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The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma


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The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma
Ben Sidran
286 pages
ISBN: #978-0578556604
Nardis Books

Keyboardist, vocalist, composer and author, plus long-time compatriot of none other than 'The Space Cowboy' himself, Steve Miller, Ben Sidran is the epitome of well-crafted spontaneity. As was, in his own inimitable fashion, musician/producer/entrepreneur Tommy LiPuma. Little wonder the former's book devoted to the latter reads like eavesdropping on a scintillating conversation between two erudite gentlemen in a bar or restaurant (from whence, in fact, came many of these stories!?).

Like Sidran's own stellar career overview in concert, Been There, Done That: Live Around the World 1975-2015 (Sunset Blvd., 2018), The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma is hardly academic, yet scholarly in its attention to detail. And, despite the author's disclaimer in the 'Prelude' it is not definitive, on the contrary, it supplies more than enough names, places and dates to qualify as such. Then there's the effervescence in the prose that correlates directly with LiPuma's own enthusiasm for his creative and enterprising endeavors, not to mention life itself.

It's tempting to read this collection of deceptively fortuitous happenings in a single sitting. As much as the slightly less than two-hundred seventy-five pages consist of flashbacks, each chapter and the segments within move with the rapidity of fast-forwards. And while the anecdotal nature of that succession wears toward the end, that progression dovetails with the end of LiPuma's career.

Otherwise, because the descriptions of the characters and various locales are so vivid, even going back to Tommy's family history, there's no sense of hurry, but rather a sensation of not wasting time or words. The conversational tone Sidran adopts and maintains is tantamount to hearing him and his subject speak extemporaneously on a subject each knows by heart.

It's as if each account figures into the next, whether the nature of the interaction is personal, professional or, more likely, a combination of both. For the subject as with the author, there really is no such distinction. In fact, as the stories roll on, they increasingly sound like a series of peak experiences, life-changing events that occur in ever-so-quick succession with virtually no down time in between. And that's in large part because LiPuma's zest for living takes so many varied forms beyond the professional progression of his career, from warehouse fulfillment to A&R to producer to label head.

Still, his personal life overflows with interests, even beyond the range of music he learned to love in his youth (when he also began playing the saxophone). The art of painting becomes an abiding passion but hardly more so than that of conversation and it is largely through interactive dialogue(s) Tommy satiates his curiosity about the people he encounters.

He is no less interested in knowing idiosyncratic musicians like German conductor/arranger Claus Ogerman or Brazilian icon Antonio Carlos Jobim than business partners Bob Krasnow or Mo Ostin. But most of all Tommy LiPuma is interested in music, whether it be hearing it, playing it, producing it or promoting it. The substance of this book belies its length because Sidran not only paints a colorful picture of his restlessly creative friend and mentor, but also supplies an enlightening background.

The segments in which LiPuma describes meeting and working with Miles Davis make this volume worth reading in and of themselves, but because disparate figures including Paul McCartney, George Benson, Dave Mason and Diana Krall also appear here, there's plenty of fodder between these two soft-covers to pique the curiosity of the eclectic musiclover/reader.

A good-natured confidence radiates directly from Ben Sidran's writing too, a virtue Tommy LiPuma also exhibited in his various undertakings—especially the entrepreneurial sort such as founding the Blue Thumb record label or, later in his career, assuming the head position of Universal's jazz niche (an instance of wish fulfillment that did not come to pass when he worked at Warner Bros Records either in Los Angeles or New York). Yet as with most all these kindred spirits, not just these two, there's also an underpinning of humility: whatever their ambition, it wasn't only for commercial purposes but for the sake of the art and the artists, (and except in isolated instances, never for their own self-gratification or aggrandizement).

The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma educates on a variety of levels through its words and photographs. And because it proceeds at such a brisk and informal pace, it might well define the concept of 'summer reading.' Even then, however, it morphs into an invaluable reference tool on those topics Ben Sidran covers with the same good humor and grace evinced by the man who is the flash-point of them all.


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