No compendium of musical lore in East PA is complete without some reference to The Deer Head Inn, a jazz institution known world-wide for the stunning talent that breezes through the Victorian-era front door. The Deer Head achieved notoriety under the steady hand of Bob Lehr and his family, who hired a young Johnny Coates to anchor what evolved into the most prolific jazz scene this side of The Blue Note in NYC. It was here that the terrible trio of Ed Joubert, Rick Chamberlain and Phil Woods devised a cockamamie scheme to have a jazz and art festival in Water Gap that evolved into the Celebration of the Arts, simply COTA for jazz aficionados. COTA annually draws thousands to the sleepy little East Pennsylvania village, and the surrounding area is home to Grammy winners like Woods and jazz icons like Bob Dorough because they made the trip from the big city and feel in love with the area newbies called generically “The Poconos.”
The Inn exudes history: the wrap-around porch is shaded by hundred-year old wisteria, and one could easily imagine a young F Scott Fitzgerald or Papa Hemingway scribbling furiously while the cool cats blow. For me, the Inn has a more personal connection. It was during my father’s lingering death and the loss of our family home to the National Parks Service that Tom Shanley would bring a 17 year old me to hear Johnny. IN those days it was not uncommon for Bob to lock the door at 2 am and let us all back up our drinks, and on a good night the last cool notes faded into the soft summer sunrise.
For whatever reason, it was the thing to sit under the piano as Johnny played, and even though I was more into Leadbelly than Parker, I developed a love for jazz music that has ironically served me well in playing bluegrass. The Inn is now run by my friends frmo that era, all of whom were, like me, volunteers at the first COTA fest. The Inn was where I had my first book signing of Bluegrass, and where I got to put together my own band with fiddle great Coleman Smith, Railroad Earth’s Johnny Skehan, Bob Dorough and eventually (by accident, as all good things often are) Rick Chamblerlain.
Joubert and Chamberlain have gone where the good folks go, and so has Eric Doney, a huge and beautiful musical soul who often played there. My father and Tom Shanley have been gone for decades as well.
When I walk through those magical doors, they are all still there for me, like the last lingering notes fading slowly into the soft summer sunrise.
On Friday, May 25 at the Deer Head Inn, jazz vocalist Maria Neckham will launch her debut album, entitled ‘Unison.’ Speaking from her home in Brooklyn with a lilt of Austrian accent that is nowhere apparent in her vocal recordings, she described her approach to penning the original tunes on the album.
“I try to change it up and to approach composing in a different way so I get new ideas. Usually I use the piano, and I start out with different things. I have some kind of idea, whether it is lyrics, harmonies, chord progressions, or rhythm,” Neckham explained.
While the music is all original, Neckham does tap into poetry for some of her compositions, in which case the lyrics suggest the shape of musical score.
“I like to mix it up. There are some songs, actually, (where) the lyrics are not mine and I just put them to music, One poem by Rilke,is called ‘Solitude’, another by Neruda, ‘You will remember’ and one by Hivaz called ‘Where do you think you will be?’
Neckham’s vocal style is lyric and concise, and although it is definitely in the cool vein of jazz, she avoids the temptation to put a hundred notes into every measure.
“I like to write things which are very clear. I feel that’s how you get more variety. I think if you use lots of notes all the time, everything sounds the same.
For Neckham, focus is the key to producing worthwhile music, and her approach to her own vocal stylings is thoughtful and intriguing. She likens the voice to wind instruments which often take the vocal melody line.
“The simplicity is everything. In terms of my instrument, I am a singer, it depends on the kind of voice I have. It works best when I don’t try to sing too many notes. I can’t say that for everyone, like guys, their voice is low, more like a saxophone. I try to sing in a way that’s the most value-creating.”
Neckham greatly enjoyed the daunting task of recording and producing a CD, a task which can be daunting in its complexity.
“That was a lot of fun. It was crazy busy I wrote it, I produced it, and I sang on it. It was really crazy! We spent two days at Sear Sound near Times Square. I’d get there in the middle of the day, then walking out into Times Square at nine or ten at night with all the lights, it was a dream come true. The first day we did all the quintet (material) guitar, bass, drums and me. On the second day we did all the other combinations some big groups (nine or so) and some duets. 11 hours in the studio you go, go, go, organizing everybody, keeping their time in mind. I also recorded to sing well, “she said, laughing.
Neckham also overdubbed harmony vocals on the CD. When asked how she liked singing with herself and knowing just what she was about to do, she laughed and said, “It’s great!”
Neckham will be joined by Fabian Almazan (piano), Nir Felder (guitar), Thomas Morgan (bass) & Colin Stranahan (drums). Neckham said she is looking forward to seeing the Poconos in the spring, and is especially delighted to play the Deer Head Inn, about which she has heard nothing but high praise.
“I’m excited. I’ve never been in this part of the country. I was in Philadelphia, PA, for just a weekend. I helped organize an event at Temple; I was part of a cultural festival through a Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International, where young people from all over the country came together. I grew up Catholic in Austria, then five years ago, in Amsterdam, I studied a lot of Indian vocals, and my Indian vocal teacher was Buddhist. I was always complaining about my life, and she said,’ Why don’t you try chanting?’ Everything you are is a result of a cause, so if you don’t like something (in your life) you just change your attitude. It’s very empowering,” she said.