Little Steven Finds His Destiny

  To hear Steven Van Zandt tell it, his career over five decades has been a zig-zagging journey dictated by destiny.

Take his return to releasing solo albums after a couple of decades playing a mobster in “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer” (which he co-wrote) and touring as Bruce Springsteen’s foil in the E Street Band. With Springsteen on a Broadway break and no nibbles on his television projects, he turned to a dusty songwriting career, opening his back catalog in 2017 to release “Soulfire,” an album of tunes he had not finished or had written for others including Southside Johnny and Gary U.S. Bonds.

“I kind of go the path of least resistance sometimes,” he says. “You play whatever cards you’re dealt.”

“I don’t really have control of my destiny,” he adds, laughing during a call from Europe, where the band was on tour. “I wish I did. I consider that a bit of a failure in my life, you know. I’ve been basically working in the TV world, and I want to keep working there. That’s where most of my interest is. But, you know, no TV deal came together. And Bruce was on Broadway. It was just like, ‘Okay, I got nothing to do, let’s do that’.”

Starting with “Men Without Women” in 1982, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul released four albums of autobiographical and increasingly political songs (“Sin City,” “I Am a Patriot,” “Trail of Broken Treaties”) over seven years. He issued the garage rock of “Born Again Savage” in 1999 before being hired by David Chase for The Sopranos although he had no acting experience. Chase originally offered Van Zandt the lead role of Tony Soprano, but HBO nixed the idea so he was cast as Silvio Dante, a hitman and the owner of the Bada Bing strip club. The character was partly inspired by a script Van Zandt had written.

Out on the road behind “Soulfire” changed his point of view. “It opened my eyes to writing for myself. I was like I can’t believe I sort of abandoned this,” he says. “This is my life’s work.”

Again, that accidental destiny.

 

“Summer of Sorcery” pays homage to his long and varied career with seemingly at least one song from every conceivable genre — soul, rock, funk, blues, reggae, Latin, doo-wop, you name it. Van Zandt moved beyond the autobiographical subject matter of previous efforts. “I decided I wanted to do fiction, 12 movies (in song) about a different character in each,” he says. “So that suggests a mixture of genres. You can mix it up, but can you still retain your identity? At this point, I can do that. So it was a really significant artistic breakthrough for me and a major rebirth. It really was sorcery.”

“Summer of Sorcery” is a loose concept album “experiencing the first summer of consciousness, the first time in love, the first experiences in life.” I ask him if he thinks playing characters gave him the confidence to write characters in song. “That could very well be because I’ve been writing TV scripts now for years,” he says. “I think part of it also is I had said everything I wanted to say, I mean, politically. These days, there’s nothing much to be explained anymore.  So, my usefulness now is trying to bring people together again. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like what’s going on right now. So I’m like, you know, what? Let me try and bring people together for change. See if we can use music as a common ground.”

“Communion,” the first cut on “Summer of Sorcery” establishes that message with its refrain of “harmony, unity, communion, say it out loud.” When I saw Van Zandt front his 15-piece band in Richmond earlier this summer, the tune opened the show. The crowd surged to their feet and didn’t sit down for the rest of the two and a half-hour show, one of the best I’ve seen in recent years.

More than 50 years ago, Van Zandt was performing a cover of the Turtles “Happy Together” in a New Jersey bar when he met a guy named Bruce Springsteen. They played together in bands, including Steel Mill, which featured the late Robbin Thompson of Richmond as lead vocalist. When Springsteen signed to CBS as a solo artist, he let Van Zandt and other band members go. “I just thought, well, we kind of missed it anyway,” he recalls. “I just quit.”

He worked construction for two years. “I came back due to destiny again,” he says. “I broke my finger playing football and got into a local band, playing piano just to exercise my finger.”

That led to touring with The Dovells, a doo-wop group, which led to him meeting Dion and going on the oldies circuit, playing with one rock legend after another looking for work in the wake of the British Invasion. He backed Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Lloyd Price, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Bo Diddley. “We had 15 acts on the show,” he says. Each played their few hits and made way for the next.

“They hated it,” he says.  They were the pioneers, people who in their 30s were labeled oldies, the generation that invented rock and roll. “They’re the ones that got screwed because every generation after that grew up with the bands and supported the bands making music. The Beatles and The Stones, they’re still the biggest bands.”

Playing with those legends pushed him deeper into songwriting. “I’m meeting all my heroes and I said to myself, man, you know what, I gotta go to school if I’m really going to take this songwriting seriously,” he recalls. “So where does it begin? It begins with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I decided I’m going to write a Leiber and Stoller song for The Drifters. I met Ben E. King and I met The Drifters. I never did have the courage to give it to him. But, I gave it to Southside Johnny. “

The song was “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” the title cut to the first Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album, which Van Zandt produced. “That was the first time I thought, that’s a real song,” he says. “It was an important breakthrough for me.”

He contributed two other cuts to Southside’s debut, while Springsteen threw in two, including “The Fever.” After Van Zandt arranged the horns on Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and helped rescue the overworked “Born to Run” cut by pointing out a key minor riff, he was invited into the E Street Band. He remained for a decade departing before the “Born in the USA” tour for a solo career. He returned in 1999.

Asked what three songs he would recommend to new listeners, Van Zandt chose “Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared Ones),” “the most emotional song I’ve ever written in terms of turning politics into stories;” “A World of Our Own” (off “Summer of Sorcery”), and “I Am A Patriot,” covered by Jackson Browne, among others.

Van Zandt started the performers’ boycott of South Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid, and recorded the protest song, “Sun City” with more than 50 artists. He plays “I Am a Patriot” on the current tour, but feels the need to make an explaining introduction. “You can be a patriot and a globalist at the same time,” he says. “There’s not a contradiction. You can still love your own country. It’s important that the word patriot does not get co-opted by any political party. That’s what’s been happening. That’s just not a word for sale. “

Van Zandt and Springsteen shepherded the comeback of Norfolk legend, Gary U.S. Bonds, with two albums, “Dedication” and “On the Line,” in the early 1980s. Van Zandt had his doubts when Springsteen brought him the project. “Out of all the singers of the ’50s and ’60s, frankly, he (Bonds) would not have been high on my list,” he admits. “Great party records, but not one of the greats of all time until I got into the studio. Then it was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how Bruce knew that, but I’m glad that he did.”

“On the Line,” with the marvelous “Club Soul City,” has never gotten the recognition it deserves partly because the first was a hit, Van Zandt says. “The second album was one of my favorite productions ever,” he says. “He’s just singing his butt off. It proves he’s one of the greatest singers of all time.”

Van Zandt is involved in numerous charities, raising money for police widows, to fight cancer, and to fund musical instruments for schools. He started the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation years ago to back music education. He’s recently been promoting his TeachRock project (teachrock.org), which aims to lower the dropout rate by incorporating rock and roll as a way into history and current events (lesson plans include the Flint water crisis, dance trends since the 1920s, and blues, poetry and the Harlem Renaissance). Teachers can register online for two free tickets to Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul shows.

His tour concludes on Nov. 6 at New York’s Beacon Theater. He expects to continue with the Disciples of Soul. He is writing scripts. But he’s leaving the end of the year open in case an old buddy wants a date in the studio with Van Zandt and the E Street Band.

“Nothing’s definite yet,” he says, “but I stopped at that date to make sure we had time if Bruce wants to go out in 2020. There will be an E Street Band tour eventually, if not in 2020. And the Disciples will stay together and eventually we’ll get back on TV. I have to figure all that out.”

“I got a whole new artistic life,” adds Van Zandt, who is 68.

Thanks to destiny.

 

My Favorite Music of 2018

This was a fine year for music so my list is longer than usual. Please share your favorites.

The War and Treaty – Healing Tide

Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake

Boz Scaggs – Out of the Blues

Lera Lynn – Plays Well with Others

Kelly Willis – Back Being Blue

John Hiatt – The Eclipse Sessions

Kim Richey – Edgeland

 

Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbuck

First Aid Kit — Ruins

Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!

Lori McKenna – The Tree

Gretchen Peters – Dancing with the Beast

Chris Smither – Call Me Lucky

Dawn Landes – Meet Me at the River

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

The Beatles – White Album Remastered, Esher Demos

Ruby Boots – Don’t Talk About It

Iron and Wine – Beast Epic (holdover from 2017)

 

Freelance Writing: One Perspective

Many years ago, I was having a drink at a party with a good friend of mine, a writer with a decade-long track record at places like GQ, Rolling Stone and other major magazines. Someone sidled up, introduced herself and — as people always do in New York — asked us what we did. We told her we were magazine writers. Well, she wondered, what was the most important talent for someone in the business?

Neither of us hesitated.
Almost in unison, we answered: “Accepting rejection and moving on.” The line must have seemed scripted. It wasn’t.

To me, the most important skill a freelancer can hone is the ability to take being rejected — or being ignored — by an editor and move on, whether it’s to offer that editor a new idea or that idea to another editor. There are those wonderful exceptions. My first New York Times assignment came during an initial phone call intended merely to check an editor’s name. But I think freelancers underestimate the work necessary break into a good market and give up too easily. Remember, John McPhee suffered fifteen years of rejections before his byline appeared in The New Yorker.

 

I’ve long been a contributor to American Way, American Airlines inflight magazine. The good folks there have flown me all over the world — Toronto, St. Lucia, Paris, London, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix — on well more than 100 stories over the years. An American Way editor assigned my first magazine story when I moved from newspapering to freelancing. He then rejected my next 11 ideas.

I’ve often wondered what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t sent that twelfth idea.

The same story is true for Smithsonian magazine. My third query netted an assignment. The next 11 were rejected before I got a cover piece. Since then, I’ve written nearly 40 pieces for the print and online versions.

So how’s that for a cheery introduction to a handout about freelancing?

Now, for a few basics. First, a disclaimer: this is one writer’s view of shaping a career. There are an infinite number of other ways to do it, depending upon what you want to write and where you want your byline to appear.

There are three pillars for building a career working for magazines and online publications: writing ability, marketing ability, and identifying and framing stories that sell. You need to be good at all of them.

I’ve seen a remarkable number of writers who think getting assignments is all about marketing. Just find the right markets, get a few good contacts and you’ll have work. Well, at a certain level that may be true. There’s an endless demand for competent work. But never forget that the better a writer you become, the more editors will be calling.

Other writers are creative thinkers and beautiful stylists, but they don’t understand it’s necessary to work just as hard on the marketing end. You’ve got to keep banging on doors until they open or your head wears out from the pounding.

Finally, I’ve come to realize that identifying and framing a story in a way that’s appealing to an editor is a skill we often ignore. Too often, writers mistake subjects for stories. Too often, they don’t do the work on a query to find the details and the angle that entices an editor.

Before I talk about writing, I want to mention reading. Read good work. Pretty basic, right? But sometimes I think writers get so engrossed in selling that they forget the best way to become a better writer is to read stylish prose. So check out Charles Pierce in Esquire or Tom Junod in ESPN (and, before that, Esquire). Sample Kathryn Schulz, James Stewart, Elizabeth Kolbert or David Remnick in The New Yorker. Or Robert Draper, John Branch, and Dan Barry in The New York Times. Sample longform.org or Aeon or The Atlantic online or Longreads. Check out Jim Robbins on Yale 360. Dive into books by Michael Lewis, Robert Moor, Katherine Boo, and Lauren Hillenbrand. Whatever your tastes.

Beth Kephart, who wrote “A Slant of Sun,” an achingly beautiful book about rearing a challenging child as well as numerous others, likes to say that a good writing day usually follows a good reading day.

Ideas are currency. Some magazines will assign you stories generated in-house, but if you’re a freelancer part of the fun is controlling what you write. So organize a system for collecting ideas. I use a database program called Evernote, both to organize notes for stories and ideas for queries.

Research your markets with the same zeal you would an in-depth story. There are more markets out there than you can imagine and a lot of them pay more than you can imagine.

Understand, too, that much of your research will end up being discarded because the magazine isn’t right for your writing or the idea. I can’t emphasize this enough: reading a magazine as a writer intending to market ideas or clips is different from reading it for pleasure. Look hard at the kinds of stories a magazine runs. Be honest about whether your style fits. For instance, not all women’s magazines are created equal. Each one appeals to a slightly different demographic. If you’re targeting a major magazine like Discover or Smithsonian or Esquire, subscribe and consider reading back issues online.

When I moved from being a newspaper staff writer to a magazine freelancer, this was the biggest and hardest lesson I had to learn. It’s not enough that something is newsworthy for a magazine. It has to right for the readership at the time.

So you’ve got an idea. Now what?

Establish a realistic pecking order to queries. Aim high, but also shoot a few at more likely markets so you have work. A few years ago, a writer friend and I decided to separate our markets into what I’ll call 76 Truck Stop markets and Holy Grail markets. The truck stop markets are easy to pull into, let us do stories we like for little hassle, pay well and don’t grab all rights so we can resell. The Holy Grail markets (Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine) are long shots that require a lot of effort to reach. Rather than pitch many of them, we decided it was wiser to concentrate on one (or maybe two) at a time in an attempt to establish a relationship with editors.

Spend time crafting a good first query to a new market. There is a remarkable amount of information at your fingertips. Use it. Don’t stop at the first Google page. Go deep. Think creatively about how to approach a story.

Remember, this is your introduction. The truth is first ideas rarely hit the mark, but consider them an audition. Make the writing sing.

Send a reminder email a couple of weeks after you’ve sent a query to make sure the editor received it. Remind the editor of the query and tease with a one or two sentence description. This may seem depressing, but with new markets I’ve often found the editor never saw the query so always check in with the editor.

If you get an assignment from a magazine you like, work to become a regular. Securing even one regular gig will keep you sane, provide clips to help sell yourself to other magazines and, oh yes, pay a few bills. Work towards having three of four regular markets. Clips are credibility. Along with a well-written query letter, they are your best marketing tools.

So that’s the first part of being a freelancer: persistence. Pedigree is the second part.

It matters who you know and who you’ve written for. Build a pedigree. Having a clip from markets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Smithsonian or a hot new online publication makes editors take your query seriously.

Getting an introduction from another writer also helps. So add people to persistence and pedigree. Network with writers. There are dozens of places online to do this as well as any number of organizations. I belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org) and have found the contacts as well as the professional advice from other members to be invaluable. I also subscribe to Freelance Success, a newsletter for freelancers with a wealth of market information (www.freelancesuccess.com).

Don’t undervalue yourself. Ask an editor if he can do better than the offered pay. Often, he can.

Do tell editors you’re looking for a steady gig once you’ve completed an assignment or two. Even before that, ask editors what they’re looking for now. Simple advice, but it often leads to assignments — or an informal brainstorming session that helps focus future queries.

If you’re interested in doing serious “issues” stories as well as features, consider pitching to some of the low-end markets so you have clips. I wish I’d done this because it seems to me the markets for these kinds of stories are either very low-end or very high-end (and hard to crack). By doing some low-end work you may build a reputation that will interest the big boys.

Market yourself. Create a Contently page with your clips. Explore online markets for writers, if necessary, like Skyword. Creating “content” – essentially doing sponsored journalism – for corporations and organizations has become huge business in recent years.

Understand the business. If you don’t know what work made for hire means, learn. The same goes for terms like “all rights,” “electronic rights,” “indemnification,” “exclusive,” “First North American Serial Rights,” and others. Most publications offer contracts. Only begin work when you have one in hand. Beware of shaky startups with vague funding.

If you’re a beginner and don’t understand the basic rules of journalism including ethics then please take a course somewhere or go to the Society of Professional Journalists web site and download their ethical guidelines. I run into too many freelancers, usually people who have never been on staff, who are clueless about the basic rules of the game.

Finally, have fun. Freelancing means you get paid to learn. What could be better?

– Jim Morrison
https://jimmorrison.contently.com/
http://www.jmwriter.com

 

 

Drive-By Truckers Address the Big Issues


A day after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Drive-By Truckers played the first of three homecoming shows in Athens, Georgia, and opened with a dark, slow version of “Guns of Umpqua,” an already-dark song about a community college shooting in Oregon that left one professor and eight students dead.

The song looks back to that day and ahead to too many days since, like the afternoon in Parkland, Florida:

 

Waves crash against the banks where Lewis and Clark explored

We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more

Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon

 It’s a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays

The sun burned the fog away, breeze blew the mist away

My friend Jack just had him a baby

I see birds soaring through the clouds

Outside my window today

Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door

Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door

For Patterson Hood, who wrote the tune, that night in Athens provided a bit of catharsis. But only a bit.

“A song can only do so much,” he says during an afternoon call from his Portland home a week after the shootings that left 17 dead. “Somebody with some power needs to try to do something or at least make us feel like they’re trying to do something.”

Hood wrote the song not long after he moved his family to Portland a few years ago. He’d spent the weekend before the Umpqua shootings camping and hiking in the Cascade Range. The song, like several on the Truckers’ most recent album, “American Band,” is a look at the American promise and the American reality, flashing between scenes of the immortal beauty Lewis and Clark explored in the Cascades and the existential horror of moving classroom chairs to barricade the door.

As a father with children in public school, the shootings struck hard. “Don’t tell me nothing can be done. You can’t stop the problem, but you can certainly make it better,” Hood says. ‘The majority of these situations wouldn’t have happened if things were tightened up. This isn’t about taking away every redneck in Alabama’s hunting rifle or some rancher in Montana’s hunting rifle. We’re talking about machine guns that when I was growing up weren’t that easily accessible to the general public.”

“I get hit, as you can well imagine, by people who feel very differently from me. I hear, ‘I guess you want to ban box cutters.’ Well, if he’d had a box cutter, he might have gotten one or two people injured or killed before he was stopped. That would have been horrible. But this was 17 murdered and it’s just one of many already this year.”

He brings the Truckers and their fearsome live show back to The NorVa on March 25. “I love The Norva,” he says. “It’s been a couple of years. We’re overdue. It’s going to be fun.”

Throughout their long career, Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley, who write separately, have addressed issues, so “American Band” wasn’t a surprise. What it means to be Southern. Racial politics. Economic justice. Murder (notably in a song about Bryan Harvey and his family, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”). The nuances of the “feud” between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant (see “Southern Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama”).

But with “American Band,” Hood and Cooley put their personal and very political stories front and center.  The two have polar opposite writing styles. Hood writes, writes, writes and then sorts out what works and what doesn’t. Cooley is economical, creating only a few finished gems per year. “To me, our best records are the ones where the songs have this connection,” Hood says. “‘American Band’ is probably the best that’s ever been. Maybe the best since ‘Decoration Day.’ “

“Ramon Casiano” is Cooley’s song about a 1931 murder outside El Paso, Texas, with echoes of Trayvon Martin decades later. “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Down” is a tune Hood wrote on the night he penned the first draft of an op-ed for the New York Times Sunday Magazine suggesting there were other things Southerners could be proud of instead of a divisive flag. (Hood grew up outside Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His father was the bassist in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that recorded with Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, Etta James and the Staple Singers although Patterson leaned towards The Clash and The Replacements and, more recently, Big Thief and The National.)

“What It Means,” the emotional heart of the album, had been sitting around for a while. The song alludes to a shooting on Ruth Street in Athens in 1995 not long after Hood moved there. A black man named Edward Wright was shot by police. Hood lived across the street from the family. He didn’t know him well. He’d see his mother working in the yard.

“In the mid-90s, everybody didn’t have a camera in their pocket,” Hood says. “It got talked about then people who didn’t live in the poorer part of town moved on. In that regard, some of this is progress. People are seeing it in their face, people who normally had the benefit of being able to pretend this didn’t exist.”

“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks,” Hood sings on “What It Means,” “well, I guess that means you ain’t black…You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” He chronicles one shooting after another from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Chicago to Miami. And then he wonders why some man with a joystick can land a rocket on a comet, but we can’t stop shooting unarmed men.

“We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but at the core is something rotten…but don’t look to me for answers cuz I don’t know what it means.”

In the end, though, the song is about how all of us look at people, people who are different and how we filter our “truths.”

“All of those songs are personal, every one of them,” Hood says. “I feel good about what we did. I think we made a good record. The majority of people who heard it seemed to have liked it. There are definitely people who didn’t, people who say they used to be our friends, but are no longer our fans. Whatever. When we’re writing, we’re not really thinking about things like that.”

He says the band has recently returned to most of the towns they played in the first month after the album was released in 2016 and were welcomed with bigger crowds everywhere, calling it one of his favorite tours in the history of the band.

Since “American Band,” the group has released one searing single, “The Perilous Night.” Hood started the song on the evening the Electoral College elected Donald J. Trump as president, but then put it aside. Until Charlottesville. “I ended up taking another stab at the same song and rewriting it,” he says. “I felt like it was too hopeless, but in the wake of Charlottesville, I changed my mind. Sometimes you just need to vent your anger.”

 

 I’d like to tell you there’ll be better days

But optimism’s running low today

We’re off the deep end with a lifeguard that can’t swim

The Klan and the Nazis are taking up the fight

Against their own salvation in the saviors light

We’re moving into the perilous night, Amen

“Judging from the reaction it gets live, I guess a lot of people need to vent their anger,” Hood adds.

He says he’s started writing for a new record. Usually, his writing is a reaction to the last record, a correction. So that would suggest a return to more personal and less political musings. Hood isn’t committing, though.

“It will be different,” he adds. “I can’t say it will be devoid of any of that. The shit’s still stirring us up.”

He sees hope in the young people standing up for their lives. “When I hear people my age or younger talking bad about the younger generation, I get really fired up quickly,” he adds. “For starters, I have kids. I’m around them and their friends and I never cease to be amazed how much better kids they are than the kids I grew up around…The kids down in Florida, they’re pissed. That is the first step towards making some change. Being pissed and having the smarts and articulation to be able to act. “

In another moment, he admits his usual optimism is wearing thin. “It’s a really disquieting time,” he adds. “I’ve generally managed to be fairly optimistic through most of my adult life feeling that as bad as things are, the arc of history was moving in a positive direction overall. That’s kind of been shaken to the core over the past couple of years.”

—end—

My Favorite Albums of 2017

This is a longer list than usual. I listened to a ton of music this year — and saw a ton of shows. These were the albums I lived with most. It’s a little more alt country and a little more newgrassy than usual, but that’s what caught my ear this year.

Yes, there are several North Shore Point House Concert alums as well as a couple of artists I hope to book in 2018.

My favorite local albums were Super Doppler’s “Midnight Anthems” and Feral Conservatives’ “Better Lives.”

Rhiannon Giddens — Freedom Highway

John Moreland — Big Bad LUV

Paul Kelly — Life Is Fine

Don Bryant – Don’t Give Up on Love

Twisted Pine — Twisted Pine

 

Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm

 

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound

 Chuck Prophet — Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins

Mipso — Coming Down the Mountain

Joan Shelley — Joan Shelley

Slaid Cleaves — Ghost on the Radio

Big Thief — Capacity

 

Turnpike Troubadours — A Long Way from Your Heart

Travis Meadows – First Cigarette

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — Soul of a Woman

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong

Nikki Lane — Highway Queen

The Dustbowl Revival — The Dustbowl Revival

Jae Sinnett Rearranges the Christmas Classics

When Jae Sinnett first was asked if he’d be interested in playing a Christmas show, he said sure. A day later, he thought, “What did I get myself into?”

He realized that if the straightforward jazz quartet from his latest disc, “Zero to 60,” was going to do songs “that have been played a bazillion times,” he would need to rethink those classics.

“I said, ‘Ok, if I’m going to do this I can’t go on stage and go bah, bah, bah,” he says humming the first notes of “Little Drummer Boy.” “I got really involved in reconceptualizing those classic songs in the style of the Zero to 60 Quartet. People think, oh, he’s a drummer so, of course he’s going to do “Little Drummer Boy,” but it’s not going to be like (what) they think.”

For his show at the Attucks Theatre on Dec. 9, he chose holiday favorites that were malleable. “I wasn’t’ just thinking about songs I like, but I was thinking about songs we can manipulate and make conceptually fit how we play,” he says. “In my head, I’m thinking how do these songs feel?”

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” offers a drummer a bounty of choices. A section of “Little Drummer Boy” will be played in a different time signature. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a jazz favorite because there’s so much harmonic variation to it, he says. “Things like that. I just tried to break things up and make it interesting, “he adds.

To make it more interesting, he decided to bring in Grammy-nominated singer Denise Donatelli from the West Coast. She will join saxophonist Ralph Bowen and pianist Allen Farnham, who played on his latest album, and bassist Terry Burrell (bassist Hans Glawischnig played on the CD). 

“I’ve worked with Denise a few times,” he says. “The most recent time was the San Jose Jazz Festival with her. She is an amazing singer. When I first worked with her, she was doing these arrangements by pianist Geoffrey Keezer. They were some of most challenging arrangements I ever played and I’ve played a lot of complicated music. Those arrangements were flat-out crazy and here she was singing over that stuff.”

“She’s a classy, beautiful singer,” he adds. “One of the greats singing this music today.”

Sinnett, who has hosted WHRV’s “Sinnett in Session” for nearly 28 years, prepared for the Christmas show with a rehearsal in August in New York with the quartet. That they were together rehearsing winter songs in the hot summer is another story. Sinnett says he never intended to record and release the music that became “Zero to 60,” his 14th album.

He writes all the time so the tunes were there when he decided to look for some new players to do a few gigs. Then one thing led to another and an album was born.

But, first, exactly how does a drummer write songs? Sinnett says it’s a common question.

“I write from the piano,” he explains. “I play a level of piano. I understand the harmony and theory behind it and I understand composition. Then I start to conceptualize all the instruments in my head.”

When he first started writing, he would sit at the piano for hours and hours working on songs. But later when he was sitting at his drum kit to rehearse, he’d have no idea what to play.

He was at a rehearsal one day with sax player Steve Wilson and pianist Cyrus Chestnut just destroying the music on the drums, making one mistake after another. “Steve Wilson stopped and said sarcastically ‘Are you sure you wrote this music,’ “Sinnett recalls. “That was a revelatory moment for me.”

He realized he needed to think about the bigger picture when he composed. “Now, the way I write, I will have a specific rhythmic foundation in mind, a rhythmic idea, a certain feel, tempo and I will develop the harmonic structure around that rhythmic foundation,” he says. “A lot of times I hear the melody first.

“There’s writing from top to bottom or bottom to top. Top down is melody to rhythm. Bottom is rhythm to melody. Lately, I’m mostly writing from the bottom to the top.”

He feels like with his newest disc, he finally got beyond his insecurities about developing melodies, “I really wanted to write melodies, themes, memorable themes,” he explains. “That’s one aspect I think I’ve developed over the past couple of years.”

Before “Zero to 60,” he’d done a series of albums highlighting different genres. But jazz beckoned.

“I wanted to play some straight-up jazz with a really good tenor saxophone player. I was thinking about the tenor players I’ve worked with like Branford Marsalis,” he says. “Ralph Bowen had always been at the top of that list. Since OTB, I’ve been a big fan of his. You kind of roll the dice and see what happens. I sent him the music and he got back with me, ‘Man, I love this. Let’s do it. Let’s play. The connection with Ralph Bowen was really the spark that got this going.”

The idea was to get together and play, not to record. “But the guys kept asking me are you planning to record this music? I was like, no. They said, ‘You should. “

 

For their sessions, he wrote out the music, but left room for improvisation. “With this level of players, you’ve got to give them room,” he says. “What they bring to the table is incredible. A lot of times they will play something I’d never have thought of.”

It also helps that the four guys genuinely like each other. “There’s an inter-activeness that is necessary on my bandstand and it starts with the personal relationships,” he adds. “These guys are like brothers to me.”

They recorded the album in two days at Bias Studios in Springfield. “I never thought they would record with me,” he adds. “I thought they would come down and do a couple of gigs and that would be it. But one thing led to another and we ended up in the studio,” he adds. “I’m glad we did. I think it’s my best jazz record by far.”

Now that he’s returned to his jazz roots, he’s not looking back. “Sometimes you feel like you need to do that and get it out,” he says, “but now that I’ve done it, I have no desire to go back and do it anytime soon. I’ve written some new music and it’s not jazz. It’s rock and funk and soul, blues and R&B, light jazz fusion. It’s a mixed bag of things, man.”

For now, though, he’s looking forward to playing his take on Christmas standards with Donatelli and the quartet, a group that’s locked, not just local musicians backing the headliner. “I just love playing with these guys and playing live with the band,” he says. “It’s such a good band. We have really good arrangements. And it’s a real band, which is rare in jazz these days.”

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The Dawg and CGP: Brothers in Strings

Tommy Emmanuel first came to Virginia by way of Nashville and longtime harp guitar player, Stephen Bennett who lived in Gloucester County for years.

The two met at a Chet Atkins convention in Nashville in 1996 and immediately hit it off, two virtuoso guitar players with distinctive styles.

“We became brothers,” Emmanuel says by phone from Australia where he’s playing his last show on the continent in Brisbane later this day. “We still are. We see each other from time to time.”

Bennett lives in Connecticut now. Emmanuel, who joins David Grisman for a CGP and Dawg show at the Sandler Center on Nov. 16, lives in Nashville, but back then he looked for a place in Virginia.

“It’s one of the first places I played in America,” says the 62-year-old Australian. “I wanted to live in Virginia, looked around for a house and I just couldn’t afford it at that time.”

The tour with Grisman, longtime collaborator with everybody from Jerry Garcia to Peter Rowan to Tony Rice, formed out of a similar friendship in 2014.

Grisman, who answered questions by email, says he was invited to sit in at a show at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts with his friend, Martin Taylor, the Scottish guitarist, and Emmanuel.

“I had him up to play and we just hit if off like crazy,” Emmanuel says. “I was a fan of his since way back in the ’70s when Dawg music first came out. That was a unique style.”

Emmanuel’s manager suggested they see if recording together might work. So when Emmanuel was playing in California, he set aside a few days and went to Grisman’s home in Washington.

“I flew my engineer “dB” Dave Dennison and his wife (who’s Australian) to record us in our living room which sounds great,” Grisman says. “Tommy brought his family as well (both Dave and Tommy have two-year olds) so it was a session for all ages.

“Tommy surprised me by wanting to record my compositions and I had a fresh batch so out of ten originals, five were new and never recorded. We also recorded “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Tommy’s beautiful arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda”.”

Emmanuel learned the new songs on the spot and they recorded ten tracks in just a couple of days. “I enjoyed it because I had to be Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Django Reinhardt, and Frank Vignola all rolled into one,” he says. “It’s fun and challenging for me as a guitar player and his collaborator. I like the way he writes. It’s not predictable, yet you can follow it and I can memorize it pretty quickly.”

Emmanuel says the two will sit on stage, playing just like they did in Grisman’s living room. “We played acoustic to each other, just like we were sitting in a room having a jam,” he says. “We miked everything up and recorded the whole album like that.”

That’s the way they’ll play in Virginia Beach. “This tour is going to be the first for me when I’ve gone on just with an acoustic guitar and a microphone. No plugging in. No electronics,” he explains. “It’s going to be great fun.”

Emmanuel first worked with Grisman and another strings hero, Bryan Sutton, in Nashville in 2016. That whet Emmanuel’s appetite for the sessions in Washington. It also cemented a friendship.

“Aside from his very exceptional musical abilities, Tommy is a very warm human being and a force of nature, “Grisman says. “His interest in my music was also very inspiring for me. I’m very fortunate to have found such a new friend.”

Emmanuel jokes that he needs to turn his guitar up when he plays with Grisman. “David’s mandolin, we call it the Crusher it’s so loud,” he says. “If you sit close to him, you can’t hear anything you’re playing. He will drown out anything,” he adds, laughing.

Grisman, 72, credits another Australian, a mandolin builder with giving the instrument, one of the first Gibson F-5 models built in 1922, its nickname.

He most famously played on The Grateful Dead’s classic, “American Beauty,” and joined Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn to form the bluegrass group, Old and in the Way. So his pairing with Emmanuel is another in a long line of them.

“Music is a wonderful team sport with great potential for give and take, especially in a duo setting such as this,” Grisman explains.

While Grisman’s heralded career dates to the Sixties, Emmanuel started playing guitar at four and toured Australia with his family living out of station wagons until he was 10. After his father died, his family abandoned the road. At 15, he left school and headed to the city to make his way, listening to everything from Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed to Neil Diamond and Carole King to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens before diving into the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra.

Over time, Emmanuel became friends with his idol, Chet Atkins, the longtime country star whose musical lineage goes back to the Carter Family and forward to playing with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Emmanuel signs CGP after his name. In 1999, Atkins presented Emmanuel with a Certified Guitar Player Award, one he gave to only four guitarists.
“He was like a daddy to me,” Emmanuel says. “A great man.”

Emmanuel says an album released the year before Atkins died in 2001 is the one that turned his career around. Called “Only,” it was his first acoustic disc.

“I think that album was the watershed album,” he says. “That was the album that turned people on to me and my writing and playing. It’s all original songs, everything done in one take. It was an honest album and I think that’s what people liked.”

His forthcoming album features duets and some singing. He’s working with Jason Isbell, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell and Mark Knopfler, among others. He will tour with Crowell starting in February.

While Emmanuel’s songs have no words, he says he hears words when he’s writing them. “What I’m trying to say really is I don’t write as if I’m just writing something to play on the instrument. There’s a greater purpose,” Emmanuel says. “I’m trying to tell a story and write a song that gets inside your head that gets into your soul. I often hear words when I’m writing melody. But I’m telling a story without words. “

He will sacrifice perfection for feeling. “Being in the moment and playing what you really feel at the moment, that, to me, is being the real musician,” he adds. “Sometimes the best idea I get I can’t remember ten minutes later. It’s gone. “

That magic of the moment, here and then gone forever, is what he looks to unveil onstage. “When I’m playing a song where I improvise solos, I’m always waiting for the magic to appear. I’m digging for it, looking for that gold nugget. Sometimes I hit it with my spade and I know what it is. Other times, I’m digging around and all I find is dirt,” he says, laughing.

—end—–

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