Monday, August 26, 2013

Will Lee - Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions, First Solo Album in Twenty Years for New York's Premier Sideman

Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions

With all due respect to James Brown, Larry Braggs, and anyone else who has a legitimate claim to the title, Will Lee may very well be the hardest working man in show business. Will is a New York bass player who has played with possibly more artists on more albums than any other musician (more major artists and major albums too). I don't know if anyone keeps track of these things; his album credits are way too numerous to even count, but his press agent puts the number at about 1,700. Seriously. Click on his discography and scroll down to see the albums he's played on.

Here's a sample of artists he's worked with, either as musician, singer, songwriter or producer: Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Al Kooper, Laura Nyro, Cat Stevens, Donovan, James Brown, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Ronnie Spector, the Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Diana Ross, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Gloria Estefan, Pat Martino, Bob James, David Sanborn, Astrud Gilberto, The Bee Gees, Ray Charles, Frankie Valli, Weather Report, Gov't Mule, B.B. King, Hiram Bullock, Oz Noy, Gato Barbieri, Al Green, Dionne Warwick, Clarence Clemons, Phoebe Snow, Patti Austin, Tim Moore, Grover Washington, Jr., Taj Mahal, Ringo Starr, Billy Joel, Herbie Mann, Mariah Carey, Pat Metheny, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney.

In addition to his session work, Will is a member of two groups, for whom his loyalty and longevity is unheard of in the music business. Will has played in David Letterman's studio band starting when Letterman first debuted in late night in 1982. For the first 11 years it was the World's Most Dangerous Band on NBC, and for the last 20 years, the CBS Orchestra, all under the direction of bandleader Paul Shaffer. Will has also been in the Fab Faux, the finest Beatles tribute band, since it's inception in 1998. As if that wasn't enough, he often goes on tour with artists he has backed in the studio.

With the high demand for his services, he somehow finds time to gig nightly in New York City, even maintaining long term associations with guitarists Hiram Bullock, Oz Noy, and possibly others. Hiram Bullock was an immensely underappreciated guitarist, songwriter, and singer. Hiram, like Will, started as a high caliber session musician (guitar solo on Sting's version of Hendrix' "Little Wing"), in fact Will met Hiram in the late seventies and formed a lifelong musical relationship and in the early days they played a lot of gigs and sessions together.

Hiram and Will, Photo by Teague C.

Hiram made a name for himself as a jazz guitarist before embarking in 1986, on a solo career that included eleven albums and success in eastern Europe and Japan. Will was right there with him in the studio and at gigs. I saw Hiram lots of times during the five or so years before Hiram's death in 2008. Whenever Hiram would play in NY, I would drive up from Philadelphia to see him, Will always played bass and sang; there were so many incredible nights of music that I feel blessed to have been there. Will also produced a double live DVD tribute to Hiram. Will discusses working with Hiram in this video. Will has worked with Oz Noy live and in the studio since 1986. Will has also played on virtually every George Benson album for decades.

Which brings us to Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions. In his forty year career, Will has taken the time to make an album of his own only once before, Oh! (1993). For his second album, Will wrote or co-wrote seven new songs, selected several interesting cover songs, recorded them with many of his incredible musician friends, and produced it himself. Will said “Every song is it’s own little adventure. And every word of it is true.” It is a nicely varied record, so let's take it track by track.

Listen to "Gratitude"

1. Gratitude (4:07) Will co-wrote the music with Leni Stern who also played ngoni (an African stringed instrument) and acoustic guitar. Paul Shaffer played organ and special guest Pat Metheny took the solo on guitar synth. Will co-wrote the lyrics with Willie Nile and it's Will's very personal story "about just feeling grateful for being alive today. There was a period in my life where I had the realization that I was killing myself so I made a conscious decision to try and figure out a way to live and also be happy. That feeling gave rise to an outlook of love and gratitude. And I’ve been able to live by trying to keep in touch with those feelings.” Will nicely incorporates the Serenity Prayer into his lyrics, to underline his gratitude for his many years of sobriety. All that, and a most tuneful number with a passionate vocal gets the album off to a flying start.

2. Get Out Of My Life Woman (5:32) rocks out with some fine guitar by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons who also sang a soulful duet with Will. The song was written by Allen Toussaint who got funky, New Orleans style, on piano. Drums were played by rock solid New York fixture Shawn Pelton, and Will played bass, guitar, organ, and did the synth progrrammng. Will described the spontaneity of the recording. “I had my engineer coming over that night to work on another song, and right in the middle of doing that the phone rang, and it was Billy Gibbons calling. He said, ‘Ah’m in town!’ So when I heard him speak I said, ‘Hey man, you wanna come over tonight and sing Get Out My Life Woman’ for my album, with me?’ And he says, ‘I got a terrible cold and my voice is all raw.’

Then he pauses a second and says, ‘Yeah, I wanna get this recorded before it goes away.’ He couldn’t wait to come over and record that song. After we were done I flashed on Allen Toussaint for the piano part. I called him and he was so enthusiastic that it made me want to get deep into it. So I went out and bought a really nice, expensive piano sample for my Midi keyboard that I have at home, and I tweaked it for hours to try to make it sound just right. And he was happy. Of course, he would’ve been happy with a goofy kids' keyboard. He’s just that much into playing that he can make music on anything anyway.”

3. Miss Understanding (5:41) This Will Lee composition brings to mind Jules Shear or Boz Scaggs at their radio-friendly pop-rock hook-laden best. The late Hugh McCracken played acoustic guitar, Larry Campbell played the beautiful pedal steel, and Kenny White played keyboards. Will talked about the writing, “Some tunes you write in 20 minutes, others you write in 20 years. I labored over ‘Gratitude’ for about a good year but ‘Miss Understanding’ wrote itself in 20 minutes.”

4. Papounet's Ride (4:17) is an instrumental, inspired by Will's father in-law (Papounet), propelled by the drumming of Narada Michael Walden. Will carries the melody on his bass; he wrote and arranged the track with David Delhomme, who played keyboards. Special guest Bob James also played keyboards, including the piano solo. Will explained, “On this tune I was trying to convey the feeling of being in the car with him driving, because he’s a maniac at the wheel. We’ll go down these long straightaways in the South of France and it’s just like your life is in your hands. And hopefully I got the energy conveyed on that track, with the help of Narada and everything else that’s going on.”

Listen to "Fooled Him"

5. Fooled Him (5:17) I think of this as Will's Steely Dan tune; play the video and see for yourself. Will wrote with Oli Rockberger on this track which features the dream team of Steve Gadd on drums, Will on bass and vocals, Oli on keys, and the cooler than cool guitar of Chuck Loeb. Will talked about the lyrics, “It’s about a girl who thought she was in control and love got a hold of her and she didn’t know what to do with it.” He adds, “It’s a little bit autobiographical too because my whole life I’ve been trying to have love with somebody, and had been mostly me trying to make it happen every time there was a relationship, trying to be in control. And it took me years, decades to find out that love doesn’t work like that. So when I finally gave up on finding love, when I finally let go, that’s when real love finally came in.”

6. Shahara (6:44) comes on like a side trip to Morocco with an enormously tuneful and unflinching anti-war statement written by Will with a superb arrangement by Mitch Forman and a gem of a string arrangement by Gil Goldstein. Will "envisioned a soldier in the French foreign legion out on the desert trying make sense of the war that he’s fighting. “He has this realization that this wasn’t going anywhere and it was all bullshit, and that back home there was actually love waiting for him. So he chooses to get on out of there instead of continuing the stupid war exercise. It’s the classic message of, to quote Marvin Gaye...’War is not the answer.’” Or to quote Edwin Starr’s 1969 anti-Vietnam War protest song: ‘War...what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!’” The exotic atmosphere (African instruments, wordless vocals, and strings) combined with the unstoppable melody and the anti-war sentiment makes this one of my favorite tracks on this very strong album.

Listen to "1,2,3"

7. 1,2,3(3:40) is an unexpected and inspired cover of the 1965 Len Barry hit. This will take listeners of a certain age, right back to high school (or jr. high) dances in the gym. Giulio Carmassi did the arrangement and played cello, trumpet, tenor saxophone, keyboards and programming. Will sang this as a duet with Akiko Yano. “I’ve always had this feeling that the song could be done in a really slow, cool kind of bossa nova-y way, or something very sensual,” he says. “I always thought that there was something there but it went by too fast. So I talked it over with Akiko Yano, who is an amazingly gifted artist who probably has as big of an awareness of American music as anyone I’ve ever met. She’s got a huge vocabulary for American pop stuff as well as being a well-versed jazz player so she’s like the ideal singing partner for this tune. And she loved the idea.”

8. Simple Way To Say I Love You (5:45) is a soft and beautiful instrumental, with the melody coming from Will's fretless bass, and a wonderfully old school harmonica solo by Gary Schreiner. Will wrote it with old friend, guitarist John Tropea, who also played on it. Oli Rockberger played keyboard and worked with Will on the arrangement. According to Will, “That’s a piece I had written for Tropea’s album years ago and I always thought it would work great as a fretless melody, so I kind of stuck it on the album,”

9. Natives (4:07) Oz Noy played guitar and Steve Lukather took the guitar solo on this jazz-rock workout, while drummer Steve Gadd drove, including drum solo. David Garfield played keyboards and co-arranged the track with Will. Will explained that he was inspired by a track from Horace Silver’s Song for My Father album (1965). “He had a tune on there called ‘The Natives Are Restless', and I was always intrigued by the title. To my mind, Horace Silver is like the bridge between traditional 4/4 swinging jazz and what we call ‘funk.’ He was really the guy who helped usher in a whole new kind of groove for jazz by taking the ding-ding-a-ding and putting a halftime backbeat on it, for example. And I always loved playing with him (I'd been a part of his quintet in 1973), so this tune is definitely a nod and a thank you to Horace, even though he didn’t really write most of what we came up with. The title and that first line are directly from him, everything after that is all original stuff.”

10. Smile (3:03) Will brings it home, accompanied only by Chuck Loeb's guitar, with the old Charlie Chaplin classic, played on bass with an arrangement that originated on a Hiram gig. Will explained, “It’s a song that happened on a Hiram Bullock gig one night. I had been messing around with those harmonics, seeing how they kind of lined up in a certain key on the bass, and this particular night Hiram had an electrical problem with his guitar on stage. So instead of stopping the whole show, I kind of went into this ‘Smile’ thing on solo bass. It was really frightening because I hadn’t figured the rest of the song out and didn’t know where it was going to go. But it ended up being this arrangement, basically. And I wanted something vaguely orchestral behind it to make it not just a guy playing a bunch of notes on the bass. Enter Chuck Loeb, ever the magician who can create a soundscape like nobody’s business. And we sat down and did it live in my studio in just a couple of takes.”

For all of the above reasons, Will has made a standout album, one that not only puts his many talents front and center, but it's a record in which Will didn't hesitate to open up and put himself into his songs. I could say that I can't get enough of "Gratitude", "Get Out Of My Life Woman", "Fooled Him", and "Shahara", but every track is excellent and if you ask me tomorrow I might give you a different list. We all knew Will could play, based on his incredible career, and I knew he could sing, based on years of seeing him play with Hiram, but one of the most impressive aspects of Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions is Will's songwriting skill. This record succeeds by every measure and stands as one of the best albums I have heard this year.

Bonus Videos:  First up is a live recording of the Fab Faux at the City Winery in NYC, last New Year's Eve, 12/31/2012. Will sang lead on "Eleanor Rigby".

Next is a really sweet version of "Maybe I'm Amazed" that Will recorded in December, 2012. Will explains, "This was done for my niece Leeann by special request from her for her wedding on December 17th 2012. Yes, I got choked up at one point, but decided to keep it in. It was made from love and in good fun and is dedicated to Leeann and her family."

Will Lee's Website
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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Golden Age of Television is Now:  the Return of Breaking Bad, the Walking Dead, and Homeland

I'm excited about three of my favorite television shows coming back with new episodes, proving that excellent writing and acting can make a show awesome, even if you have zero interest in the subject matter. Such is the case with all three of these shows; insanely great writing made me obsessively love them. Which is why this is the golden age of television; a good series is far superior to most new movies. A truly great series has no peer in entertainment.

Breaking Bad:  When I watched the first episode of Breaking Bad, my initial thought was that I had no interest in watching a show about a chemistry teacher making crystal meth. During episode two I started to get it, by episode three I was hooked. Now I can't wait for the final eight episodes to start tomorrow. This week I've been re-watching the first eight episodes of the fifth and final season, which just became available for streaming at Netflix.

As I learned during the latest season of Game of Thrones, shows operating at this level have a lot more to offer than you can absorb in one viewing. With Breaking Bad, once you already know the story, re-watching an episode allows you to really appreciate the elegant writing, the artful dialog, the superb acting, and the impressive cinematography.

Watching on Netflix is better than watching the original broadcast because there are no commercials. Breaking Bad makes excellent use of the surround capability of the soundtrack. If you watched "The Fly" episode in 5.1, you heard the fly buzz around your viewing room in three dimensions. And (spoiler alert), the sound of the train in the train robbery episode has to heard on a good 5.1 sound system to be believed. The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad begin August 11th on AMC.

The Walking Dead:  I avoided Zombie movies my whole life because I just wasn't interested. Until recently when a friend brought over the Zombieland movie on DVD. Surprisingly, the script was smart and funny, the cast was excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now that I had been sufficiently softened on the concept of zombies, I was ready to dip a toe (figuratively) into the Walking Dead.

To say that I was blown away right from the first episode would be an understatement. Three seasons in, I can tell you that the writing, the cast and the characters are about a hundred times better than you'd ever imagine if you don't watch the show. The genius of the Walking Dead is that while the zombies play a major role in it, the show is not specifically about zombies.

It's really about a bunch of compelling characters who come together attempting to survive in an impossible world after a zombie apocalypse. The constant danger that the zombies represent magnifies the human emotions in every interaction to the point that the drama is intense and the story is gripping. That's why the Walking Dead draws 11 million viewers and beats all the major networks in it's Sunday night time slot. The fourth season of the Walking Dead begins October 13th on AMC.

Homeland:  I let two seasons of Homeland go by without being tempted to try it, even a little. I could not imagine how a show about Middle Eastern terrorists could possibly be entertaining. I generally avoid all media every year on 9/11 because the events of that day were horrific and I remember it all too well thank you very much, without being inundated every year with endless anniversary events and coverage.

So last year the praise for Homeland reached such a fever pitch that when Showtime offered up a free week, I had to see what the fuss was about. I got immediately obsessed with Homeland; the drama and the story were so riveting that I couldn't stop watching, often devouring two episodes per night, sometimes three.

When the free week was over I subscribed to Showtime to keep watching (also for Dexter and Shameless); they do know what they're doing with that free week promotion. Homeland is so excellent that I was never happier to have my preconceptions exploded (so to speak), just like with the Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Season three of Homeland begins September 29th on Showtime.

Bonus Video: Breaking Bad - Say My Name. Spoiler alert - do not watch if you haven't seen the first eight episodes of season five.