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Van Dyke Parks: This major musician is starting to tour as he nears 70

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2012 - Thursday evening, April 5, the Luminary Center for the Arts will present a very special concert in its eclectic and always interesting Elevator Music series. This month’s featured artist is Van Dyke Parks, a songwriter-arranger-producer-author - and wearer of several additional artistic hats - who is unfortunately unknown to most casual music fans.

But check out Parks’ resume and you’ll discover musical connections that include: playing keyboard for the Byrds and Judy Collins, working on lyrics and arrangements with head Beach Boy Brian Wilson on the legendary “Smile” album (including the song “Heroes and Villains”), arranging and producing with Ry Cooder and Little Feat, and releasing the astonishing, eclectic and jaw-dropping 1968 album “Song Cycle.”

Parks hales from Hattiesburg, Miss., but has lived in Los Angeles for 50 years, mostly working behind the scenes. Over the past couple of years, however, he’s been taking his music on tour and will be appearing for the first time in St. Louis.

As I found out during a phone interview earlier this week, Parks has plenty to say about his lengthy career, his decision to start his own record label – and a very interesting local connection he recently made that involves St. Louis native Tom McDermott, now one of the most noted pianists and composers on the New Orleans music scene.

“As my mother so artfully said about my music, I put the emphasis on my retirement before my career,” Parks says, talking about taking to the road on tour after spending most of his career in studios or at a piano.

"I led a hermetically sealed life in LA for many years, working in music and raising three inquiring academics with my wife," he says. "Now I’m experiencing a new chapter. I’m turning into an itinerant musician, touring and experiencing life on the road as I near the age of 70 and the end game. It’s actually been a lot of fun, and the aspect of hauling luggage around is athletic, really. And I haven’t had any contusions yet.”

Stripping down to a trio

Parks will play at the Luminary in a trio setting, a format that fits both his  thoughts about performing his music live and the financial limitations of putting together a small venue tour.

“I’m playing with a standup bassist and a percussionist with myself at the piano,” explains Parks. "It’s a triangulated reality, and for me the trio is the irreducible minimum that works well for me as I perform a confessional list of songs I haven’t hazarded in performance for many years.”

Parks' set list will include selections from "Song Cycle" as well an evolving list that will include songs from some of his other recordings such as "Discover America," "Clang of the Yankee Reaper," "Tokyo Rose," “Jump" and his most recent collaboration with Brian Wilson, "Orange Crate Art."

“When I look back at my songs, I’m both astonished and also challenged to attempt to pare them down and make them resonate for a live audience. For example, on my ‘Song Cycle’ album, I was taken to task with being obfuscatory.”

To get the dense, layered arrangements on “Song Cycle” compositions such as “The All Golden” Parks got a lucky combination of then state-of-the art equipment plus the freedom to explore the limits of that new technology.

At that time, he had access to what may now seem dated: an eight-track reel-to-reel recording system that Warner Bros. Records had just installed. And thanks to his successes before then with the label, he had free rein in the studio in terms of studio availability.

For Parks, re-listening to the music he created more than four decades ago and reworking it for live trio performances is exhilarating, challenging – and amusing.

“You have to remember when I was making that record, I was also trying to learn about using the capabilities of studio equipment that was very new, and I likely made every possible mistake imaginable. Yet, the music still does have special resonance for me. But now I have to remake it, strip it, make it bleeding and bare and then recreate it in concert.”

That same commitment to a stripped-down approach and what Parks labels the “irreducible minimum” of the trio format is also reflected in his commitment to starting his own record label: Bananastan.

“Bananastan was the name of a flea market stand my wife ran in Paris for six years,” says Parks. I revived the name for my record label, since I saw a parallel there in keeping my music and music of other artists I admire recycled and available."

In addition to releasing a compilation of his arrangements for artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, the late Lowell George as well as his own recordings, Parks has released a set of six singles that feature original covers by noted artists like Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Holmes, Klaus Voorman and others. The commitment to vinyl also reflects Parks' preference for analog recording rather than the digital process that dominates the CD and online download environment.

“The single is ultimately the irreducible minimum in terms of recording – just as the trio is for me in performance. And it’s a medium that avoids what I like to refer to as the digital ditch of CDs.”

Meeting McDermott

The Bananstan label brings us to Parks’ St. Louis connection, Tom McDermott. A native St. Louisan, McDermott moved to new Orleans in 1984 – attracted by his love of Big Easy pianist such as James Booker, Professor Longhair and Doctor John.

McDermott’s musical path led him from membership in the Dukes of Dixieland for five years to founding the groundbreaking New Orleans Nightcrawlers, a group that provided a unique and refreshing take on the NOLA brass band tradition.

McDermott’s musical curiosity eventually led him to explore Caribbean and South American musical styles such as Brazilian Choro – as well as such early New Orleans composers as Louis Gottschalk, who is also one of Parks’ favorite composers.

“I actually got a letter from Tom awhile ago,” Parks says. “He wrote to me and commented about my recordings of music by Louis Gottschalk, and let me know he had also recorded Gottschalk’s music.”

“Gottschalk embodies everything I love about music,” says Parks. “It’s folkloric in the sense that it brings the sounds of the street into the parlor, creating a music that is at the same time real and refined.”

Parks was tremendously impressed by McDermott’s recordings of Gottschalk, and made it a point to listen to all of the pianist’s recordings.

“I listened to Tom’s music and was astonished by his ability,” states Parks. “I asked him if it would be possible to release a compilation of his music on my Bananastan label, because I was very interested in stirring up the pot to get more awareness and public interest in his music."

McDermott agreed, and Parks is now finalizing that compilation recording with a release date in late spring. For Parks, this is an opportunity to help provide McDermott with an increased awareness for his musical talent.

“It also gave me the opportunity to prove that I’m more than just a diva,” adds Parks with a laugh. “I want to seek out artists such as Tom whose music deserves to be heard. And Tom certainly deserves to find a wider audience. His insight and ability to work in a variety of interesting musical genres – all within a New Orleans sensibility – is really extraordinary.”

The Gottschalk connection that brought Parks and McDermott together will also serve as the title for the compilation, "Bamboula" – one of Gottschalk’s compositions.

The naming decision, Parks says, is "designed to piss off any other pianists planning a recording that might include Gottschalk. A pre-emptive strike, if you will.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.