Driving and then driving some more. We eventually find solace in the hotel lobby where we are, kindly, allowed to set up a semi-acoustic rehearsal session late in the evening. Thank you to the sweet woman at the front desk. Jameson in a paper cup, we dive in to some new songs that we aim to get solid on this brief series of concerts. A young man eventually introduces himself. He's been digging the sounds coming from this ragtag trio of musicians near the lobby windows gently bringing to life new music after two days numbed by the white lines slipping by under the nose of the truck. Turns out this young man is from Charlotte, NC... naturally; one of our most favorite cities to perform in. The audiences there ever enthusiastic, so kind, so in to the music. We'll see you this fall, I say to him, now a couple of states away from both of our home towns. The road, it's unexpectedly cool like that just when you need it to be.
Frank Sinatra. Love or hate his music, his art, this man's name is synonymous with all that is the male jazz vocal and American Songbook world. His rich, expressive voice is unmatched as he is, like all the best, a singular stylist. No one ever got as close to the stardom he achieved as the world's crooner. Vic Damone, Dean, Sammy and a host of lesser-known male vocalists of the era were definitely on the airwaves, but Sinatra was truly the "Chairman of the Board".
Now, specifically, I've been listening to his first amazing live album to reach the market, Live at the Sands. Now, it must be said that this album also represents two other extraordinary talents; the legendary Count Basie and his Orchestra conducted by a young Quincy Jones in 1966. Also, worth noting, is that is was recorded in a prime era of the Las Vegas show band scene. It is absolutely glowing with hard swinging music and lovely ballads fueled by the cocktails and bright lights of America's adult playground. It is a recording that is so of it's time that it conjures up a clearly defined vision of what the venue must of looked like, smelled like, tasted and sounded like on the very night of this recording. It is a beautifully captured post card of the era. I'd love to see a photo of the audience.
Frank is funny and as cool as an on-stage persona can be. The banter is of the era and straight out of Frank's east coast jive, which, to me, is as delightful as listening to an Irishman tell a tale. He is also right in the moment of every song, or so it seems. It's honest and heartfelt. His voice is as strong as it ever was right out of the gate. Any front man looking to understand what it means to be in command of an audience and fully involved in the musical offering, which is what a proper concert honestly is, should listen to Mr. Sinatra handle the repertoire and the banter on this recording. He commands the vibe of the room with genuine skill, thoughtful delivery and so little hype that I find it to be a master class in presentation. You can simply here the confidence and, I dare say, the humility simultaneously firing on all cylinders. He is in service of the music AND the audience.
Sinatra also mentions the songwriters, the composers, of many of the songs he performs. This nod to those who have contributed to his career successes, which is exactly what those behind the scenes putting pen to paper do, is a genuine display of class. Additionally, he recognizes Mr. Basie and Mr. Jones later in the program, which the producers left on the recording and that says a lot about how Frank respected the musicians he worked with.
He mentions that he had just turned 50 around the time of the concert and, as I understand it, he was soon to find himself coming to grips with the fact that his brand of music was falling out of fashion with the younger audiences. He was facing stiff competition from the Beatles, after all. That noted, he was nowhere near stepping off the stage. Quite the contrary; on this recording he is, in my opinion, in top form. Of course, he still carried the torch for a couple more decades.
If you're at all curious about the magic of Frank Sinatra, this live recording is an extraordinary example of his prowess, his level of commitment to the music, to performing, to sharing with the world more his exceptional talent and that of the best of the best with whom he surrounded himself.
In this business you get used to rejection. No, let me correct that: you don't get "used to" it, you learn to expect it. It's a lot of knocking on doors to no answer. It's a lot of reaching out to no reply. And by a lot, I mean a lot. Daily emails that go completely ignored. Daily requests for gigs that don't even receive a "no, not at this time" type of response. This is a job that requires thick skin and a tolerance for rejection; both in response and because of no response. For every successful booking there are dozens of ignored or rejected inquiries. There are leads that you know you're perfect for the gig but somewhere on the other end your efforts go unnoticed or simply don't find the target. So why keep banging my head against the wall? I honestly don't have a fitting answer for that. It's just part of the game and, honestly, it sucks. It's so very taxing to the spirit that one must be crazy to continue to pursue this rabbit down the hole. Once in a while, the reward comes through, the gig is booked, the connection is made and it's a beauty. A relationship with someone who now champions your work begins to take shape. Therein is the fuel for keeping the engine running down the track. Lately, I must admit, it's been a tough grind. Sometimes you're just lit up and it shines on to the other party. Sometimes it's difficult to strike a spark; like trying to light a match in the rain. With a bit of luck, you get fire. Most often, you get a wet match.
It's part of the job. It's where the mettle is tested. Tolerance to being ignored entirely is the most difficult part for me, personally. Having been at this for a long time, I suppose I am "used to it"; as much as one can ever be. We artists have learned to tell ourselves it's all part of the job. That said, there are days that run on and on with this process and, as a result, the shine wears very thin.
Sure, you learn things about the business, as it is in any business, by stumbling and failing. As an independent artist we are to become entrepreneurs, and not exactly by choice. Out of necessity we are tasked with a multitude of daily commitments that require us to dust ourselves off repeatedly. Progress is dirty work. Progress is not always "progress" as it would seem on the surface. Unfortunately, as with anything, it's very difficult to see when you are in the thick of the fight.
Today I am tired. I am tired of the rejection, the silence. I'd rather hear "no" than nothing at all. Odd, in a business that is filled edge to edge with the craft of making sound - a fine, detailed sound that works in no small part because of carefully placed bits of silence - it's the silence that is so disheartening.
I'm no household name, just a working class musician/artist trying to make a living. Gig to gig. There is an honesty in this work, a humility that, if nothing else, keeps me hungry and striving for the bigger gig. What is more? It's a better opportunity, one that offers a chance to pay my guys more or to present the larger band. It's a deeper connection with the audience. It's a bigger audience. It's composing songs that show growth as an artist. It's paying the bills. It's learning to be happy with the job that is comprised of 90% of my time spent in front of a computer, sending emails, making phone calls, meeting with anyone and everyone in the biz, driving, and a mere 10% of the time, making music. But when you're there in the audience, dearest listener, all is right with the world. Even in a world where things are far from being alright. So, don't stop supporting the working class musicians in your world. We see you, we honor you and deeply appreciate your taking the time to be present for the art we working stiffs create. I raise a glass to you.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU PLAY?
I'm at a dinner party and...
The question I most dread in casual conversation: "What kind of music do you play?" It is easily the most obvious, most natural question that follows someone’s discovery that I am a recording/touring artist. I usually toss off a basic response that refers to Jazz and Blues, Singer-Songwriter, etc., etc., which is a reasonable and not wholly inaccurate answer. However, truth is, there is a wealth of information missing in that reply, but, hopefully, it yields a quick escape from the subject altogether. My musical world, at least in my head, is a vast universe of sound and style that can’t simply be summed up in a three word response, which is how the industry has expected artists to reply, or to state in print, for as long as I can remember. Honestly, I find it nearly paralyzing to have to answer this seemingly innocuous question. Why? Because it’s like someone asking you what kind of person you are. How does one summarize that in three words?
It’s not that I don’t want to be asked about my music. It’s simply that I don’t have a satellite view of my style, my sound; a view which presents itself like the broad stroke of a brush, a singular color, or even three colors. I only possess an ever changing understanding, an ever broadening view, of a musical landscape that is an immense palette of ideas, inspirations and knowledge which informs my songs. Sometimes, clearly, but many times in a less defined manner which is the beautiful mystery of following one’s muse. Yes, I lean toward Jazz a great deal… and classic R&B and Soul. I employ the elegant simplicity of Folk and the muscle of the Rock & Roll and Blues I soaked up early on in my musical discoveries. Sometimes there is a Latin vibe, or some listeners find a New Orleans sound hidden deep in the mix. I use the language of time signatures, chord changes, and melodies to bend these varied genres in to the shape of my own musical language. Like a blacksmith at his sonic forge, I’m pumping away at the bellows, hammering and twisting until I get a sound that makes sense to me; not because it belongs to a particular “style” but because it appeals to my musical sensibilities and belongs only to me. Therein is the pursuit of my life’s work; to explore, expand and cultivate my own sound. The artists I have been so deeply inspired by seem to have all been on the path of this same method, drawing from a similar well of this ideology, as it were. What do you call Van Morrison’s sound? What about Joe Jackson, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell or a myriad of other artists in that camp? And we can’t just identify as Singer-Songwriters. I actually detest that term, as it says absolutely nothing. Maybe there was a time when being a Singer-Songwriter defined more obvious parameters to the listener, but not anymore. Anybody who has written a song they’ve sung around the kitchen table is a Singer-Songwriter. So, again, it means nothing in terms of defining one’s actual sound and style.
The pretentiousness of firing back a reply such as, “Well, you just have to listen to my music and decide for yourself” is not acceptable. Which is very unfortunate as it is the perfect answer and the antidote to my near paralysis brought on by the dreaded question. We can’t simply say, “I do original music”, because A) I know from personal experience that this isn’t a satisfactory answer and comes off with arrogance, pissing off anyone acting as manager/agent who is within earshot of this conversation and B) every composer thinks what they are doing is original. All of us are thieves in the song factory… which is actually a base level result of being inspired by the artists we love. The high watermark is to define one’s sound and style as something that the listener can only tag with your name.
And so there it is. I play Woody Russell’s music. At least, I aim to do so. Oh, if it were only that easy. No, my dearest potential listener, I know that’s not enough of an answer so here is the box I wrapped it in: I’m a Singer-Songwriter who is deeply informed by Jazz, R&B, Rock and Soul and Theater and Nature and nearly everything else I’ve heard, experienced, tasted, felt, witnessed, etc., etc. The list is a thousand miles long and that only scratches the surface.
Oh, and then there is this matter of the lyrics; a conversation for another time.