Cozido

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All this talk about literature is making me hungry.

The above photo is of Portuguese cozido, a typical Portuguese stew.   It can be made from a range of vegetables and meats including pig’s ear, pig’s tail, blood sausage and other various “unmentionables.”  Ahhhh…

When I went to Lisbon to write, two friends I made there, Ana Bárbara Ramalho and Pedro Simoes Dias, separately both wanted me to do the very same two things (so I did them): go to a particular Japanese tea house they loved, and eat a genuine Portuguese cozido.  In its eclectic use of unmentionables, a cozido is not all that divorced from a “feijoada,” the national dish of Brazil in which I have seen pig’s tails.  I was later surprised to learn that the Portuguese actually also have their own various versions of feijoada, some made with white beans.  Nao posso acreditar!  By the way, my Brazilian Portuguese (not that it’s all that great any more) was utterly useless in Lisbon.

It rained a lot of the time I was in Lisbon, perfect cozido weather.  I stayed in my room a lot, working on “NO STRAIGHT LINES.”  I wrote most of the lyric for a song called “Tale Of My Life” that didn’t make it on the album (but which I’ll release separately next year).  Over the process of making the record I wrote three entirely different sets of lyrics for the song that became “Road Of Pain,” one of them in my little room in the 2-star Albergaria Senhora Do Monte, situated on the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills.  Here was the view, without the rain.  The good life.

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Speaking of feijoada, the guitar part in “Road Of Pain” was very Brazilian-influenced, a holdover from my past.  I was expecting to hear lots of Brazilian and maybe some Angolan or Mozambican live music in Lisbon, one of the principle reasons I was exploring possibly relocating there during that trip.  Although Brazilian music is nowadays ubiquitous worldwide (though I spent a lovely evening listening to two guys playing bossa novas out of the Real Book in a tiny restaurant on Santorini all the way back in 1979) I either didn’t know where to look or Lisbon wasn’t a great international music town — disappointing given how musically rich Portugal’s former colonies were and are.  (And speaking of the “Real Book,” a song I wrote with Jimmy Haslip for the Yellowjackets years ago called “Sonja’s Sanfona” is included in Chuck Sher’s classic “New Real Book.”  I wrote the opening of that song in a hotel lobby in Belo Horizonte (speaking of Brazil) in 1984 waiting for Toninho Horta to pick me up to stay at his house.)

But I did hear some wonderful fado in Lisboa though, in the back streets of the Alfama and once in a jam-packed club in the Barrio Alto where the players didn’t start playing until 2:30 am!  Lisbon is most definitely a late night city.

A couple of the currrent era fadistas I quite like are Mafalda Arnauth, especially her “Encantamento” album, and Ana Moura.  (For me Amalia Rodriguez is too much an acquired taste from another era, or I’d recommend her initially as well.  Fado can be a bit like crawling through fudge for all its sentimentality, though this from someone who admittedly speaks limited Portuguese.)  Here’s one of the many beautiful songs off of “Encantamento” called “As Fontes.”

When I got back I wanted to incorporate some kinds of Portuguese influences on “No Straight Lines” beyond the mere fact of having been inspired so deeply by Fernando Pessoa (see my last post) and having spent time in Lisbon.  I early on wrote a couple of songs in a fado style for the album but never felt comfortable singing them and abandoned the idea.  I also really wanted to use Portuguese guitarra on the album, but had no ideas for players.  I called my good friend Don Cohen (who has written great introductory books on not only fado, but also tango and gypsy music), who told me to forget about trying to find anyone nearby or even in California who could play the instrument well (though I did find one guy who could do that), let alone play it outside a fado context.  I toyed with the idea of doing a long distance session with someone from Portugal but for various reasons it was too cumbersome.

So, for better or worse, I bought one and played it myself — not all that well, mind you, and surely not anything like a real fado player, but passably, I hope!  What an amazing instrument, very particular, and incredibly fun to play.

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Sense Memory

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This blog purports to be about the making of NO STRAIGHT LINES but so far I have mostly written about the places in which I spent time writing.  But this isn’t and shouldn’t be another travel site.  It’s about one singer-songwriter’s extended process of creating a “concept album.”  There is probably no good reason to do one any more, not in this commercial era.  It’s too much work to justify projects like this in a world where tracks get broken up into single tracks and shuffled.  So in part it’s a fond goodbye to an era.

Many years ago I was sitting in my apartment in Cambridge, Mass. in the middle of winter recording demos of my newest songs.  It was very late in the afternoon.  I had my headphones on, facing the windows, with the light filtering in.  Suddenly my head was intoxicated with the smell of my high school girlfriend’s skin and hair.  Right in the middle of recording some song that had nothing to do with her at all, I was transported a million miles away back to my her and to my adolescence almost ten years earlier.  The sensory experience was so intense, coming suddenly out of nowhere as it did, had I been standing it might have buckled my knees.  And here was what made it so amazingly potent: During the entire time she and I had been together I had never once noticed the smell of her skin or her hair.  It was only years later, on that otherwise unremarkable day, that I experienced it for the very first time and recognized immediately what it was.

So this post is about sense memory and about providence, about how good things eventually come to us — and about the writing of one particular song off my album — “A Million Miles Away” — as the song came together over a several year period in a most unusual and gratifying way.

It began in Frigiliana, during that period I’ve written about in which I spent many weeks in that rented 600-year old house writing material for this album.  One of the musical ideas I was working on at the time consisted of the arpeggiated introduction and opening chords for “A Million Miles Away,” though I had at that time no lyrical ideas whatsoever and no sense of song structure.  I just loved playing this little passage, over and over again, though I never was able to turn it into anything.  Eventually I would wind up setting it aside.

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One day I was having lunch at La Taberna de Sacristan, a small patio restaurant I liked in the square just below the cathedral. Daydreaming in the noonday sun, I found myself ruminating on how the pursuit of art and beauty can lead a person to a place beyond return where only those things will satisfy the soul, with no way back.  The idea wasn’t at all clearly formed, but it did make an impression on me as having some power of truth to it, some potential basis for a lyric.  When I went back through my journals later to see what I wrote that day, I found I had scrawled the words “a million miles away…in a world of books and ideas.”  Very little.  My journals are filled with these kinds of things, almost never leading anywhere.  I bet only 1 out every 100 ideas I’ve written down like this ever amount to anything, yet it’s all part of the process.

A couple of years later, back in LA, I was writing a song on the piano, one I never finished about misplaced patriotism.  The song was starting to take shape and I had a number of lyric ideas jotted down.  One afternoon I recalled that little abandoned guitar introduction I had been working on in Spain, and wondered if perhaps that arpeggiated section might work on this new song.  I began playing it over and over again on the piano, just as I had in Spain on the guitar, and found myself dreamily transported back to those days.  For some inexplicable reason, out of nowhere it suddenly occurred to me that the lyric idea I had in the square in Frigiliana that day about being “a million miles away” might work perfectly with the arpeggiated guitar part I had been working on up the hill in my house at the very same time, two fragments I had never previously connected.  It was as if those two ideas were inherently linked together, not only by temperament, but by time and place – and yet it took years for this recognition to dawn upon me, and in the most roundabout manner imaginable.  The song became something else, heading off in its own direction, but these are its curious origins.

After all these years I am still in awe of the writing process, forever humble in its presence.

If reflections like this interest anyone, this story was based upon one of the Session Notes on my website that can be accessed from my MUSIC page.  I have some kind of Session Note for every song I’ve ever released.

Frigiliana

 

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In my last post I was writing about Al-Andalus music.  “Al-Andalus” refers to the lengthy period from roughly 711 through 1492 during which major parts of Spain were under Moorish (i.e., Muslim) rule.  If you enjoyed the music I linked to there then why not throw this on some Saturday while you’re cleaning house…a Spotify playlist that purportedly contains a full 26 hours of Al-Andalus influenced music (assuming you’re willing to use Spotify, which I do have mixed feelings about).  https://play.spotify.com/user/prakalos/playlist/0NxQpTdmstDfIVRlJ6Qp6E

The small, whitewashed hillside Andalusian village of Frigiliana looms large in the creation of No Straight Lines. I rented a house there in early 2006 where I worked on a number of songs that wound up on the album, and where I took the photo above.  But to discuss Frigiliana I need to go way back.

Sometime around 2000 I took a trip to Spain.  After visiting old friends in Granada (I started going there in 1979), I wound my way through Murcia and Andalusia on back roads ending up in Seville in an old hotel near the Cathedral Gino Dauri had recommended to me.  It’s fitting I mention Gino, because he would later play his own role in No Straight Lines.  I met Gino really soon after moving to LA in 1980.  Probably the best-known flamenco player in LA during those years (though rejected by some purists because he was always into experimentation), he later sold me the Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar I used for most of the nylon string guitar parts on No Straight Lines.  Gino was quite a character…but if I were to go off on Gino – whose flamboyant life was cut down way too soon by cancer about 10 years ago – I’d lose the ever-important meticulous and decisive train of thought that so defines this blog.

My travel journals say I was re-reading Lorca’s plays, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Jan Morris‘ excellent “Spain” book during that trip.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I often hand-pick books to read whenever I travel that are tied in some way to the place I am in.  I so strongly recommend traveling that way, it adds immensely to any trip.

But I digress, because on the way to Seville I had discovered this amazing small whitewashed village called Frigiliana, only 5 miles inland from the Mediterranean town of Nerja, but seemingly still 500 years in the past.  I arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon. The town was utterly dead and I mean utterly. There were a few dusty ancient cars and a handful of existential donkeys spread around the main square.  It was incredibly hot.  I started walking up into the village on these winding walkways that seemed to never end.

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I finally arrived at an outdoor café perched high on the hillside already closed for the afternoon with a large unoccupied patio that looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance.  I was totally winded so I sat down to catch my breath.  Remarkably, Pat Metheny Group’s “First Circle” album was playing softly through the patio speakers.  Having recorded This Perfect Day a few years earlier with PMG bassist Steve Rodby (who also played on No Straight Lines) but also knowing both Lyle Mays and Pedro Aznar in that group, I had a really uncanny feeling sitting there — in such thoroughly familiar musical surroundings, while simultaneously in some faraway distant place and time.

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For some reason I afterwards often thought if I ever found myself with an extended period of time to write, I might want to return to Frigiliana.  So in early 2006 (through an incredibly generous 5-month leave of absence granted my employer Morrison & Foerster to allow me to travel and work on music) I holed up there for a steady month of writing.  The photo above was taken from the rooftop of the 600 year-old house I rented, looking out beyond the newer part of Frigiliana to the Mediterranean beyond.

I’ll write more about my time in Frigiliana later, but today I am making Ajo Blanco (white garlic) soup, and that’s what prompted this post — the interconnectedness of Al-Andalus music and Ajo Blanco soup.  Because it was the Moors who introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula and most likely also invented Ajo Blanco.

Whenever I had put in an especially hard morning of work in Frigiliana, I rewarded myself with lunch at La Bodeguilla, a family-run place featuring regional food.  They made a truly memorable Choto Frito (stewed kid) that I always ordered with Ajo Blanco and Migas (fried breadcrumbs with garlic) on the side.  (For a short article on Andalusian food, see http://www.marbellagoldenmile.com/andalucian-food.asp).

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Not only is Ajo Blanco incredibly good, it’s just about the easiest thing in the world to make.  If you’re interested, I’ve included my recipe below, created from trial and error.  It makes batch large enough for about 12 servings or 1 small foot bath.

3 cups blanched almonds

6 garlic clove

one 6″ x 3″ piece of day-old white bread, crust removed

1 1/4 cup Spanish olive oil

10 tablespoon sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez)

4 teaspoons salt

5 1/2 cups water

Instructions:  Cover bread with water and soak 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, pulse the almonds and garlic in a blender or processor until finely ground.  Then squeeze the excess water out of the bread and pulse it into the almond mix until it becomes a thick paste.  With the motor running add the olive oil slowly, followed by the vinegar and salt, and finally the water.  Put the soup in a tureen in the refrigerator and cool for at least a couple of hours.  This will get you started, but then taste the soup and add more water, salt or vinegar to suit your taste.  It should be tangy.

 

 

 

 

 

Al-Andalus

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Throughout the period I was working on “No Straight Lines,” I was listening to a fair amount of Al-Andalus music (i.e., dating from the period roughly 711-1492 A.D.).  I’ve been keen on it ever since hearing the wonderful group Al-Andalus from Portland, Oregon 10 or 15 years ago.  The cross-fertilization of Spain and Morocco during that era was extraordinarily rich and anyone traveling around either Southern Spain or Northern Morocco often stumbles upon many syncretic relics, including an entire section of the Fes medina built during the Al-Andalus era.  It’s not unusual to see Al-Andalus groups using cello and violin (played in the lap) but playing melismatic maqams rather than European parts.

Here’s but one example:

The photo at the top of this post is from the medina in Fes, taken during the 2004 Fes Festival.  The one below is from a back street in Malaga in 2006 when I spent an extended period of time in Frigiliana and Malaga writing songs for “No Straight Lines.”  How far apart are they really?

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The Mediterranean region continues to be a particularly potent area for musical collaboration.  When it came out in 1988, I loved the Ketama record “Songhai” that featured Toumani Diabate on kora and Danny Thompson on upright bass (I was a big Pentangle fan during the 1970s).  I enjoy what Javier Limon has recently been doing with Buika and Anouska Shankar, and what Neopolitans like Enzo Avitabile and Pino Danieli have long done with cross-cultural references in their corner of the region.  During work on “No Straight Lines” I listened quite a bit to Karim Ziad‘s very cool “Ifrika” CD, a refreshing Gnawa-meets-Zawinul thing.  In short, these various musics all share antecedents of one sort or another, just as we are all connected to each other, however tenuously it seems at times.

When it first came out, I saw the extraordinary film “Latcho Drom” in a theatre, and afterwards listened to its soundtrack album hundreds of times, I’m sure.  I had already encountered a lot of flamenco by then and was highly curious about its origins, which are explored in the film through Romani performances from all parts of the world.  I watched many more Tony Gatlif films during the making of “No Straight Lines,” so many of his characters torn between Spain and North Africa.  My friend Cihtli Ocampo was the featured female dancer in Gatlif’s amazing film “Exils” (for which he received the Best Director award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) and her husband Ethan Margolis played on and contributed to “No Straight Lines” in numerous other ways.

While not strictly Al-Andalus, the group that I probably got the most inspiration from while working on “No Straight Lines” was Radio Tarifa.  I love their melding of flamenco with North African influences, but also the way they work really unusual instruments like hautbois de poitou, crumhorn, argul into their productions.  To my ears theirs is a really novel and successful alchemy.  And I love that they recorded their first album in their living room, which is where I recorded most of “No Straight Lines,” since I years ago sold my studio and now no longer even have a soundproofed room.  If you’ve never checked out Radio Tarifa, here’s a short video that will introduce you to them:

As I review this post I am struck by how much music I refer to, when in fact I have always found it next to impossible to listen to other music when working on an album, lest I get distracted or lose focus.  But I can see why one common thread that binds these artists together — their celebration of a world larger than themselves — was and continues to be an inspiration.

 

Sufis

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All this talk of Sufis, reminds me of jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick, who came along at an interesting time in my life and who reinforced a lot of my own feelings about music and musicians.  In 1976 or thereabouts, while I was living in Boston, I studied for a year or more with Mick, with whom I developed a really special friendship as well.  I didn’t really “study guitar” with Mick.  Mostly we talked about purposefulness and watchfulness.  I brought my demos over and Mick played guitar solos on them.  We talked about a myriad of things, including the music we liked and why.  (I read a great Jazz Guitar Life Mick Goodrick interview recently where he mentioned that Mike Stern “studied” with him a few times during that same period, where the two of them mostly just talked about psychology, which sounds a lot like what my “lessons” were like.)

I still recall the day I arrived at Mick’s house the first time.  I found myself in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon, with Mick leaning back in some kind of Lazy-Boy recliner in the far corner.  I said “I’m Bill Gable, I called you on the phone, I’m really interested to see what I can learn from you,” to which I think Mick responded “If you’re at all confused about what you need to learn, why are you here?”  And so our friendship began.

Mick was reading a lot of Sufi stuff those days and some of his music and thinking was probably influenced by it. I’m thinking of his wonderful composition “Mevlevia,” off the Gary Burton Quintet “Ring” album (with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Bob Moses and Eberhard Weber). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mevlevi_Order. For another great example of Mick’s writing and playing during those days, check out his extraordinary ECM record “In Pass(s)ing,” with Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette and John Surman.

During those years I was playing over 250 gigs a year and keeping fairly active “Gig Journals.” Mick and I used to often talk about how the most interesting aspect of playing live gigs was watching what was going on around us in the room.  Sometimes I would recount to Mick things I had seen at gigs and we would crack up together. I plan on sharing the occasional Gig Journal on this blog over time. (As an odd aside, during breaks at gigs during those years, I read the entire Will and Ariel Durant “The Story of Civilization” series. I basically can’t remember any of it now, which I must agree is not an altogether good sign for what may lie ahead.)

Watching the Sufi concerts night after night at the Fes Festival, I often found myself wondering why on earth Sufis have been so persecuted, often for their ecstatic music, including in recent times by the Taliban. http://freemuse.org/archives/1721.  In the room pictured above, I began writing lyrics to a song called “All Are One” that wound up on “No Straight Lines,” inspired by Rumi and Hafez, two of the greatest Sufi poets. My favorite verse, which I later was forced to take out because the song was getting too long, was:

if it’s my time I’ve had my say / I’ve had my fill of music already / So take me now oh and by the way / Do you know the changes to Rock Steady?

I’d put Aretha up against the Taliban any day.

Sufi Nights

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Every night long after the formal Fes Festival concert ended an informal, unadvertised concert series took place in a courtyard in the Medina known as “Sufi Nights.” I hear it may no longer take place. If so that’s truly a shame because many of the most memorable musical performances I heard in Fes that year took place there.

During the performance I videotaped above, about halfway into the song a few Sufis leaped up from where they were sitting and starting dancing ecstatically. The guy in the white djellaba was so huge, easily 300 pounds, way outsizing anyone around him. It was really moving to see him jumping up and down so joyfully, it already being about 1 a.m.   There is a documentary out that features music and footage from the 2002 and 2004 Fes Festivals (http://www.soundofsoul.org/show.asp?content_id=14402) that incorporates footage of this same guy that very night.

But for me by far the most memorable Sufi Night jam was the one the last night of the festival. From my travel journal:

The final evening of the festival the local Sufi group from Fes was scheduled to play and the moment was extraordinary. All of the space anywhere near the stage had been taken by those of us willing to sit on the hard ground for a couple of hours in wait, most of whom were locals and probably Sufi. The week before, the U.S. government had released the first images from Abu Ghraib, which Donald Rumsfeld had warned were going to be superseded the following week with even grislier images. The local police had swept the streets before the festival, but given Moroccan hospitality it is no surprise there was nothing resembling any tension between anyone in Fes, and particularly not in the medina, which seemed infused with an eternal calm. Around 1:00 am we heard the blaring zurnas announcing the musicians’ arrival. They had decided to enter the courtyard playing and had already reached a fevered pitch by the time they snaked through the crowd directly in front of me. One of them carried a burning brazier and a handful of sparks blew into my face as a drummer tipped the head of his darbuka too close to the coals trying to raise its pitch. There is no finer thing than to be a musician.

Fes Festival 2004

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Any album represents a journey. This particular one more or less began in May of 2004 at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music. Every evening long after the concert ended the most incredible jam sessions occurred in a private garden inside the medina, where each night a new Sufi group from a different region in North Africa played its trance music for hours. Afterwards I stumbled home through the dark alleyways and lay in bed unable to sleep, reading Rumi and Hafiz, Mohammed Choukri, Driss Chraibi and others. Holed up every day inside the medina at Riad Al Bartal to avoid the scorching mid-day heat I embarked on this journey working on the first of many songs I would compose for this album.

It was an amazing couple of weeks. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Alecia Cohen and her circle of world music journalists, who were great company. Earlier that year returning from MIDEM I sat next to Alecia on the plane from Cannes to Paris and we discovered we were both going to be going to the Fes Festival and kept in touch. At that point she was still running her magazine Global Rhythm, which was one of the sponsors of the festival that year. She later wound up moving to Morocco, she loved it so much, where she started a travel company called Travel Exploration.

Fast forward to 2011, in the overdub phase of “No Straight Lines,” my wife and I spent a couple of weeks travelling throughout Southern Morocco with Alecia and Hossaine Amiri booked through Travel Exploration. It was great getting another chance to hear a bunch of Gnawa and Berber music again and inspiring to finally make it that part of Morocco I’d read so much about. The photo below is of our bivouac out in the Sahara, as the sun was finally fading from view.   What a world, what a world.

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