Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ellis Paul....naked

Tonight my buddy Murray and I went to see a musician named Ellis Paul at the Rubin Museum here in New York City, located just two blocks from my place.

The Rubin is an AMAZING space, devoted to art of Tibetan and Eastern cultures. The influence is heavily Buddhist. The museum is in the space formerly occupied by tres chic Barney's Department store, and is now several floors of beautifully displayed art. Also there's a lot of great stuff in the gift shop (maybe slightly cheesy, but I love this kind of stuff) and a really nice looking bar/cafe.

My relationship with Ellis Paul is a 6 degrees of separation kind, but I really have a lot of respect for his music, because my first introduction to it was very profound....

Here's the back-story: I have a buddy/colleague/collaborator who began his association with me as my guitar student, back in Richmond Va. in the 80's, named Damion Wolfe. Damion is an amazingly talented guy who was not then a prodigy, but has by now grown into a musician that has a depth that can't be acquired by easy means. We had been out of touch for many years, when one day his CD arrived, maybe 1997 or so, unsolicited in the mail. I felt a lot of trepidation when I put it in for the first time, remembering the friendly but struggling student from years before, but to my surprise, the CD blew me away.

That was the beginning of a new relationship with Damion in which we became colleagues, and it made it very satisfying, particularly knowing the part I played in his earlier years.

So our relationship progresses, and we come to a point where we are working on Damion's second CD, "Here, There and That Way", from 2001. The work was progressing nicely when September 11th 2001 occurred, and I naturally (living about a mile from ground zero) had a bit of trouble getting back into it. Of course we all remember it well, but it is notable that 14th street was the furthest downtown that you could go (I'm on 18th). There were heartbreaking posters on bus stops and store windows of people who were missing with handwritten pleas by family members to contact them, there were candlelight vigils every night in Union Square Park, which is two blocks below me and in my view from my window, and smoke was still billowing up from where the tower had stood. People were walking around in stunned silence weeping uncontrollably.

In this backdrop, I languished for days, not being able to find the strength to go back to work. Finally one day, I decided to force myself back to the studio. Well, Damion had given me a stack of CDs that had examples of the kind of sound he was looking for (He had changed from mild mannered student to ball buster in the intervening years...). I picked up one of the discs and read the post-it note on the case: "Track 11- nice vocal sound". I put it in the player, located track 11, and from a high sweet vocal (accompanied only by a solo guitar) came the following lyric:

"Tell the man who repairs the wings for angels,
That one has fallen among the mortals on Bleecker Street.
I lent a hand, but she looked up at the steeples,
as if to blame them for the pavement beneath her feet.

She said 'I don't really much like flying,
but the job requires trying,
the hard part's avoiding buildings and concrete.'

Spread the news: I saw an angel fly from Manhattan,
in front of paparazzi, in front of television crews
let the people choose, would a little faith come to harm them?
print the headlines up in the New York Daily News-
It was just another day, like any other, other day,
a Tuesday afternoon....."


I cried like a baby. For days I did nothing but listen to that one song- over and over and over. Even as I write this, I get a little choked up thinking about it.

That song was my first introduction to singer/songwriter Ellis Paul. It's called "Angel in Manhattan".

So when I heard Ellis was coming to New York to play at the Rubin Museum in the Naked Soul series I was quite excited to see him. Naked Soul is a series which takes place in the Museum's 137 seat theater, built almost entirely of Cherry wood, which is acoustically very live. The musicians use no amplification of any kind.

Ellis was solo, and he had 2 guitars and a nice (real) piano for the show. It was not incredibly well attended given the hall's capacity, but the folks who were there were obviously fans. Ellis is an amazing performer. He has an enticing way of sprinkling in good humor, interesting stories and easy banter which really makes the audience feel comfortable, and he himself has a great comfort level. For those who have not experienced it, it takes a lot of fortitude to actually stand in front of a group of people alone and sing, naturally, with no huge band or vocal effects to hide behind. Also, the emotions, the subjects of his songs are heartfelt, and presenting them is also an act of courage. It's quiet courage, not aggression, but it's courage nonetheless.

For the Naked soul series, the performers are asked to pick a piece of art from the space which is then projected on the wall behind them. They are supposed to tailor their song selections around that. Ellis had chosen a work called "Circle of Bliss", which were two figures in copulative bliss, accompanied by a lot of imagery. It depicts a sacred and tantric kind of sex.

He is also a song machine. Much to my chagrin, he didn't perform "Angel in Manhattan" (I assume because it didn't fit the mission), but he obviously had a plethora of material to choose from, since I knew a few of his songs (good ones) that he did not do. He also performed new stuff. In fact, in one spot he forgot the words, and it got a little scary for a second. Thank god Simon Cowell wasn't around to comment!

But it was a solid hour and a half of good material. There were moments of real transcendence. His voice is very high (a true gift in a male singer) and his intonation is impeccable....almost. There were a few long held notes that went flat as they sustained, but it wasn't too bad. It was a concern for me however. When I mentioned that to Murray (who has ears like a dog) he said "yeah, but only a couple of times". I agreed. Murray then said that he was sometimes bothered by the intonation of the guitar. On this I couldn't have cared less.

The thing I loved about the guitar is that he only played one piece in a standard tuning without a capo. There were a lot of alternate tunings, which I love. As a veteran guitarist, the sound of a different tuning gives me the feel of a different instrument, and so there's a variety there that is really great. Many of the tunings he used were real earthy, so that lent a sense of the primal to the songs -- really evocative. When you're retuning all the time, intonation will be challenging. Also he broke a string, which adds a difficulty. I never use new strings on a gig because they go out of tune quickly.

With his guitar playing, he has an almost orchestral approach, he emulates the sound of a rhythm section in his finger picking and there are percussive techniques used there. [As a side note, Damion has also incorporated this approach, and takes it to an amazing level.] Ellis' chords are filled with all sort of beautiful voicings and accessory tones, and he fills the melodic points of rest in with sweet little 'hooky' kinds of fills, hammer on/pull off stuff, sliding 4ths and other tasty things. It's really nice.

On the piano his approach is a little more one dimensional. I couldn't see his hands, but I could hear what's going on. Mostly it's octaves in the left hand and triads in the right. There were very few fills complementing his lovely singing.

How's this for a suggestion Ellis: in "Home" the chorus is C-F-am- C/G->G. How about adding a 'd' (the ninth) in the 1st C chord, a 'g' (also the 9th) to the F chord and/or the 'a' to the G chord? Those 9ths with no 7th would add the sense of yearning you are creating. That's what you'd do if it were on the guitar, I'll bet. Also, add a passing tone or two in the bass to make more of a part out of it. Lose the octaves, except maybe in the climaxes. Try to separate the hands a little to create more of the 'orchestral' effect you achieve on guitar. Add a fill or two in the right hand at a point of rest in the melody, or maybe a passing chord. A couple more curlycues here and there.

Also watch for the rhythmic spaces, if anything wait longer in that profound moment where there's a 4 beat silence. My piano teacher used to say about my solo piano playing "what are the drums doing?". When you play solo guitar, I know exactly "what the drums are doing" (if you get what I'm saying).

Now before someone says that I didn't enjoy it because of the last two paragraphs, I have to say that 43 years of music making leaves me with very strong ideas about the possibilities. Don't take that as more negative than it is. The piano is on balance an addition - another color. This guy delivers from the heart, and he does so with an amazing amount of talent and commitment and gentleness and warmth and humanity. This evening was one of the great evenings for me. Also, this is one of the first tickets I've paid for in 2008, and that says something, because I do see a lot of concerts.

Postscript: As the days went by after 9/11, I finally realized that Ellis probably had other songs on this album I would like, so one day, instead of starting with track 11, I went to the top and played the whole CD straight through. This is a live album, and so there is some talking on the tracks. I was surprised when I got to track 10 to find Ellis explains what the song 'Angel in Manhattan' is actually about, and turns out that the song is written with a transvestite in mind, who Ellis saw ride up on a bicycle one day to an outdoor cafe he was sitting at. The guy had a lyre I believe.

It's really about a guy living his life in a unique way. Which leads me to the next paragraph.

So, one day last May my next door neighbor, a beautiful man named Dan, passes away in a suicide, and I once again returned to the song "Angel in Manhattan". Regular readers of my blog will remember this episode. We had known each other for 23 years, and I was the last person to see him alive. He was also a guy living his life in a unique way.

Well, I worked up a cover of the song -- mostly just to get myself through the day. The cover is transposed down a little, and the guitar (again it's just guitar and voice) follows the emotional arc of the music a little more 'classically' than his does (which grooves a little more throughout). I built in stops, and moments of silence, stuff like that. I also end it in a more introspective way, as Ellis' ending is quasi triumphant.

I've never performed it for anyone, but I thought about doing it for Dan's family at the service. I couldn't ever get through it without tears...

I figure I'll probably do a recording at some point. It's daunting though, because although people give me good feedback on my singing, I'm really a guitarist/pianist who sings a little. Ellis is a SINGER. I had hoped to do a quick take and personally give it to Ellis to hear, but I didn't get the chance. Oh well...

There were a few too many folks lined up to say hi, and my conversation topics were all long ones...Does he remember Damion? How does he like Charlottesville? (he moved there, and I spent a lot of time there on day trips from military school - another story for another day). So I just bolted. Also I would've wanted to tell him what I've told you above. Oh well...

So thanks for the music Ellis, and a wonderful show, and that's from the heart...

On the Net:

Ellis on myspace
Buy an Ellis Paul record, or contribute to his new one.
Damion's page
Rubin Museum