two, one as a back-up), recopying some of the charts (which sometimes gives me fresh insight into music I’ve grown accustomed to), and a rethinking of how to approach the recording studio environment. While I’ve done a fair amount of recording in the last few years, none of it lately has been with a large group or with music this composed. And none of it has been in a major label atmosphere that has defined studio recording until computers replaced tape machines. Even though the Lyric Fury session will undoubtedly be independently released, all of the musicians involved have had extensive studio experience. So, while attending a memorial service earlier this week for guitarist/harmonica player/composer/arranger Hugh McCracken (March 31, 1942 – March 28, 2013) might seem unrelated to the discussion thus far, it ties into it on several levels.

For those unfamiliar with McCracken’s name, he was one of the busiest studio musicians of his time. His first recording was with King Curtis (Trouble in Mind) in 1961 and his discography reads like the Who’s Who of popular music, including: B. B. King, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Georgie Fame, Dr. John, John Lennon, The Monkees, Van Morrison, Yoko Ono, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and the list goes on (these are all names of artists that McCracken recorded four or more albums with). He also recorded extensively with jazz artists such as Stephane Grappelli, Bob James, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Mike Mainieri, Tom Scott, David “Fathead” Newman, Idris Muhammed, and Jimmy Rushing.

Besides remembrances by his family, McCracken was honored by his colleagues from over the years. Drummers Rick Marotta (Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon) and Allan Schwartzberg (James Brown, John Lennon), songwriters Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver,” “Love Is Alive”), and Morgan Ames (“Far Side of the Hill,” “I Am His Lady”), producer Sandi Bachon (Moviephone shorts with music composed by McCracken), and guitarists David Spinoza (John Lennon, Steely Dan) and Joe Caro (Michael Franks, Gato Barbieri) spoke of McCracken’s ability to improvise music that was perfect whenever he was called upon. Fab Faux bassist Will Lee (Steely Dan, Billy Joel, David Letterman Band) also played a charming version of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” The remembrances by McCracken’s colleagues offered insight into the behind-the-scenes interactions and attitudes of the most recorded—and possibly the least well-known—artists in the music industry. While all are virtuoso performers, they have opted to temper their craft and gifts to the service of making music that will, in the words of nobody in particular, “sell records.” They are in the habit of working for and making musical legends. To see them making a legend of their fallen comrade was inspiring as well as entertaining. One of the themes they all agreed on is “the stuff of legends.” It was that Hugh McCracken was known not only for being a great guitarist, but for being habitually late to sessions and for his strange sense of humor. One remembrance suggested that he showed up exactly two days late for a jingle session!

It was said that Hugh McCracken played with everybody. While this sounds like a sweeping generalization, I can’t argue with it because even I had the pleasure of being in a recording session with him for a Mose Allison album called The Earth Wants You. (He appears on two cuts: “What A Shame” and “This Ain’t Me,” which would have been included here except that getting permission to do so is cost prohibitive.) Hearing about how his unpunctuality was something that could be relied on answered a question that I’ve had on my mind whenever I think about the date. The producer, Ben Sidran, booked two days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios. On the first day, a harmonica player, Jon Paris, was in the control room, looking over charts and listening to Mose’s tunes. But he didn’t play anything and, when I asked Sidran about it, he explained that the tunes with harmonica would be done on the second day, with the first day being reserved for tunes with horns (Joe Lovano, Bob Malach, and Randy Brecker). On the second day, we started recording, but there was no harmonica. We recorded a tune with congas (Ray Mantilla) and some with quartet (Scofield, Mose, drummer Paul Motian, and me). When I asked about Paris, Sidran said that he was using someone else. About four hours into the session, an older looking fellow who could have been a newsstand attendant came in. It was Hugh McCracken. He was the harmonica man for the date. Now I see that Paris was a standby, just in case McCracken didn’t show. Well, true to form, he sat down, told a joke I had told the day before (the one about the Dalai Lama asking the hotdog vendor to make him “one, with everything”), and then proceeded to play note-perfect solos. As far as I know, he’s the only person to play harmonica on an album with the venerable bluesman from Mississippi.

McCracken’s legacy also connects with a theme that began two weeks ago in my piece about bassist Butch Warren, who passed away on October 6 after a long battle with lung cancer. During his career he played on recordings that changed music, most notably Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” Hugh McCracken, who passed away after a long battle with leukemia, also recorded music that influenced generations of fans and artists. McCracken mostly stayed in the recording studio (it is rumored that he turned down the offer to be part of the original Wings group of Paul McCartney’s so that he could keep his recording commitments, albeit fashionably late), but Warren dropped in and out of the music world according to his emotional condition, while retaining the respect of his peers. This doesn’t represent the extremes of the spectrum, though. I believe that the case of Catherine Buchanan, whose name was brought to my attention in another rather heartfelt and moving comment from last week, has that distinction. She was the principle vocalist who sang the first two sections of the single, “Sidewalk Talk,” written by Madonna for John “Jellybean” Benitez in 1984. (Buchanan succumbed to cancer in 2001 after leaving the music industry.) I used to hear the tune when I was in the transportation industry (e.g. driving a taxi cab). When I learned it was written by Madonna, whom I was familiar with from the then newly released “Material Girl,” I thought that it was really good example of her singing. Now I know that the voice heard on the first two sections of “Sidewalk Talk” belongs to Catherine Buchanan. But the only other recording by her unearthed by the commenter is a techno-dance piece, “Love Is” (which I find I really like). I hope more examples of her work surface.

So, what is it about the music industry that seems to dissuade a talent like Buchanan? The commenter suggests that physical beauty might place an insurmountable obstacle in the way of an artist being accepted as such and that this might have contributed to Buchanan’s early retirement from music. But then, why not, like Cynthia Hilts, pursue an independent career where one retains artistic control? Does the possibility of financial security necessarily outweigh artistic expression? I plan to compare several trumpet players who shared common roots, but whose careers took very different directions, over the next weeks and hope that will shed some light on these questions.