Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hiram Bullock 1955-2008

Colleen and I have literally thousands of albums, tapes and iTunes tracks between us, but there are only two artists who are so incredible that I buy nearly every thing they have ever done. One is Tower of Power – see my post here about them – and the other is a guitarist most of you have never heard of, by the name of Hiram Bullock. I just heard the sad news today that Hiram passed away this past week.

Hiram Bullock was, quite simply, the most electrifying jazz guitarist ever to grace the planet. In his early years, his high energy kick-in-the-afterburners guitar solos would practically melt your speakers. Later, his forays into straight jazz, funk, and R&B had an intelligence, texture, and even wit that you rarely find in a solo artist.

I first heard Hiram’s music nearly 20 years ago, on a jazz countdown show, doing a version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” with a piercing guitar solo, a three-foot-thick bass line, and Al Jarreau on vocals. I was hooked instantly, picked up a copy of his album “Give it What U Got,” and proceeded to have it blasting away on my car stereo for months. Later on a business trip to Pittsburgh, I saw him on stage for the first of many times, and never saw so much energy coming out of one guitarist.

What made Hiram what he was, however, wasn’t just raw power but intelligence and complexity. His music was textured with incredibly tasty chord sequences, clever intros and outros, and sidemen who fit him like a glove. Listening to his music was like biting into a seven-layer brownie with lots of treats inside. If he wasn’t a musician – and he noted proudly once on his website that he spent his entire life making his living in music – he probably could have been a rocket scientist for NASA.

So why wasn’t he more famous? Perhaps because he was a mutt. His body of work had enough jazz, funk, rock, and R&B to be part of each of these genres, and yet never be fully one of any of them. He had no lack of credentials, being the barefoot guitarist on the David Letterman show for years, and a respected sideman whose credits were a mile long. But in a world that speaks in hushed, reverent tones about jazz guitar purists like Pat Metheny, and rewards hip-hop artists with multimillion dollar contracts, Hiram’s music was a refreshing oasis that defied both convention and airplay.

None of this mattered to me, of course. I eagerly devoured everything he ever put out – often ordering autographed copies from the source itself – and went to shows that rocked with so much energy that I thought the stage would explode. (And, as you can see above, I even got to meet Hiram and get a picture with him at the Rochester Jazz Festival a few years ago. Some of my other pictures from that show now grace his website.) According to another blog comment, he was apparently still playing - and rocking the house - the week before he died, and I can’t believe he’s gone. Rest in peace, Hiram.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Midlife crisis resolved – for now

Faithful readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to spend my “author” income on a proper midlife crisis, specifically a down payment on a white sports car. My first choice and the car I’ve wanted since childhood, the Ford Mustang, was a no-go because its curvy windshield gives me a headache after about an hour behind the wheel.

Since then I’ve been too busy to think about cars, until now, because the lease on my Honda Accord was coming to an end – and as the drumbeat of end-of-lease letters and even phone calls from Honda were starting to increase dramatically, things were getting to the point where I had to buy *something*, even if it was my old car. So I finally managed to squeeze out from behind my desk with the missus and look at cars last weekend.

My first stop was a BMW dealer, and to my surprise, I wasn’t impressed. Short, hard seats in a heavy car that indeed goes way too fast, for way too many Euros. Then came one just for fun, the Chevy HHR, a car I’ve rented and enjoyed before. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t want to be driving around in something that looks like a 1940s milk truck for the next five years. We even checked out another same old same old Honda Accord, like I’ve been driving for much of the last two decades, and its great new styling for 2008 unfortunately couldn’t overcome a passenger seat that was a hard as a park bench. (I spend a lot of time in the passenger seat of my own car, writing on my laptop on business trips and weekend jaunts while my sweetie drives.)

So finally, I went to a Volkswagen dealer and tried out the Jetta for the first time in many years, and – wow – it was love at first sight. Slot-car handling, a nice firm ride, supremely comfortable seats, and its SE model is loaded with everything I ever wanted in a car: heated leather seats, sunroof, satellite radio, MP3, ABS, a zillion air bags, and a 10 (!) speaker premium stereo. Its 170 HP engine, based on a Lamborghini design, zips around nicely in traffic. And it is a beautiful white car, just like I imagined.

The one and only twinge in my decision was whether I should upgrade to the turbocharged Wolfsburg edition of the Jetta, giving me near-BMW performance for only a grand or so more. (Remember, this is supposed to be a proper midlife crisis.) Unfortunately, it has a couple of gotchas. First, it requires premium gas, adding a few hundred more a year to my car expenses. Second, and more important, it only comes in dull colors that seriously need more Prozac – grey, black, and silver – as well as a garish fire-engine red. The dealer was kind enough to let me take one home, and looking at it in my driveway, the thought of driving a dull grey car for five years was a showstopper. I’ve already been through the dull grey car phase of my life, thank you.

So now I have my white sports car – sort of. I love it. Now, back to writing.