Elwood H. Smith
New Photo Added to Old Story
I just added a new photo to an old article about an important event that took place back when I was a young teen. Ain't got nothing to do with art, but a lot to do with the complexities of a father and son relationship.
The original article, written 12 years ago:
Elwood Elmer Smith's Homemade Blackjack

Remembering Alan E. Cober
A.E.C & E.H.S. - St. Martin 1986
Alan E. Cober

In early May, 1986, Alan E. Cober called me to ask me if I'd participate in an Illustrator's Workshop. It was to have taken place in Paris, but due to a series of terrorist bombings there, the group decided to move the event to the isle of St. Martin. I am generally loathe to travel, but it was an honor to get to spend some time with Alan, Bernie Fuchs, Fred Otnes, Mark English, Robert Heindel and Bob Peak. Did I mention that Maggie loves to travel and loves the sun and sandy beaches?  

When I was in art school in Chicago in the early 60s--and a few years before I stumbled upon Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser at Pushpin Studios--Fuchs, Peak, English and company were the heros of illustration. I loved their work, but they intimidated me with their ability to draw with ease all those handsome men and beautiful women. I was relieved when I discovered R.O. Blechman and Chwast. Funny looking people inhabited their illustrations. No handsome men, no curvaceous women. No stylish Ford Fairlanes.  

But Alan was an anomaly. Obviously, he drew beautifully, but his illustrations weren't filled with sleek women and urbane men standing around sexy automobiles. He produced drawings of quirky, real life characters with baggy eyes and lumpy bodies. He drew hard-core prison inmates and filled sketchbooks with the intense faces of the mentally ill. Along with Chwast and cartoon-influenced illustrators like Bob Blechman, Alan became one of my chief inspirations.

The Night I Met Alan.

A year or two after I'd arrived in New York City in 1976, Dagmar Frinta invited me to attend a gallery opening. I can't recall much about that night, but I do remember Dagmar asking me if I'd like to meet Alan Cober. He was engaged in conversation with some friends, but Dagmar tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, delighted to see her. Introductions were made. It was one of those uncomfortable moments when the fan gushes and the star listens politely. I could see he was anxious to return to his friends, so I gushed a final time and began to move away. Alan hadn't caught my name, so he asked me to repeat it. I did and he clasped me in a huge bear hug. "It's Elwood Smith!" he roared and yelled to his wife to come over and meet one of his favorite illustrators. An excellent night.

Alan & Ellen, Maggie & Me

Back to Illustrator's Workshop, July 1-4, 1986, Saint Martin, a tropical island in the Caribbean. Aside from the high cost of food (an ear of corn was going for five bucks) we had a great time. (Everything was imported from the mainland except sunshine, rum and sugar.) I got to hang out with famous illustrators--when they weren't golfing--and I was treated by the participants like a celebrity. But the moments I recall most vividly were the hours spent with Cober.

aggie loved to swim and so did Alan, so they hit it off. I was content to sit with Ellen, Alan's lovely wife, in the shade of a palm tree reading books while Maggie and Alan dolphined in the clear, blue-green waters. It didn't surprise me at all when, in 1998, an illustrator friend called to tell me that Alan died of a heart attack while swimming in Florida.

e bonded, Alan and I, but I didn't get to know him well. We would connect up from time to time over the years at illustration shows. Every time we'd promise to hook up for dinner, but you know how that goes. Didn't happen He was a visiting professor and Distinguished Visiting Artist at the University at Buffalo and he asked if I'd do a seminar for his class. We agreed to trade original art and that also became one of our unfulfilled good intentions. I considered him to be my friend and he is, without question, one of America's great illustrators. A true original.

s I was digging around the web one day not long ago, looking for information about Alan, I ran upon this short, moving remembrance by one of his former students, Sandra Guzdek. It was written a couple of days after Alan died. She gave me permission to post it here on Drawger.



Alan E. - 20 January 1998

Today I found out that my former illustration instructor, and more importantly, mentor and friend, Alan E. Cober, passed away on the 18th from a heart attack while on vacation in Florida. He was 62. His passing leaves me with such an incredible sense of loss, particularly since I have not seen him since his show at Buffalo State College in 1993.

He taught me more about being an artist — more importantly, about being an artist for hire — than anyone else. His professional and aesthetic advice sticks with me to this day.

6 February 1998

I have neglected finishing this page because I did not know what to write. Every day there's something that makes me think of him; some piece of advice, a memory from class, a funny anecdote. I guess I didn't know what to say before now.

He was hands down the best instructor I've ever had. He was, if you'll pardon the language, a ball-breaker. Class schedules ran like so: assignment given out on Thursday, sketches due on Friday, finished piece for the following Thursday. (The classes were only held on Thursday and Friday because he actually flew up on Thursday from downstate New York to teach the class, then back home on Friday.) That's the way it goes in the professional world of illustration, he told us, and sometimes not even that. On top of that he expected at least a drawing a day in our sketchbooks. I remember falling behind and the fear in my heart of being caught without the requisite number of drawings was like none I had never known before.

The assignments were usually 'live', meaning that the whole class' final pieces were submitted to a publication, and they chose one to print. I actually got picked once, printed in Governing magazine out of Washington, DC. What an honour. The illustration class of '92 was a bumper crop. I am so proud and glad to have been a part of it, shaped largely in part by Cober. (Even in death, calling him "Alan" just seems weird. We always called him Cober.)

Our class took field trips to Toronto to see Henrik Drescher, a visit to Philip Burke's studio, to the Buffalo Museum to draw, to the Anthropology Lab on Campus to draw (dead creatures, including a dead person). Everything centered around drawing. In the field of art, it should. His life drawing classes were amazing — he was never interested in having the figure look exactly the way it should in nature. An interesting drawing was a hundred times more important, and it was my opposite-hand drawings that turned out to be the most interesting.

After hearing of his cancer and subsequent amputation, I wrote to him in 1996 to tell him that he was in my thoughts and how much I valued what he had taught me. He wrote back to me and his spirit was so vibrant in that letter... it's a letter I shall always treasure. I am so very glad that I got the chance to tell him what I did before his passing. I am sorry, though, that the last time I visited the university I didn't get the chance to see him because he was in a meeting.

I feel so privileged to have known him, and more importantly, to have learned so much from him. I know as long as I have the knowledge he taught me, he will remain alive in some small way.


Thoughts of My Sister - Reality & Dreams
Bill & Jude 1957

My sister, Jude (Judith Arlene), battled cancer for eight months. She was my oldest friend. Born more than two years before me, Jude was there, that morning in 1941, when I replaced her as Elwood and Virginia's center of attention.

She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on May 22, 2008 and died on January 22, 2009. She and I had long, heartfelt and emotional telephone conversations regularly over that eight month period--nearly every night during the hardest times. We discussed her illness and hammered away at the unfairness of it all. We wept together and we spent long stretches reminiscing. We tried to make sense of the creepy, hidden cancer cells growing in her pancreas and of the mystery waiting for us all at the end of life. Those intense conversations might explain, at least in part, why I'm not as emotionally devastated following her death as I  imagined I'd be. I anticipated an emotional body blow right after Jude succumbed to the cancer, but I seem to be at peace. I have moments when the reality of her death overwhelms, but the feeling doesn't hang around long.

It has been hardest for her husband Bill Wright, who spent the full eight months caring for her. He learned to administer the insulin injections and arrange and monitor her ever-growing pill regimen. He was at her side for the chemotherapy that was cut short due to a blood clot. He was there for each radiation session that followed. Her well being became Bill's entire focus. He kept amazing notes. They were concise and completely legible. His task--one he embraced without complaint despite intense pain from a degenerative disc in his lower back--ended suddenly with her death. He knew my sister for most of his life. They began dating in the late 1950's when he was 16 and she was 18. They were married for 46 years.

Over the eight months my sister fought the deadly cancer, Maggie and I trekked down to her home in Tennessee four times. Like me, Jude was a world class worrier, and she did not consider herself to be a brave person. It was not an easy task, I know, but she valiantly fought the disease and she regularly amazed us all with her determination, courage, loving heart and sense of humor.

I've had three dreams of my sister since her death:

Jude Dream 1
January 23rd - The day after Jude died

Jude was young and light on her feet, nearly twirling with happiness as she and I walked along a paved walkway--it may have been a waterside park--with several other blurry, out of focus, characters. I, too, felt carefree, caught up in Jude's buoyant, joyful energy. Suddenly, the reality of her death hit me. I moved away from the others and stood alone by a streetlight weeping as they continued along the path. I awakened from my dream, still weeping.

A couple of night later, I had a second dream.

Jude Dream 2

Jude and I were walking arm and arm, heading to the Staten Island Ferry in lower Manhattan. She was about to take the ferry and we had to say goodbye. I began weeping and she held me and told me not to worry, that she was fine. As she parted, I awakened, still crying into my pillow.

Jude Dream 3
February 7, 2009

This dream, the third I've had since my sister, Jude, died on January 22, 2009, began in a commercial kitchen, where I was helping others scrape food off plates into trash cans. After scraping a couple of plates, I wandered into the next room where people were gathered. I told them that, in my view, even if there was a heaven or some other kind of life after death, my sister would be way too busy adjusting to her new existence to hang around with those she left behind. I began weeping and turned away from the others. Jude appeared from an adjoining room and we hugged and wept together

Like my two other dreams, I was sobbing as I awakened.

Lanny March 17, 2007

Francis Landon "Lanny" Sipperley
1944 - 2007

As best I could tell, our neighbor, Lanny Sipperley was not a complicated man. If he had demons, they were kept hidden. Some of us (me, in spades) blather on about our feelings, our fears and our opinions until the cows come home. Others (Lanny, in spades) hold their private thoughts close to the vest, like W.C. Fields' trusty whiskey flask. Now and then, I'd ask Lanny about his childhood or I'd tell him about one of my military experiences, hoping he would share one of his. Each time, he'd shift the conversation to a more comfortable topic, usually the weather or local gossip. "We live in a fishbowl" was Lanny's mantra. Locust Grove Road, is a cul-de-sac, which means you are watched coming in and going out. He lived on this street in the same small, white home for his entire life, minus three years serving his country. Lanny knew about life in a fishbowl.

In 1945, when Lanny was one year old, his parents, Vernon D. and Estelle Sipperley, moved into their modest Locust Grove home. Lanny was a good son and a good student. He graduated from Rhinebeck Central Schools, class of 1962, and earned an associates degree from Dutchess Community College in 1964. Neighbors say he was good at sports. He served in the United States Army from 1964 to 1967, spending two of those years in Germany. He enjoyed the beer there, he told me, but I never saw him drink. Lanny didn't smoke, he didn't curse. He was a man of good cheer even when times were tough. He was, in short, a good citizen of the world.

Life was not an easy road for Lanny. It is said that he returned from the army a changed man. He didn't see action, but something mysterious, it seems, happened over there. When Lanny's military obligation ended, he moved back home to live with his mother. Estelle was a genuine, home-grown eccentric—at least during the years we knew her. Often, on a cold winter morning, Maggie and I would stand at the window watching Estelle, her nightgown peering out from under her husband's old, red plaid hunting coat as she stomped through the snow with her tethered Siamese cat. Come spring and there she was, up on a ladder clicking her false teeth and slathering fresh paint on the side of her single-story house. Lanny spent his time outside raking leaves and stones off Locust Grove Road. He also worked occasionally for his cousin, Peter, who ran a plumbing supply shop in Rhinebeck. Peter was also, for many years, the Mayor of Rhinebeck. Lanny and Estelle were good neighbors—they kept to themselves, but they were friendly, willing to help out if asked.

We were concerned about Lanny after Estelle suffered two strokes (the second one knocking her into a vegetative state). How, we wondered, would he handle things without her? We were relieved and delighted when he landed a full-time job working for a local commercial landscaper. Not long after his mother died, Lanny surprised us again by starting his own landscaping business. At his funeral, several of the men who had worked for Lanny over the years stepped forward to laud him. He was, they said, a hard worker who was a man of his word. And all who knew him said he was generous to a fault. By the time he died of heart failure on December 3rd, 2007, Lanny had fallen on hard times. Still, he insisted on buying coffee for his cohorts, even when his broken down truck was running on treadless tires and vapors.

On March 17, 2007, precisely one year ago as I write this, I was hunkered down on our enclosed back porch filming birds and squirrels in our back yard. They had gathered to devour the seed I had sprinkled around our freshly plowed driveway. A final snowstorm had come and gone, leaving ravenous animals in its wake. The birds noisily exploded from view, as Lanny, shovel in hand, crunched into the picture frame. During the summer, he cut our lawn and, after each heavy snowfall, we hired him to shovel two paths—one for our postman and another to allow access to our compost container. He didn't see me on the darkened porch as he attended to his task and I was loathe to disturb the moment with a greeting. This short movie was created from footage taken that day.

It doesn't seem right that this gentle man, built solid, like a fireplug, was so easily and suddenly taken away. Lanny, wherever you are, the fishbowl misses you.

To view the video Lanny - Final Snow, click here
Left to Right: Susan Lienhard Holmes, Francis Landon Sipperley, Gustav Edward Lienhard, P. Vernon Sipperley and Peter Finn Sipperley - July 6, 1968

Thanks to Lanny's cousin's Karl Sipperly and Shirl Di Gugno for tracking down the photo above. It's a rare find, it turns out. As Peter told me at Lanny's funeral, "Well, you see, the Sipperley's weren't big on taking pictures."

In the “The Nomads” article below, I touched upon my guitar lessons with Cootch and Mabel. The photo of Mabel’s kitschy furnishings and the two of them sitting there, making music on their guitars, piqued the interest of several Drawgerites. A little more information about the Coutures, then, seems to be in order.

Cootch and Mabel were pivotal figures in my life, though I doubt they understood the powerful effect they had on me. I probably neglected to tell them at the time how much they instilled in me a love of making music, although I  did thank Cootch many years later, when I visited him in a retirement home. I brought along an acoustic guitar and he and I played some old tunes together.

Clarence "Cootch" Couture and his wife, Mabel were old friends of my parents. When my mom and dad bought & refurbished a small resort on Long Lake, 9 miles north of Alpena, Michigan, Cootch and Mabel showed up for a week’s vacation with guitars in tow. For seven, sublime nights, I sat mesmerized, watching Mabel coax unworldly, ethereal sounds from her Oahu Hawaiian guitar, while Cootch sang Hank Williams songs, punching out sock rhythm chords on his yellow-sparkle Supro.

After the Coutures departed, my parents asked me if I would be interested in taking lessons with Cootch. I’d failed miserably as a grammar school coronet player, but the guitar touched my soul. I showed up at the Couture’s home the following week carrying my father’s small, out-of-tune, old flattop guitar.

Every week, Cootch and I would work our way through an Oahu Method “Spanish Guitar lesson. The Oahu company began in 1936, publishing Hawaiian guitar tablature lessons and they eventually added regular guitar and accordion lessons. Later on, the company sold guitars, amps and other music related equipment. When guitars went electric, Supro supplied Oahu with guitars.

If the impromptu jam sessions that followed my lessons weren’t incentive enough to keep me coming back week after week, Mabel’s huge, homemade sugar cookies were. I learned little from the Oahu lessons, but at lesson’s end, Mabel would head to the kitchen, emerging with three glasses of milk and a plateful of gigantic sugar cookies. Energized by white flour and sugar, we picked up our guitars again and the real fun began. Cootch & Mabel knew dozens of classic country tunes and popular standards from the 40’s and 50’s. With chord charts spread out on my music stand, I’d struggle along with the tunes, applying as much as I could from my previous lessons. I spent months wrestling with that rascally closed F chord, but I was determined to get it clean and on time. I wanted desperately to be an active participant in the magic.

This event took place some 50 years ago, yet I recall vividly the smell of the cookies and the warmth permeating Cootch & Mabel's apartment. Thank you, my long departed teachers. Making music was, for you, a spiritually enriching, joyous occasion and you led me to the temple.
Oahu Lesson Sheet
Oahu Lesson Inside
My Tetra 305


In 1982, I became an audiophile. I needed new loudspeakers and, to make at least part of this long story short, Maggie and I ended up wandering into The Sound Mill, a "high-end audio" den in Mount Kisco, NY. I wanted to replace my old Advents and the Sound Mill featured speakers with names like Naim, B&W and KEF. The listening room was filled with massive turntables sporting elegant tonearms poised like robotic birds above expensive, 180 gram LPs and huge mono power amps bristling with large vacuum tubes. Speakers the size of trailer homes trembled, waiting for another hit of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung". After "auditioning" (really, that's what us audiophiles say) several speakers, all exceeding my modest budget, I wrestled the checkbook from Maggie & bought two KEF speakers, modest in size. And, as I was soon to discover, modest in dynamic range. Once back in my listening environment, I experienced the first stirrings of my disease. The speakers certainly had more clarity than my Advents, but they lacked bass response. Back to the dealer. This is your lucky day, Mr Smith, we have a custom-made subwoofer, perfect for your needs! And that wimpy Advent receiver you are using is woefully inadequate. You'll need more power. Doesn't everyone need more power? I purchased a used preamp and an amp that looked ready for arc welding. For increased depth and transparency, I was urged to elevate my KEFs with a pair of spiked speaker stands. Sand-filled, of course.

I was hooked. I finally understood the pain of the alcoholic, the powerlessness of the drug addict. I began regularly upgrading the amps and preamps. The speakers begged for expensive oxygen-free cables and interconnects. As my ears became fine-tuned to audio nuance, they demanded increasingly costly cartridges (not "needles", you rube!). I bought and discarded airborne tonearms and sleeker, heftier turntables. I was a junkie, seeking the "perfect sound". My various systems did a credible job reproducing small solo instruments like the cello, guitar and harpsichord and small ensembles like string quartets, but my favorite composer was (and is) Gustav Mahler. I wasn't asking for much--just a stereo system capable of reproducing the faint tinkling of a triangle or the delicate tremolo of a bowl-backed mandolin AND (without distortion, please) the whomp of a huge bass drum or the thundering sound of massed strings pulsing beneath bellowing woodwinds and brass. This huge orchestra, of course, should fit comfortably in my 14 x 14 foot studio with an 7 foot ceiling.

Not long after Maggie and I moved to Rhinebeck, I began subscribing to "Cadence", a small format jazz magazine. A guy named Vladimir ran ads in the magazine offering high-quality audio equipment and a no-bullshit stance on audio advice. What the hell, I thought, maybe this Russian cat can answer my audio prayers. I dialed up NorthCountry's number. Vladimir Vastonovich, please, I said, twitching, as I rubbed the stylus tracks on my arms. Turns out Vladimir wasn't a sinister ex-KGB agent, but instead a cheerful member of "The Crew".

Vladimir is one of the most honest, straightforward persons I know. Definitely the most knowledgeable audio guy I have run upon--with intelligence, humor and energy to burn. He is also a serious triathlon or, probably by now, a quadathlon or worse. Not surprisingly, he's also a computer whiz. He has become a friend over the years and I'm here to tell you that, if you care about good sound, if you love music of any genre, and if you are thinking of upgrading your sound system, call NorthCountry Audio. I'm sharing this info with my Drawgerite friends because many of you share my passion for music and because so many articles posted here gravitate to the topic of honesty and integrity, in your art, your lives and your businesses.

That's my hook for this article, INTEGRITY. It is sorely lacking in the world these days. I can start with our leadership, what with the corruption, selfishness and greed of companies like Enron & Haliburton and the Katrina fiascos and so on. I often despair when reading the news, but I find solace beyond the carnage of governments and extremist religions in those small pockets of reason and kindness found in everyday life. I'm offering two examples of honest men, both residing in Redwood, New York.

To view old movie of Vladimir's first triathlon:
Click Here

One is Vladimir Vastonovich, my audio guru. Thanks to his guidance, I ended up with an amazing audio system. It took us a while to sort out my sonic priorities. Vladimir sent many amps, preamps, tonearms, cables and speakers to Rhinebeck for me to audition over the years and I made several treks to Redwood, NY. Finally, I achieved Nirvana. Okay, nirvana with a lower-case "N". Musician friends flocked to my studio to listen to the most accurate sound in the Hudson Valley. About a year ago, I decided to downsize my audio rig. Life is an odd journey. Having found an amazing, nearly perfect sound system, I realized I didn't need it. I didn't want it. I traded my huge, glorious Brentworth Sound Lab speakers, my two TriMax mono tube amps, a classy Wytech Labs preamp, a VPI Turntable with the award-winning Graham Arm for a pared-down, no frills system: a Plinius integrated amp, an HHB CD player and two Tetra Loudspeakers. That's it. The quest is over.

I lost an octave of bass and some openness and transparency, but I gained peace of mind. No more trying to achieve  another increment of perfection, trying to get closer to the Real Thing. My current system sounds great and it needs no care and feeding. It fits more comfortably in my small studio and the amp, having no tubes, allows for a cooler room in the summer. The system roughly approximates the sound of a live performance of Bach or Mahler, but it doesn't reach for the unattainable. I am at peace with simple, but excellent sound reproduction. It is damned fine and the hell with Tweaksville. I have other fries to fish.

That doesn't mean I wasted my time seeking that ultimate system--I learned a lot. It provoked anxiety, but it was great fun, too. My current system is the result of the long search. Vladimir was a great guide. He IS a no-bullshit guy with great ears and knowledge and his willingness to listen to your questions and provide answers and suggestions is priceless. He buys his stock outright and has no need pitch product--no agenda. A happy customer is his goal, not a profit margin. An example of what I'm saying: I sent my neighbor, Andy Weintraub, to NorthCountry Audio some years back. Andy wanted to buy a new sound system. Vladimir asked him what he was using. Andy was taken aback with Vladimir's recommendation: I don't believe you need a new system--let me send you a new receiver, he said. Try it out with your current speakers and see if it does the trick. If not, I'll send new speakers. Andy was ready and willing to spend a couple thousand bucks for a new system but Vladimir didn't think he needed it. The loudspeakers Andy was using seemed to Vladimir to be more than adequate. Only the electronics needed upgrading. Andy was delighted with the improvement. I doubt the kid at Best Buy or the salesman at J&R Music World would offer that advice.

In recent years, Vladimir has written a column for Cadence Magazine called "Sonics". He wanted to share his accumulated knowledge with Cadence readers, helping them to make informed decisions when buying stereo equipment. Mainstream audio magazines are dependent on advertising revenue and their articles are skewed to varying degrees by that dependency. Vladimir is free from that restraint. If a product produces crappy sound, he'll let you know, even if it is a major brand with a huge advertising budget (think Bose). If the product produces excellent sound but has little name recognition due to a focus on quality not promotion, Vladimir will do his best to get the word out. There is the unbiased "Consumer's Report", but they depend on measurements in their reviews of audio equipment and I don't trust their ears. I have good hearing and a fine-tuned sense of sound and music & I'm not easily fooled when it comes to sound reproduction. Vladimir has those qualities in spades. Some years back, I sat in his listening room determined to buy an extremely well-reviewed speaker system. After comparing my dream speaker to a set Vladimir recommended, I had to go with his choice--the BSL's. They weren't as lovely to look at, but there was no denying their sonic superiority. Vladimir spends hours auditioning the equipment he sells and, once he knows your budget and your musical priorities, he becomes your musical ally. A note for the budget minded: Vladimir regularly buys discontinued products he knows to be of high quality and passes the savings along to his customers. He offers modestly priced stereo rigs as well as "price-is-no-object" systems.
CIMP Recording Session (The Duval String Quartet)


The second honest soul I want to talk about is Bob Rusch. He live down the road from Vladimir. Bob has been publishing Cadence Magazine every month since 1976. He is a respected producer, critic, author with a deep respect, love and understanding of the Jazz scene. Bob began producing and distributing jazz & blues (he refers to it as "creative, improvised music") on the Cadence label in 1982. Cadence Magazine is a gem. First-rate musicians are interviewed in every issue. Some are high profile names, but many are superb musicians who are too often ignored by the mainstream magazines like "Jassiz" and "Downbeat". More recently Bob began producing a series of recording under the CIMP label. Creative Improvised Music Projects. The sound of these recordings is astonishing. Really. Here's what engineer Marc Rusch says about his approach to recording:

"CIMP records are digitally recorded live to two tracks. Digital recording allows for a vanishingly low noise floor and tremendous dynamic range. There is no compression, homogenization, EQ-ing, post-recording splicing, mixing, or electronic fiddling with CIMP performances."

Want to hear the results of Marc's recording approach? Order John Gunther's CD "Axis Mundi". It is a great album filled to the brim with outstanding music. Mostly melodic, some forays into atonality, but always inventive music making. The interplay between Gunther on tenor sax, clarinet & flute, Rob Thomas on violin, Ron Miles on trumpet, Leo Huppert on bass and viola and Jay Rosen on drums is pure musical magic. It is a joy to hear on any stereo system, but if you have a really good one, you will get taste of what I'm talking about when I say the CIMP CDs are as good as any audiophile label out there and better than most. The second track, "Deja Vu" starts off nice and melodic and wanders into track 3, "Matter (of choice)" a wonderfully weird atonal piece. Listen to the openness and realistic timbre of the instruments on track 2, like the woody plucking of Thomas chording along on his violin. It is almost as though you are inside his violin feeling the violin's top resonating--but, of course, the 2 microphones are some distance away, aimed at the entire group. You don't get individual mics hovering over each instrument like you find in most recording sessions. Marvel at the deep, but un-hyped upright bass sounds as the tune begins. Track 4, "Country Waltz" is one of my favorite. Graceful & tender, I can almost hear Tom Waits stepping in with one of his gruff vocals. The whole album is a recording marvel, but it's the music that counts and, for my money, Gunther has hit a truly high mark with his skillful merging of improvised/composed and melodic/free musical offerings. If you end up liking this CD you are in luck--CIMP offers 3 more Gunther CDs. And tons of other CDs with wide and varied approaches to creative Improvised music.

Tell you what, if you are a Drawger member and you buy the Gunther Axis Mundi CD and end up disagreeing with my assessment of the sound, I'll buy it from you. How's that? If you don't like the music, that's the luck of the draw(ger).

Much of the stuff on the CIMP label will give the uninitiated ear a thorough cleansing. It is not easy-listening jazz, though much of it is very accessible. The CIMP catalog is Pig Heaven if you are hungry for new musical experiences or already enjoy avant-garde improvised music. I tend to favor the more straight forward melodic stuff on the CIMP label like Gunther's CDs, but every musician on the CIMP roster is a pro and all are throughly committed artists. Bob Rusch has given the musicians a forum and he pays them advances, which is rare in the jazz industry. CIMP projects are not mainstream and the label was not created to make Rusch rich. In fact, the CDs rarely make a profit, but Bob insists they are a success the minute the music has been recorded and transferred to CD. They are artistic successes and Bob's goals and those of his musicians have been met. Anything else is gravy.

Vladimir and Bob Rusch are the kind of people I am proud to call my friends. Their aim is to produce something that enriches other's lives as well as their own. They are honorable men. It's not about the bottom line, it's about treating others with respect. The word integrity fits them like a Porkpie Hat.


(from Sonics 08/2006 in Cadence Magazine)

Surround Sound

    A recent flurry of surround sound experiences got me thinking again about the many differences between sound for video and sound for audio-only listening. Past "Sonics" articles have dealt with the mutual incompatibility between the two and why it is so hard to come up with a single system that does both well, with the best compromise being a system that at least has good audio for video and passable sound for audio. If the goal is fidelity to acoustic instruments and sensitive recordings, a surround sound system is just too full of "processing" bits and other electronics to pass the clean signal needed for that fidelity. While tone, timbre, resolution, and finesse are all desired attributes of a high end audio system, they are not intrinsic to a surround sound system, and, given the limited audio quality of most surround sound sources, it is not clear that these attributes would be a benefit for a video system. To help listeners understand this incompatibility, a discussion of desired sonic goals might be useful.
    The ultimate goal of the audio listening system is generally considered to be fidelity to the source material. The goal of the source material is generally considered to be fidelity to the music as it was played during a recording session: straight wire with gain, neither taking nor adding anything to the signal. It would seem that this would be true as well for audio for video. And it is—sort of. With audio the link between fidelity and source is reasonably clear: hit a drum, record that sound, play back that sound, how close does the end come to the beginning? Sound for video fundamentally changes the equation because often there is no real world sound that one could use to compare the end result. Almost nothing with video sound has a real world copy. Sound effects are just that—sound effects meant to evoke a visceral reaction. Fist fights, footsteps, conversations (and who knows what a dinosaur sounded like?) in reality generally do not at all sound like the effects one hears in a movie. This lack of "fidelity" to the reality of the source is consistent with the visual images that are part of the reproduced experience. The screen images are not meant to be an accurate look at the world we live in, but instead are designed to evoke feelings through distortions of reality. The sound and the visuals are working in harmony to create a desired sensation, one that has been carefully crafted to suggest but not mimic real events. So, the goal of a sound for video system is to reproduce as realistically as possible the fabricated sounds of the source. This is fidelity to the source, keeping in mind that the source has no fidelity to anything real. This seemingly small difference accounts for the difference between a good audio system and a good audio for video system.
    We now have a definition of accuracy for video sound. Now, how best to achieve that result? Well, the good news is that it will be a lot less frustrating than trying to put together a high end audio system. (As an aside, one of the reasons that high end audio systems are increasingly frustrating to establish has a lot to do with the lack of fidelity of many modern recordings. In effect, these systems are operating with cross purposes. With stereo playback there is the notion of fidelity to a real instrument. However, with more and more recordings being created with a "hyped" and non high fidelity sound, equipment designed to be accurate in this way often will not produce the desired results simply because the source is flawed and assumed not to be.)
        With video you need three reasonably easily obtained and achieved factors. The first is solid amplification. Resolution is not so important as grace under pressure. Most video sound is overly bright, harsh, and a bit flat in presentation (little depth to the sound). Cheap amplifiers exacerbate this condition and can make for exhausting listening. The good news is that solid sound is not hard to find and any costs above that are generally unjustified, except in cases where you just need more power.
        In much the same way as the amplification, speakers fall into the same category. They should be well designed, but not the highest resolution. In fact, higher resolution is more detrimental. There is not a lot of inner detail or fine resolution in video sound—no "there" there—and magnifying that deficiency does more harm than good. This is one of the reasons why a good audio system does not always make a good video system and vice versa. Speakers that would be great for a video system can often sound a little veiled or lacking in detail if placed in a high end audio system. There is some reasonable middle ground, but it is important to realize that you are not likely to get good surround sound (all five speakers) for merely $499.99. It is hard to find one good pair of stereo speakers at that price level, much less when you then have to add center, rear left/right, and a powered subwoofer.
    The last factor is the powered subwoofer. You will need one if you want the visceral impact of those sound effects. Here, power and size make all the difference (assuming certain qualities are maintained) and what would be a mistake in a high end sound system is what will make a video sound system. While low end clarity and articulation are of some importance for surround sound, they are second to low end weight and authority. Low distortion is important and is what keeps a good subwoofer from being inexpensive. One could not be built for $250 and adequately meet the requirements—a good amp, good driver, and a really well built cabinet.
    The good news is that putting together a fine surround sound system can be less painful than picking out an audio system. The bad news is that hype and marketing are still hype and marketing and thus there is no way to put together a solid system on the very cheap.

©2006 Cadence Magazine



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Elwood Elmer Smith
INDIVIDUAL autobiographical memory is unreliable. Time passes and our recollections distort and the gaps in our memory are filled with altered stories. Over the years, we tell these stories over and over and we believe them to be true. We are certain they are true. Close friends and relatives remember the same story differently and they are also certain their version is true.

Here's my version of a particular story. It is, of course, the truth.

This tale takes place around 1958. Maybe '59. I played guitar in a band I'd started with my pals, Bill Wright and Al Zdan, which had fallen apart for reasons lost to the decades. My father knew a man named Bussy who was looking for a guitarist to replace a talented, but unreliable alcoholic who'd missed too many gigs. I auditioned and was invited to join Bussy's String Band and played my first gig with them at the notorious Jack's Bar. My skills as a guitarist were very limited, but I could manage the polkas and and simple country music popular at the time. Bussy sang with a high, reedy voice in what would today be labeled "Bluegrass". As I recall, his wife and two daughters were in the band on accordion, bass and maybe fiddle.

The second gig fell on Halloween, way out in the sticks at a small bar. My parents, who loved to dance, said they'd stop by to kick up their heels. I loaded my new Supro guitar and amp into my washed-out blue '52 Ford. Look out Duane Eddy!

Midway into the first set, a burly guy walked past the stage, stopping in front of the band. He glared up at me for a moment and continued on to the restroom. On his way back, he aimed his hateful face at me again and headed out the back door. Turns out, he was the guitarist who'd been fired.

My parents arrived and, during the first break, I joined them at their table. Someone slammed into my chair and there he was again, the angry mug of the former Bussy String Band guitarist. He moved along drunkenly to the bathroom. When the band reached our final set, my parents waved goodbye and my heart sank. As I was unplugging my amp, one of the band members told me to be careful; the bully guitarist and a gang of his friends were gathered in the parking lot with trouble on their mind. Not knowing what else to do, I headed toward the back door, hoping for the best. Halfway from the stage to the door, my father appeared at my side. Came back to carry my amp he said. I nearly wept. Together we exited the bar.

Gathered there in the parking lot, off to our right, were several parked cars with teenagers clustered around them. The roughneck guitarist, walked up to me as my father continued on to my car with my amp. He jammed his face close to mine, looming over me like Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. Bluto, flush with booze.

"So, you think you play guitar better than me, huh?"

Me, weakly: "No, I never said that. I haven't even heard you play."

"Uh, well, okay, then."

He turned and found he had nowhere to go. His pals had moved in closer to watch the beating. He slammed his finger into my chest and called me a lying little prick. The skinny replacement guitar player had to go down.

"Get him out of here or I'll break his Goddamned skull!"

My father was slightly to my left, crouched over and pulling something out of his back pocket.

"Stay out of this, mister! That a knife?"

"It's a blackjack and I swear to God, I'll break his Goddamned skull!"

Dad had been brawler in his youth, hanging out with some rough customers at the local bars. He was not bullshitting these kids. One of the bigger boys grabbed the drunken guitarist, pinning his arms to his sides and yelled for us to go. Oh, yeah.

My father told me later that he'd heard the bar was a hangout for tough customers. Reason enough, he figured, in addition to it being Halloween, to bring his blackjack. Many years earlier, he built the blackjack from a lead weight, a leather strap and electrician's tape. A coworker had been beaten by strikers at the plant where my father worked, so dad began carrying a little protection with him as he crossed the picket line. 

My father was a terribly flawed man, but that night he was a perfect hero. Happy Father's Day.
Dad's Blackjack
My brother, Rich, who's a police chief, said in a recent letter that it might be that an incident that involved me and my dad in the late 50s, might have influenced his decision to become a police officer. In 2006, I wrote an article for my Drawger Blog, describing my memory of that powerful moment in my life as a young man and budding musician. That prompted me to add this photo instead of the scan I'd placed here 6 years ago. The quarter gives a sense of scale. The electrician's tape must have been really good shit back then, because it hasn't budged from the lead weight and leather strap it's covering.
Life's Treasures
Ted Denyer 1917 - 2006

Dinner With Denyer

Ted lived a full, creative life, filled with joy, enthusiasm, humor and curiosity about, and for, nearly everything. He was a dedicated oil painter, a dyed-in-the-wool artist with a capital A. But the Ted Denyer I remember is not standing at an easel, painting from sunrise to sunset. He's sitting at a table across from me with a bowl of pasta, a salad and a pint of dark ale.

For the final 17 years of his life, Ted and I had dinner together every other Thursday. We hashed over the usual culprits: art and music, literature and poetry, religion and politics, usually wading in way over our heads. Each fortnight, in all kinds of weather, I readily made the journey to Mount Tremper. Like so many others who knew him, I needed a regular infusion of Denyer.

Our dinners were nearly always held at Ted's unique homemade home along the Esopus Creek. He preferred his own quiet space to noisy restaurants. He prepared simple, delicious, wholesome meals, like the legendary Denyer Pasta Sauce on al dente spaghetti. Supper, as Ted preferred calling it, was hoisted up from the kitchen to a small, cozy room on the second floor above his studio employing a marvelous makeshift basket & pulley contraption. We began our meal, sitting across from each other at his swing-out, wobbly table, hoisting a pint to our good fortune. A toast to a dear companion willing to tag along on this short, miraculous, confusing journey called life. Our time together was a blessing and we knew it.

As I devoured my meal and Ted picked at his, we sought out the meaning of things material and ethereal. We were fellow travelers willing to share chestnuts we'd gathered along the way if we thought they might be of use. Our conversations were spontaneous and wide ranging. Depending on our mood, we could be fickle, hopping from topic to topic or dogged, locking in on a single culprit. We admitted to our limitations (always with promises to self-improvement) and, although we sampled humble pie from time to time, we regularly and unabashedly celebrated our extraordinary creative gifts & exemplary moral fiber. We were tireless in hashing things out, over and over. We were true believers and wary skeptics. We shared a love of detail in our narratives--never in a rush to get to the point. We chewed on Ted's favorite topic, "What Is Art?" until it was mauled beyond recognition.
Often, we sat in his studio, listening to music on his old, paint-splattered Radio Shack CD player. Our tastes ranged from J. S. Bach, to Dmitri Shostakovich. For several years, we subscribed to the Hudson Valley Philharmonic concerts at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston. We could not imagine a life without music.
Ted and I were alike in another important regard; we were born with a common malady: the Curse of the Cantankerous Male. Luckily, our disease was tempered with and usually overwhelmed by a powerful curiosity about the nature of things. Nonetheless, we found ourselves scrabbling from time to time over differing and (big surprise) strongly held beliefs. We'd get all tangled up for a while, finally hacking our way through the thorns, finding the path back home, with a renewed appreciation for the high value of a loving friendship.

I'll miss those nights. Terribly and probably forever. Each visit began the same way. Me, standing at Ted's colorfully painted front door, beer and groceries in one hand, pulling the cord attached to the cowbell with the other, anticipating Ted's shock of cotton candy hair framing his smiling face.

"Mr. Smith!"

We delighted in that formal absurdity.

"Mr. Denyer."

Followed, always, by a heartwarming hug.

On the way to the kitchen, Ted would reprimand me for bringing my small gifts. "Next time, bring only yourself, promise?" "Okay, I promise." Another unique journey, filled with joy, curiosity, confusion, a sense of adventure and much laughter, had begun.

Ted and I regularly held a mirror to our pomposity, willing to peer at the two sometimes wise and often foolish gents grinning there. I'll keep that mirror close to my heart. Ted is gone, but his image remains.
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