Vibes Master Gary Burton Calls It A Career

A few weeks ago jazz vibes player Gary Burton announced he was staging the final tour of his 50-plus-year career, and this past Friday he played his last show at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis.  Not many artists have devoted themselves to this unusual instrument, and I wonder if anyone will ever again play it with Burton’s virtuosity.

According to a feature by NPR, the first use of the instrument in a jazz recording was by Lionel Hampton in 1930 on “Memories of You” by Louis Armstrong.  Legend has it that shortly before this recording, jazz drummer Hampton had come across the instrument at NBC studios, where it was sometimes used to play the network’s distinctive 3-tone identifier chime.

Thirty years after Hampton introduced the instrument, a 17-year-old Burton began his career recording with guitar virtuoso Hank Garland.  Here’s a track from that era with Burton right up front.  The drummer on this track is Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck’s longtime collaborator.

Here are some pure shots of Burton from 1966 and 2010.  Jaw dropping.

And here’s a duet with frequent collaborator Makoto Ozone from 1995. Burton chose Ozone to accompany him on his farewell tour. And if you haven’t had enough, here’s a link to a post from a couple of years ago featuring Burton and  another frequent collaborator, Chick Corea.

Anderson .Paak – Grammy Bound?

At the 59th Grammy Awards, airing tomorrow night, the Best New Artist category is quite diverse.   There are two new country singers, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, a DJ duo, The Chainsmokers, who had a hit called “#SELFIE” that has almost a half-billion YouTube views (don’t add one, I warn you), and two hot hip-hop artists, Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak.

While he might be a long shot for the Grammy, .Paak’s music is in the hip hop vein I really like.   Thanks for the introduction to him, Ben!  His arrangements use real instruments, which may owe to .Paak being a very fine drummer himself, melodic vocals, a solid foundation of R&B, and Southern Cali jazz fusion mixed in.

.Paak performed “Am I Wrong” live on French TV about a year ago, and closed the song with an apropos David Bowie tribute.

It didn’t take American TV too long to catch up to the French. Steven Colbert hosted Anderson’s first American TV performance in March of last year.

.Paak produced a video for “Come Down” from his recent album “Malibu” using friends and family from Oxnard, California. And, yes, he apparently honed his drumming skills backing a gospel choir as a kid.

If you want to hear a bit more from .Paak, how many hip hop artists can pull off an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.  Forward about 3-1/2 minutes into the set to hear “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”.

The Milk Carton Kids

Last week’s post included a video from the movie “Another Day, Another Time”. Also performing in that movie was a group that somehow I’d overlooked all this time, the indie-folk duo The Milk Carton Kids.

Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan formed the group in 2011 and have released four albums, the third of which “The Ash & Clay” was nominated for a Grammy.  Here they are rehearsing for the movie, playing their song “Snake Eyes” from that Grammy-nominated album. Chris Thile, Marcus Mumford (who wrote a song of the same name) and T Bone Burnett look on appreciatively.  Ethan Coen tears up at the end.  They’ve been compared to Simon and Garfunkel by some, and they have some deadpan fun with that.

For you Pink Floyd fans, here is a cover of a classic – Kids-style.

You may have picked up that Pattengale is a crazy good guitar picker, and this track from their Austin City Limits concert puts any doubt to rest.

If you’d like to see and hear a bit more, check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance; a perfect setting for The Kids.

An A Cappella Sampler

Though I’d considered it to be the exclusive province of college students lurking under stone archways, it seems that a cappella singing is engaging the talents of a much broader range of performers these days.

Pentatonix, the Texas based quintet leading the art form’s revival, has delivered a string of hits and interesting performances since winning “The Sing-Off” on NBC in 2011. Their recent Christmas album topped the Billboard charts, and this performance with Dolly Parton of her 1973 hit is up for Best Country Duo/Group Performance at this year’s Grammy’s.

In 2013, around the same time the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” went into wide release, an all star cast put on a concert to celebrate the film’s music. One of the songs from the movie performed at the concert was “The Auld Triangle”. The performance includes most of those on the movie soundtrack, including Chris Thile, other members of his Punch Brothers outfit, and Marcus Mumford – minus Justin Timberlake.

Professional musicians are contributing only a small fraction, it seems, of a cappella performances – as a cursory trip around YouTube suggests.  Indy Dang, an film student at the Rhode Island School of Design, has a YouTube channel with 15,000 subscribers checking out his expanding set of arrangements.   He’s not the only one making these covers of pop songs, but it’s hard to find anyone better.  Here’s his version of “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots, a song from the soundtrack of the summer hit movie “Suicide Squad”.

No talk of a cappella singing is complete without mentioning The Persuasions. The group made it big after Frank Zappa heard them perform and booked them to open for the Mothers of Invention at Carnegie Hall in 1971. Here is their excellent version of “People Get Ready” written by Curtis Mayfield.

Let’s Start 2017 With a Trip to Motown to Visit Bob Babbitt

It is oddly prophetic that my last post, four months ago, covered the band Hiatus Kaiyote.  Hiatus indeed!  Well Happy New Year to all, and allow me to begin the year with a trip way back to the early 70’s.

A few months ago I watched the movie “Searching for Sugar Man” for the first time.  Hard to believe it took me so long to see the 2012 Academy Award winner – thanks for the DVD, Margaret!  It’s a great flick if you haven’t seen it, and one little snippet from the movie is the basis for this post.

It seems that on Sixto Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact”, which included the track “Sugar Man” from which the movie title was taken, his producer hired some top notch Motown session men to back Sixto’s vocals and guitar.  Among them was bassist Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt was part of The Funk Brothers, studio musicians who backed most of Motown’s hits from 1959 to 1972.   A little research on Babbitt reveals that he played some of the most recognizable bass tracks in history, including those on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “War” by Edwin Starr, “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye, and many more.  In all he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits including 25 gold and platinum records.

Below is more than my usual number of videos, but turn up the bass and appreciate  Babbitt’s genius.  You’ll wonder what these songs would be without him.

Babbitt passed away in 2012 at age 74, some years after winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  The 2002 documentary on The Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” is now on my “to watch” list.