The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Is it really Sunday again? What happened to the bloody week? Okay, let’s try this again: Happy Sunday and I hope everybody had a great week and is enjoying an even better weekend! Nearly anything you can do gets better with great music, so I invite you to join me on another time travel trip. As usual, I’m taking you to six different stops. Are you in? Let’s go!

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane/In a Sentimental Mood

What do you get when combining jazz piano great Duke Ellington and saxophone dynamo John Coltrane? Well, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, a collaboration album released in January 1963, and the first stop on our journey today. Jazz artists love to team up, and this record is one of many collaborative efforts Sir Duke undertook in the early 1960s, which also included artists, such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Rather than a big band setting, it placed Ellington in a quartet, which in addition to Coltrane featured Jimmy Garrison or Aaron Bell (bass) and Elvin Jones or Sam Woodyard (drums). My specific pick is In a Sentimental Mood, which Ellington had composed more than 25 years earlier in 1935, with lyrics written by Manny Kurtz. I guess Ellington’s manager Irving Mills was in the mood for a percentage of the publishing and gave himself a writing credit!

The Jayhawks/Martin’s Song

Our next stop takes us to September 1992 and Hollywood Town Hall, the third studio album by The Jayhawks. Since “discovering” them in August 2020, I’ve come to dig this American alt. country and country rock band. Initially formed in Minneapolis in 1985, The Jayhawks originally featured Mark Olson (acoustic guitar, vocals), Gary Louris (electric guitar, vocals), Marc Perlman (bass) and Norm Rogers (drums). By the time Hollywood Town Hall was released, Rogers had been replaced by Ken Callahan. After four additional albums and more line-up changes, the group went on hiatus in 2004. They reemerged with a new formation in 2019, which still includes Louris and Pearlman. Going back to Hollywood Town Hall, here’s the album’s great closer Martin’s Song, penned by Olson and Louris.

Stephen Stills/Right Now

How ’bout some ’70s? Ask and you shall receive! My pick is Stephen Stills – yep the guy who co-founded Canadian-American rock band Buffalo Springfield with that Canadian fellow Neil Young in 1966, and two years later got together with David Crosby and Graham Nash to form Crosby, Stills & Nash. In 1969, they added Young, became Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, played Woodstock and released the classic Déjà Vu in March 1970. Following CSNY’s success, Stills launched a solo career, just like the other three members of the group. In late 1971, he teamed up with Chris Hillman (formerly of The Byrds) to form the band Manassas. The group also included Al Perkins (steel guitar, guitar), Paul Harris (keyboards), Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass, backing vocals), Joe Lala (percussion, backing vocals) and Dallas Taylor (drums). Their eponymous debut from April 1972 was the first of two studio albums the group released, as Stephen Stills/Manassas – I assume for name recognition reasons. Plus, Stills wrote or co-wrote all except one of the tunes. Right Now is among the songs solely penned by him – love that tune!

Paul Simon/You Can Call Me Al

In August 1986, Paul Simon released what remains my favorite among his solo albums: Graceland. Evidently, many other folks liked it as well, making it Simon’s best-performing album, both in terms of chart success and sales. It also won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year (1987) and Record of the Year (1988) – confusing titles! While the first honors an album in its entirety, the second recognizes a specific track. Graceland features an eclectic mixture of musical styles, including pop, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, rock and mbaqanga. The album involved recording sessions in Johannesburg, South Africa, featuring local musicians. Therefore, it was criticized by some for breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa because of its policy of apartheid. One can only imagine what kind of firestorm a comparable activity would likely unleash nowadays with so much polarization boosted by social media! If I would have to pick one track from the album, I’d go with You Can Call Me Al, an infectious tune that among others features a crazy bass run by South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo.

Little Steven/Soulfire

Let’s keep the groove going with guitarist, songwriter, actor and (unofficial) music professor, the one and only Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven or Miami Steve. Van Zandt gained initial prominence as guitarist in various Bruce Springsteen bands, such as Steel Mill, Bruce Springsteen Band, and, of course, the mighty E Street Band. In 1981, Van Zandt started fronting an on-and-off group known as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. The following year, while still being an official member of the E Street Band, he released his debut solo album Men Without Women, credited as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. In April 1984, just before the release of the Born in the U.S.A. album, Van Zant officially left and recorded a series of additional solo albums. After a brief stint in 1995, he permanently rejoined Springsteen’s backing band in 1999. He also got into acting, which most notably included his role as mafioso and strip club owner Silvio Dante in the American TV crime drama series The Sopranos. This finally brings us to Soulfire, his sixth solo album from May 2017. The great title track was co-written by Van Zandt and Anders Bruus, the former guitarist of Danish rock band The Breakers. Here’s a cool live version!

The Sonics/Cinderella

And once again, we’re reaching our final destination of yet another Sunday Six excursion. For this one, let’s go back to the ’60s with some raw garage rock by The Sonics – coz why not! Formed in Tacoma, Wa. in 1960, they have often been called “the first punk band” and were a significant influence for American punk groups like The Stooges, MC5 and The Flesh Eaters. Cinderella is a track from the band’s sophomore release Boom, which appeared in February 1996. The tune was written by Gerry Roslie, the group’s keyboarder at the time. The line-up on the album also included founding members Larry Parypa (lead guitar, vocals) and his brother Andy Parypa (bass, vocals), along with Rob Lind (saxophone) and Bob Bennett (drums). Based on Wikipedia, The Sonics still appear to be around, with Roslie, Lind and Larry Parypa among their current members.

Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a Spotify playlist of the above tracks. Hope there’s something for you!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

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Paul Simon’s Eponymous U.S. Solo Debut Album Turns 50

Today, fifty years ago, Paul Simon released his eponymous solo album. His first record that appeared nearly two years after the break-up of his duo with Art Garfunkel was his second solo effort overall and the first to appear in the U.S. The Paul Simon Songbook from August 1965 had come out in the UK only. It would eventually be released in the U.S. in 1981 as part of a five-LP boxed set titled Collected Works.

Simon started work on the album in early 1971. For the reggae-influenced song Mother and Child Reunion, one of the reasons why I spontaneously decided to write about this 50th anniversary, he traveled to Jamaica. Simon liked reggae and listened to artists like Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Bryon Lee. So he decided to record the tune with Cliff’s backing band at a studio in Kingston to make it sound more authentic. Afterward, he went to San Francisco to record some demos there.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the songs. Opening Side one is the aforementioned Mother and Child Reunion. The tune had also appeared as the album’s lead single on January 17, 1972, Simon’s first single as a solo artist. Songfacts notes that Simon wrote this in response to the Jimmy Cliff song “Vietnam,” where a mother receives a letter about her son’s death on the battlefield…Simon said of the song that it “became the first reggae hit by a non-Jamaican white guy outside Jamaica. Among others, the tune reached no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, no. 4 in Canada and no. 5 in each the UK and Australia.

When I listened to the ballad Duncan for the first time, it reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa, because of the beautiful pan flute fill-ins. It turns out those flutes were played by Los Incas, the same Andean group of musicians who had previously collaborated with Simon & Garfunkel on El Condor Pasa. Duncan was also released separately as the album’s third and final single in July 1972. It charted in the U.S. and Australia but didn’t match the success of Mother and Child Reunion.

Another tune from Side one I’d like to call out is Run That Body Down, which has a nice jazzy touch. Some notable backing musicians on that track include renowned jazz double bassist Ron Carter and guitarist David Spinoza who among others worked with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the ’70s and produced James Taylor’s 1974 studio album Walking Man. Also, check out the great guitar solo by jazz guitarist Jerry Hahn, which starts at around 2:25 minutes.

Side two kicks off with one of Simon’s best-known songs and one of my favorites: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. The song’s meaning is unclear. Songfacts states, When asked what “Mama Pajama” saw that made her so distraught in this song, Paul Simon has said that he’s not exactly sure, but he assumed it was something sexual. Simon made up a crazy little story for the song, and named the main character Julio because it sounded like a typical New York neighborhood kid (Simon grew up in Queens). What Paul didn’t realize until years later was the impact the song had on Spanish-speaking listeners who were thrilled to hear a song coming out of America with a Latin name in the title. That’s how you do it: You just make up stuff, based on things you may have seen or read, and then have clever people debate what you meant. Bob Dylan anybody? Or how about Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? Julio also became the record’s second single. Its chart performance fell in-between Mother and Child Reunion and Duncan. It did best in Canada where it peaked at no. 6. On the U.S. and UK mainstream charts, it reached no. 22 and no. 15, respectively.

Next up: Peace Like a River. I decided to call out this song primarily because of Simon’s acoustic guitar playing, which blends folk with a dose of blues. Learning the acoustic guitar myself many years ago, I can definitely say he was one of the players I admired. The difference between Simon and myself: He became famous, while I always remained a closet acoustic guitarist! 🙂

The last tune I’d like to call out is a short instrumental titled Hobo’s Blues. Did I just say instrumental? No vocals, something I’m generally addicted to? Yep, sometimes you don’t need vocals. The standout here is French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, the only musician on the track besides Simon on acoustic guitar. Pretty neat!

Paul Simon was co-produced by Simon and Roy Halee who had co-produced Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (April 1968) and Bridge over Troubled Water (January 1970) albums. He also had co-produced the tune Mrs. Robinson from the soundtrack of the motion picture The Graduate, for which he had won a Grammy Award.

The album was mostly well-received by critics. According to Wikipedia, even Robert Christgau had something positive to say, writing in the Village Voice, “this is the only thing in the universe to make me positively happy in the first two weeks of February 1972” – jeez, he must have been on some substance! And in Rolling Stone that year, Jon Landau called the album Simon’s “least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far — this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme.”

The album, which in 1986 reached Platinum certification in the U.S., topped the charts in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Notably, it was Simon’s only no. 1 album in the UK in the ’70s. It would take until the fantastic Graceland from 1986 to reach the top spot again. In Canada and The Netherlands, Paul Simon climbed to no. 2, while in the U.S. and Australia, it reached no. 4 and no. 5, respectively. The record was ranked at no. 268 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also made the list for the 2020 update, coming in at no. 425.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify