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A Vital Entity - Garth Hudson Looks Forward

by Brian Hollander

This article was the cover story of the Woodstock Times, Vol. 28, No. 33; August 16, 2001. Brian Hollander is the editor of Woodstock Times. Photos by Dion Ogust.

Copyright © 2001, 2002 Brian Hollander, Woodstock Times. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo by Dion Ogust
The music flies upward, flows from the tenor saxophone like liquid sound, Garth Hudson's fingers moving in smooth sequence, the noise of his fingers pressing each key provides a rhythmic heartbeat as the notes begin singly, then connect in the air.

But he could always play like that. Remember the smooth gruffness as the tenor solo took control of "W.S. Walcott's Medicine Show" (recently heard on an episode of HBO's "Arliss") on The Band's album Stage Fright - recorded in the old Woodstock Playhouse?

"This is Vido Musso's horn," says Garth, 64, in his deep, gravelly voice. "Someone might ask, who's your favorite tenor player - well Vido Musso and Ben Webster. Vido Musso played with Stan Kenton. He hired Vido Musso for the 'sweet and hot chair.' Any good swing band had two tenors. One would be the sweet and hot player and the other, the jazz player. Kenton had two busloads of hot young jazz players, so he hired Vido Musso to add what could be called the Italian style of tenor sax. This is Vido's horn."

It's late on a Saturday night, dark as can be outside, and we're in Hudson's Glenford cottage, just below his main house. Two tenor saxophones lie on the furniture next to a soprano. An ornate white accordion sits on the floor, and a larger black one, is in his work area. A Mahler symphony plays on the radio and a gold record - The Band's 1971 concert album Rock of Ages - hangs on the wall behind his black upright Yamaha piano.

After demonstrating the distinctions between the two tenors ("this is the rock n'roll horn, the Selmer Mark VI. The large tone and a little vibrato will get you there") he tells of being asked by a journalist in an interview, what would fulfill him in the world, what would he need to be satisfied as a player?

"To play as well with my left hand as my right."

So here's what Garth Hudson is up to these days. The most reclusive of what was always a notoriously private group of musicians is again in the limelight, with his first solo CD about to be released and plans to perform.

The part the legendary keyboard player for The Band is not enjoying much are the stories in the media depicting financial trouble.

Garth doesn't want to talk about most of it but does make it clear that Maud, his wife, is a vital part of his reemergence into the public music world. Maud, he says, did all the cover art for his new album, The Sea to the North (Breeze Hill), all the singing on the recording, designed the t-shirts, the banners and the posters.

"That's all there is to rock and roll," he says, with a twinkle. "We're a... viable entity." He plays with the phrase and tries, a couple of others. "In-house partners... partners in transactions... "

"With the flurry of publicity surrounding Garth, with his solo debut album, it again makes him a target for media attention, good and bad," says Hudson spokesman Jim Della Croce, from Nashville. "He's a rock and roll hall of famer, he's a target. It goes with the turf."

Hudson's personal manager, Woodstocker Steve Rothenberg, who is also his long-time friend, hopes that the troubles are temporary and that a settlement will be found.

Photo by Dion Ogust
Shall we turn down the Mahler? - I ask as we move to the piano area in the cottage.

"Nah. I deliberately practice with the television or radio and I hear something I work it right in. I play piano and keep the volume down, so it doesn't throw you off and theoretically, a little osmosis takes place..."

The Yahama is sleek, it's a disklavier that will actually play the keys from a floppy disk, or allow you to record directly to it. Garth sits and begins to play some one-hand progressions that slowly builds, adds the right hand, and he's going full tilt and it's a blistering version of Ellington's "Caravan." There's some odd Monk-like spacing and pauses, some rollicking New Orleans-style, some glistening, long Tatum-esque runs rolled into the unique style, but it's crazier, further out, his long fingers sometimes seeming to flap wildly.

Left hand sounds pretty good to me.

At times throughout the tune, he'll dig in by anchoring the front of his right thumb on the piano in front of the keyboard, pointing downward. "I'm playing with four, in case I cut my thumb off with a chainsaw," he joked.

Hudson will perform at the Bearsville Theater next Friday on a show entitled, "The Bearsville Show" with Maud and the band Professor Louie and the Crowmatix. Aaron "Professor Louie" Hurwitz co-produced the new album with Hudson and with his band, forms the hub of Hudson's current musical endeavors.

"One couldn't ask for a more musical family than the Crowmatix," says Garth. "We've done many things over the years. This may be a little different. Aaron's done a remarkable number of albums with people over there in Hurley at NRS Studios."

High praise, coming from a guy whose own musical family has been whittled down over the years with the deaths of Richard Manuel, The Band's original piano player, back in the early 1980s, and then the passing of bassist Rick Danko in 1999. Robbie Robertson isn't around here. Garth and drummer Levon Helm remain as members of the Woodstock community. Garth played at the last incarnation of Joyous Lake on several Wednesdays with Levon, and his band, the Barn Burners.

Also on the Bearsville show will be Graham Parker and Tom `Bones' Malone Special guests will include Babukishan Das, son of Puma Das, of the Bengali Bauls.

Garth contemplates the music on the new CD.

"It's a variety show. Not all of it is rock, but everything rolls... I think I had movies in mind that could be written someday, beyond the music."

Garth plays tenor and soprano and bass saxophones; piano, pipe organ and synthesizers; accordion melodica and tarogato throughout the six tracks on the work. He's accompanied on most cuts by the Crowmatix; Levon plays drums on one track and engineers an explosion on another, and the sonic ensemble travels from rock, to Eastern European, to a piano solo, through what almost sounds like Ornette Coleman's grooved harmelodic concept, to a folkier and a country-rock like sound: And always, Hudson pushes to the fore, expanding the fringes of the music as if it was elastic, could swallow new worlds, would not break. And it never does.

Later, he returns to talking about the theme.

"It (the CD) could also be played behind the junior Olympics, when you have gymnasts on their stations, and the final floor exercise. Something about the uneven parallel bars. Turn the sound down on the TV. Running up to it, them flipping the seven or nine requisite moves, and then jump off the end. What they are doing on the parallel bars is a lot like music. It could be a lot of fun in a film editing exercise."

"The piece `The Third Order,' the featured instrument is Khamak, played by Puma Das. He's the greatest and best-known performer of the music of the Bauls of Bengal. I recorded Puma in 1969 or 1970 in Woodstock in the basement of Big Pink. It came out as an LP on Buddah Records, The Bengali Bauls... at Big Pink. It was like a movie upstairs in the house. Then they went downstairs and set up in the same little corner of the basement that the Basement Tapes were recorded. Al Aronowitz, who wrote the liner notes, took it to Buddah Records to release it."

And about the piece "Cyrus and Mulgrew," he says, "I began to focus on Canadian history. I began to think about survival in the 18th century in upper and lower Canada. Upper Canada was Ontario, lower was Quebec. I remember a television series about Radison and Groselliers - two Canadian heroes that we learned about in high school. I think about that TV show in 1954 and I've been wondering recently how they kept their feet warm. 'The Saga of Cyrus and Mulgrew,' could be played behind footage of two tough guys in beaverskin hats in canoes going down the rapids, then hitting'the calm stretches."

0h yeah." He plays a few notes on the accordion, a large black Italian Excelsior model. "Oh yeah. That kind of fits." And he's off into a string of old world ethnic pieces, strung together, squeezing out a band's worth of music, visions of dancing gypsies.

"That's coming along, first is Serbian, second and third are Romanian. I did get into the idiom probably through Romanian music." When he's playing informally, Garth will sort of sing and talk his way through the pieces, joking, searching for a note...

Garth is now ready to embark on another musical journey that will take him to the campus.

"I'm getting ready to do colleges, to give a little concert and seminar, with the (latest) technology." He's talking about finding the easiest, most fun computer programs for musical notation. "I used computers up to seven years ago, then I began spending more time on the instruments.

His left hand begins to stride on the piano. And he's off on something that swings, maybe from the 1930s. Independently each finger speaks, building into sheets of language, of sudden clarity when they all speak in concert.

"Oh, yeah....D...uhhh...Deeee," he sings as the tune takes a turn.

"You want to sound a little different at least from the next guy down the block," he tells me. "Just flop and wobble around on the piano for a few hours and imagine that you're a little different." ++

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