Once In a Lifetime Tribal
A friend of mine threw a party once and, well, let us say, it got a bit out of hand. The next morning, he awoke to a trashed apartment and gutted refrigerator and found that his bike had been taken (he found it discarded in a patch of blackberry vines a few blocks away). Strangely enough, what pissed him off was neither the stolen bike nor the empty fridge, nor was it the toothbrush that was pissed on (as if that wouldn't be enough to get my trousers in a knot). What pissed him off was that someone had taken a treasure more important to him than everything else he lost that night. Someone had stolen his White Elephant album! What the... you're asking? (And if you're not, what the hell are you reading this for--- that is, unless you know) I mean, this guy was incensed! And rightfully so. The double album, released in 1972, was hard enough to find when it was actually being distributed. By the late '70s, it was buried treasure.
So what made the album so important? Well, for many of us, it was a gateway to pure musical adventure. Unlike most releases of the time, changing tracks sometimes was like changing clothes. The tracks you preferred depended upon mood, time of day, even what you had for dinner--- but you could always find something to tickle your fancy. There were the Nick Holmes tracks for the less adventurous, the rock side of the ensemble backing that uniquely textured voice on some really fine ballads and a couple of upbeat rockers. There were the Michael Mainieri “standards”, as I used to call them--- songs as good for their arrangements as for the songs themselves. And there were a couple of downright honker jazz/rockers which pretty much showed those of us hung up on white boy rock that jazz, too, had their hippies. More than one of us slipped onto the jazz train because of Mainieri and his horde. And maybe it didn't turn us into jazz freaks, but it added to a somewhat limited appreciation of what music was and could be.
While there are thousands of Deadheads the world over--- doctors, lawyers, fast food workers, common laborers and the like who freely share everything Dead--- there are White Elephant junkies as well. It is, of course, harder to find one another without White Elephant paraphernalia hanging from every orifice or draping the various parts of the body (and the psychedelically imbued Volkswagen bus was never a favorite of the less psychedelically inclined), but when the connection is made, it is not unlike a Deadhead collision. Information is exchanged, questions are asked and usually a drink or two is consumed. It is Christmas of a sort to be able to talk about Nick Holmes or Michael Mainieri or Steve Gadd during the WE years, or to wonder what happened to them all (the whereabouts of Nick Holmes is a nagging concern for us all). And to talk the music with someone who has actually heard the album and got it--- unbelievable!
There are classics on those two discs every bit as viable as any discs out there. True fans have heard the thirteen tracks numerous times over the past 35 years, some more times than most have heard Beatles' songs. They have bemoaned the lack of information on the sessions, the lack of any kind of liner notes which would set the record straight about who, what, where and when. There was no need to ask the why because the music answered that. And there was the constant rejection, the trying to turn people onto the music and being rebuffed on the constant.
Well, the true fan can take heart in the fact that the White Elephant double album has been reissued--- in fact, has been available since 1996! Michael Mainieri, probably as a tribute to the people involved and the magic of the times, tracked down Jay Messina and pieced the album together again after twenty-plus years, keeping everything somewhat intact. All tracks from the album made the cut onto the double CD package, although the only part of Field Song tp pass muster was the three-plus minutes at the end known on both projects as Save the Water (Party). Added were four songs from the sessions--- Easy On, Broadway Joe, Dreamsong and a Michael Mainieri-penned track titled Look In His Eyes, which features the aforementioned Holmes. All are fine additions to the tracks from the original album and while it is great to hear more songs, it is pure pleasure to hear the tracks on CD at all, the sound cleaned up so you can hear a pin drop or breath through a horn when a spit valve is cleaned.
Mainieri, in writing the liner notes, gives the real spirit of those sessions. “Perhaps the makeshift lyrics on some of the 'shouts' seem naïve and a little corny now in these cold, grey nineties, but they were sung as an affirmation as to why we were there together. The experience was ours, and it bonded us for life.” Indeed, it did, as many of the musicians would occasionally end up in sessions or on stage together, if not as members of the same bands. The names read like a who's who of '70s New York jazz, at least a segment of it, most of whom will certainly be included in more than one jazz hall of fame: Joe Beck, Warren Bernhardt, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Sam Brown, Ronny Cuber, Jon Faddis, Steve Gadd, Nick Holmes, Tony Levin, Michael Mainieri, Sue Manchester, Bob Mann, Hugh McCraken, Donald MacDonald, Paul Metzke, Nat Pavone, Jon Pierson, Barry Rodgers, Lew Soloff, David Spinozza, Ann E. Sutton, Frank Vicari, and George Young. Good names all and well-respected in music circles.
Perhaps these were only sessions, but those listening to the album in the early '70s thought White Elephant a band. Mainieri wrote: “On a few occasions, the White Elephant Band performed in public as a 23 piece group, but that 'Elephant' wasn't designed to fly. Instead, this 'tribal experience' spawned several permutations that proliferated in smaller ensembles. Dreams, Ars Nova, The Brecker Brothers, L'Image and Steps Ahead were a few of the groups that followed.” Like barnstorming baseball teams of the depression, the various participants in White Elephant later teamed up in varying combinations to spread the word. That word, while maybe not started by White Elephant, was spread through it.
Those sessions, by the way, which happened between 1969 and 1971, spawned one buried masterpiece. Mainieri took a handful of the musicians back into the studio to back Nick Holmes on what appears to be his only solo recording: Soulful Crooner. Released on the heels of WE, it suffered the fate of most product attached to the Famous Music Corp., the distributor of Just Sunshine Records. The small number of albums pressed made it into a few used record and cutout bins, but soon disappeared and became, for a cult group, the holy grail. To my knowledge, it has not seen the light of day since the Just Sunshine pressings, but I have hopes that somewhere in Luxembourg or Iceland or Tazmania, the music was unknowingly preserved and will resurface. Like WE, the music is just too good to die.
Before I forget, you can order the double CD of WE through New York City Records at www.nycrecords.com. I ordered mine not long ago and am a bit miffed. I did a number of web searches and somehow failed to come across the info and that damn Mainieri, well, he must have lost my email address. Oh, if you do order it, throw in a plug for Nick Holmes. There is always the outside chance that the music is somewhere in Mainieri's vaults just waiting to see the light of day. WE fans the world over would rejoice, I am sure. Just the thought has me salivating.