The 1960s were an interesting time in America. There were giants walking on the land, as rocker Neil Young testfies in his latest CD, Psychedelic Pill. American culture hadn’t yet started to slide into the dumbed-down, tone-deaf, myopic mess it is now. In films Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and Goddard were creating masterpieces, on radio Jean Shepherd talked his nightly installments of the Great American novel, in literature, J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, John Updike and many more wrote deep, meaningful explorations of the human heart. And even on television, although the golden age of live drama had ended, a giant still practiced his art.
Stirling Silliphant, the poet laureate of the open road and the free soul, co-created a one of a kind television series called route 66, a show about two young guys in a Corvette searching the American highways for a place, a feeling, a sense of belonging somewhere. Silliphant wrote 73 stories, full one-hour scripts for the show during its four year run. And in most of those tales he expressed ideas, thoughts, and feelings about what it is to be human on planet earth—the fight to keep your humanity, enduring cruelty and intolerance, fighting indifference, and searching for love—all expressed in some of the most poetic dialog ever written for TV.
This isn’t a blog about route 66, though. That’s a topic I’ve never fully discussed here—what that show meant to a college boy hearing for the first time about existentialism, Pirandello, Zen, and jazz musicians named Sticky Mack and Gabe Johnson. Someday I’ll tackle route 66 but not yet.
The thing is, though, even though the show aired fifty years ago, its influence is still being felt, and in some surprising places. One of the latest and best, is a new CD entitled appropriately Go Where the Road Leads. The album features saxophonist Kenny Blake and vocalist Maria Shaheen, both from Pittsburgh. The CD was produced and arranged by a fellow by the name of Peter Morley, who also wrote the title tune and several others on the disc, and played some percussion and keyboards as well.
I happen to know that Pete is a route 66 fan. He has expressed his admiration for the show and for Silliphant many times on a Yahoo forum dedicated to the program, which is where I made his acquaintance. His love for the series and its influence on his song writing are well evident in this wonderful new disc. But while the CD captures the feeling that the route 66 program inspired (that sense that there is something worth searching for on the open road), to say that Go Where the Road Leads is a tribute to the past would be inaccurate. It’s more accurate to say the music here shows there are still people out there who dig what Tod and Buz, the two guys in the ’Vette, were trying to do. There are those who still get Buz’s message. Buz said: ” Go, just go, man.” And this album goes.
Kenny Blake is a saxophonist in the tradition of Cannonball Adderly, and on this CD he’s playing in a full-toned lyrical style reminiscent of Art Pepper. But these comparisons don’t really do him justice, because Blake has a distinctive sound of his own, whether he’s on soprano, alto or tenor.
Maria Shaheen’s voice has a haunting quality to it that grabs you from the first note she sings on the opening tune, “Tu Sais L’amour,” one that she wrote the melody for. Blake accompanies her with a very warm sound on tenor. The middle section of the song has Shaheen improvising melodic variations on the three French words in the title, while Blake weaves a hip, and beautiful tapestry around the main line. Very nice.
Next up is the title song, and here Morley’s lyrics express the essence of route 66— that when life gets stagnant there’s always the possibility of getting in your car and “doing something totally insane.” The song is fast-paced with Blake playing a boppish alto solo, and Shaheen inviting us to bypass our usual exit on the freeway, to ‘spin the compass, point me into the sun and let’s run where the road leads.”
No sooner do the last notes of the open road fade away when electric keyboard chords set the hard-to-define mood of the next song, “The Waters of March.” This Antonio Carlos Jobim tune is a killer. It never fails to raise goosebumps, and the arrangement that Morley has provided here is so good you can hardly listen without wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road .. .”
“Begin the Beguine” is next with a very relaxed mood and an exquisite piano solo by Jeff Lashway, as well as Blake’s inventive improvisations on soprano sax.
“To William” begins with an actual quote from one of Silliphant’s route 66 scripts. “He’s the wind from a place I’ve never been before,” a line spoken by Diane Baker, playing one of the many crazy mixed up girls that the route 66 guys kept running into. Here Shaheen’s vocal asks, “when I wake in the morning will I find all that’s left are these line to William?”
“Soul Serenade” provides a gritty workout for Blake on alto while Shaheen provides a background chorus through multi-tracking, while drummer Brian Edwards keeps hip, grooving time.
“Tangerine Wine” and “Private Devils” are both Morley originals. Wine is about the choice between being a nine-to-fiver “wasting my youth on time-clock time,” or finding “a kind of truth in the thunder wine, the tangerine wine”—a metaphor for those who prefer a more bohemian lifestyle. This cut features a solo by bassist Mike Houlis that tells a truth all its own.
“Devils” tells about a hipster’s struggle to keep “a private code,” while trying to juggle “all these many levels of meaning.” Lyrics to think about.
The album ends with an instrumental bossa that features Blake with a quartet and gives him a chance to stretch out.
It’s hard to sum up an album that has “so many levels of meaning” in it. Morley’s lyrics reach for something difficult to express. Sometimes they’re oblique and mysterious. It’s the sounds that accompany them that get the real meaning across. It’s more something you feel than hear. There was a route 66 story in which the heroes try to explain a very complicated situation to a little boy, and when they ask if he understands, he says: “Not all the words. But the sound of it.”
All you truth seekers out there, you travelers on the endless highway, pick up this CD. It’s background music you need for The Journey.
Available at Amazon.com.