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Far From Simple Simon

John Simon's Album, Warner Brothers Journey, Warner Brothers

By Petter Shane

AMERICA LOVES MUSIC it does not have to listen to. If any 14-year-old can repeat a song after hearing it once, the song is bound to be a hit. Musical redundancy means everything; originality and intensity are mere icing. So few popular songs have say important verbal content that it is typical to hear people chanting along with supermarket Muzak, singing words at random to an approximation of the tune. The nonsensical result is likely to be as engaging as the original.

Within these constraints, some artists--usually in folk or in blues--have enjoyed considerable success in spite of the prettiness of their music or a special quality to their lyrics. A musician named John Simon has produced albums for some of the best, including Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Band Ironically his own first record John Simon's Album, cut in 1970, remains virtually unknown. By almost any other standard its arrangements, musicianship, variety in tone, and emotional sophistication made it a remarkable debut.

The only link between that first album and Simon's newly released Journey lies in their quality. The depth of feeling in Simon's performances, whether sad or humorous, as well as the intricacy of his arranging stand out in both He signs with a warm bluesiness as expressive as his energetic piano playing.

The styles of the two albums, however, differ dramatically. The first offers a tight weave of sentiment and fantasy, a mixture of songs falling in the folk-blues realm, but far more disciplined and complex then the average. Journey takes style. What results is an equally impressive display of imagination along with the drastic change in tone.

The first cut on John Simon's Album typifies his inventiveness: "The Song of the Elves" asserts the stature of playful but proud elves whose joy, warmth, and earthiness mocks the war-tom world of people. "Faiderol," they chant. "Elves are tell." "Nobody knows" and "Rain Song" are as lonely as the first song is light. "Don't Forget what I Told You" offers a strange blend of romance and cynicism balancing the outright fun of "Motorcycle Man" or of "Railroad Train Runnin' Up My Back." While weaving his voice in and out among tracks of piano and backup instruments. Simon is assisted by an extraordinary crew of sidemen including Leon Russell. Every Brooks on bass, Paul Harris on organ, and to Coolidge singing background vocals with Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos.

It is almost foolish to consider Simon's lyrics apart from his music, since the drive of each enhances the expressiveness of the other, and the melodiousness of Simon's words complements the rhythm of his instrumental arrangements perfectly. Nevertheless, he does verbalize, independently of his music, both fantastic notions and commonplace sentiments with refreshing simplicity and without undue seriousness. For example, in "Don't Forget What I told You," he describes a certain ambivalence towards his lover.

Teacher told me bout your kind.

How you'd rob from the poor and bleed me blind.

I don't mind.

Money and me get along.

Cause you gotta pass it up or you gotta pass it on.

JOURNEY IS NO LESS unusual for its verbal or musical qualities, but all the more exciting for its greater freedom in execution. With sections of strings and horns building beautifully upon his musical themes, Simon produces a forceful sound surpassing any of the mechanical blends of trumpets and gravelly singing that pass for jazz on the AM Top Ten. The style ranges from honky-tonk, to Gershwinian melancholy, to high-energy, upbeat popular jazz, to barroom bluesiness more reminiscent of Simon's earlier songs.

Not one song on Journey is unsatisfying Particular achievements, include "Open Up, Summertime," a jaunty ode to summer that wryly understates an oft-expressed continent: "Drop me in a sunny spot/I'd rather be hot than not," "Poem to Eat" combines Siemen's haunting, bittersweet music with an evocative Iyric by Pran Landesman; the singer hawks his verses: "Dine on a poem. Take one on home," "King Lear's Blues" tells of a man so broken-hearted he believes he is Lear, suicidal and yet paradoxically end, to have suffered, "Big city Traffic Jam" is a miniature concerto for piano and street sounds. "Joy to the World" Wraps a story of Christmas loneliness around the theme of the original holiday carol; Simon sings of his missing lover: "Away in a manger in some hotel she lays her head. The carolers are gone."

UNFORTUNATELY, SIMON'S ACHIEVEMENTS on record pose a frustrating problem. In person, he is unable to execute his music with the sophistication he accomplishes using a studio band. At the Passim this week. Simon is singing alone, accompanying himself on piano and on electric organ. While, on the night I saw him, many in the audience found his keyboard virtuosity and his unusual singing style satisfying enough, I missed his sidemen badly. His technique is impressive, but the results are generally less inspired than his recorded work. Unlike Jack Schechtman, a far-better-than-average singer of intelligent, romantic songs who plays second bill on the show, Simon has reached a level of craftsmanship in arranging that cannot be captured is solo performances.

Simon a personal appearance will probably prove most rewarding for those who have not yet heard his records. People who enjoy a distinctly original and eclectic display of musical imagination will find him a delight. Those who enjoy him live, however, will rejoice far more in either of his albums. What John Simon says should not only be heard, it should be listened to again and again.

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