Q: You've recently finished an album where several of the tracks are your renditions of Beatles' tunes. Why did you decide to include Beatles songs?
A: My first album, "The Flute and Voice of Libbie Jo," was a mix of standards from the '40s and '50s and original material. It was successful for an independent effort and was accepted for the finals of an international jazz competition - but I wanted to move forward a generation.
A few years ago, I was offered money to develop a new project so I started kicking around ideas with Jane Getz, who produced my first CD. For me, it was a given to pick from the Beatles repertoire and Jane agreed. Eventually, we chose: "Fool On The Hill," "Blackbird," "Tomorrow Never Knows," and later added "Norwegian Wood," that was arranged by Don James.
I had written a song, "Wall Of Enchanted Words" that is the album title - a name that came to me in a dream. There are no lyrics - they must be in an enchanted land somewhere. It is a mood piece for flute and ensemble. But my choices include songs based on lyrics that to me contain interesting images. Included are: "Do Wrong Shoes" by Donald Fagen and my friend Hirth Martinez; a Blossom Dearie song, "Inside Silent Tear;" "Survival of the Hippest," a cheeky song of Jane's; "Latin Dancer" by Michael Jarrett (He wrote "I'm Leavin'" - a hit for Elvis Presley); and a calypso-ish instrumental I wrote titled "Henry And Me" honoring the imaginative bassist Henry Franklin, who's featured on this recording.
Q: Don James arranged some other Beatles' cuts for you.
A: Don was a composer and arranger whose resume includes the Ice Capades and the Follies Bergére in Paris. Sadly, he died quite recently. I met him at a Christmas party where I was playing. He sat in and soon we were rehearsing together - classical, jazz, pop, whatever we felt like. He could arrange for any type of ensemble, and since I'm always looking for music for my flute students, I asked him if he'd like to write some simple arrangements of Beatles songs for flute trios. Don was a compulsive writer and the following week he had three flute trio arrangements with a rhythm section: "And I Love Her," "Something In The Way She Moves," and "Norwegian Wood." These were not simple - they were flashy and fast and fun. He said he'd write for my students later but he wanted to record these arrangements and would have me over all three parts.
He got Vince Tividad to engineer and play some bass, Don played piano and we laid down these tracks using his ProTools program at his apartment. They really move along! I told him it was "ice skating music for flute."
Q: Why did the Beatles make such an impression on you?
A: They represented freedom! I strive for self-discipline and I think you have to learn to stay inside your own skin to reach even some of your goals, but if you can do that, then I think you can find freedom in there. Also, the Beatles were part of my youth, part of my musical as well as cultural history - of most everyone's history! They were a sociological phenomenon. They influenced our dress, our lifestyle, our listening habits. Their lyrics set the tone for the way we looked at the world and the effect has been lasting. Each of their songs has a different character, they got their message across with enthusiasm and directness; and they're good musicians and singers. Full of life and in the moment - and certainly not least, their melodies lend themselves to the quality of the flute.
I also think they were the next step in the English Music Hall tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan. The English know good theater. They are born actors. It's in their blood and your English rock 'n rollers know that.
I'll tell you something else I've discovered since we've started developing this interview and that is that everybody loves to talk about the Beatles. Very few people don't love the Beatles or at least have strong opinions about them.
I talked about this with a young friend recently. He knows their catalog. He said they were ahead of their time and with each album they moved on to a different place, a different style of music, different ideas. They were always reaching forward.
My friend's father, Fred Paulos, who was a terrific jazz musician, said it was because they had a good promoter and hired the teenagers to scream - like was done with Sinatra and Elvis. We didn't agree totally on that point but he was probably somewhat right in that opinion.
Q: What is another aspect of the Beatles you relish?
A: They must have had a talent for compromise. They worked damn hard in Liverpool and Germany before they hit it big here, so they had to learn how to get along. The public thinks they broke up too soon, but they already had had a long run. It would be interesting for Paul and Ringo to write a piece about what it took for them to make it work for as long as it did. All we hear is the dirt, but there must have been compromise and consensus building for them to survive gigging "8 days a week" like they did in Germany and then moving on to the pressure of worldwide fame. That story would be a lesson for everyone on how to get along. "All You Need Is Love." If not love, then at least compromise.
Q: You simultaneously came from the classical and jazz world. How did you get to Los Angeles and start playing here?
A: Frankly, I got here because of my second, short-lived marriage, which in retrospect I realize was a rebound. I tried to apologize for that but I'm not sure I was ever really forgiven. He moved on and I stayed here. I had graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Music Education and Flute where I was rigorously trained in classical repertoire and played in the great University of Michigan Symphonic Band and Orchestra - improvising came later.
Soon after I arrived in Los Angeles I got a chance to tour with the San Francisco Ballet company as part of their orchestra; then other tours followed. The film composer Elmer Bernstein got me into the studios, but honestly, I didn't have the psychological makeup or background to follow a career as a studio musician. My experience from childhood had been music and dance, with an accent on musical theater and that is a very different world.
But I had a yearning improvise and I started going to jazz workshops and hanging around hippie bands and Latin bands (I worked with Joe Loco's band - an amazing and quixotic Latin pianist) and that moved me in a direction where I felt I had a place. I was always drawn to chamber music and people were asking me to play for events so I started putting together small groups of my own for weddings, parties, concerts - both classical and pop/jazz ensembles. I was a "casual musician" and played all over Southern California. Since I sing as well as play flute, I started including standards especially ballads that I could sing.
I loved Miles Davis, Charley Parker, Erroll Garner and the great singers - Ella, Sara, and singers like Joni James (very underrated), Helen O'Connell. I listened to everybody - Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Sammy Davis, Jr. When I was in junior high school, I worked on imitating their voices and came close nailing a couple. I was a jokester and I'd hide in closets and start trying out my imitations on my parents and my brother. I thought it was hilarious but I think I pissed them off because I just wouldn't quit and they were getting tired of it, so eventually I gave it up. Too bad. I was always listening to music on the radio and copying styles and licks. I was obsessed.
My mother wanted me to spend my Saturdays teaching in her dancing school but I didn't want to. Saturday afternoons was when the great radio shows out of Chicago were at their best, so I opted to clean our very big Victorian house so I could listen to the radio and hang out with my dad, who was a great music lover and played some piano. I bought a portable radio, which I paid for on the "installment plan," and took it from room to room while I cleaned. Then my dad and I would practice flute and piano pieces for whatever music contest or church service was pending, and then I went to the movies with my boyfriend. It was a great way to spend Saturdays as far as I would concerned. After the movies, we'd go out to Lake Michigan and park the car and "neck". We usually double-dated and sometimes in the winter we'd get snowed in and my girlfriend's father would have to pull us out of a snowdrift with his tractor. It was a good time. But in retrospect not so good for her father who had to get up around 4:30 to milk a big herd of dairy cows! My apologies for that.
My girlfriends and I were musical snobs. We used to have pajama parties at my house and stay up all night listening to LPs and smoking Pall Mall cigarettes which we thought were very cool. We barely spoke to anyone at school who didn't listen to the big bands and Miles Davis and Erroll Garner and classical composers like Debussy. (I hope I've become more forgiving.)
Later when I was in college, I saw Miles and Coltrane play live in Detroit at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. It was my first time in a jazz club outside of Ann Arbor and it was so mysterious and underground. I was terrified. I was holding my first husband's hand so tight he said I was hurting him. It was dark, the crowd was mostly black and dressed in fabulous clothes. So sophisticated. I thought they'd stick us at a back table but the maitre'd gave us a good spot. I was afraid to look around because I felt that crowd would think we were real squares, so I kept my eyes on the musicians and once in awhile snuck a quick peek. Actually, I think a lot of college kids and hipsters and beatniks went to Bakers because it was the place to go if you were a jazz lover. Bakers is rumored to be the oldest jazz club in the world and it was eventually named an historical monument but I think it's fallen on hard times.
Besides Miles and Coltrane, a very young Paul Chambers was on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and I think Wynton Kelly or Red Garland on piano, although Bill Evans was with him at the time, too. To hear them in person was an explosive, mind-bending trip and way above my head but I listened hard and knew they were on the cutting edge of invention. They were "really saying something" was the jazz aficionado's cant. It was the original music of our country and you could feel it. It was thrilling and the memory of that night is still mesmerizing.
My mother had a friend who was a great stride piano player and when I was still in high school had I begged to study with her but my parents wouldn't hear of it. They loved all music and introduced me to the music of Charley Parker and Erroll Garner - but not for me to play. They wanted me fluting in an orchestra, teaching dancing in my mother's dance school, conducting the high school band and starring in a Broadway musical, preferably all at once! It's no wonder that I left Michigan as soon as possible, I couldn't meet the demands; although they loved the arts and I have great respect and awe for what they contributed to our small community.
Q. That was long and winding road that led you to the Beatles. How did you happen to develop the Beatles tracks into the separate album "Reflections: A Beatles Tribute?"
A. The recession hit about the time we were finished recording "Wall Of Enchanted Words" and I was sitting on all that music without any promotion money. One day I had an "Aha Moment" and said to myself, "Since you have six Beatles songs recorded, put out an EP to sell digitally through CD Baby and call it "Reflections: A Beatles Tribute Album." So that's what I've done. You can go digital at CD Baby and I-Tunes or through www.libbiejo.com, where you can also purchase a CD.
The tracks include: "Fool On The Hill," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Blackbird," "Norwegian Wood," "And I Love Her" and "Something In The Way She Moves."
Q: Tell me about the inclusion of "Norwegian Wood" in "Wall Of Enchanted Words" your as yet unreleased disc.
A: I think it's a catchy melody that grabs you right away: the modal feel, the waltz time moves the listener along and creates excitement our version really moves along and it makes the flutes shine! In the Beatles' recording, the guitar sound is unusual which can catches your ear - like a sitar or a drone - a result of sitarist Ravi Shankar's influence - on George especially. Then there is that distinctive opening lyric, "I once had a girl or should I say she once had me." You know you're going to want to hear the rest of that story.
Q: Were there any tunes of the Beatles that did not get recorded you were considering?
A: I wanted to do a version of "Here Comes The Sun" and use an alto flute in the instrumental section but we ran out of time and money. However, this year I got a Nina Simon recording titled "Here Comes The Sun" and her version of that song I think is unsurpassed.
Q: You told me you once met George Harrison. Where was that?
A: I met him at the artist Jan Steward's home. I met Jan when I was teaching at Immaculate Heart College. She was a graduate and a friend of the famous artist Sister Mary Corita who was also teaching there. (Immaculate Heart College was a very avant garde small college and a hub of creativity and controversy in the '60s and '70s - and that indeed is another story!!) Jan was involved in the culture of the East, and of India in particular which is reflected in her work. She was friends with many artists and musicians from that part of the world, including Ravi Shankar. (I heard Ravi play in Jan's living room.) Jan's home was a melting pot - driven by the art and music and food of Asia. It was a new world for me and I still consider myself fortunate to have been included for a time. The influence was profound.
Jan and Ravi Shankar were close friends and corresponded by mail. Ravi would hang Jan's letters on his wall - letters I'm sure that were covered with her art. When George visited Ravi, he'd ask about the letters, so eventually Ravi introduced them and she started creating art for a variety of George's projects.
One day, as I was leaving Jan's, I ran into him outside her home. He was exiting a robin's egg blue Jaguar. I didn't know what to do! I wanted to hug him and get his autograph, but I did not think this would be a good approach. I was scared but I couldn't just walk on by, so I gave him my card, told him I was a flutist, and asked him to come hear me play that night down in Redondo Beach. (We were in Silverlake, mind you, so that was a long drive - but I had to do something!) He leaned against the Jaguar, folded his arms, crossed one leg over the other and gave me a very bemused look. I'm pretty sure he thought I was cute, but he didn't come hear me play. I still remember I was wearing a long multi-colored dress, had Roman sandals, and my hair was flowing and dyed the same color of mauve as my Maltipoo dog's coat. I'm glad that happened! It's a silly good memory.
Q: I would imagine over the decades you performed the songs of the Beatles.
A: All the time and I still do. I play the songs I've recorded and songs like "Here, There and Everywhere" - "When I'm 64" is fun on the piccolo and I use alto flute when it feels right. I think their melodies invite the flute to play.
I was in a group called Silverlake in the '60s that included a wonderful Chicano singer named Paul (Pablo) Rodriguez and we played Beatles covers, songs by Donovan, Bob Dylan, original material, whatever was on our minds. Our band was busy for a time - a hippie band - kids would toss notes to us with marijuana joints wrapped inside. We had fun and we were pretty good but when somebody wanted to represent us and wanted us to make changes, we split up. I doubt we would have known how to adjust as a group. That's why a lot of groups split up. They can't grow as a unit, too many differences musically and sociologically.
Q: You recorded an album with Paul Horn, "Paul Horn And The Concert Ensemble." What was that experience like?
A: We recorded in the late '60s. It was one of the first eclectic albums that included classical, standards and jazz tunes. It got 5 stars in Downbeat Magazine. I listened to it recently and I think it still holds up. It included songs like the "Doors Light My Fire" to a movement from a "Bach Flute Sonata." Paul used three other flutists: Bruce Emerine (of the Stan Kenton band), Tim Weisberg and me. The rhythm section included the late, great, underrated pianist Joyce Collins; Dave Parlato, bass; Bart Hall, drums; and Chuck Collazzi, guitar. Chuck also did some of the arrangements. Someone should release that album again.
Paul, who died recently, as you just informed me, was an influence and recording with him helped put me on the map. That ensemble also toured so it was a good period. Paul had a warm flute sound and a sense of melody in his improvising that I could relate to. His obituary material labels him the father of new age music but he had been a good be bop player, and, a good clarinetist! Just because he recorded his flute at the Taj Mahal and blew some notes with the whales doesn't make him the father of new age music (although maybe that moniker sells albums). Check out his early jazz album "Something Blue" and the innovative "Jazz Suite On Mass Texts" by Lalo Schifrin.
Q: Your new Beatles-driven CD "Reflections" fits in nicely with earlier tributes to the Beatles.
A: There are so many!! Who knows how many. I have a variety of Beatles' tribute CDs: Cello Submarine by the Berlin Philharmonic Cello Section (wonderful sound!), Beatles done up like 16th century madrigals by a cloister of monks, and a "Bossa Nova Tribute To The Beatles" (charming vocals by Monique Kessous). A group of studio singers, named BNB, did an album titled "Bossa Down Abbey Road." There are probably thousands of tribute albums and more to come!
Q: Besides covering some material created by the Beatles, did you always feel their work would last for decades?
A: I didn't know at the time how long their music would last and still don't, but the song writers and bands of that era were and still are so good: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Harry Nielson, for instance; and wonderful women songwriters and singers came to the front, too: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nero, Dolly Parton on the country side to name a few.
I wonder who history will pick as the greatest of these writers and bands?? Such a profusion of talent! But the Beatles had the magic that caused a cultural turnaround. When John Lennon said, "We're More Popular Than Jesus," he may have pissed off a lot of people but it doesn't mean he wasn't right.
But think of this: There may be a great writer from that era we don't know about whose music may be in an old cardboard box in a dusty attic somewhere - or on somebody's computer - that is yet to be discovered! J.S. Bach was considered a minor writer until Felix Mendelssohn discovered him 70 years after his death. The story goes that a janitor who fired up the church furnace where Bach had been choirmaster was using Bach's manuscripts to light the kindling and Felix Mendelssohn, who was by then choirmaster, heard noise coming from the cellar went down and stopped him! That is mind blowing!
As to the Beatles continuing influence: I played at a party about a year or so ago where a four-year-old girl requested Beatles' songs. Her mother said she picked them up from listening to the radio and she had their lyrics memorized. Sang along with us, and no fear. They've carried well beyond their generation.
Q: Tell me some more about the musicians on your recording "Wall Of Enchanted Words."
A: Well, as we've discussed, Jane Getz was co-producer, writer and played keyboards; the talented Bob Tucker was co-producer, engineer and played guitar on "Blackbird." We used various musicians on different tracks: Hirth Martinez and Michael Campagna on guitar; Henry Franklin, Hamilton Price and Bill Markus on bass; Kendall Kaye and Paul Cohen on drums and percussion.
To further comment on Jane Getz: She was a child prodigy playing with Charlie Mingus when she was still a teenager. Her credits include recording with Ringo Starr and performing with Herbie Mann. She also recorded for RCA - country music under the moniker "Mother Hen." She is unique.
Q: How did you happen to pick the opening song, "Do Wrong Shoes?"
A: Hirth Martinez, who co-wrote it with Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, is an old friend of mine and we kick songs around when we hang out. He played it for me one day and I said I'd like to record it. Hirth wrote the catchy blues-based melody and Donald Fagen wrote the lyrics, so "Fagenesque." I think the flute solo in the mid section caught the spirit of the song.
Hirth Martinez is a songwriter's writer and his material has been recorded all over the world. He still lives in East L.A. where his roots and his guitars are firmly planted. He has a large underground following and the celebrities of the music and film world, including Federico Fellini and Donald Sutherland, are among his followers and have been known to beat a path to his door and to his table where he sits writing music and playing endlessly.
He was discovered in the mid '70s by Bob Dylan when Norman Harris, owner of Norm's Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California, played him some of Hirth's material. This led to the album "Hirth From Earth" recorded by Warner Bros. and produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. Hirth is indeed both earthy and mystical and his lyrics can range from the funkiest to the outer spaciest. At one point, he came to feel he was about to be abducted by space aliens so he gave some of the masters of his recordings to the actress Geneviéve Bujold, who, he told me recently, may still have them. But his feet are planted firmly in L.A. soil. That's why he's called "Hirth From Earth."
Q: Your vocal quality has changed. More seasoned.
I did a lot of performing in between recordings: in Southern California, the Central Coast and in Australia for the Music Muster festival where I met some great musicians! So I paid some dues and gained more courage. I've also coached with Sue Raney, the wonderful jazz singer, and she helped me so much. She's an inspiring teacher. We work on breathing, scale studies. It always goes back to studying scales - any musician will tell you that. And the way you do things with the vowels sliding up and down the scales to smooth out the voice when going over the breaks. Sue calls it "riding the track."
Q: Have you recorded any new songs since finishing this project?
A: I've just cut an old/new song titled "I Wanna Wear a Diamond in My Belly Button." It's a song of mine from the '70s that Dr. Demento thought was one of the best pieces of rock satire from that period. Merrily Weeber, a songwriter I know who's written with Janice Ian and Jack Tempchin, heard it one day and said, "Can I write on your song? It could use an update." I'd never heard that phrase "write on your song before" and it made me laugh. I said, "Sure, write on my song if you like. It needs a new point of view." So we spent some time doing a rewrite. Merrily recorded a country/pop version and I've just done a jazz/pop version that I'll put up on my website soon.
Q: I know as a flute player and studio musician you've worked with everyone from Elmer Bernstein to Jack Nitzsche, Harold Spina, Bruce Langhorne and William "Buddy" Collette. And recently you performed on the soundtrack to "The Eastsiders," a documentary celebrating the Eastside of Los Angeles 1920-1965.
A: It was the last major piece of work that Buddy wrote before he died.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Los Angeles in the early '60s was join the L.A. Flute Club which is where I met Buddy. He was President and I made Vice President. I don't think I ran for office, I'm sure I was appointed because no one else wanted the job, but it was a good experience for me and we made some changes. At that time, the flute club was devoted solely to classical flute music and I encouraged Buddy to add jazz to our concerts. I think the "Swinging Shepherds" did a performance with us on the U.S.C. campus. I played a composition for flute and percussion by Lou Harrison, one of the important composers of the 20th century, and a bit radical for the flute club at that time. So we shook things up some.
I was still trying to find my way then and Buddy, always known for giving sage advice, told me that I had a story to tell and the story came out in my playing and that I shouldn't try to copy others because it wouldn't work anyway. I didn't know what he meant at the time - I didn't think my message very deep or complicated but over the years I've come to understand his meaning. I'm thankful I got to play on "The Eastsiders" soundtrack as I think it was his last musical work.