Take Five

Late 1981, 1982, Bethesda, MD

Personnel

David Robinowitz – piano
Adam Gibbons – drums
Chris Armacost (probably) – alto sax
Some other dude – tenor sax  (update: Comments reveal this to be Joey Gannon)
Mark Lerner – bass

It would be a huge understatement to say that jazz is not my strong suit. I’ve spent much of my life avoiding it and occasionally openly scorning it. The past 5 or 6 years, however, have found me delving into jazz a little bit more (as a listener, not a player). I like the dense, unexpected chords, and I like jazz-like compositions: Alec Wilder, Charles Mingus, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite, Astor Piazzolla. I do have problems with long solos (and a bunch of folks basically soloing at the same time) and I’m not a fan of the saxophone. But I try not to parade the limits of my taste as some sort of virtue. It’s good to like things, and trying to find your way into someone’s art is a noble effort, infinitely more valuable than kneejerk dismissal.

All of that said, I’m a little perplexed by this entry in EVERY BAND I’VE EVER BEEN IN. If the cassette tape I have is to be believed (along with some corroboration via email from pianist David Robinowitz), I spent much of my senior year in high school playing in a jazz quintet with the almost supernaturally cliched name Take Five. With the possible exception of the tenor sax player, of whom I have no recollection whatsoever, all of the guys in this group were younger than me. [Ed: see comments] David and Adam were juniors, and Chris was a sophomore. (There’s also a slight chance I’m wrong and Chris wasn’t in this band at all, but I’m 99% sure it was him.)

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The Incidentals

August 1990, New York City

Personnel

Frank Randall – guitar
Mark Lerner – mandolin, dulcimer

In 1990, WFMU radio host Nick Hill asked me if I could provide some incidental music for a talk show. I think the station folks had recently gotten a bunch of remote broadcast gear and were eager to put it to a test. The show was to be broadcast live from Caffe Reggio in New York City on August 22, 1990. As it happened, my friend Frank Randall was in town from Minneapolis, so I put him to work. Among his many other talents, Frank has a pleasing fingerpicking style on the guitar. I played mandolin with a dulcimer on my lap, and switched to the dulcimer for some parts of some tunes.

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The Nitz!

Bethesda, Maryland, 1980-1982

Personnel

Craig Lapine – guitar, vocals, saxophone *
Jon Lipson – drums **
Stephen Lewis – lead guitar ***
Mark Lerner
– bass

* Only once for the saxophone. Bad idea.
** And marimba on a couple of songs
***And drums when Jon played marimba

As I’ve mentioned to in an earlier post, in 10th grade I exchanged my Led Zeppelin and Cream records for the Stiff Records catalog and early records by the likes of Joe Jackson and the Police. I also started playing in the Nitz, formed by Craig Lapine, who was a year ahead of me in school. He seemed very grown up. He’d make a joke I wouldn’t understand and I’d nod and laugh and then look up the words in a dictionary later. Most importantly, Craig wrote his own songs. This required that I figure out something to do on bass, since there was no Bill Wyman or John Paul Jones bass line to copy.

Rounding out the band was my closest friend, Stephen Lewis (also newly escaped from Atlantis), on guitar, and Jon Lipson on drums.

We named ourselves after knit shirts, I don’t know why. But with a Z, because it was more new wave. Usually the band name was rendered with an exclamation mark. Stephen’s mother made us band t-shirts and for some reason made the exclamation mark a star of David. I don’t have the shirt anymore, but I’ve mocked it up here, in all its ITC American Typewriter glory.

We all chipped in and bought a sparkly blue “tuck and roll” Kustom PA system and parked it in Jon’s parents’ basement where we rehearsed.

Left to right: ML, Jon Lipson, Craig Lapine, Stephen Lewis. This photo and those below are by Betsy Norwood, or so it says in the high school yearbook I grabbed them from.

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Amy Allison and the Maudlins

New York City, from 1987 or so, off and on for a few years

Personnel

Amy Allison – vocals, melodica
Rob Meador – acoustic guitar
Simon Heathcote – nylon-string guitar, melodica

At some point, they added

Mark Donato – drums
Mark Lerner – bass

Which didn’t stick long. Then they added

Charlie Shaw – drums
Mark Amft – bass
Stephen Lewis – lap steel

And various other folks trickled in and out. I know Artie Baguer played bass for a while, I subbed on bass now and then, as did Reuben Radding and John Frierson.

The Maudlins

The Maudlins, circa 1989: Amy Allison with, from left: Charlie Shaw, Stephen Lewis, Mark Amft, Simon Heathcote, and Rob Meador.

The early Maudlins

Amy Allison is, in a low-key, still-needs-a-day-job sort of way, well-known. She’s made quite a few records, had songs covered by other artists, been praised by critics, duetted with Dave Alvin and Elvis Costello (a big fan), and generally enjoyed a lot of respect for her songwriting and her evocative voice.

But when I first met Amy, she was (as a performer) pretty weird. It was 1987. I was living on East 8th Street between Avenues B and C with my roommate and frequent bandmate Bill Fink. I was working at my first job out of college, as an assistant to a horrible boss at a literary agency. I struck up a friendship with another lowly assistant named Frank Randall. He said he played guitar; we both liked Robyn Hitchcock. We made plans to get together and play music. Frank lived on 11th between B and C. Three blocks way, but much nastier. My block was mostly burnt out and abandoned, but strangely safe. His was actively filled with crack dealers.

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T. W. Pyle Junior High School Band

1976-1979, Bethesda, Maryland

When I was in 3rd grade, my parents informed me that I was going to take up a musical instrument. I asked to play drums but was encouraged to try something quieter. I took up the trumpet. I took private lessons at a local music studio from a glum youngish man named Mr. Brimmer. I remember having to fill out a little orange practice log book.

In about 6th grade I switched to instruction from a much more jovial guy whose name I’ve completely forgotten. The jolly fellow came to our house. He actually played the euphonium, not the trumpet, and he’d often accompany my playing with oom-pah bass parts. He indulged my love of Monty Python by getting me music for Sousa’s Liberty Bell March. The only other thing I remember about him was that for some reason he gave me a photocopy of a pidgin English translation of Little Red Riding Hood called “Lik Lik Retpela Hat.”

I slayed the mothers in the audience at the 5th and 6th grade talent shows with solo trumpet renditions of “Speak Softly Love” (Nino Rota’s love theme from The Godfather) and Barry Manilow’s hit “Mandy.” But in truth, I was not a very good trumpet player. I practiced indifferently and would blast as loudly as possible in frustration when a passage gave me trouble.

When I got to junior high in 1976, I was able to join the school band. This is particularly momentous for readers of this blog, because it’s the first band I was ever in.

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Flat Old World

New York City, 1990–1996

Personnel

Mark Lerner – six-string bass, banjo, melodica, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – guitar, vocals
Diane Stockwell – violin, mandolin, melodica, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Bill Fink – guitar, vocals
G. Doug Pierson – tuba, euphonium, concertina, guitar, vocals
Todd Weeks – trumpet, harmonica (until 1992)
Robin Goldwasser – cello, ukulele, melodica, vocals (1992 on)

This one looms large for me (and large for you, dear reader: this post is LONG). Flat Old World was the first band of my very own. Prior to it, I was a sideman or one of a few writers. I am a pretty bossy guy, really, so even when a band isn’t “mine,” I tend to assert myself a lot as an arranger and general loudmouth. Partly this is due to my musical role. Bass: come on. Four strings. Play the root. Duh. But when a song is well arranged, that simple task—playing a simple, grounding part in a groove—sounds really great. So I’ve always tended to offer lots of arrangement advice in any band I play with.

Attentive readers will recall that in 1989, the band I’d been playing with for 2 years, the Oswalds, split up. I found myself wondering if maybe it was time to stop playing music (I was 26). I had always felt that songwriting was the center of a band, but I wasn’t all that keen on it at the time. I could do it, but I knew (and played with) so many writers who were better than me. I’m also not really a virtuosic bassist, but I have my own quirky strengths, I suppose. I started to think that somehow, by basically subtracting songwriting—subtracting pop and rock, really—and focusing on my personal playing style and arranging, I might have some sort of band of my own to offer. I was also eager to play with my new girlfriend, Nancy, who was a great singer.

So I started writing some instrumentals and digging up some old folk songs to mess with. I pictured a very serious, meditative mix of ultra-slow country music like Souled American, chamber jazz like Red Norvo’s band, and the idiosyncratic guitar techniques of Joseph Spence and John Fahey. It was to be my new project. Luckily, reality intervened, and my theories were soon filtered through the sensibilities of a motley assortment of bandmates into something much more musical and fun than my Grand Plan.

Flat Old World in my kitchen, Brooklyn 1994. From left: Mark Lerner, Robin Goldwasser, Diane Stockwell, Bill Fink, Nancy Lynn Howell, Mark Donato, G. Doug Pierson. I’m washing the dishes. Nancy is very pregnant.

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The Catskill 45s

Spring 2009 – current, Phoenicia, NY

Personnel

Tony Fletcher – keyboards, guitar, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – vocals
Josh Roy Brown – lead guitar, vocals
Robert Burke Warren – guitar, vocals
Ric Dragon and Eric Parker – drums (2009)
Lukas Lerner – drums (2010 onwards)
Me – bass, vocals

Preface

I moved with my family from New York City to the tiny Catskills town of Phoenicia in the summer of 2005. Among the first and friendliest folks I met were Tony Fletcher, a music writer, and his wife, Posie Strenz. I found Tony through his blog, ijamming (a blog about wine, music, running, and whatever else crosses Tony’s mind), while looking for recommendations of vegetarian places to eat in my new surroundings. Tony and Posie like to throw a good party, and it was at one of those that I met the musician and writer Robert Burke Warren. Coincidentally, I’d worked with Robert’s wife, the writer Holly George-Warren, many years before at Rolling Stone. As the years went by in my new town, my son Lukas took up the drums. His teacher was a local legend named Eric Parker. I started subbing on bass in Robert’s family-music band, Uncle Rock and the Playthings (about which more later), with Eric on drums and a versatile and rootsy guitarist named Josh Roy Brown. Okay, we know most of the players now…

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