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Thoughts On Some Musical Heroes
By Mick Polich - 11/14/2008 - 09:22 AM EST

Thoughts on some music heroes – not the first, or even a final commentary, but some thoughts, nonetheless……

We love our heroes – built them up, tear ‘em down, build them back up if they get that chance!!!

I had a couple in the early days – some ‘obscure’ cats outta the Rock/Blues/Metal/Jazzer Canon. Michael Schenker? Check. Steve Kahn? Check. Eric Johnson? Double check.

Prayed and bowed at that altar, then turned the Marshall up to 11, and waved mah freak flag HIGH!!!!

What’s an Iowa boy ta’ DO???

Might as well – I mean, I was brought up in the Electric Guitar Age, so you kinda get surrounded by the stuff…

It’s fun to look back at the people and events that have influenced you musically, and artistically – at least I think so, anyway. You get to catalog a whole history that shows you where you’ve been, and where you’re headed.

I’ve had heroes in music and the arts – young, old, spanning genders, ethnicities, and cultural divides. If they put a spark in your being and peak you interest to inspire yourself to keep creating, then they’re heroes. Usually, not without flaws, the complex nature of my heroes I find fascinating – from a distance. It’s a cop-out? You bet – I wouldn’t want to live with ‘em or take care of ‘em, but I dig what they create, or have created.

If you scan my CD collection, you’ll see collections of a handful of artists that are proliferating – Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane.

Let’s go for some artists that the public would generally not recognize, but they are equally influential, wide-ranging, and perhaps superior to a lot of artists that people would stamp a label on just because the general public doesn’t know any better. In my eyes, that’s always the problem. Sometimes, the ‘present’ gets all wrapped up, shined up, and polish with a big ol’ label on it that says ‘blues’, ‘jazz’, or ‘pop’ when you know that ain’t the only (or best route) to take. As much I respect Eric Clapton, he’ll tell you straight up that people like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, or Magic Sam deserve equally as many accolades (and if he doesn’t tell you, I will, and I’ll slap some sense into that boy...

Another artist that I wanted to bring up would be Pat Martino. I know I’ve told y’all that I would pay some respects to this man, and his story is one that I can’t do justice to in a short article, so I will suggest heading to his website, or some of the excellent interviews that are on-line regarding Pat. It’s one thing to establish yourself as a jazz giant the first half of your career, but it’s a completely different mode to bounce back, no, wait, CLAW back from a brain aneurysm where you forget who you are, and what you used to be able to do. Learn your old songs, licks, style, and musical substance by listening to your old records? Man, I can’t even imagine – neither can any of you, I bet. But the man did it in the early 1980’s to now – check out any of the recent YouTube videos – Pat is killin’ it( my favorite – ”Sunny” from the 2002 Umberia Jazz Fest).

Pat Martino was born Pat Azzara in Philly – his father took a look at baby Pat’s hands and said, “you will play guitar” (or how the legend goes). Pat joined Brother Jack McDuff’s organ trio at a very young age, and took off from there. Doug Miers, one of my guitar teachers from DSM, played me “Pat Martino: Live!” when I was a teenager – I couldn’t wrap my head around all of it – pretty advanced jazz - but it was intriguing, and I’ve been listening to Pat ever since. Pat is somewhat unheralded (Pat Metheny gets accolades as a ‘jazz guitarist’ – rightly so, but Metheny has had better press and the good looks that A and R people like to ‘sell’ jazz to the general public – again Pat Metheny is a great player, but there is always the need to ‘sell’, you know…), but Martino has continued to put out quality music since his debut album back in the 1960’s. Pat Martino’s harmonic and melodic concepts far outstrip many of his contemporaries on any instrument, in any area. He’s playing better than ever, in my humble opinion, and embracing all faucets of the varied styles of his long career, such as soul jazz and a recent tribute to Wes Montgomery.

Hey, let’s take an extreme left turn, and look at an old-school favorite of mine – Willie Nelson. Now, you native sons and daughters of Texas already know from which I speak, but damn, you need a few statutes and a national holiday for Willie, I do believe! Seriously – kind of put aside the movies and the all-star CD projects that might have been semi-misguided (but kept Willie in enough dough to fend off the IRS, take care of his kids, and a few ex-wives), and Willie Nelson is, and has been a musical innovator. Not very many folks can hang with Wynton Marsalis, even if they are playing the blues – lordy, even Miles Davis wrote a song in Willie’s honor!

I was living out on my aunt’s farm north of Des Moines, Ia., back in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, and I had been unaware that Willie’s music had been filtering thru my ears for quite awhile. WHO – AM was one of the biggest radio stations at the time (50,000 watts, and influential enough to qualify it for a place in the Country Music Hall Of Fame), regularly spinning the country hits of the day from Buck Owens, Skeeter Davis, Loretta Lynn, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves, and ol’ Willie, of course. Fast forward a few years to the end of the ‘70’s – I had started my bar band career, and was getting any gigs I could anywhere to play music. Country gigs were plentiful, as a lot of small towns around Des Moines would welcome some good shee-at kickin’ music on a Friday or Saturday night ( especially during those long, cold Iowa winters – 30 below? Pass the Wild Turkey, please! Sorry, kids, don’t mean to soil my already useless reputation, but a man HAD to survive….). Willie’s tunes “Nightlife” and “Crazy” were already standards in everybody’s playbook – cool chord changes and insightful lyrics, enough of a good morsel to get you thru a few fistfights and dumped beer bottles on your equipment.

I had not gotten hip at the time to Willie’s ‘concept’ album,” Red Headed Stranger”, but the ‘urban cowboy’ movement was gaining gear, and a lot of my soon-to-be life buddies were jumping on the train. I was doing rock gigs, and moved thru a couple of fusion bands, as finally I moved into position with a long-standing DSM country-rock act that was turning a corner into pop material called Colt .45. As we brought in songs by Huey Lewis, the Police, and even Michael Jackson (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen cowboys two-stepping to “Billie Jean”), the country-rock trappings of Colt began to shed, but there still was some element of the old days, because we hung on to a few country standards, and a Willie song would pop up occasionally.  At home after gigs, I would spin “Red Headed Stranger” amidst all the hair metal stuff I was listening to (yes, I still had enough hair at the time, but not quite enough for an Aqua Net make-over….). Slowly the words, music, and concept would make sense, and that’s when I started to respect the man who’s music had been swirling around me for so many years.

Willie has moved thru so many styles – reggae, rock, jazz (the man’s vocal phrasings –behind the beat, and almost un-country like at times, remind you of a great jazz soloist), even folk and kids tunes. Those diverse styles all filter through, and it comes out ‘Willie’.

Last, I want to touch on a less - heralded, but no less respected jazz composer/player by the name of Sam Rivers. Sam has been around for eons, and has led and written for big and small bands. The thing about Sam is his approach to voicing the harmony and chords in a big band setting – some would call it atonal; yep, could be, but it is very unique and cool. And Sam is up in his 80’s (83 at last count), and doing his thing still! Sam is a venerable jazz pillar, having played with Miles Davis and helped in the discovery of the late drum legend Tony Williams. Sam’s music has been (at least with his big band) wonderfully melodic in an atonal way – his 1999 releases of two CDs, “Inspiration” and “Culmination” have been inspiring, and an intense listening experience for me, personally. Sam, and his wife Bea, ran a jam session/ workshop in New York’s loft scene many years ago, and have had such great players such as Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, and Steve Coleman pass thru their ranks. What strikes a chord in me with Sam’s music is his sense of harmonically sophisticated lines and chords – if Thelonious Monk was still living and writing more horn based big band music, it would fall into this manner.

You know, people, I have said that no music is out of reach for the common person – all it takes are open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. We all have our artistic heroes, and there are more out there waiting to be discovered. You don’t need a degree, contrary to what others may have said – just listen openly, and discover a few more heroes of your own!

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