Music Notes April 2018

Joan Baez: passing the torch?

Joan Baez has announced that her latest album, Whistle Down the Wind, would be her final recording, and that her current eight-month tour of Europe and North America would mark her farewell to the road. The renowned folksinger is now 77. In a New York Times interview last month, Baez was almost valedictory as she reflected upon her activist history and the challenge nowadays of preparing her singing voice for performances. “Perhaps there is a virtue to having carried the flame,” she says, “and grace now is passing the torch”. But while the three-octave soprano voice of her early days is now a burnished alto, it’s hard to imagine that this artist and teacher, who has been everywhere – from the March on Washington in 1963, to Standing Rock in 2017 – is actually going to retire. Her voice is still a supple and expressive instrument, and she remains a storyteller with important things to say. Whistle Down the Wind, produced by singer-songwriter Joe Henry, is a reflective, ultimately hopeful work that places the focus, not on the Baez persona, but on the songs themselves. The title piece by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan sets the general elegiac tone. Other songwriters represented on the album include producer Henry (“Civil War”), Eliza Gilkyson (“The Great Correction”), Mary Chapin Carpenter (“The Things We Are Made Of”), Josh Ritter (“Be of Good Heart”), Anohni (“Another World”), and Tim Eriksen (“I Wish the Wars Were All Over”). A thirst for justice and a longing for peace is deeply embedded in Whistle Down the Wind, but there are no topical songs except Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” – a song about the 2015 Charleston church shooting. Last year, at her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Baez described the relationship between her singing and the philosophy of non-violent political action that has guided her throughout her career: “What has given my life deep meaning and unending pleasure has been to use my voice in the battle against injustice. It has brought me in touch with my own purpose.”  

Celebrating jazz pianist Geri Allen

On January 15, New York City’s Winter Jazzfest hosted a Martin Luther King Day tribute to the pianist and educator Geri Allen, whose death from cancer last June 27 at age 60 came as a shock to the jazz world. The Detroit native was an inspiration to the generation of jazz players that followed in her wake after her debut as a major artist in the early 1980s. An obituary in the New York Times aptly described her as a musician who “reconciled far-flung elements of the jazz tradition”. The Winter Jazzfest homage was one of several in recent months, at which eminent musicians who had worked with Allen gathered to honor her creative vision, her humanity, and the role she played in establishing the shape of contemporary jazz. Musical director for the tribute was Allen’s friend and collaborator, drummer Terri Lynn Carrington. She assembled a lineup of exceptional contemporary jazz artists, including pianists Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn and Helen Sung, bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lizz Wright, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Geri Allen’s music will always remind us that we do not have to relinquish our cultural anchors in order to engage in courageous explorations, ” said emcee Angela Davis. “Her brilliance will inspire generations to come.” To learn more about this giant of contemporary jazz visit

Liam O’Flynn: 1945-2018

Virtuoso Irish uillean (pronounced ‘illun’) piper Liam O’Flynn was laid to rest on March 16 at St. Brigid’s church, in the village of Kill, County Kildare.  Among the mourners were Christy Moore and Andy Irvine, both former members of Planxty, the innovative traditional band O’Flynn co-founded, with them, in 1972. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was in attendance, along with many prominent figures in Irish traditional music. The service began with a trio of uillean pipers performing Sí Beag, Sí Mór, the perennially popular air by Irish composer Turlough O’Caralan (1670-1738). Liam O’Flynn was born into a musical family. By his early teens he’d already gained recognition in County Kildare for his talent on the uillean pipes. When he joined forces with Moore, Irvine, and guitarist-bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, to form Planxty, the quartet  sparked a renaissance in Irish folk music. While Planxty’s sound was rooted in tradition, its extended musical arrangements, counterpoint, and unique harmonies were unprecedented. Liam O’Flynn was long acknowledged as Ireland’s foremost exponent of the uillean pipes. He brought the haunting sound of that most technically sophisticated of bagpipes to a worldwide audience. In addition to his solo albums and his work with Planxty, O’Flynn appeared on the recording projects of ex-bandmates Christy Moore and Andy Irvine, as well as with Kate Bush, Mark Knopfler, the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Enya, and Sinéad O’Connor.

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