Earl the Cat, in Sickness and in Health

EarlBlissEarl is sleeping comfortably on my bed right now, curled up in a ball with his paws over his face. He’s the picture of ultimate cuteness and contentment. He’s been my constant companion since Valentine’s Day 2004 when my now ex-wife and I adopted him and his female feline friend, Angel, from a colleague of hers who rescues strays and finds them forever homes.

My ex and I had gone to adopt Angel, a beautiful calico with huge green eyes, white paws and belly. She’d been adopted out and returned – twice. Stunning, but extremely skittish, she wouldn’t let anyone near her to pet her and would hide. She had obviously been traumatized by someone. And who wants a cat you can’t even pet?  But she was taken in by Susie, my ex’s friend, as a skinny, frail kitten, at the same time as Earl.

Earl was already an adult cat. A big, gray tabby mix. Susie had named both kitties and Earl Grey (or at least the Earl part) suited him. Earl was banged up, having been on the receiving end of a few too many cat fights. He’s a lover, not a fighter. And as x-rays would later reveal, he had BBs in him as some soulless lout had used this poor creature for target practice.

So, with the idea of adopting the beautiful Angel, we set out for Susie’s place. There, I met Earl. And he immediately chose me: I picked him up and he immediately rested his head on my shoulder, purred and went to sleep. Knowing that Angel and Earl got along well, I realized that the only way Angel would ever have a real home and a shot at a decent life would be to adopt the two cats together.

And they’ve been together ever since. As my friends and family know, I’m fond of saying I have a cat (Earl) and my cat has a cat (Angel) and that every cat should have a cat. And yes, I’ve publicly performed many times a song I’d written about my cats. But this is Earl’s story; Angel’s will have to wait for another time. Suffice to say she’s still extremely skittish and will never be a lap cat, but she does let me pet her and she and Earl remain the best of friends.

A little more about Earl. There are plenty of other cats, mostly pure breeds (and Angel) that are better looking. But Earl was made for maximum cuteness. He has a ringed black and gray tail, like a raccoon. He has white booties on his rear legs and little half-booties or mittens on his front legs. His booties have patches. I like to say his momma was too poor to give him new booties.  He has a white ruff and a buff colored belly. He is simply the cutest cat. Ever.

And the most affectionate.  Despite having been mistreated and abandoned before his rescue, he loves people. He craves attention. He loves to be petted and held. And with rare exceptions, mostly when he’s not feeling well, he’s slept at my side every night for nine years, periodically sharing the bed, first with my wife and then girlfriends.  And he’s a snuggler. A living, breathing plush toy, he loves to cuddle.  He purrs so loudly that if I hold him up against me I’ll feel the vibrations from his purring in my ribs. He’s just a sweet, sweet boy.  He loves company and will follow you around like dog – a puppy in a cat suit.

And he’s a hedonist. He assumes that the world exists to feed and pet him and I’ve done my best not to disabuse him of this notion. A healthy eater who I indulge with table scraps, he had tipped the scales at eighteen pounds at one point. And, unlike Angel, he loves his catnip. Yes, I spoil them. And yes, I feed them premium grain-free wet food and kibble and they drink filtered water. And I cook for them too: slightly browned ground turkey with Wild Kitty mix and water. Yum!

And a very happy cat. In addition to his extensive napping, he loves to roll over on his back and rest or sleep with his plump belly exposed and his paws in the air. Particularly when I’m playing the piano. He loves my playing – not the interpretations I suppose, but the vibrations from the sound. Angel, however, is the ultimate critic: she runs from the room the moment the “music” begins!  When I’ve had my moments of solitude in the darkest, bluest of hues – and there have been many such moments in recent times, unfortunately –  seeing Earl on his back will always make me smile if not laugh out loud. And I think he knows this. Cats are very intuitive. And he and I take care of each other.

But Earl recently had a terrible health scare. Having been owned by cats for quite awhile, I know that, like people, cats will sometimes get sick but then recover on their own. So I waited a bit. But the symptoms grew worse. From prior vet visits and x-rays I know that Earl has arthritis in his back. And he’ll arch his back when he walks. And his long-jumping days have long been over.

It got to the point where not only was he no longer sleeping on the bed, but he’d spend the day in his “safe place” at the bottom of a closet in the TV room. And he was barely eating. And he could barely move. Limping noticeably, it was even hard for him to lie down.  And I couldn’t even pet him as he was sensitive to touch. I called my holistic vet and she, unfortunately was heading out of town but she said he needed to be seen right away.

I was preparing myself for the worst as Earl had lost a significant amount of weight and would only pick at his plate – and only then when I either carried him to his food or brought it to him. If there is nothing more joyful than a blissed-out kitty, there are few things as heartbreaking as an animal in pain.  I know that I’ll eventually lose him, as friends and family have recently lost kitties in the last few years. But I was hoping I wouldn’t have to let him go just yet.

You see, that toothless (he’d lost the majority of his teeth – some were removed, others fell out), old, arthritic cat has been my best friend and constant companion for a long time. But I didn’t think of him as old or unhealthy – he was just Earl. And suddenly, within a very short span, he seemed old and frail and bereft of his personality.  And the vet told me she thinks he’s even older than I’d thought: I believed he was about 12 based upon what the first vet to examine him said way back when, but my vet thinks he’s probably a couple of years older than that.  And he’d gotten too thin as I could feel the bumps in his spine.

But, as before, fortunately, Earl has rebounded again. My vet has given him homeopathic medicine, but also, recently-approved laser therapy for his back, injections of non-steroidal supplements (think injectable glucosamine) and kitty acupuncture – which he loved. As I write this, his appetite has returned, he’s once again sleeping at my side and he’s moving normally – at least for him.

But I know he and I have dodged a bullet and that one day I know he’ll become sick again and won’t be able to recover. Which is why I’m writing this now. Because even with Earl healthy it’s hard for me to write. And I know that when the time comes for him to take his leave I know I won’t be able to write anything that would even begin to capture his essence and how much he’s meant to me for so many years.

Those of you who have cats (or other furry four-legged friends) know what I mean. Those of you who don’t may think I’m crazy or think that he’s only a cat. But seeing him curled up asleep, or lounging on his back, or feeling his purr when you hold him is to experience unbridled joy in its purest form.  And that’s something that’s so badly needed with all the heartache and strife in the world. So, as with other loved ones, I’m taking the time now to tell him how much I love him, how much I need and appreciate him and that when the time does finally come, I’ll make sure that his transition is peaceful and that he does not suffer for my sake.


On the morning of May 5, 2014, my sweet boy, Earl, passed. He’d not been well for a couple of days and I had a vet appointment booked. However, he took a turn for the worse that morning and although I was able to get him to the emergency care vet in time, there was nothing they could do. His generous heart just gave out and it was time for him to go and, as I promised, I told the vet there should be no extraordinary measures and to just make sure he wasn’t in any pain.

I’m very grateful for the more than 10 years I had with him and Angel and I miss him very much. As for Angel, whether she’s trying to comfort me, make up for the lost attention she had from Earl or is channeling his spirit – or some combination of these,  she’s become more affectionate, often asking to be petted and even letting me cuddle and snuggle with her a little.


Bunheads: My Guilty TV Pleasure

So I’m hooked on Bunheads. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage girls (or boys) in tutus.  I’m actually a fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing.  I first encountered her allegro vivace rhythmic patter peppered with pop culture references when I used to watch Gilmore Girls with my (now ex) wife.

It’s basically the same show. Both take place in quirky small towns about a two-hour drive from a major metropolis. Michelle is Lorelei 2.0, although two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster is a better Broadway babe than Lauren Graham. (Getting to watch Ms. Foster belt one out in a leotard is definitely a reason to tune in.)

And Bunhead’s Sasha is kind of a Gilmore Girl’s Rory reboot, too, especially since Michelle’s her surrogate mother since her parents conveniently left town. Then there’s Kelly Bishop: mother on Gilmore Girls, now mother-in-law on Bunheads. And Liza Weill has a recurring character on Bunheads, just as she did on Gilmore Girls. I’m just waiting for a special guest appearance by Edward Herrmann.

But, again, I watch it for the writing – and the quirky, if sometimes caricatural characters.  I may be biased, but the dialog is better in the scenes between the adults than the teens. I recently read an article about Ms. Sherman-Palladino and her obsessive Bunheads creative process through the ArtsJournal blog.  As to her writing style, she says:

“Well, my writing is very rhythmic,” she said. “It’s got a very specific beat to it and its part of the reason that our show is pretty much [acted] verbatim, word for word. It’s not just my Mussolini complex. Sometimes you drop ‘and’ or ‘a’ or ‘the,’ it just shifts the rhythm off and it doesn’t land the way it’s supposed to land, and that I think it’s like a dance, almost.”

Ms. Sherman-Palladino was a dancer before she became a writer and it shows. Her style is similar to that of Diablo Cody, of Juno fame. Ms. Cody was also a dancer, albeit of a more exotic kind, having exchanged her lap dances for laptops.  The rapid-fire delivery owes much to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, Bringing Up Baby, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant being a prime example of the genre. While the style has a certain artifice   – and in unskilled hands it becomes cloying quickly – the jazz-like rhythms and swinging pacing enhance the wit and weirdness of it all.

I think I respond to this writing because, as a musician and songwriter, I also write rhythmically. Readers of my blog and other writings will notice the frequent use of alliteration and rhyme as well as a certain cadence or beat to it. While it’s my natural style, I do cultivate it a bit  (particularly in this post) as it makes blogging on otherwise dry and technical topics less plodding so that hopefully people will really read what I write.  And, I too, will add or subtract a word in a sentence or a lyric to make sure it “sounds” right.

But Bunheads also engages my brain – at least the music publisher part. Watching a show with plenty of set-piece musical numbers and many scenes of dance rehearsals, I sit there thinking things like: “who’s the music supervisor on the show?” and “did they do a MFN deal for the music and master with the label and publisher(s) for the featured choreographic performance of They Might Be Giants’ Istanbul (Not Constantinople)?

And while there’s shows like Glee and all the singing contest shows, there’s something to be said for one like Bunheads that features numbers from classic musicals, as in recent episodes, where, as part of the plot, Sutton’s Michelle sang show stoppers from Bells Are Ringing and Sweet Charity.

But the season’s just ended and it’ll be quite awhile before I can get another fix. At bottom, Bunheads is a guilty pleasure. Sure, it’s a confection, but  more like what you buy at the bakery rather than the wrapped nougat one gnaws on from the newsstand – not that there’s anything to snicker about the latter. It’s light entertainment, sometimes informative, with occasional sprinkles of meaning – hopefully like my blog posts…:)

Song Cycle Saturday

This past Saturday, I got to spend some time with my dear friends, Frank J. Oteri and his wife, Trudy Chan.  Although their peripatetic travels have made such occurrences recent rarities, this particular occasion was unique: it was an evening of Frank’s music. Frank, is, of course, an ubiquitous and unmistakable presence at new music concerts. However, he’s there most often in his role an advocate for, and writer about, the music of other composers.

But Saturday night, his music took center stage. The concert, “Versions of Oteri,” consisted of two song cycles and two solo piano pieces, performed by Ms. Chan and the amazingly versatile Phillip Cheah, who sang both in baritone and male soprano voices, not only within the same movement, but often within the same phrase – more on that later.  Phillip also, performed one of the piano pieces and at one point even joined Trudy at the piano to play some dramatic sound clusters that concluded one of the movements of the song cycle.  (No, he doesn’t juggle. I asked.)

The performance took place at the Tenri Cultural Institute in Greenwich Village and the 90-seat space was filled to capacity with numerous other composers – no doubt a tribute to Frank but perhaps also something of a spin on Yogi Berra’s maxim that you should “always go to other people’s funerals otherwise they won’t go to yours.”  Frank’s spoken remarks about his music were brief, although he noted that he provided, as he is wont to do with other composers, lengthy and detailed program notes.

The song cycles were the focus of the concert, with the piano pieces serving as brief, but entertaining intermezzi. The first, “Versions of the Truth,” was a world premiere, consisting of settings of 12 Stephen Crane poems, he of the “Red Badge of Courage.” Frank described the poems as truly weird. So, he is just the composer to set such oddities! He wrote the cycle specifically for Phillip and Trudy and the vocal writing encompassed the lowest registers of Phillip’s baritone as a well as the highest of his soprano – and everything in between.

The second song cycle which concluded the concert, “the nurturing river,” had more personal resonance for me, partly because of the style of the writing but also because of its unusual back story. Frank had set a series of fourteen sonnets by his former teacher and long-time friend and sometime musical collaborator, James R. Murphy. Murphy was in attendance, along with his son, both of whom Frank has played with over the years in the neo-Bluegrass group, “The String Messengers” and it was at those performances I first met the Murphys.

Frank wrote the piece in 1982. As he and I are the same age, I thought about what I was writing in 1982: a few solo piano works, a duet for clarinet, but nothing so ambitious. I hadn’t even started writing songs yet. As Frank explained, the work was deemed impossible to sing by several singers. And so it remained until more than two decades later when he met Phillip.

Although I had heard a couple of the movements performed last year, Saturday marked the first complete public performance of the cycle. And to my ears and amazement, this work seemed to me even more ideally and idiosyncratically suited to Phillip’s specialized vocal skills than the piece that he’d actually written for him. Phrases that changed registers and timbres seemed fluid and natural – something that would be nearly impossible if the work were sung by a male and female singer. Somehow, Frank must have been channeling Phillip, someone who was very young and living many thousands of miles away when the work was written.

As to the solo piano interludes, the first, “Palindrome,” consisted of the working through of various combinations and permutations of a single short phrase, incorporating both serialist and minimalist techniques. As a work from Frank’s student days at Columbia, it did have a certain academic, experimental air to it. The second piano piece, “Setting the World at Five and Seven” was a jauntier effort, juxtaposing 5-beat and 7-beat rhythmic cycles over a 12-bar blues progression.

Prior to joining Frank, Trudy and Phillip for a post-concert dinner, I told Phillip and Trudy that I’d written the music for a new song, one that will exploit Phillip’s unique vocal skills in a humorous and perhaps schizophrenic way. Now I just have to write the lyrics.  I’ll have to do that in between teaching, getting  ScoreStreet going and launching my new Legal Tune-up service specially formulated for composers and other creative types.  Meanwhile, I hope Frank finds more time to write music and that there are more performances of his varied, expressive and enjoyable works.

But first, I’ll have to reply to his NewMusicBox post in which he takes issue with some post-concert conversation wherein I and another songwriter friend of his maintained that writing lyrics is harder than writing the music.  If you’re writing a verse-chorus song, for example, one verse and one chorus and you’re done with the music. One and done doesn’t cut it with the words.

The Lawyer as Artist

Yesterday, I came across a blog post that was highlighted by The Dean’s List, Dean Kay’s daily listing of online articles relating to the music business and copyright law. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested either topic. Anyway, the first article Mr. Kay listed was one by Mark A. Fischer, Esq., of the  Duane Morris firm, called “Artists, lawyers and specialness.”  I agree with most of what Mr. Fischer had to say. Artists are very special and as Mr. Fischer aptly points out, they are different from practitioners of other professions in that they are creative and are often willing to pursue their craft without compensation.  After all, we lawyers, wouldn’t be in the lawyering business purely for the love of it. We do it to pay the bills.

However, here’s where I take some slight exception to Mr. Fischer’s comments. And, I suspect that upon further reflection even he would agree: the best of us, in any profession, whether law, medicine, banking, teaching, hairdressing, auto repair or computer programming, are creative. We don’t just do things the way everybody else does. Most of us who take pride in our work try to be the best at it and that often entails trying (and sometimes failing) to do something new and different.

And then there are those of us lawyers who fancy themselves creative artists, as well. There have been many who successfully combined legal and literary careers, such as Louis Auchincloss, Scott Turow and John Grisham.  As a songwriter and performer, I feel I can connect with artists, especially musicians, in a way that other lawyers can’t. For example, last week I met with a client, an aspiring pop singer-songwriter and his manager. We were brainstorming on how to move his career forward and he was pleased that I spent as much time talking about and analyzing his music, from chord progressions, to lyrics, to piano licks, as I did going over legal and business issues.

As a lawyer, I’m always looking at new ways of approaching problems. And it’s that creativity with respect to my legal work that’s made me realize that it’s often hard for artists, whether musicians, writers, dancers or painters, to have access to convenient, affordable legal advice. So, I’ve put my creativity to the test, done some homework and will soon be announcing my new service targeted to artists of all stripes. So, stay tuned….Artist at work…

Contemplating The Jazz Canon

The other day I read on Salon a well-written and fairly lengthy article by Scott Timberg called “Did The American Songbook Kill Jazz?” A provocative title, but I think even the author would agree, to paraphrase Twain, that the reports of the death of jazz are greatly exaggerated. The music is constantly performed, recorded, written about and studied.  And while the audience of the music is tiny compared to popular genres, this is no recent phenomenon and the prominence of the Great American Songbook is but one factor.

A related one is a certain ossification that’s occurred because most students now learn jazz in the academe instead of on the bandstand. There’s no comparable finishing school these days to either Art Blakey or Betty Carter.  And with jazz as an academic discipline, the standards written by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, along with those by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Parker and Gillespie – and particularly the recordings of them by jazz masters past – have become as canonical in the jazz world as those of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart are in the classical world.

As a sometime songwriter who’s written a few tunes in various jazz idioms and has played a little cocktail piano, I’ll admit that I’m tired of hearing yet another Bill Evans-inspired rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” But there’s two parts to that. One, certain standards are overdone to the point of being aural shoe leather. The other is that too many pianists are all but stylistic Xeroxes of their predecessors like Bud Powell or Bill Evans. I’m sure my trumpet and sax-playing friends have had similar experiences listening to talented performers who’ve not developed a distinctive style.

One war horse cited by Timberg is “Autumn Leaves.” One of my favorites, I’d play the piece as a mid-tempo swing, a la Cannonball and Miles’ rendition.  Then I heard the late Eva Cassidy’s arrangement – and it is truly a recasting of the work, complete with alternative harmonies, that brings out the poignancy of the Johnny Mercer lyric.  Even  the most played standards can be made fresh in the hands of a skilled artist and Eva Cassidy has forever changed how I interpret the song.

Timberg makes the point that an earlier generation of jazz musicians who tried to record more recent pop songs, even those written by the likes of the Beatles, were not successful. Part of the problem is that you can’t make those songs “jazzy” in that they don’t swing and they sound cheesy when you try to perform them in a traditional idiom.  However, just as jazz moved early on beyond the swing beat to Afro-Cuban rhythms and later Brazilian samba, one can certainly play convincing jazz these days with a straight-eighths rock beat.  Just listen to Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” as an early example.

Brad Mehldau is rightly mentioned as someone who’s recorded his fair share of standards but has gone well beyond the Songbook, recording not only his originals, but songs by the Beatles, Kurt Cobain and Radiohead, among others. I heard his arrangement of “Blackbird” live and it was transformative.  Mehldau didn’t try to make the Beatles classic sound jazzy; rather, he let the song be true to its roots and he spun several minutes of brilliant and beautiful improvisations from the song.  And to the extent that more recent popular songs lack the harmonic complexity of the standards, the answer is to find songs that lend themselves to one of the improvising artist’s principal tools: harmonic substitution.

If there is a “problem” with contemporary jazz, it’s not the Great American Songbook, although the canon does provide a clue. All of the enshrined works are songs – they have lyrics! And it’s the lyrics that provide much of the emotional content and make these songs memorable – even when performed as instrumentals.  While some of the Songbook masters wrote both words and music, most did not. They collaborated with lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer. Jazz is far from dead. However, I think if some of the many younger composer-performers found talented lyricists to collaborate and craft songs with, their music would reach a wider audience and, to address another point in the Timberg post, would be more culturally “relevant.” Jazz singers are dying for good, new material – they’re tired of just singing standards, too.

So Nu, Music?

As many of my friends and colleagues know, I’ve been working for nearly two years on launching a comprehensive new promotion, publishing and licensing service for classical and jazz composers. Needing a break from dealing with the travails of software application development and the cast of characters involved, I decided last night to actually go out and listen to some of the music that inspired me to pursue what is a seemingly Quixotic quest to do something radical to help composers of new music.

As a preface, I was frequently asked back when I was running the New York office of a prominent classical music publishing company why I was signing jazz composers like Paquito D’Rivera and Andrew Hill, among others.  Among the responses I would give were things like they’re both taught in colleges and conservatories, are performed in concert halls and require a similar sophistication and study of compositional and performance skills.  And they have similar demographics in the marketplace.

The music I heard last night made me once again consider an even more radical reason: it’s all new music. And while there is plenty of contemporary music in both the classical (and I use the term to include “concert”, “serious” and “new music”) and jazz camps that are more firmly rooted in their respective traditions, I suspect that listeners who were unfamiliar with the artists and how they’ve been “branded” would be hard-pressed to classify the musical offerings I heard yesterday as definitely either classical or jazz.

First, I attended a concert of two short sets:  one by Missy Mazzoli and her group, Victoire and the other by the Vijay Iyer trio. With respect to Mr. Iyer’s music, he’s clearly been labeled as a jazz composer –  he’s won a fistful of Downbeat awards this year –  and the piano trio is one of the most traditional of jazz ensembles.  But the music he played had little if any of the trappings of traditional jazz. The drummer didn’t groove on a traditional swing beat. In fact, for long stretches he didn’t keep time at all.  And to my ears, the musical structures and harmonies Vijay composed seemed closer to the classical tradition than to that of jazz.

As for Victoire’s performance, the ensemble of two voices, clarinet, keyboards, violin, double bass, two female singers and electronics wouldn’t immediately strike someone as classical music if they were merely accustomed to hearing symphonies and string quartets.  The works Victoire performed certainly would fit nicely on a program with those of Mr. Iyer and the other “jazz” performer I heard last night. And yet, Ms. Mazzoli is signed to G. Schirmer, another prominent classical publishing company and she does write works for more traditional musical groupings. Last night, however, she presented her works as performed by her own ensemble, reminiscent of a more recent “classical” tradition epitomized by Reich and Glass, composers now regarded as classical – but not back when they first toured with their respective groups.

Then there’s last night’s the third group: Scott Robinson’s Doctette, which performed last night at the Jazz Standard.  Mr. Robinson, an established jazz saxophonist and composer,  presented a set of his compositions inspired by the Doc Savage pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. And while an ensemble of piano, bass, drums and percussion, with Mr. Robinson on various winds, is a traditional jazz format, the inclusion of theremin and the rare, monolithic, awe-inspiring contrabass sax is not.  And like Mr. Iyer’s music earlier in the evening, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional swing beats and the music sounded far more like the music I hear at Zankel Hall than at a jazz club like the Jazz Standard.  And yet none of the music I heard last night sounded anything like the “third-stream” experiments of the post-war period, either.

The other day, my good friend, Frank J. Oteri, writing in NewMusicBox about accordionist, Guy Klucevsek’s album, Polka from the Fringe, concluded, “the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.”  I offer a corollary: the next time someone tries to draw lines separating what’s classical and what’s jazz these days,  tell him or her to listen to Mazzoli, Iyer, Robinson and a whole host of genre-bending new music composer/performers.