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The unclassifiable David Amram comes to town and makes a record

By Marcel Smith

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  David Amram is not a household name, but he has, for more than half a century, enjoyed enviable success as a hard-to-categorize musician. Born in Philadelphia in 1930, he has been traveling up and down and around the USA and the rest of the world since the early '50s, much of the time sponsored by the State Department, soaking up musical idioms of all kinds, sitting in with jazz groups, playing in and conducting orchestras and ensembles, writing lots and lots of music, and making scores of friends. He has written music for a lot of theatrical productions and movies--including Joe Papp's Shakespeare festivals and The Manchurian Candidate and Splendor in the Grass. In 1966-67, he was the first ever composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic, then directed by Leonard Bernstein.

So is he a classical musician? Is he a jazz musician? Is he a folk musician? Well, yes. Is he something other than those? Well, yes.

The range of Amram's musical interests is wide indeed. Many of his more than 100 "classical" compositions incorporate melodies, rhythms, and instruments taken from Native American, African, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern traditions, as well as blues and jazz. He also has stout ties to Nashville. In 1997, the Nashville Symphony, under Kenneth Schermerhorn, recorded his newly commissioned symphony Kokopelli, based on Native American musical materials. Now, just out, is an Amram CD called Southern Stories, recorded here at RCA's historic Studio B. The disc contains 13 old-timey story-songs, all except one composed and performed by Amram himself, with more than a little help from some of his friends.

All told, eight musicians assist Amram on his latest release, and many of them should be familiar names to Nashvillians: Reggie Young, Rick Gordon, and Fred Bogert on acoustic guitar; Mickey Raphael on harmonica; Vassar Clements on violin; Butch Baldassari on mandolin; and Michael Rhodes, Brian Zohn, and Bogert on bass. Amram himself sings and plays piano as well as several folk flutes and whistles. The CD sounds very much like a bunch of guys sitting around making music together because that's what they love to do.

According to the liner notes, that's what Amram and his colleagues were after. The players sat around the studio, without headphones, playing eye to eye and ear to ear. Nearly every song was cut in one take. For "Alfred the Hog," a group of tourists gawking through the studio window was invited to come in and sing along on the chorus. Amram himself was audibly having fun, and I bet the sing-along chorus was too.

Not all the tracks are that lighthearted, though only a couple can be called serious. Mostly, this sounds like music to be overheard rather than carefully listened to. Not surprisingly, with players of this caliber, some fine things happen along the way, as the musicians listen to and interact with one another. There are moments of brilliance, especially from Mickey Raphael's harmonica and Vassar Clements' fiddle. And Amram himself does noteworthy things at the piano and with the Lakota courting flute. But the music never quite cooks the way you want it to.

The same has to be said about the lyrics. Amram has an authentic gift for narrative--a gift he showed as early as 1968 in his autobiography, Vibrations: The Life and Musical Times of David Amram. Even today, that book is an entertaining and informative glimpse at the age of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac and the young, socially conscious Leonard Bernstein. But in these Southern stories, verisimilitude is diluted with details that sound more like nostalgia than accurate history. The unresolved tensions that should produce the insightful flares we call irony don't quite work here. And more than once, the songs so overtly preach a sermon--as in "For Our Family Farmers," for instance--that it's hard not to be disappointed, or even a little ticked off.

And yet having heard this CD, I can't forget it. The songs kind of crawl around in the crannies of my memory, and I find myself, a little surprised, smiling. I think a big part of that is not just the music, but in this case, the making of the music. David Amram's musical gifts are genuine and gratifying. But, by all accounts, he has a genius for friendship. People from all over the world and all walks of life like him and like to be with him. He's not a generic human being--he's a character, in the 19th-century sense of that term. That is, he's a distinctive and memorable and delightful figure incised in your experience.

Certainly, David Amram's voice is this CD's distinctive musical center. That voice is a flexible honky-tonk baritone more athletic than a 69-year-old voice ought to be, singing in a dialect as quirky as Amram's own personal history. Taking in the word-shapes of this voice, you hear scraps of Charleston tossed in a salad with New Orleans and the Bronx and lots of other stuff you can't begin to locate. That voice never lets you figure out--as Southerners are always trying to do--where this person was raised.

But you don't have to guess, as we say these days, where he's coming from: This musician is genuinely a man of good humor and good will. Yeah, the lyrics are sometimes a little clunky or a tad smarmy or naively idealistic. But married to this music (even though it seems simpler than it ought to) and to this voice, these lyrics tell stories that crawl in through your earholes and make themselves at home inside your head. And it's nice to have them in there.

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