Better, by Larry Goldings, Kaveh Rastegar, Abe Rounds (2023)

The Great Pandemic of 2020 will be remembered for any number of tragic occurrences; Millions of dead, hospitals overwhelmed to their limits, a catalyst for the already toxic polarization along political lines, the delightful discovery of online grocery shopping. For musicians, the real tragedy was that Covid-19 essentially restricted their ability to congregate in the same room for the express purpose of musical expression—in other words, their primary reason for living. “When things shut down in March of 2020 I remember feeling like life as I knew it was over–not to be too hyperbolic,” remembered bassist Kaveh Rastegar. “Lots of questions and uncertainty came in. Before, I never questioned why things mattered or didn’t, and I also took so much for granted in my musical life...opportunities to play, record and tour. The venues and studios to get together and record or perform in...they were all closed,” he remembered. One of those lost playing opportunities for Rastegar was with keyboardist Larry Goldings, who, just before the pandemic, had reached out to him to make some music together. They had gotten to record and perform together with singer Colin Hay (Men at Work), and, in Goldings’ words, “soon discovered that his musicianship extended throughout many genres and skills, including songwriting, production, and a gift for putting interesting people together.” Goldings hired Rastegar to play bass for a movie he scored (“Dealin’ With Idiots,” a 2013 comedy directed by and starring comedian Jeff Garlin), and they have since collaborated on many projects. “I’ve always loved Larry’s playing. He has played with everyone, and he is everyone’s favorite musician to work with,” said Rastegar. “He can play anything and has such a love and appetite for so much different music. As many people know,” he added, “he’s also a gifted comic who is so much fun to be around.”

Abe Rounds was Goldings’ choice to be the third of this new trio. Rastegar first met Rounds through Meshell Ndegeocello, whom she had flown in from Boston to record drums on her album “Comet Come to Me” (Naïve 2014), and on which Rastegar had written a song, “Conviction.” Goldings came to know Rounds more recently, noting he seemed to be “showing up everywhere” in all walks of musical life. “One of Abe’s rare gifts is simply feel,” explained Goldings. “By bringing Abe into a session playing a tambourine, or some other single percussion instrument, any band seems to be lifted up and made more funky, more in the pocket, more joyous.” Goldings hired Rounds for the soundtrack to the 2019 Netflix limited series, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” Of Rounds’ work on that project, Goldings could not be more complimentary. “Abe’s contributions became crucial to the musical fabric of the series and made me fully aware of his production talents and overall musicianship,” he said, adding, “Abe is a quiet, and humble person who’s many rare gifts seem to keep unfolding in front of you.” Rounds had been a fan of Goldings long before they met, having listened to him on records with a variety of musicians: James Taylor, Bill Stewart, John Scofield to name a few. “I admire Larry’s ability to mix with the highest echelon of jazz musicians without sacrificing his ability to be a supportive sideman,” said Rounds. “His wealth of experience and musicianship is contagious and creates a musical elevator to lift me and others to their highest artistic selves.” Rastegar is similarly fond of Rounds for those things, saying “Abe is so well rounded and fully formed as a musician–He has such a maturity to his playing and such a sense of who he is and what is right for whatever situation he’s playing in.” The three of them had begun to trade text messages about getting together to play, with no agenda beyond trying to make some music together, when their plans, like so many other, were undone by Covid-19. It would be a full year before Goldings, making the assessment that it was possible to meet and play safely, reached out again to Rastegar and Rounds to follow through on their intentions. “Perhaps without realizing it,” mused Goldings, “I craved to be around some highly creative, positive people to offset the darkness that of the pandemic.” They booked a good number of days in a studio in the Northeast L.A. neighborhood of Eagle Rock, owned by engineer Pete Min. “Pete Min was such a huge part of this project. His studio is the perfect lab for a project like this,” said Rastegar, calling the gifted musician and engineer the “4th member of this band.” Goldings and Rounds concurred, with Goldings adding, “Pete’s studio is like a candy shop for me, with pristine analog gear everywhere, and I loved the thought of being in that environment with these great people.” It is not out of bounds to confuse the words “musician” and “magician,” for master musicians can indeed conjure something substantial out of thin air. For these three, many of the songs they created started from simply jamming together, falling into a chord progression that would become the bedrock for the many layers of sound all three players would add in ensuing overdubs. And this is where these pieces reveal their true brilliance, as super-funky vehicles for incredibly well-crafted organizations of sonic delight, a delicious display of infinite timbres and textures. Rastegar is teaching a clinic on how to play bass lines in every conceivable popular music style, from soul to funk to reggae to 60’s jazz-pop, drawing on the wealth of experience he has amassed playing with artists ranging from the progressive jazz group Kneebody and rock-immortal Ringo Starr to pop-icons John Legend and Sia. Rounds goes above and beyond basic beat-making to establish endless variations of groove, blending acoustic and electronic sounds in a meticulous gumbo of rhythmic texture, in addition to playing synths and guitar on a few tracks. But it is Goldings himself who puts forth a gushing geyser-fount of ideas in every possible way, from the references to what must be the entire world history of chordal harmony, to the multitude of distinct sounds he is able to coax out of the Hammond B-3, to the impressive (and somewhat surprising) array of electro-mechanical and analog synthesizer elements woven into the sonic fabric. Goldings utilized the many instruments in Min’s studio to the utmost. “The opportunity to really explore within the environment of analog keyboards is rare for me, especially in the context of a band,” he explained. “Playing synths and Rhodes, etc. were a big part of my childhood musical explorations and this opportunity brought me back to a very special place in my heart.” A special place that is now fully revealed for all to experience and benefit from. Larry Goldings in singular form is often more than enough, but to hear multiple versions of him simultaneously on every track here is a reward so lavish none on earth deserve, yet we greedily accept and devour.

The songs themselves are also an object lesson in variety and diversity. “Better,” the title track, is a funky, feel-good proclamation of what these gentlemen experienced as they played again for the first time. “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is a reggae-type vamp named after an utterance by composer Abe Rounds, which found its way into the arrangement. “Stockwell” is a kind of western tango, something that made Rastegar think of Dean Stockwell’s character in the David Lynch film “Blue Velvet.” 84 beats per minute is the tempo and the original working title for “Mary Lou,” an homage to the gymnast who won the gold medal in 1984. It’s a soul-inspired throwback that features some outstanding synth work by Goldings. “But Wait, There’s Les” is a funky boogaloo that reminded Rastegar of a Les McCann song. “Bob James” is a mellow soft-rock tribute to the legendary fusion keyboardist, but Goldings’ piano work on the track could have just as easily been dedicated to his one-time mentor, Keith Jarrett. “Temple Bar” features a couple of bassline grooves that originated from Rastegar’s early days in Los Angeles, when he said he played at that erstwhile club “at least four nights out of the week for at least four years.” “Reprise,” a reprise of the first track, “Better,” was ironically the Very first thing the trio did when they first got together to play, setting the tone for the entire session. The final track, “I Want to be Happy,” is the only non-original tune, the standard given a tongue-in-cheek 60s-era treatment, as if performed on an old consumer-model Lowery Organ, complete with auto-drums (but that’s certainly no amateur musician on the piano!).

The experience of making this music carries quite a bit of meaning for these three musicians. “We quickly realized how much BETTER this experience made us all feel, amidst the uncertainty and darkness of Covid,” said Goldings, “and Abe, Kaveh and Pete were my musical, creative and psychological salvation during the early days. I’m really indebted to them.” “This record was special,” said Rounds, “because it was my first in-person human musical interaction for at least a year.” Rastegar added, “Again, not to be too dramatic, but getting together with Larry and Abe and playing music reminded me that I could still play the bass–music was still a thing I could do.” These sentiments mirrored those that were near-universal among all musicians, many of whom have professed to feeling profound relief and joy at the resumption of a social artistic life.

What we all realized was getting together to make music made us feel...well, better.

-Gary Fukushima

releases March 10, 2023

Recorded July and September of 2020 at Lucy’s Meat Market, Eagle Rock, CA
Recorded, Mixed, Mastered and closely collaborated with by Pete Min
Produced by Larry Goldings, Kaveh Rastegar, Abe Rounds and Pete Min
Larry Goldings: Piano, Organ, Clavinet, Arp 2600, Arp String Ensemble, Prophet,
Pocket Piano
Kaveh Rastegar: Fender Precision Bass, Fender Musicmaster Bass, Guitar on
“Temple Bar”
Abe Rounds: Drums, Percussion, Oberheim RD-8 and Vermona DM-1 Drum
Machines, Guitar on “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and “Les”, Arp 2600 on “Mary Lou”
Additional Musician:
Bob Magnuson: Woodwinds on “Reprise” with parts arranged by John Sneider
Special thanks to Pete Min, John Sneider, Christine Kim, Sara Shirazi and Kirra
“I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy till I make you happy too”

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