Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

Congratulations on your recent victory. I know it was a hard-fought campaign; and I know that both you and Secretary Clinton worked very hard. In the interest of full disclosure, you need to understand that despite being a lifelong Republican (voting in my first Presidential election in 1984 for Ronald Reagan), I didn’t vote for you. In fact, I opposed you vociferously at every turn; from your initial campaign announcement, through the primary season, and through the general election. I voted for your Democratic opponent. The Republican party of today bears not even a passing resemblance to the proudly steadfast and gracious party I joined in 1984. But, that’s not what this letter is about. This letter is about the future.

Despite my crossing party lines to vote for Secretary Clinton; I recognize and accept that the election belonged to you. I understand that on January 20th, 2017, you will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Again, congratulations. This letter is to demonstrate my respect for the office of the President, and to express to you my hopes for your presidency.

I hope that you will serve your country, and all of us, with dignity and forbearance. I hope that you will exercise restraint and discipline in office. I would imagine that the yoke of the Presidency is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. I daresay it is precisely unlike running your many businesses. Governing is about the governed; serving their needs and interests. I hope that you always keep your constituency at the forefront of your mind when making important decisions - not just the ones that voted for you - but all of us. As you said in your acceptance speech; binding the wounds of division and coming together as a united people and unified country should be your primary goal. Neither the vitriol of the campaign nor a culture of divisiveness have any place in the White House.

I hope you will remember that a very large percentage of the population are people that are "different". From minorities, to women, to the LGBTQA community, to the practitioners of many religions; a lot of people are very concerned for their welfare right now. They fear that they will not be treated in accordance with your stated plans for a unified country and a united people. They fear that decades of social progress will disappear instantly under the stewardship of your administration. I hope that you are able to always locate your humanity. I hope that you will indeed respect those who have felt marginalized or threatened, and I hope you will lead an administration of optimism, an instrument of unification. I hope that you will lift up the downtrodden, and bring the entire country to the palatial state it could be.

I hope that you surround yourself with a staff and Cabinet made up of people who are intelligent, wise, and compassionate. I hope that all three branches of government can come together so that each will keep the others from any rash or unjust actions.

I hope that when you appoint Supreme Court justices; you find ones that will serve the best interests of the court, the law, and the people. I hope that you appoint justices that are non-partisan and hold the wisdom needed to interpret the laws fairly and without prejudice.

I hope that you find as many ways to be fiscally responsible as possible, and I hope that you and your staff can balance the often-conflicting needs of the people - the needs for a balanced budget, reduced debt, manageable taxes, manageable healthcare costs, a secure retirement future for our elderly, a robust and effective defense, and an education system that should be the envy of the world.

I hope that you find ways for our government to treat our military (both active and veteran alike), our police, our firefighters, our first-responders, our nurses, and our teachers with more respect than they have been shown in decades past. These folks are the true backbone of the country, and deserve much more than they get.

Most of all, Mr. President-Elect; I truly wish for your success. I hope that you confound the expectations of your detractors; and prove that someone from “outside the system” can be an effective leader, both domestically and on the world stage. I hope that both the possible pressures and the tedium of the Presidency do not sway you from the diligent and honorable execution of this precious duty, this incredible responsibility with which you have been entrusted. May you lead us with gravitas, a kind spirit, and the best interests of your people in your mind and in your heart. We are in your hands, Mr. President-Elect.


Philip G. Traynor

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Adam Rafferty – Play Pretty For the People CD REVIEW

Full Disclosure: I know Adam personally, we met at the Swannanoa Gathering several years ago, and we are friends; Adam even plays on two songs on my own most recent CD release “Still Life”. But I’m a fair and honest critic; and I know Adam appreciates truth, so I’m going to review this as impartially as I can. As I would do for anyone, if there is criticism, it will be constructive. 

Adam Rafferty is a “funky” fingerstyle guitarist, hailing originally from NYC, with roots that begin in the Jazz world. Rafferty apprenticed with Dizzy Gillespie’s pianist Mike Longo for many years, and has played with many of the greats of the era. His work in this field is exemplary, as his first couple of albums will attest. In 2006 Adam experience the wizardry of Tommy Emmanuel, and that launched him into a new world of fingerstyle guitar. Rafferty brings an explicit funky groove to his fingerstyle arrangements, adding percussive elements, and even beatboxing to his repertoire. His approach to groove is almost metaphysical, his rhythmic spirit guide is powerful.

This new release sees Rafferty breaking out tunes from several genres, ranging from Brazilian standards to Beatles; each with his signature influences in the arrangement. Rafferty is thoughtful enough to provide tunings for each song for the guitarists in his audience; and indeed Rafferty’s lineup of instructional DVDs that teach his takes on Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Jazz guitar emphasize his player’s mentality.

Imagine –Adam’s arrangement style tends toward the sparse, and that space serves this song very well. It is a tender and warm touch that weaves the melody through an autumnal tapestry of chords and moving bass. The feeling is close, intimate, and welcoming. The down-tempo treatment of this song allows a deep exploration of the classic melody.

The Hippie Dance – This Rafferty original starts to tease the funkiness that permeates his style. His jazz background peaks through in some of the chord movement, and the percussive and syncopated riffs off of a tapped backbeat showcase the Rafferty groove. A little “chair boogie” and a pleasant smile.

Affirmation – A Jose Feliciano standard; this piece darts and weaves deftly about. If any piece on this CD showcases Rafferty’s rhythmic approach, it is this one; with the highly percussive breakdown near the end. The sounds like one of the more difficult pieces to execute, and Rafferty’s grounded yet playful approach makes it accessible and easy. The harmonizations in the melody are an especially strong treat.

Killing Me Softly – This Fox/Gimbel tune is one you know if you listened to any music in or from the 70s. It is a classic melody with an absolutely haunting and beautiful chord progression. It was a surprise to hear a fingerstyle take on this piece. Sans lyrics, it loses nothing. There is as much power in Rafferty’s melancholy and evocative arrangement as there was in Roberta Flack’s searing vocal back in the day. A moving and emotive piece.

Superfreak – And now for something completely different, as they say in the biz… Yes, Rick James on fingerstyle guitar and vocal beatbox. I’ve seen Rafferty perform this live, and he beatboxes while playing, no mean feat on its own. The arrangement is understandably sparse; and while the piece has a certain danceable novelty, it works less for me than the others on the CD; falling prey to a small extent to some mild production-related deficiencies, which I will detail later.

Yesterday – Another visit to the Lennon/McCartney well, and this one is well-traveled. The most covered song in history, and yet here it is all new again. Rafferty’s slower, sparse, plaintive approach really serves the song well. It imparts a yearning, aching quality. I love that if you listen carefully, you can hear Rafferty breathing. This might distract from another player’s performance, but with Rafferty it is an organic part of the performance. If you watch him live, his entire body is involved in every note, and that’s just fine, thank you very much. An honorable and original take on a mighty piece of songwriting.

Storm Wind – Another Rafferty original, in an altered tuning (DADGBE for you guitarists), this one harkens the open roads and big skies of the American Plains. The title is perfect; the imagery generated by the song is intense and powerful, kinetic and slightly menacing. This song belongs in the Weather Channel’s interstitial music catalog. Some picks are flyin’ around on this one!

But On the Other Hand, Baby – Another significant changeup; a vocal tune on a fingerstyle album! The ghost of Ray Charles is smiling, as Rafferty’s significant abilities as a vocal accompanist (and singer?) are showcased. This one is full of soul, roots blues riffs, and the signature underlying funk that permeates Rafferty’s playing.

Mas Que Nada – Jorge Ben’s midtempo samba composition that became the signature song of Sergio Mendes is covered here with a combination of Brazilian flair and the funky urban energy of Rafferty’s execution. It is a delight that he is able to product a full band’s worth of sounds from a six string guitar. Another track where you hear Rafferty’s whole body involved in the performance. Complex chordal movement, a solid backbeat, and inexorable rhythm drive this track, and you will be ready to dance.

Shelter Island – A light, airy, but fast-moving Rafferty original that breathes from the middle and top of the fretboard with easy grace. A chime-like countenance throughout, and lovely and delicate finger technique. There is a refreshing energy in the arrangement that is sure to bring a smile.

Misty – Errol Garner’s timeless classic is brought to life once again in this innovative and swing-charged arrangement. The endearing and romantic rubato introduction gives way to an impressive double time walking bass over what is actually a down tempo stance. This give the doubled blessing of a fantastic swing groove coupled to a slower statement of the melody; which gives Rafferty time to ornament with a deft hand and allow the full range of his expressive playing to burst forth. Playful and inviting, this piece is a definite highlight of the album. Some vocalization sneaks in, again showing Rafferty’s full involvement in the art.

In My Life – One last time to the deep well that is Lennon/McCartney. This arrangement is more straightforward and earnest, eschewing risk and excessive ornamentation for allowing the substantive writing and progression to stand at the fore and be expressed openly and warmly. I appreciated the honorific nod to tradition, as this song is almost beyond embellishment on its own.

Brazil - Back to the southern continent for this 1939 classic and a sensual, yet bouncy arrangement of what is samba gospel. Rafferty manages to stay true to the song’s roots; exalting the country’s many great qualities, with nary a lyric. The arrangement has plenty of Latin fire and a healthy dose of Rafferty smoke.

Summertime – Closing with this downtempo Gershwin standard is a fine coda; Rafferty’s slow dance half-time feeling 12/8 gives the darkened piece sultry life. The deeper hues and darker tones provide a nicely contemplative resting place for the album. This is a complex piece harmonically, and Rafferty has more density and layers in his arrangement here; it serves the piece very well.

On the whole, the album is eminently enjoyable, and quite generous – 14 tracks and a nearly 47-minute runtime. It feels like a love letter to Rafferty’s audience, inviting them into his living room for a private show of favorite pieces from every facet of his fingerstyle career. On the technical side, it is recorded with utter clarity, and with superb imaging and depth of field. Rafferty allows the mics to capture everything, including taps, vocalizations, and the movement of the instrument. This is not a sterile room, it is a richly decorated and sonically very interesting one. I’m hearing an ever-so slight boominess in the low bass on the guitar mics in some places, and on Superfreak there is an unevenness in the EQ curve that is exacerbated by the sonic complexity of the beatboxing. There’s a lot at the very bottom, but not enough in the middle part of the bass register; the net effect is the aforementioned boominess, coupled paradoxically to a lack of overall punch. It gets in the way of the guitar a little on Superfreak, and is present to lesser degrees in other pieces; but overall the mic and mix techniques add to the listening experience, and I’m sometimes known for being overly picky in this area.

One other interesting note: Rafferty made a technique choice on this album that most other fingerstyle players would not - he did not use a thumb pick. Using one gives the bass clearer tone and more definition, and sometimes can allow for faster techniques; but Rafferty's "au naturel" choice gives the playing a rounder, warmer tone. I can best describe it as "meatier". I like the choice a lot. 

I like the frank honesty in the performances; they are technically astute always, but not perfect; and you wouldn’t want them to be. The humanity in Rafferty’s playing is infinitely more desirable than, as my favorite author Diane Duane once called it, “the icy perfection of the mere stylist”. Rafferty has achieved his lofty goal of remembering the people who are sitting in front of him who paid to listen. It is to them that this joyful and memorable CD is gifted, and mentor Mike Longo’s advice to “go play pretty for the people” is heeded with care and respect. Bravo!

You can purchase "Play Pretty For the People" at Adam's website - and also on iTunes.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Johnny Mathis – As Magical Now as 60 Years Ago

A slice of magic descended on Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater Florida tonight, as Columbia Records icon Johnny Mathis took the stage in celebration of 60(!!!) years performing. I brought my mother along as a Mother’s Day gift, as he is her favorite artist. What I didn’t know until tonight was that the last time she saw him in concert was 1959; so it was a very special occasion for her. I’ve been a fan since I was young, Mathis’ voice indeed permeated my childhood. The last time I saw him in concert was on this same stage, but nearly 30 years ago. Back then his voice was a cannon, with limitless power and range. My expectations were that the 80 year-old Mathis of today would have lost a step or three; but that’s what I get for presupposing what might be, rather than just enjoying what was.

In truth, Mathis has retained nearly all of that power and range, but the instrument is different now; slightly muted, slightly mellower, aging with the grace and beauty that a fine tone wood in a guitar does. There was a hint of crackle that suggested some slight vocal fatigue, but Mathis didn’t pull any punches at all. Many singers, as they age (Billy Joel and Elton John come to mind), compensate for that aging by dropping the key on songs to a more manageable place; but not the master. Not one song was moved down from where it was when he cut records in the 50s and 60s. He had from F2 all the way up to G#4, in his chest voice, with clarity and precision.

This show was a master class in vocal technique and showmanship. If there is a particular strength in his singing, it is the nuance and complexity of his vocal delivery. After 60 years, his singing is utterly effortless; his voice floats through all registers with a combination of sure-footed grace, and a gentle subtlety not seen in really any singer of this generation. His articulation is singularly elegant, and each note is placed with astonishing accuracy. Most impressive of all is his phrasing. He extracts more out of a lyric than any singer I think I’ve ever heard. He performed the Lennon/McCartney classic “Yesterday”, which has been one of the most covered songs in history, with over 2200 versions. Mathis’ interpretation was linear and smooth, but with a rubato glow and tender turns of phrasing that gave the song more emotional pull than any version I’ve encountered short of Sir Paul.

Mathis has used a mic technique over the years to compensate for his massive dynamic range; pulling the mic in and out, and pulling it on and off axis to adjust to the power of the note he is singing. It is second nature to him now; but this might have been one tiny flaw in the delivery this time. His voice is more mature, and doesn’t have quite the thunder it did in years past – but the mic technique is still used at the same intensity as in years past. This caused some moments of mix imbalance; the sound man had to chase him around a little bit; but it was so minor that it did not detract in any way from the overall beauty of the performance.

The program consisted of a mix of everyone’s favorites, a few obscure pieces, and a playful closing performance of Brazil. The audience, who consisted mostly of the demographic you might imagine, was rapt and insanely appreciative. It was a joy and an honor to watch these people who have loved Johnny Mathis for more than half a century laugh, cry, sing, shout out platitudes, and fall all over themselves ovating the performances. I counted eight standing ovations during the show.

Another stroke of genius was the guest artist. Most shows have an opening act, and this one was no exception, but his set occurred at the END of Mathis’ first set, and before the 20-minute intermission. The artist was Gary Mule Deer; a singing comedian. Visually, he was Johnny Cash, having gone to Lyle Lovett’s hairdresser. Musically, think Cash meets Roger Miller. Comedically, he ripped through Borscht Belt/Branson humor and recycled Internet jokes, interspersed with reimagined country songs, commercials, and an inspired technique of wandering the stage using different microphones, or sometimes using none. Sounds lame and weird, I know, but he had perfect timing, unique and flavorful delivery, and was a perfect choice for this particular crowd. I haven’t laughed that hard in a while; and we collectively roared our appreciation. See him in action below:

Mathis tours with a core three piece rhythm section (including drummer Joe Lizama who has been touring consistently with Mathis almost 35 years), and contracts local musicians for short duration tours to fill out the two-dozen piece orchestra. They are extraordinarily tight, precise, and provide a spectacular musical backdrop for Mathis’ still-soaring vocal. The orchestra was nimble, rich, and fluid; taking advantage of time-honored arrangements that were perfectly suited to augment the vocals.

I came away from this evening with a thrilling sense of nostalgia and awe; Johnny still has it. His timeless performances will endure for years to come.

I checked YouTube and found a recent performance (about a year old) that gives you a pretty decent taste of what we got this evening. Enjoy…

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Quiles and Cloud Concert Review

I had the distinct and refreshing pleasure to attend a house concert tonight featuring Quiles and Cloud. The duo quite nearly defy description; flitting between singer/songwriter, folk, Americana, jazz, a twist of blues, and other less clearly defined musical genres with a deft and gentle sure-footedness. 

There were five instruments on stage: two voices, two guitars, and a single large-diaphragm condenser mic. I say this because Quiles and Cloud use each of those elements equally in their performances to convey the emotion of their songs. Their level of expression onstage is like nothing I’ve ever encountered in a live show. They caress their instruments; moving them around in the sound field to emphasize certain sections, while muting others. Their voices melded in shimmering, mesmerizing symmetry as they wove their bodies back, forth, and around each other; placing each tone in perfect proximity to the microphone, which dutifully and warmly took their sound and lovingly gave it to the room with smoldering depth, stunning clarity, and incredible nuance. This is a duo that knows how to use the equipment to sonic perfection.

Maria Quiles is possessed of a rich, clear, and very malleable voice. Her lusty alto-mezzo placement was always exquisitely tempered with just enough air injected into the sound; if she was soft and blending, there was a gentle breeze blowing through it, and when she needed clarity, she was able to effortlessly crackle with sudden, rippling steel.  Her rhythm guitar was well-informed, impeccably timed, and delicately placed to always provide the perfect bed for the rich vocals. 

Rory Cloud has a mild, clear tenor, not unlike Jon Vezner, with resonance, clarity, and micrometered pitch control. His lead guitar was the special spark – he is Quiles’ Maury Muehleisen. Not a single misplaced note; I was especially taken with his soloing choices. Always just enough, never excess, never “look at me”. Every carefully placed note was selected for its ability to serve the song and serve the sound, and yet every note flashed with innovation, style, and a palpable sense of personality. He delivered powerful tension and release, diving in between tightly controlled vocal harmonies to entice with gentle dissonance, and comfort with delightful resolution. Unexpected harmonic turns spiced the performance liberally.

Quiles and Cloud are a formidable songwriting team, each bringing exceptional skill and emotional depth to the song crafting. I was especially taken with “Julie, I’m Alive” – not a breath was drawn in the room until they finished. Their love for each other is very clearly expressed in their performances; they disappear into the world they create with voice, string, and microphone while the audience is transported with them - breathless with anticipation for the next note.

You can see Quiles and Cloud this Sunday, April 26th 2015 at 6:30PM as part of the Listening Room Festival Finale at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Open Letter to Congress and President Obama

Here is my hope for the Republican members of Congress:

Well, you did it. You now have an opposition Congress, and the means to thwart everything the President may want to do; instead of merely some of it. Now, I'll be the first to admit that President Obama's track record, especially of late, has been sort of turd-like. That said; I hope that the somewhat reasonable tone of Sen. McConnell's address today carries the weight for the party. I hope that, instead of opposing everything that comes out of the Oval just because you don't like him, and never will, that you attempt to find common ground. There is some. Tax relief is a good place to start. I hope that the the moderate voices in your midst can be the catalyst of reason in the party, rather than sticking with the mouth-breathing vitriol the Tea Party has been spewing. I hope that you don't inexorably trample on women. Leave Rowe alone. I hope that when you propose laws, that they aren't just poison pills, extortion, or blackmail just to stick it to the President. I hope that you propose laws that the President will sign, because I think you both can find that space. And for God's sake, put serious people up for 2016. Get Palin out the back door as fast as you can. The Tea Party is killing the kind of conservatism that could actually do some good.

And, Mr. President? Shame on you. For putting yourself and your administration and the country in a position where they have had to spend all their time thwarting you. For being, what seems to many, an arrogant jerk. For putting a personal mandate in your healthcare plan. For not REALLY healing race relations. You, of anyone, were in a position to go for that point seriously, but yet you still listen to the likes of Al Sharpton. For financial reforms that were weak-minded and only marginally effective. For dropping the ball on reasonable and effective immigration reform. For catering to big corporations (seen my power bill??). For frightening an entire nation into frenzy about personal privacy and Net neutrality; you're supposed to be on OUR side with that stuff. You pissed off too many people. People that voted for you. Twice, in my case. They let you know how they felt yesterday, and they handed you an opposition Congress. Good luck getting any Senate-confirmable appointments done now. Think twice before whipping out your veto pen, they'll stick it in your face and make you look bad doing it. And stop calling this country a democracy. It's not. You're the President. You should know what a federated, constitutional democratic republic is. You've damaged your presidency. You've made the next two years a potentially very dark time in this country. You've dealt a body blow to your party's chances to keep the Oval in 2016. Like the Republicans, I beg you, find serious people to run in 2016. Hillary Clinton is not your man.