I’ve said this time and time again. If you know jazz, then you know me. Well, if you know Michael Franks then you’re getting pretty close to my heart. There have been only a few jazz artists to stir my soul in such a way as to say that they could reach my true feelings, ambitions and strife. George Howard was one. Each time he came out with a new album, it seemed as if he was going through the same life situations as I. I’m sorry he’s gone. Michael Franks is another. Truly my soul mate, Mike seems to have lived the last 20 years of his life walking in my shoes. It’s like we’ve been locked in a Vulcan mind meld. Every time Mike comes up with a new concept for an album, I look at the cover before playing it and think over my life’s path since his last CD was pressed, only this time, you’ve been with me. Every move I’ve made, thought I’ve thought, love I’ve loved, Mike knows all about it. Through my writings you’ve been given glimpses. Buy any of his CDs and you’ll have the whole story. He’s my heart’s therapist and always seems to put my questioning of loving and living into perspective.
Michael Franks’ “Abandoned Garden”, circa 1995, was one of the first CDs I reviewed on this site. All his music before and after has been the inspiration for my writing, romancing, and love’s wondering wanderings. I emailed Mike a few years ago and again last month to follow up on this assumption. To my surprise, I was right! We both have gone through troubling divorces, been confused by the effects of affection, and even questioned that which is unquestionable at approximately the same time. It’s kind of eerie knowing that someone can sing your heart and soul without even knowing you personally. Mike’s music always opens me up to new ways of looking at where I’ve been, where I’m going and how to express the trip. I’ll share some of this with you in this open love letter from Mike and Me.
Michael Franks’ new album is entitled Barefoot on the Beach and was released in May of this year. The title cut is the first to bounce from the Bose. Remember my review last month of Scott Wilkie? When I wrote about being on the beach playing solitaire with the waves, this is the lyrical lambasting that would go with the cerebral landscape. Mike sings about walking down the Gulf shore shamelessly shoeless, lonefully longing for that someone not too far but not to near but either. Just a plane ride away, he asks her again and again to accompany him on his “Captiva Island”. I don’t have much, just as Mike suggests, but what I do have is the love for life and the dreams and gumption to follow it through. As a student in college, I've been blessed to afford all the riches and trappings that only a shoestring budget can afford. Yep. There are times I also feel incomplete here on my island in the middle of deep green grass. I’ll admit that I need that someone in my life to help tie up its ends. What’s that that Mike says? “Is it green or blue I’m in? Easily subdued I'm in”? It’s much easier to explicate such things to someone who knows your heart. Mike knows just what to say at just the right time. I wish I had such syncopation.
I dated a girl whom I can say, truly knew my heart, unambiguously reading it like an open book. She called me Pumpkin. Shhh, don’t laugh! It was sweet. Track two “Heart Like an Open Book” is a tribute to the uneasy fact of being read and not versed and, like I said in the opening of this self exposing, self examination, you, my readers, know her too. Been there when I done that. Go back and read the Bob Baldwin review, you’ll remember her. I’ve always been so afraid of opening my true soul to anyone that, like Mike says, I’ve also “put faith in disguises assuming my heart could be concealed.” Never could I have had a harder time at the attempt than when I was with “G”. “Saw through me my secrets were soon revealed. And weak from your Ingrid Bergman look. To crash all my coconuts down you shook”. Her kitchen action wasn’t too bad either :-) Just keep reading.
“Heart Like an Open Book” is the second taste we get of this new contemporary sound that Michael has developed. Those like myself, devotees of Michael Franks, don’t be disheartened. It still is absolutely amicable as Michael Franks usually is and it builds on the style first laid down on his mid-eighties releases of “Skin Dive” and “The Camera Never Lies”. It was the last cut on “The Camera Never Lies” that broke me down while waiting for pizza one day. Remember “G”? We sat in the car and waited for Pizza Girl to come from the hut. I exclaimed what was going through my soul and then, BOOM, “No more innuendos”. Turned the page that day didn’t you?
This grand new sound of Mr. Franks all may be due to the fact of his switching labels. A Warner Brothers solid staple for 24 years, Mr. Franks now winds up on the Windham Hill. Having talked his way out of a two more CD contract, he says that the move inspired him to write this new material with “Real happiness and optimism while the leaves fell and the snow began to fly.” He also switched producers, again, this time going with axe man Chuck Loeb (my first review) and bassist Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets. The results of this collaboration are dirty white socks on your feet, a spotlessly clean house, folded and pressed clothes and a damp mop. Mike doesn’t do windows.
A granite graduate of the school of hard knocks, I got a slab of marble for a diploma when I walked across the stage of life, hand out, reaching, grinning like that cat in Alice’s tree. I’m a dreamer, quixotically questing for the loves I see in the movie theaters. “i.e. Zhivago with his Lara in their cottage in the snow…ten below.” “G” was my best teacher, directing me toward that end. Valerie says “Guess my heart blew the part.”
The duet of Michael Franks and Valerie Simpson is named “Now Love Has No End” and sums up the above paragraph perfectly. Upon the key turn home with this CD, I sat back and dimmed the lights just enough to read the words coming from the speakers. When I came across “Now Love Has No End” the chorus and refrain only made me lay further back, shake my head and watch the ash on my cigarette grow longer, "reluctant to point my pen". As my head swayed back and forth, soaking up the horn section put together by Chuck Loeb and Andy Snitzer, I could only say “Damn” and “Go ‘head Mike”. So true my having been “so amorously cynical” and now knowing love has no end, it’s sometimes difficult coming to grips with the reality Mike beckons me to come to. The worst part about all of this is that, with any musical refrain, Mike and Valerie keep repeating it. The ash dropped in my lap.
It goes without saying that I love to drive and visit new and exciting people and places. You’ve read about my escapades, now Mike tells of his. “The Fountain of Youth” is classic Michael Franks pulled back from the clutches of time and produced by Jimmy Haslip. This tune calls back memories of when Mike and I first discovered each other while I was living in Key West Florida. I put much miles on the vehicle that I owned at the time. Unlike the beer commercial, Key West has the real plank road. It was fun traversing back and forth from Miami, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and through the keys. I was in the Coast Guard back then and while assigned to a rescue swimmer school in St. Augustine, I purchased “Objects of Desire”. I came across a “lady circumstance” and we rode around sighting the sites after we both dried out from being dropped from a helicopter all day. Her name was Mindy, “which she did indeed”. I was 20, young, dumb and full of…. “Three hips and three hoorays for Mr. Ponce de Leon.” Ahhh youth! This song conjures up visions of long cigars and Cuban hats.
Mike’s claim to fame is the way he lays down his lyrical lexis. Where most other vocalists use their music as just a background compliment, Mike slips syllables in on each note. A four syllable word turns into a four note phrase. Above all this, Mike is a story teller much in the same vein as country musicians. I’m not a big fan of country music but it does spin a tall tale. And ohh, the innuendos. You have to consistently cogitate to fully absorb Mike’s music. He’ll slide one past you if you don’t. Now you know where I got my sarcasm from “G”. His choice of music doesn’t stray far from the pure roots of jazz either. He is very fond of swing or bop, fitting eloquently either in the thirties, forties or nineties. A jazz icon in his own right, he never has trouble finding friends to play with.
With associations in mind, Mike writes in his spring newsletter,
“On this project I was happy to record and hang with some old friends- Steve Gadd flew in from Rochester, Will Lee sang and played between tapings of the David Letterman Show and Bob James added his signature style to one of the cuts. Jeff Mironov and Steve Khan both played guitar on several songs. John Pattitucci contributed his sensitive acoustic bass on a few tracks and, of course, both Jimmy and Chuck played. I also met some people I’d been wanting to work with- Shawn Pelton, Chris Palmero and Dave Samuels(of Spyrogyra).”Well known and respected in his own circles, Mike keeps giving us music to live by.
Another maxim often used by me is that love and life are both improvised. Improvised till someone comes along and rewrites the script. While I was doing my radio show last week, I asked my production manager an on-air question. I asked if he had ever met someone for the first time and lightning flashed, thunder crashed, his heart palpitated, and it seemed like a perfect moment? We were reviewing Peter White’s CD at the time and he answered “Yea, that’s happened a time or two”. Track 5 puts this moment to terms. “When You Smiled At Me” is that feeling verbatim. Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Will Lee, Lani Groves and Carmen Cuesta, Chuck’s wife, help out with the vocals and makes it my anthem to the sensation we’ve all felt every so often and now and again. Last weeks family dinner date had that effect on me. We sat down like times of old, Dad on one end and Mom at the other. "I knew I must have finally hit the number when you smiled at me." Hitting the number would be nice but there are always taxes to pay. The taxman's name is...
“Double Talk” . I hate the “what’s wrong, nothing syndrome”! Guys, you know just what I’m talkin’ bout. You ask your girl what’s wrong knowing full well something’s up. Alice's cat has a bird in its mouth. Being the thoughtful, caring type, you ask with all the empathy you can muster, “What’s wrong?” and you get the “nothing” response. Roles reversed, she knows, without a doubt, when you’re bothered a little or a bit and the inquiry begins. Mike says on track six, “It may come as quite a shock but I’m hip to your double talk”. It’s like this mystical power women have that forms a bubble around their feelings and expressions where no one but their best girlfriend can get inside with them. “Girrll….let me tell you…” Dad says play it as it rolls. You know, I wish I could. Still tryin'! It would be much easier if I wasn’t held in account till the bubble bursts. Watching an ill played tennis match, it did
I’ve heard women saying that their man never cares. Well I do! Try to show it and…… “‘nothin’s wrong”. Mike also realizes that “Your brand of kindness smarts.” Forgive and forget or forgot to forgive? This time the boys are talking double. Bob James keys the jive, John Patitucci bounces in with the boohoo acoustic bass, and Mike drops “Every time” within three notes. Crocodile tears, what’s all this mean? I admit I like to hear myself talk but no feedback is just double talk. So, actions speak for themselves? What of inaction then? Steve Gadd, David Charles, and Wolfgang Heffner can jump to that sister girl stance and start popin’ fingers too. “The same ole alibis and stories”? Whose changed? Mike’s sooo smooth. My friend Calvin came in and just grinned and quick turned his head at ‘em. Yall remember Mike singing about “Speak to Me” sitting next to the “Blue Pacific”? This time it’s “Double Talk”. Dave Samuels vibes the tag and Chuck Loeb goes “naaa naaa na naaa na” on his gettie up guitar. Where’m I going? Where’ve you been? But….
“Every time She Whispers” . Mike’s second verse, “It makes no difference if I’m down upon my luck, when she invites me in my gloom becomes unstuck”. Now I’m scratching my head. Unstuck!? HMmmmm. Track seven is “Passion Fruit” again. I feel “Passion Fruit” was one of THE best albums Michael Franks ever pinned. It was with that album that I found I could croon with the soul and emotion of Mike. “Every Time She Whispers” is like a “Rainy Night in Tokyo”. Quiet, dew like rain, floating down past the pine trees outside. Each drop, like the taste of springtime marmalade. “Passion evolves when we touch. In her arms the world is erased when it’s too much”. The Loeb, Snitzer arranged horn section and Carmen’s caramel vocal background is like the soft breeze against the candle flickering. Dancing, casting a soft glow about the room, I hear her whisper, my name. “There isn’t any part of me she does not know”. If you listen intently, you can hear everything that’s going on inside….the music. David Mann is playing hide and seek with the flute too. I guess Mike was right. “Love force rages unchained.”
Words are nothing but symbols. They’re only part of a bigger picture. Quote #8, “Why Spring Ain’t Here” introspects my inner spaces. This is me, myself, and I being knocked by the id, ego, and superego. “Never knew the point of no return till I crossed it” Mike says. He and I question self, realize what makes up the self, and recognize what we’ve shelved in the quest for good mental health. “A wiser man I understand why spring ain’t here”. Jimmy Haslip bumps bass 2/4 and Steve Gadd on drums has you hoppin’ ‘bout like that old lady and her Cadillac in the Amoco commercial. “I still am seen in L.L. Bean cause spring ain’t here”. I see that I have to keep moving forward to “Make spring be here”. Why question what we leave behind? That “Backward Glance” has to happen before you budge frontward. “Wintertime. Is the calendar rusted”? “Where is April and May, is the equinox busted?” “Buds unopening refuse to bloom in low pressure”. It was your high pressure that fertilized my field of dreams. Bob Mitzer’s horn arrangement mixes Larry Lunetta’s trumpet and his sax like emotions crossed with confusion and anxiety. It’s hard to warm-up when it’s still cold inside. The weatherman puts in a heat advisory.
Things sure have turned around for me here lately. I’ve got my own business, host my own jazz radio show and will soon be graduating from college, the second time. Life is well-mannered here at Birchwood Sands “But lately I seem to be more inclined for a walk in the rain”. Solo dancing to "Grappelli and Django" makes for a soaking wet face. “A Walk in the Rain” is Mike’s vocal impression of the man with a glass of wine in his hand, quietly sitting by himself while melancholy musing what’s transpired over the course of the past year.
It was last September when “G” and I saw Michael Franks in concert at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater. I was so pumped up to see him that it was hard to keep my exuberance to myself, so I shared it with everybody. “G” didn’t drink anything on this trip remembering when Brian Culbertson visited town. My friend in high place looked out for us again where we usually stay when on the beach made for lovers and hooked us up with a room made fit for a king. That night and following morning was indeed “a painting by Renoir”. If I remember right it was raining on the drive back home too. “Some sadness caused me to unwind”. “Maybe I will meet you (if fate is kind) on a walk in the rain”. I did once and that acceptance surprised you. I can’t be as hard on you as you are on yourself. Michael Brecker trumpets this song to an end.
I said earlier that Mike was full of innuendos. Track ten is a play on words pointed to this ongoing argument about commercialism and “pop jazz” as some may call it and another testament to our inner-locked lives. The story goes like this. Mr. Smooth is a DJ see. “His hipness, the Great” is only intent on airing what’s on the play list and here again, some of today’s “jazz” artists aren’t really representing the art as they should. Mike says, “Then just tape the electrodes to the average Joe to see how he reacts”. That’s the way it goes with some of these new artists. Electronics have been both a bust and blessing to music but many of the new players in the field have lost the art in the word artist. They’re just ‘ists’! Now that I have access to another wall of CDs, my conviction on this fact stands even firmer. It’s left up to “Mr. Smooth” to dictate to each of us of higher jazzical reasoning what is good or bad and how often we’ll be subjected to it while we live through our “work-a-day gulag.” “We bow to Mr. Smooth. Kowtow to Mr. Smooth. We’re stuck with Mr. Smooth. Don’t …. With Mr. Smooth”. Mike just scats and keeps striving “for tone until the day he (the jazz DJs) falls from grace and rivals fold the flag of Mr. Smooth”. Thumbs up Mike. I got your back.
“Each time I think I’m close enough to touch you, you hide from me, seductively, just like the “Moon Behind a Cloud”. The glow is still there, it’s plain to see but what’s really behind the cloud? I made a statement a couple of weeks ago about a dream just like Michael Franks sings about on track 11 and what I got back was that cloud hiding the moon. Two days after that I bought this CD and during the preview program on my player, I caught the first verse of this song. I said to myself out loud, “Mike, you said it”! “Who decides how much longing is the right amount?” Why run on a perfectly clear day? I’ve given you all my hiding places and hide no more, from myself nor anyone else for that matter. Yes, I’m afraid of the sunlight too but this stake in the heart won’t keep me from rising again. Chris Palmaro’s keyboard overtones are well understood just like the stroking and plucking of Jeff Mironov’s guitar ask for a reply of thought and introspection. You're right about the social aspects of forgiveness and I understand today in hopes of you understanding its forebearers. Is that what our instructors mean by "Person-in-Environment"? As the song fades from the ear’s view and off into the sunset, let me say once more that this up and down merry-go-round ride has to end somewhere. The brass ring is already in hand.