Other Artists

Stephanie Griffin

Sometimes when I'm trying to do too many things at once, I forget what day it is. And sometimes, I can even forget what week it is.

Not long ago I received an email blast about one of Stephanie Griffin's upcoming concerts, a duo recital with pianist Cheryl Seltzer at the Kaufman Music Center (where I performed my original score for Buster Keaton's The Frozen North as part of the New York Guitar Festival). 

Because I'd never heard Stephanie perform in duo format, and because the program looked musically adventurous (including the World Premiere of Ukrainian composer Valentin Bibik's "Sonata No. 3 for Viola and Piano"), I marked it on my calendar just in case I ended up having a window of time that night.

Last Wednesday, I made my way to the recital hall at Kaufman, getting there just a few minutes past the start time of the program because of a stalled subway train. I ran in, breathless, only to find...the music in progress, and exactly one other person in the audience! Well dang!, I thought to myself, it's just getting harder and harder to get people out to attend concerts, isn't it?

I'm glad I was wrong. As it turned out, I'd arrived exactly one week early. This was the duo's rehearsal session with their musical director, and I was not only gifted with an invitation to stay, but alos encouraged to engage in dialogue with the artists between pieces, a wonderfully intimate and unexpectedly provocative way to engage with the stunning music being made that night.


And stunning it was -- all of it -- though I have to say that the Bibik sonata was the most astonishing of all for me. I've recently had the honor of having Stephanie perform with me as part of my No Further Instructions ensemble, and I've heard her play with her terrific Momenta Quartet here in the city, but hearing her and Cheryl tear into the mad passion of Bibik's startling piece was a hair-raising revelation.

The good news is, if you live in or near the city, you have a chance to catch this recital on the RIGHT date, this Wednesday, May 8 at Kaufman. All the info is here.

 Photo by Jim McLaughlin

PS  I'll be performing No Further Instructions again this November, at The Jewish Museum in NYC (the photo above is from the recent show at Skidmore college-- more photos of that one here). With any luck, Stephanie's performance schedule will allow here to join me again.  But if you're around and available this Wednesday, do go and hear her and Cheryl at Kaufman. You'll be happy that you did!

Marika Hughes

MARIKA HUGHES is a phenomenal cellist, singer, composer, and all-around singular human being. Whether I'm out hearing her perform, having the honor of her sharing the stage with me, or just bumping into her somewhere all of a sudden, she never fails to bring a smile to my face. Marika is bursting with good energy and is such positive spirit -- qualities that can't help but shine through in her musical performances.



I've had the good fortune to have Marika's playing grace three of my recordings: NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS (that's her beautiful solo on "Your Voice"), THE WORLD WILL BE DIFFERENT (occupying the cello chair in the string quartet that's featured on most of this album) and BETTER GET RIGHT (where she sings and blows another gorgeous solo on "We Shall Not Be Moved").

Marika is currently in residency on Tuesday nights at BARBES in Brooklyn, playing with her fine, fine band BOTTOM HEAVY (a group that includes another excellent, too-infrequent collabortaor of mine, drummer Tony Mason).  I had the pleasure of hearing them againthere  a couple of weeks ago, and boy was it good. Tasty and grooving and full of joie de vivre. This is as good a time as you can have anywhere in New York on a Tuesday night.

Go see Marika and her band. Go tonight, if you can. You won't be disappointed.

The Redemptive Power of Ben Senterfit

Somewhere in the world right at this moment, someone is making great art in front of a select, intimate group of people...someone who deserves more fame, more money, more recognition, but who volunteers his/her time and talent in the face of the immediate unavailability of any one (or all) of these things to be our surrogate on some collective, heroic journey.

On Sunday night, I sat in a small, dark, hot room (The Stone) watching and listening as Ben Senterfit led his fearless quintet through a soulful set of music that was by turns meditative, chaotic, gritty, muscular and prayer-like.  Like all great art, it had a destabilizing effect on my consciousness, calling into question basic assumptions I have about the way I live my life, the choices I make, the beliefs I have, the aesthetics I'm attached to. 

Just as painters push paint around a canvas and dancers move their forms across a stage, great musicians  move feeling; watching this band, tonight, was like watching trees get struck by lightning.  Each member of the group opened himself up as a conduit to the forces of the moment, and transmitted them via sound and emotion through their instruments and back to us.  It was thrilling.

In upending my own assumptions about things, the music also had the power to fill in those newly-vacated spaces with new inspiration, new ideas, new possibilities.  Real art does this.  It makes us look inward, clears out the cobwebs, and gives us back the greatest gift of all: our true selves, revealed, the selves that we can easily let get covered up by unnecessary layers of thought-garbage. Real art cleans us out.

* * *

The band was one unit, an organic machine, working together toward a common goal of truth and (sometimes ugly) beauty.  In addition to double-threat Ben Senterfit's sax and guitar (both played with grace and conviction), there was Jacob Sanders' baritone sax, Kailin Young's violin, and the relentlessly grooving rhythm section of Jarad Astin (organ) and Matt Crane (drums). 

* * *

All of this, for $10. Ten bucks. The price of one drink in any number of NYC establishments.  And how many people were there, besides me?  About a dozen.

How many people in New York City went to see the Yankees and Mets play that day at their respective stadiums? I looked it up: 88,652. 

Twelve people went to hear Ben Senterfit tonight at The Stone. Twelve.  I'm not saying that baseball can't be a fulfilling activity, or that live music somehow has more intrinsic merit.  I love baseball. I follow it closely.  It brings me great pleasure and diversion.

What I am saying is: something is askew here, and maybe it says something about the state of the American psyche.  Imagine a world in which eighty-eight thousand people in NYC went out every night to hear live music.  Or half of that? Or a quarter of that?  What about a world where ten percent of the people who go to sit in the stands to watch millionaires compete against one another on a ballfield instead went to a live performance?  And imagine if half of those people, say 4,000 or so, or half of a half of those people, say 2,000, or even half of a half of a half of those people, say 1,000, felt as inspired as I did after hearing Ben Senterfit at The Stone?  What if 1,000 people every single night felt their assumptions and beliefs shaken, were forced to consider new perspectives, felt humbled by the beauty that art can bring, felt more in touch with themselves and the rest of humanity than they did before they walked in the door?

Of course, that's assuming a lot. It requires every show to be as good as the one I saw. It requires every band to be as talented and fearless.  It requires those 1,000 people to even know where and when the good shows are happening.  Is every live show great? No. Is every baseball game great? No.  Seems to me the odds do not favor either. I'd like to think you're as likely to see a great performance just as often as you're likely to see a great ballgame. Which is to say, once in a while.  Sometimes.  They don't happen every night, but they're what you hope for, and they're why you come back.  When they happen, it makes sitting through the mediocre ones -- and even the bad ones -- well worth it.

I was a fan of live performance long before I became performer myself, and it is the audience member and fan in me that urges you to do yourself a favor and make it a practice to go and put yourself in a space with people who are making art right in front of you.  It doesn't matter whether it's a jazz band, a dance group, an orchestra, a theater company, or what have you .  Go be there and support people like Ben Senterfit, and places like The Stone.

And bring a friend.  Bring ten friends.  Make it an outing the same way you would if you were going to a ballgame.  Have a meal together beforehand, or after.  You may go in thinking you're doing something for the artists by simply being there (and you are), but you may leave knowing that you did something even greater for yourself.


Check out Ben's Community Music Space up in the Hudson Valley...our man is doing the right thing.

Suze Rotolo

"The main thing is you are your own self”

Suze Rotolo started showing up at my gigs about a decade ago, always with her husband Enzo, always waving and smiling on her way out the door.   

Once, at the now-defunct Bottom Line, the club’s legendary impresario Allan Pepper pulled me aside in that inimitable way of his, and said "You know who that is, don't you?"  I did not.  "She’'s a very important figure in the Village scene, she's heard all the greats," he said, sotto voce. "It’s a very BIG deal that she's a fan of yours."  

It wasn't until I watched Scorsese's No Direction Home that I made the connection.  There she was --  the woman who'd been showing up to my gigs all these years:  Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' album.

In 2008,  I received an invite from Suze’'s publisher to perform at the launch party for her book A Freewheelin' Time. I felt honored, and I wrote to ask her what role she wanted my music to play, and whether -- given the context -- she wanted me to play Dylan songs at the event.  

She replied: "I always felt, from the first time I saw you hanging out with a bass player in Washington Square Park a number of years back, that you had your own voice, yet there was an alluring connection to all that other stuff that American music is made of. I bought your album and talked it up to friends, who agreed with my take: original yet recognizable and with a great band.  I know you covered the “Bootleg Series [sic],” I haven't heard it and I'd like to, but the reason I thought you would be a good choice is because I like your work, your arrangements, and musicians. I have three albums of yours and think they are really fine. In other words, Dylan covers is not the point– was not why I thought of you– but I was concerned you might think so. What you have to do with me, is simple, I like music that is good and true (it isn't easy to find in the glut), no matter the genre. You are your own self and that is the bottom line, whether you are singing your own songs or interpreting 'Oh Death.'  This is longer than intended, but email does wonders overcoming shyness. I’d be happy to hear what you have to say or if you want input in choosing songs. Otherwise I'm fine with Howard Fishman as is.”

Thus began an all-too-brief friendship that lasted until Suze's untimely death in February.  I played the party, some time after we went together to hear Allen Toussaint at Joe’'s Pub. As I'd hoped he might, Tousaint played his cover of Dylan’s 'Mama You Been on My Mind.'  "Everybody says 'Don't Think Twice' is such a great song, but I like this one better," she told me with a smile.   Sometime soon after, I went to her gallery show to see her work, and we continued to talk over email until not too long ago.

My last correspondence with Suze was about the trilogy of records I put out a few months ago. As usual, she had such perceptive, and such unique things to say about my music, things that I will always treasure.  She wrote about the juxtaposition of my lyrics with my music in the context of color:  "Put red next to blue and the blue recedes, creating dimension: they don't blend, they give an illusion of dimension on a flat surface. So it could possibly be with your lyrics and the music: they don’t 'blend'. The words jut forward, then come the breaks and the music takes over…The main thing is you are your own self” she concluded. “Warm salutes, Suze."

This was her last email to me, and it occurs to me now that, in offering such elevated praise, she could just as easily been talking about herself.  It must have been challenging, at times,  to go through life known to so many as Bob Dylan’s Girlfriend. It’s probably why, until very recently, she kept such a low profile.

For those of us who knew her personally, who read her book, who felt her warmth, who knew her wicked humor and deep feeling and thinking about things, we know that she was, above all else, exactly those words that she honored me with -- her own self.  

Goodbye Suze, and warm salutes.  Your friend, Howard

Music You May Want To Hear

ANISTAR is one of the best bands I've heard in a while. Sadly, they played their last show in NYC last night (the leader, Harel Shachal, is leaving the country to raise his family in Israel), but you can get their CD  here, a live recording made a few years ago. I'm listening to it now.  All of the players are ridiculous, but Harvey Valdez on Oud is on another level.

I went to see the band for the first time a couple of weeks ago on the recommendation of my friend and collaborator Skye Steele, who plays in Anistar and also fronts his own mighty quintet that was sharing the bill that night. Skye recently put out his debut CD Late Bloomer, a fine collection of originals, standards and traditionals highlighted (I think) by Skye's vocal debut on "I Don\'t Want To Live on the Moon."  If you haven't heard Skye play with my band, you've missed out. Check him out playing on A Ghost from last December at Joe's Pub.

Someone else I\'ve checked out a few times recently is Sasha Dobson, a fabulous singer who has that rare something between jazz, country, pop and blues that I like so much.  I don't know a lot about Sasha, but she's the real deal as far as I'm concerned. I met her, her beau Richard Julian and Josh Radin a few weeks ago when we all took turns passing around Sasha's guitar and trading songs after her gig at MOTO. The four of us, plus Jon Flaugher and Ian Riggs (each taking turns on bass) hung out till the wee hours playing each other tunes  -- lots of fun.  I don't know Richard's music that well yet either, but I plan to check it out some. 

Sasha plays Sundays at my old stomping grounds Pete's Candy Store -- be sure to stop in and see her.

The Beguiling Jonathan Richman

At the end of last night's Jonathan Richman show at the Bowery Ballroom, an unexpected thing happened.  After graciously giving two encores, our man put his guitar away, started for the exit, and then came back to the mic. He explained that something didn't feel right to him...that the show had had a lot of ups and downs, but it hadn't felt good to him, somehow.

"We don't play with any kind of plan," he explained (speaking for himself and drummer Tommy Larkins). "And tonight I was really feeling the lack of a plan. We try to keep things fresh...it's like bread: as soon as you take it out of the oven, it starts to get old. But," he explained, "I would rather fail like that than play the same stale thing every night." 

Anyone who's ever gotten on a stage knows what it's like to have an off night...to not be connected to the music, or to the audience, or (worst) to oneself. It happens, and it doesn't feel good.  But witnessing Jonathan Richman's palpable sense of confusion and unrest for not (in his mind) delivering the goods, to see him offer himself up like that in front of a packed house, was really something. One fan suggested he solve the problem by singing his song "Springtime in New York," and yes, he said, that might very well be just the thing.

He called Tommy back to the stage, unpacked his guitar, and performed the song with tenderness and real love for the audience and for the city, and all was well once again in the world.

This guy is unlike anyone else. I've had the good fortune to catch him a number of times over the last few years, and at each show have been completely floored by the intimacy he creates with the audience, by the spontaneity of his performance (the guitar flights of fancy, the lyric ad libs, the off-mic bits, the dancing!), by his total engagement in offering service to the crowd in the form of light, humor, warmth, gentleness and wisdom.  Sure, I could tell he was a little off his game last night. He started strong, but seemed to become preoccupied with his decision to instruct the venue to keep the A/C off. As it got warmer in the room, he began to worry about the audience's comfort, asking us if we were too warm, even as one of his songs railed against things like A/C and new housing developments and things that keep us from "the real."  He seemed to get confused, torn between following his conscience and his concern for the audience, and the show took a noticeable energy dive from there on in. Or maybe it was the decidedly un-Jonathan Richman-like song he sang about being a victim to other people's unkindness and cruelty (I don't the name of it, but my guess is that it was a cover of a Vic Chestnutt song; Chestnutt opened the show).

Whatever the reason, JR lost his groove about halfway through, and struggled mightily to regain his balance.  Seeing this guy, in his late 50's, veteran of thousands of concerts, care so deeply about trying to find his way back into the moment, was a real gift. Hearing his conviction that he'd rather fail in his dedication to the moment than be another nail in the coffin of true, live performance and risk and humanity, confirms for me -- once again -- that Jonathan Richman is a modern-day hero.

Go see him if, and as often as, you can. Tour dates are here.

Two Things You Should See Right Now

People often ask me where I draw my musical inspiration from, and I sometimes draw a blank. Reason being: most of the things that inspire me are not music.  Theater, film, art, literature, history, religion, thought...these are the things that really move me the most.

For me, there are few things worse than being stuck in the audience at a bad piece of theater, but the converse is also true: when theater is really effective, no other art form can touch it for the visceral, exciting, startling feeling it inspires. This week I had the opportunity to see The Goodman Theatre's production of O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, as good and imaginative a production as I've seen on Broadway in a long time.  Today I read that the show is closing early (May 24) because of bad box office receipts, mainly due to getting shut out of the Tonys (a travesty).  Even if there are some casting issues, I still urge you to go see it before it's gone forever.


In the musical realm (although there was a good deal of theater in this too), I had another opportunity to see Leonard Cohen perform last night in Waterbury, CT.  I caught him for the first time last October in Obernberg, Germany, but Leonard and the show have only gotten better in the intervening months.  He's absolutely at the top of his game: totally present, giving, and fully cognizant of his tremendous power at this late stage of his career/life.  He's in NYC this weekend, then has a few more dates in North America before he heads back to Europe. Amazingly, there are still seats left at many of the shows. Really, if you can, do yourself a favor and go and see Leonard Cohen. You'll never forget the experience.


Clifford Bailey Rocks


I just happened upon some sketches that Cliff did at the band's hit at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles back in 2004.  It was a special night with Mark McLean on drums, Sam Bardfeld on violin, Kevin Louis on trumpet and surprise appearances by old friends Erik Jekabson (trumpet) and Joyce Anderson (violin).  

Cliff really captured the vibe.  If you don\'t know his work, check out cliffordbailey.com!