Saturday, January 30, 2010

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall - Still Swingin'

It was a thrill to get a chance to see Herb Alpert in concert, having grown up listening to my parents' Tijuana Brass albums and having a ton of nostalgia for the Whipped Cream album in particular (see an earlier Ape Culture story on our recollections of growing up with that mysteriously sexy album in our otherwise Christian homes).

I was not familiar with the work of his wife Lani Hall, but she has had an amazing career in her own right, including performing with Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. I discovered she has a great voice and the two of them have adorable chemistry on stage. Joining Hall and Alpert were piano player Bill Cantos, bass player Hussein Jiffry, and drummer Michael Shapiro. They were a tight band but also did a fair amount of improvisation.

Early in the set, Herb commented on how oddly intimate Walt Disney Hall felt, how he could see most of the audience's faces. He then encouraged the audience to yell out questions and comments, but not requests. This led to some chaos that continued throughout the night with comments ranging from one woman who asked how he and Lani got together and then proceeded to tell the story herself since she must have read it somewhere (why do people ask questions when they know the answers?), to a woman wanting to know if Herb graduated from Fairfax High (yes, and his good high school friend was the late Jack Kemp who he said was one of the only gentiles there), to someone asking who his favorite A&M Records (his label) artist was - Tijuana Brass of course!

Sergio Mendes was in the house! Herb gave a shout out to him. Too bad they didn't jam together.

Herb has always been criticized by "serious" jazz artists for being too pop. With this combo, he tries to get away from playing the Tijuana Brass tunes and play more jazz, but it's still mostly bossanova stuff and standards. It's light jazz at best. Still, I found it to be a very enjoyable concert.

Lani Hall has an excellent voice and can handle the Brazilian songs with aplomb. She has great command of the language. They did standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer. Herb stated that he found Porter to be very relevant today and implored us to listen to the lyrics of "Anything Goes" (title cut from his 2009 Album with Hall). They slowed down "That Old Black Magic" and came up with a sexy version.

Herb is 74 now and doesn't look like a heartthrob anymore. His hair is gray and he has Nicholson pattern baldness. Lani looked a lot like my therapist which was a bit hard for me to get over. However, the two of them are clearly in love and have a playfulness about them that was fun to watch. My friend joked that they were like two high school kids who had to end the show quickly so they could go backstage and make out. Herb sang "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" to Lani, and it was a sweet moment. He ended the song with a few notes from "This Guy's in Love with You" which was a perfect end note to a somewhat lovably awkward moment (Like Burt Bacharach who wrote "This Guy's in Love with You", Herb doesnt have a great voice but there is something warm about the way he sings, which he rarely does).

The crowd went nuts for a Tijuana Brass medley that featured snippets of "A Taste of Honey", "The Lonely Bull" and other pop chestnuts. I would have loved to have heard more of this stuff, but I respect that he's got to do his current thing.

This event finally gave me an opportunity to see Walt Disney Concert Hall, and I have to say I was really impressed with the acoustics. It does kind of feel like LA has its own Sydney Opera House. The interior has similar swooping lines, and smooth wood, without feeling as chaotic as the outside of the building would lead you to expect. The pipes from the pipe organ jut out in all directions, but everything else is smooth. We were sitting behind the stage, which wasn't ideal. The sound was fine, but we got tired of looking at the back of Herb's and Lani's heads. We had good views of the drummer and the piano player, but it would have been nice if Herb and Lani could have played to the back a bit more. Oh well - life in the cheap seats.

The encore was a medley of Jobim songs which put a swingin' coda on a great evening. He even threw in a few notes of "Spanish Flea" for fans of The Dating Game. I definitely recommend you catch the show if it comes around. My only disappointment was that I didn't see anyone in the crowd dressed in whipped cream.

Read More......

Friday, January 08, 2010

Book Review: The Spiritual Biography of John Lennon

I’ve read the story of The Beatles many, many times from many, many angles. I once liked Paul. Then I became annoyed by his smugness on TV of late. Long before all that, I liked John. I even wore his style of sunglasses in high school. But I also became annoyed by his political smugness (and I agreed with it and was still annoyed!). Then I liked George—he was the cute one after all who was into Eastern philosophy in a more permanent seeming way than the others. But then I recently read “Wonderful Tonight” by his ex-wife Pattie Boyd (the book is mostly an address book of the people she's hung out with alongside tormented descriptions of herself as a doormat-wife with a dearth of any real dish about Paul, Ringo and John, but entirely too much about George and Eric Clapton). So now I’m stuck with Ringo. I’ve already seen two Ringo All-Star Ringo shows and I don't know how much more of that I can take.

On the other hand, now that I know that Ringo contributed one of my favorite Beatle lines, “...writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear...” to the song "Eleanor Rigby," I’m favoring to the idea of Ringo solidarity.

Well…maybe one is not meant to choose.

"The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon" was written by author, sculptor and teacher Gary Tillery in response to his shock that his students considered John Lennon just the garden variety of celebrity and not the more elevated type of activist/philosopher celebrity that older fans of Lennon consider him to be. Tillery's book aims to draw out Lennon’s thoughts on God and social responsibility in order to show how unique Lennon was among the vapid celebrities of today.

This, I believe, is a false premise due to the fact that we have PLENTY of activist celebrities, Bono of the rock band U2 being the most obvious example of celebrity activism on the Lennon scale. To a degree Bono is so serious he has almost risked becoming a joke unto himself and somewhat impossible to follow.
John Lennon himself is quite a bit short of a real philosopher. I’ve known plenty of wannabie philosophers...called poets – and songwriters are no better at it. Which is not to say Lennon didn’t philosophize a lot. He just did not do the years of legwork required of a real academic (in or outside of the ivory tower).

That said, I did like this book and I appreciated how it fleshed out Lennon’s social and religious choices more singularly than other biographies have done, including his early and underlying roots of cynicism and anarchism, his dabbling with meditation and the Maharishi, what that whole primal scream therapy thing was all about, and a good timeline of his peace and feminist activities and art projects with Yoko Ono.

The Beatles in general and John Lennon on his own are always interesting for study from different perspectives, especially with respect to notes on the origins of their songs. I liked how this book included songs for suggested listening to go along with the text.
Newbie Beatlefiles probably don’t have the full Lennon CD catalogue yet. And the old-schoolers who do have all the songs may find this book to be a retread. All the stories have been told many times in many other books. Here, they are just consolidated and contemplated on.

Comparing Lennon to Gandhi and Martin Luther King is a bit much. They made extreme sacrifices and Lennon was no politician. But he did have good ideas for peace and was a motivated activist. If you're into biographies of spiritually-minded celebrities (as I am) then this will fit nicely on your book shelf between last year's lite fare by Amy Grant and the biography of Alan Watts.

Read More......