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House Of Tudor 

Joe Henry's frail, timeless truths, and squeeze-box central

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
On the opening song of his eighth album, Scar, Joe Henry hunches down into the cool, dark, atmospheric jazz soundtrack like an inconsolable man looking for relief in the quiet nod of his favorite barman. He takes his time, nursing the words in his wounded, diffident voice, as if he will fade away with the last of them. "I look at you as the thing I wanted most/ You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost," he sighs, as guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Brad Mehldau, upright bassist David Pilch, and percussionists Abe Laborial Jr. and Brian Blade slide and shudder between the melting ice cubes in his glass. "I wear the face/ Of all this has cost/ Everything you tried to keep away from me/ Everything I took from you and lost," he sings, submitting to exhaustion and defeat. "I stood on your shoulders/ And walked on my hands/ You watched me while I tried to fall/ You couldn't bear to watch me land." An alto saxophone dives into Henry's dwindling breath, riding the delicate draft like a bird carrying his plea -- "Remember me for trying" -- on a fierce wing of fluttering notes. Ornette Coleman's sax solo is breathtaking, imbuing the lyric with a meaning more graceful than I previously understood; for the remainder of the six-and-half-minute song, the instrument rides and pushes Henry's breath, twirling and plunging in his cadence. Clearly, the 71-year-old free-jazz pioneer and the 40-year-old former indie rocker are both in love with the person for whom the song is written, Richard Pryor.

Henry says the tragically truthful and self-destructive visage of the comedian shaped and "cannibalized" every other song on Scar, even the one that his sister-in-law Madonna turned into a Top 10 hit, "Don't Tell Me" (which appears here in its original form, a wistful tango, and with its original title, "Stop"). To Henry, Pryor is one of the "contentious, frail, timeless" figures burdened by the truth he must reflect and deliver, like Buster Keaton, Flannery O'Connor, Buckminster Fuller, and the characters Henry gives voice to in his songs. Interestingly, Henry rarely exposes his own life. Unlike so many of today's "sensitive" songwriters, he does not believe diary entries make songs; instead, his tunes rise like good fiction, with a pulse and trajectory of their own -- even if, this time, they are directed by a singularly tragic comic. Even the song Henry wrote about the process of songwriting finds a bittersweet foil in the form of Edgar Bergen, the famed ventriloquist who similarly found his art taking on a life of its own. However, unlike Henry's earlier work, in which instrumentation merely propped up his lyrics, Scar allows music -- bluesy, dreamy, sultry, and bold -- to say what he cannot. Which, given the caliber of musicians at his disposal, is considerable. Joe Henry performs on Wednesday, Aug. 8, at Bimbo's 365 Club with For Stars opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18; call 474-0365.

What do 20 accordions at the bottom of the sea indicate? A good start! If this joke cracks you up, you are clearly unfamiliar with the exquisite diversity (and, yes, humor) of my favorite instrument, which has emerged, over the last 2,000 years, on almost every continent -- as the bayan in Russia, the trekspill in Norway, and the fisarmonica in Italy. Smythe's Accordion Center would like to dispel your sour-lipped ignorance; two days of nonstop accordion music ought to do the trick. Smythe's Accordion Festival features virtuosos Alex Yaskin and Ricky Rakim, the Tex-Mex combo Los Boss Chicanos, the accordion/theremin duo Queen Macha, the campy pop classics of Sch'mrndlicious, the one-rabbit concertina act Bunnyphonic, the art-rock outfit Sexfresh, the new-music ensemble Left Coast Improv Group, the accordion/bass duo Duckmandu, and the highly gifted Mark Growden. Smythe's Accordion Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 11-12, at 21 Grand in Oakland at 4 p.m. Tickets are $6-10; call (510) 444-7263.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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