Saturday, May 5, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Found Objects Edition

Herbie Hancock: Watermelon Man


Billy Jonas: Old St Helen


As we have seen all week, human beings have built an amazing variety of musical instruments, and made an amazing variety of music with them. But I wanted to close with two songs that feature objects that were never intended to be musical instruments at all.

The first is one you may remember as a science experiment from back in your school days. If you take a bottle and fill it part way with water, you can blow over the top of it and it will make a musical sound. Fill several bottles with different amounts of water, and you can get different notes this way. For his 1973 album Head Hunters, Herbie Hancock had his (usually) percussionist Bill Summers do this, and the result was the unusual sounds that open and close the song Watermelon Man. I know of no other case of anyone recording this “instrument”, and I can’t imagine how it was done live, but it still sounds amazing after all these years.

On the other hand, I know of plenty of cases of Billy Jonas‘ unique “drum kit“ being recorded, and I have had the great pleasure of seeing him play it live. This “kit“ consists of a seemingly random collection of plastic objects played with wooden spoons and other household objects. This is the only percussion Jonas plays, and, in concert he invites his audience to join in on shaken car keys, claps and finger snaps, or any other method of percussing you can find. I like to slap the knees of my jeans myself. A great time is had by all.

Unusual Instruments: Mighty Man

Mungo Jerry: Mighty Man


For a short but important time in the 1950s, skiffle was Britain’s most influential genre of music.

John Lennon ‘s Quarrymen, his pre-Beatles band, was a skiffle band, for example. It was a most innovative genre in as far as it fused traditional musical instruments with those improvised from household items: the washboard or the haircomb.

A decade and a half after skiffle died a rapid death to be replaced by rock & roll, it had a brief revival in the hands of Mungo Jerry, the British pop band best known for the UK chart-topper “In The Summertime” in 1970. Named after a character in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which also inspired the musical Cats), Mungo Jerry – the name is often mistaken as referring to the exotic-looking lead singer with the Afro and mutton chops, Ray Dorset  – had a string of UK and European hits, such as “Baby Jump”, “Alright Alright Alright” and the exquisite “Lady Rose”. They also did a great cover of the blues classic “Have A Whiff On Me”.

On many of these they used unusual instruments. On the exuberant “Mighty Man”, the b-side of “In The Summertime”, the unusual instrument is the kazoo, a small wind instrument which – and I’ll let Wikipedia explain this – “modifies the sound of a person's voice by way of a vibrating membrane”. In skiffle tradition, the kazoo effect has been accomplished by using a comb with paper in Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” and on The Beatles’ “Lovely Rita”.

I might have chosen other kazoo-wiedling songs. Perhaps Jesse Fuller’s 1962 song “San Francisco Bay Blues”, or Frank Zappa’s “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”. Swinging it for Mungo Jerry, apart from “mighty Man” being such a great song, is the additional bonus of Dorset using his voice, lips and breath as a percussive instrument (listen to it starting at 2:14).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Endlessly

Mercury Rev: Endlessly

 In the age of the sampler, few spend much time thinking about Mellotrons.  Essentially tape replay keyboards with a limit of eight seconds to every loop, their limitation was actually a strength, in as much as the necessity to play the rudimentary samples as notes led to sounds that were far out of the ordinary comfort zones of many bands, let alone audiences.  They were perfect for Prog and Psych acts of the sixties and seventies, but began to fall out of favour as technology overtook them and allowed for slicker, more efficient sampling.

They never lost their power to create shivers, though.  When Mercury Rev released Deserter's Songs in 1998, the first thing that people noticed was how different, how other the album sounded.  How very new.  And the reason for that freshness was the Mellotron, and its astounding knack for bringing a glow to the heart of weirdness, like a kiss on the neck from an old ghost.  Spooky and spooked, voice and ethereal electric choir entwine, leading you again endlessly.  Sometimes, you see, technology just isn't what it used to be: a sampler could never even begin to imbue such chilly warmth.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Koto Nuts

Mitsuki Dazai, Radim Zenkl and Joe Ross: Koto Nuts


Geoviki’s post about the Japanese koto brought back a wonderful memory of a very interesting recording session that I once had the honor to produce in 2006. I had invited koto master Mitsuki Dazai and mandolin champion Radim Zenkl to lay down a few tracks for some of bluegrass tunes that would appear on my “Spirit of St. Louis” and “Bluegrass Alphabet” albums. That may seem strange enough, and the tracks were eventually accomplished in fine fashion.

Radim’s unconstrained impulsiveness and boundless energy, however, initially led that session down another road less traveled into a territory of free-form improvisation and adventurous tonality. He obviously had a creative vision for a collaboration that emphasized musical joy, understanding and partnership. I felt that a great piece of emotionally stimulating art was being made, and recording engineer Gary Niccolaides kept the computer recording throughout each spontaneous improvisation. Each musician had to know when to lead and when to follow for the group’s collective greater good. I added the synthesized keyboard sounds to the track.

Successive tones in musical space stimulate imagination and create melodic illusions. The sensory and emotional impact of each piece evoked a unique mood based on its configuration of stasis and movement. Tonal realm is divided largely as a matter of culture. Some of these recordings were based on the equal temperment and principle intervals of western folk music. However, many of the improvised melodies and harmonies such as this offering called “Koto Nuts” may seem more uncertain or ambiguous to western ears. It is this very ambiguity that results in an immediate melodic environment with amazing, albeit subtle, expressive power.

Embodying the spirit of meditative Japanese music, the song often casually floats and flows both with and without form. I hope that you find it a joyful experience to tune in to each fleeting moment. Various passages or a piece’s culminating sound inspired their names. The genesis and inspiration for the song called “Koto Nuts” evolved from a Japanese folk melody, “Yashi no mi” (meaning “Coconut”) and provided a perfect moniker for the music.

It was a largely experimental aural journey, and you’re invited to draw your own inspiration from this sample composition. Please listen as closely as we had to, and then formulate your own imagery and associations. Become a part of the creative process. It was truly exhilarating and a very humbling experience to work with musicians of the caliber of Radim and Mitsuki. Their generous sharing achieved considerable chemistry and harmony. Despite individual differences in backgrounds and styles, a bridge was built – both figuratively and musically. Spirits were fused, and I hope that you experience as much pleasure listening as was had making the music. The spontaneous improvisations remain unreleased because I’m just not sure there would be much demand for such experimental music.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Nobody’s Fault But Mine

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant with Hossam Ramzy‘s Egyptian Ensemble: Nobody’s Fault But Mine


Abigail Washburn: Nobody’s Fault But Mine


Here are two very different versions of the same song, each of which qualifies in a different way for our Unusual Instruments theme. Nobody’s Fault But Mine is a gospel blues song that can be traced back to at least 1924, when Blind Willie Johnson recorded it. The song has been done in may ways by many artists over the years. Johnson recorded it with acoustic guitar and growly blues vocals, the Staple Singers did a pop-gospel version, and there have R&B and folk versions as well, just to name a few.

One of the best known versions of Nobody’s Fault But Mine was done by Led Zeppelin in 1976. Robert Plant removed some of the more overtly religious lyrics, and replaced them with verses based on blues lyrical motifs. The whole thing was given one of Led Zeppelin’s trademark thunderous rock treatments. Personally, I never liked Plant’s screaming vocals with the group, or Jimmy Page’s screaming guitar either. But I have come to admire the artistry of how Led Zeppelin put their songs together, while still not caring for the results. Zep always had one secret weapon in their music, that helped make them sound like no one else. Early in their existence, they found a link between the modality of the blues and the music of the Arab World, and many of their songs were built on that link. So it was that, years after the dissolution of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page got back together to record the album No Quarter. Here, Plant and Page made explicit the connection that had been such an important influence. No Quarter was recorded with a group of Egyptian musicians led by Hossam Ramzy. Some of the instruments they play on the album include doholla, duf, bendir, and reque. The picture above is a doholla. Hossam Ramzy is well versed in the Bedouin music of Egypt, and he is known for collaborations with Egyptian artists like Rachid Taha, but also with Western artists, including not only Plant and Page but also Peter Gabriel.

The banjo is the unusual instrument in my second version of Nobody’s Fault. Of course, a banjo is not that unusual, but it is in this context. Going back to the earliest music that might be considered blues, you find that the old-time black string bands often included a banjo. So there may well have been a version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine that included one, but I guarantee that it didn’t sound like Abigail Washburn’s version. Washburn began her musical career while she was living in China, and she even wrote bluegrass songs with words in Chinese, some of which she has recorded. So it makes sense that Washburn would cross musical as well as political boundaries. Her singing of Nobody’s Fault is somewhere between the song’s origins in blues and as a spiritual, but the banjo is not a guitar. So Washburn creates a percussive backdrop that works as a heartbeat, while also providing harmony for her vocal. The result is not exactly blues or gospel or bluegrass, but something entirely new.

Unusual Instruments: Washington Phillips Medley

Ray Skjelbred: Washington Phillips Medley

Not only is the dolceola a little known instrument, it is hard to find recordings of it. It is a combination of a piano and a zither that was made and sold for $25 (shipping included) for a few years around 1905 by a company in Toledo, OH. The zither, in turn, is a relative of the lyre, and there are some musical authorities that group the autoharp, the guitar and the piano in the same family of instruments: all having “struck strings” in common. I think you’ll note that it sounds a little like a harpsichord.

I ran across this musical contraption when I learned that Ry Cooder’s version of Tattler was based on a song by a gospel preacher-musician by the name of Washington Phillips. Phillips’ story is a curious one, and he is apparently mistakenly credited with playing the dolceola on his recorded music.

Andy Cohen and Ray Skjelbred are among the few musicians I have been able to find that play the doceola. There are YouTube videos of each of them where you can hear and see the instrument in action. The recording above is an mp3 converted from one of those videos. The purchase link is to Ray’s website where he provides an email address to help you buy a CD directly from him.

And, since I have mentioned Washington Phillips – both in the name of Ray’s song and my search for the real dolceola sound, here is an original recording by Phillips (Paul and Silas).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Unusual Instruments : Penetration

The Stooges : Penetration


     Invented in 1896, the celeste --best known for providing the soft "celestial" melody in Tchaikovsky's "Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy"--has also been featured in recordings by some of the greatest rock artists of all time: The Beatles ( "Baby It's You"), Buddy Holly ("Everyday"), The Velvet Underground ("Sunday Morning") and The Stooges (in both "Gimme Danger" and "Penetration").

     When asked who played the celeste on "Penetration" by's Greg Kot, Iggy answered "That was me! I played in the high school orchestra, so I had a little familiarity with these instruments lying around the studio in London."

   In the original CD mix of Raw Power, the celeste got buried , but now you can hear the instrument in all its glory. It shouldn't work with all of James Williamson's dirty guitar sounds and Iggy's nasty snarls... but it does!

Unusual Instruments: After the Gold Rush

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris: After the Gold Rush


...In which Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton meet Benjamin Franklin. Or, more specifically, the instrument Franklin invented in 1761 -- the glass armonica, the first instrument to be invented in Colonial America. The glass armonica comprises 37 chromatically tuned bowls, mounted on a rotating spindle. The armonicist operates the instrument with a foot pedal, and rubs the spinning glass with his fingers. The result is an ethereal, almost spooky, tone. Hearing -- but not seeing -- her husband play the instrument for the first time, Mrs. Franklin said she feared she’d died and was listening to the sound of angels.

Franklin’s invention was particularly well received in Europe. Marie Antoinette was said to have taken armonica lessons. Mozart was inspired to write two works for it. Mozart in turn introduced it to physician Franz Mesmer, who used the instrument’s dulcet tones to help, well, mesmerize his patients. The arminoca’s faint sound made it difficult to be heard in concert halls, and the prolonged exposure to the glass posed health risks to the armonicists. Soon the instrument faded away. The (seriously) glass armonica website estimates there are only a dozen glass armonica players in the world today.

One of those is a fellow named Dennis James, who plays armonica on Harris, Ronstadt and Parton’s cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." It appears on their Trio II CD, released in 1999. (Ronstadt’s 1992 record, Winter Light, also featured James on armonica.) Even without the armonica solo, it's a strange cover -- the ladies change the lyrics a bit, and Parton later claimed none of them had any idea what the song was about. Still, the accompanying video was quite popular on VH-1 and country music video channels, in part because of the fascinating instrument that managed to one-up the trio’s angelic harmonies. (Watch a performance on David Letterman’s Late Show here; the armonica solo starts at about 3:46.)

Monday, April 30, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Meguru

Kagrra,: Meguru


The koto is a plucked, 13-stringed wooden instrument with moveable bridges allowing for variable tuning (guitar players are drooling right about now). It sounds so distinctively Japanese that it's their national instrument. It's rarely found in Western music, although both John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner incorporated its 5-note scale in some of their music, and David Bowie and Brian Jones (of The Rolling Stones) managed to work it into one song apiece over a long stretch of releases.

Visual kei band Kagrra, (apparently one of my favorites here, 'cuz I've posted their songs previously here and here) moved heavily into the koto-based sound that gave them their distinctive Japanese flavor. (Well, all the kimonos and yukata they wore helped stress their Japanese-ness, too, I think.) Shin, one of their 3 guitarists, took up the ancient instrument and really began using it much more in 2005, with the release of San, and later. See how his guitar is still hanging around his neck as he plucks the koto in my photo. Can we say musical multitasking?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Queen Bee

Taj Mahal/Toumani Diabate: Queen Bee

[purchase album]

Taj Mahal first came to my attention on account of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. No, he didn't play in the concert - that was Ravi Shankar - but the (however misguided) Indian subcontinent reference quickly led me to Taj, who was coming in to his own at about that time.  When I delved deeper, I came cross Taj as a blues musician in his own right (and purchased most of his albums through the late 60s and early 70s - Satisfied NTickled Too ! Wow !) I also learned that one of Taj's accomplices (Jessie Ed Davis) did play in Harrison's Bangladesh concert.

Thoroughly American (born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks and brought up in Harlem and later Massachusetts), he took the stage name Taj  Mahal on account of an affinity for the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. A musician who has consistently researched and then performed the roots of music, be it the Blues or beyond, he has deepened his "roots" over the years to get back, through "world music" to Africa.

As part of his musical journey, among others, he has run across and worked with Toumani Diabate, a Malian kora player. Mali? Kora? Well... yes: World Music. The kora is a squash (see image above), and - when dried - can become the body section of a stringed instrument that sounds a bit like a harp. Diabate is one of the masters.

What we get here is a unique mix of where African music now is, and a taste of where it may have been when Taj's ancestor's first arrived in America: Blues and its African roots. Honey Bee is from the 1999 album Kulanjan.

Unusual Instruments: Honey White

Morphine: Honey White

Morphine is another band that emerged after I graduated from college. Although I listened to music after college (obviously), I can’t say that I was particularly aware of them until the song “Cure for Pain” appeared on a Rykodisc sampler CD that I got with my subscription to the classic music snob magazine Mojo. (Long articles about defunct and/or little known bands? Check. Almost obsessive articles about The Beatles and other classic bands? Check. Reviews filled with jargon and references to obscure mini-genres and bands? Check. Features about bizarre vinyl? Check. From England? Double check. I recently let my subscription lapse, and kind of miss it, but it isn’t cheap to subscribe to foreign magazines.) There was something about their sound that instantly drew me in.

Morphine was (mostly) a trio, with an unusual lineup featuring unusual instruments. The singer and leader of the band, Mark Sandman, generally played a two-string bass, with a slide (that’s unusual!), and sang in a low, baritone. Dana Colley usually played the baritone sax (also unusual, although not in my house, where my son played one in high school. My daughter played the upright bass, and this may explain why I like Morphine). And there was a drummer, first Jerome Duepree, then Billy Conway, although Duepree later rejoined the band. So, we are talking about seriously low sounds to give your subwoofer a workout.

“Honey White” is a relatively uptempo and poppy song for Morphine from their album Yes. It was popular on MTV back when it played music, and the video appeared on Beavis and Butt-head, so you know it must be good. Seriously, Morphine was an interesting and unusual band that probably should have been better known. They were probably hampered in getting wider popularity by the odd instrumentation—what, no guitar? No keyboards? Hey, it’s the mid-90’s—what are you guys thinking? But their recordings hold up, and they are still respected by critics and other musicians, from what I can tell.

Tragically, Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in Italy in 1999, and died of a heart attack. He was only 47 years old. A year later, Colley and Conway formed Orchestra Morphine, along with a group of other musicians, to keep Sandman’s music alive and to raise money for the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund.

Unusual Instruments: Jah Light

Augustus Pablo: Jah Light


The melodica, also known as the blow-organ or the key-flute, was long regarded as a children's toy and not much more. Minimal music composer Steve Reich was one of the first ones to use it as a 'serious' instrument, while the odd jazz cat had fun with it, too. But it was Jamaica-born Horace Swaby, better known as Augustus Pablo, who made the melodica really respectable. In his able hands, the instrument came alive and added an ethereal, far eastern and sometimes almost otherwordly atmosphere to many a roots and dub classic.

Unusual Instruments: Night of the Swallow

Kate Bush: Night of the Swallow


In the 1980s, synthesizers reached a level of sophistication that allowed musicians to add texture to their songs by creating unusual sounds and tones. But this could be done before the 1980s by using instruments that sounded odd in context. Even now, some musicians prefer to use instruments old and new out of context to enrich their music. This week, we will be presenting some of this music, and seeing how context can matter. We may also feature some instruments you (or I) have never even heard of before.

To start, here is Kate Bush‘s song Night of the Swallow. Bush‘s synthesizer of choice on her 1982 album The Dreaming was the Fairlight, and she got some great sounds out of it. But Bush also used other instruments. Night of the Swallow starts with a slow section that has a fairly normal arrangement. But the faster section on the chorus has this high-pitched instrument that you might think at first is a fiddle. You would be partly right. It doesn‘t sound quite like a fiddle because the line is doubled, played in unison by a fiddle and the uillean pipes. The uillean pipes are the smaller Irish cousin of the Scottish bagpipes. Like the bagpipes, the uilean pipes are used in traditional Irish folk music. By now, some Celtic rock groups are also using them, but Kate Bush in 1982 was one of the first to use them in a rock context.