The latest release from Jim Duffy is "Pale Afternoon," a collection of 11 moody and bouncy instrumental pop tunes. Buy CDs here.
You can find Jim Duffy's music on CD Baby.
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Jim Duffy, Bio and FAQ
Jim Duffy -- that's me -- is a New York-based keyboard player, session musician, electric bassist and melodica player.
Mostly I focus on composing, recording and performing original instrumental music, usually playing a mid-1960s Wurlitzer electric piano. My first album of original tunes -- I still call them albums -- was "Side One," which was released in 2004, and which received some good critical notice and radio airplay on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., among other places. My second album, "Mood Lit," was released in 2009, and it futhered my activities. The third, "Pale Afternoon," was released in early 2016 and reached some non-commercial rado playlists and got some nice write-ups.
In the 1980s, I co-founded and played bass guitar in the Boston band Rods and Cones, which was known for quirky grooves and for the unbridled performances of singer Chris Kelley. In the 1990s, in New York, I co-founded and played keyboard for the band Martin's Folly, along with singer and guitarist Chris Gray. We explored many forms of 20th century U.S. music.
In the oughts, I started recording original instrumental tracks, playing Wurlitzer electric piano and acoustic piano along with Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass and Lance Doss on guitar and lap steel. This group sometimes performs live as the Jim Duffy Combo. Instrumental tunes are the main thing right now.
And I'm part of an eight-piece group called Mitra Sumara. We perform Persian pop music from the pre-revolutionary Iran, music from the 1960s and 1970s. It's funky, psychedelic stuff. This 16-legged band has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute, also in Washington. We also play local clubs in the five boroughs of New York City, among other places.
In 2016 I participated in Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio, where I was in a workshop led by Pauline Oliveros, and I have performed with the Karl Berger Improvisers Orchestra, a 30-piece orchestra that includes some of the best jazz, classical, rock, ethnic and creative music talents in the New York area.
I have also performed on records by the Bottle Rockets, Sour Jazz, Greg Trooper, Reid Paley, the Fleshtones, Speedball Baby, Florence Dore, Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, Joe Flood, the Damnwells, Jim Koeppel, Will Rigby and many others. And I have performed on stage with rock and roll pioneer Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and many others.
Meanwhile, I've been composing and recording the next full-length release of instrumental tunes. Also, playing some acoustic piano.
Jim Duffy, a Brooklyn-based, mostly self-taught composer and keyboardist, announces the release of "Pale Afternoon," his third full-length collection of moody and bouncy instrumental music.
The eleven tracks on "Pale Afternoon" each aim for a specific feeling. Duffy leads a small group from his 1960s Wurlitzer electric piano. Dennis Diken of the world-famous Smithereens is on drums, Paul Page, who tours the world with Ian Hunter, plays bass, and Lance Doss, who has toured and recorded with John Cale, plays guitar and lap steel.
"We made this record very quickly, over a long period of time," Duffy says. “We had minimal fuss and lot of fervor.
The opening track, "Boulevard Six," careens forward in a minor groove in a 6/4 beat. From there, the tracks take sharp turns in mood and tempo. "Tenerife" has an aerodynamic, West Coast feel. On "Reverse Image," Kevin Kendrick's vibraphone provides icicle-like counter-melodies "Sputare Il Rospoo" hits hard at a quick pace, then Claire Daly's baritone sax sends it over the top. After a few of these three-minute trips, you'll be ready to expect anything.
"Pale Afternoon" was recorded and mixed by Greg Duffin and Mario Viele at Cowboy Technical Services, in an analog format, recorded and mixed to tape. The tracks were mastered is by Grammy-winning engineer Scott Hull. Warm and punchy is what it is.
Jim Duffy has long lurked behind various music scenes in New York, playing with some of the top performers in the rock, pop, jazz, ethnic and avant-garde worlds, including Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon, Wanda Jackson, the Fleshtones, the Bottle Rockets, Sour Jazz, the Damnwells, Reid Paley, Will Rigby, Speedball Baby and the eight-piece Persian-style psychedelic funk band Mitra Sumara, among many others. He co-founded the legendary '80s Boston band Rods and Cones, and in the '90s, he played in the New York band Martin's Folly.
For "Pale Afternoon," he draws upon his myriad influences and inspirations and his address book of fellow musicians. When we twisted his arm, he agreed, "OK, this is the best batch yet."
"I'm so obscure, even I have barely heard of me."
Duffy is mostly self-taught. He didn't ask for help until it was too late.
Influences include, in no particular order: Burt Bacharach, Booker T and the MGs, J.S. Bach, Bela Bartok, William Byrd, James Booker, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Beatles, Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, Frank Black - and those are just some of the B's ...
He has never owned a cell-phone or smartphone, and for this reason among others, even some of his closest friends find him annoying.
Has anyone else gigged with Wanda Jackson and also studied with Pauline Oliveros?
Duffy briefly attended Boston College, which in 2006 awarded an honorary doctorate to noted war criminal Condoleezza Rice.
Jim Duffy, on solo keyboard, composes and performs moody and bouncy instrumental music. His two albums, Side One and Mood Lit, received glowing reviews and significant radio airplay. Jim Duffy will perform his tunes and some improvisations on an electronic keyboard.
Jim Duffy has played on many CD releases and has performed on stage with rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, rock and roll pioneer Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon, the Persian-style pop group Mitra Sumara and many others. He has taken all he has learned and distilled it into a sparkling formula that gets under the skin.
By day he is a meek copy editor. By night he is a meek composer and keyboardist. Too obscure to be a cult figure, Duffy says, "I am so unknown that I myself have barely heard of me."
What is Jim Duffy?
Jim Duffy is a musician in Brooklyn, N.Y., who composes and records moody and bouncy instrumental pop tunes. His first collection, Side One, was released in 2005. The second, Mood Lit, was released in October 2009. The third full-length release, "Pale Afternoon," will be released in January 2016.
Does he play all the instruments?
No, he is not Stevie Wonder or Todd Rundgren. He plays keyboards, mostly an early-1960s Wurlitzer electronic piano, though in live performance he sometimes plays other keyboards. He also played bass guitar for many years and sometimes still does. His usual recording and performing combo consists of Dennis Diken on drums, Paul Page on bass and Lance Doss on guitars, plus special guests.
Why doesn't he sing?
Duffy says, "Instrumental music engages the listener in a different way from vocal music. You don’t have to process verbal information on top of musical information. It translates better across language barriers. Not too many people are making instrumental pop music in a non-retro way, so the field is wide open."
Wait, is this jazz?
No, not really. Duffy says, Lennie Tristano made a distinction between jazz as a style and as an art form. If we improvise and get ‘jazzy,’ it’s as a style, not as an art form. This is pop music, and that means anything can happen.
Would you tell us more about some of the other musicians who are involved?
With pleasure. Dennis Diken is best known as the drummer for the world-renowned Smithereens, but that may be about to change. Diken's most recent record, Late Music, credited to Dennis Diken and the Bell Sound, proves that he is not only a master of the American trap kit, he is also a pop visionary who composes, sings, harmonizes, arranges and produces fully-realized pop orchestrations to a frightening degree.
Bassist Paul Page is one of the most sought-after bass players on the East Coast. He tours the world with Ian Hunter, and he has played with too many big names to mention here. Page and Duffy are longtime associates, having played together in the band Martin's Folly.
Lance Doss, on guitars and lap steel, has recorded and performed with John Cale, among many others. Doss is also a compelling solo performer, as well as a prolific producer and studio operator. Doss' other activities are a mystery.
The basic group of Duffy, Diken, Page and Doss sometimes perform as the Jim Duffy Combo, and we played many gigs at the late, lamented Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B in Manhattan.
Now it's starting to sound "rock" to me.
It's true, they all came up through the rock basements, separately and together, playing in that exciting style while it was in its heyday. In Duffy's case, he played many hundreds of gigs with rock bands and saw a fair amount of this great country.
Is he any good?
Rather than answer that, let me tell you about some of the other people involved. Other close associates are sound engineer Greg Duffin (no relation), who hails from Kansas City, Mo., and Mario Viele, who is from St. Louis. "Team Missouri" worked the NeoTek recording console for the making of "Pale Afternoon." Duffin and Viele are aficionados of all-analog recording. "Pale Afternoon" was recorded and mixed to tape. There's something inspiring about watching those big reels of tape go around and around. Not to mention the blue-flame glow of a tube-powered compressor.
You haven't answered my question.
Other participants include Kevin Kendrick on vibraphone. Kendrick has been turning heads and offending delicate sensibilities in the almost-too-creative group A Big Yes and a Small No. Kendrick is 110 pounds of sheer terror in a fabulous velvet jacket. On the track "Reverse Image," he adds icicle-like counter-melodies.
Also appearing on "Pale Afternoon" is multi-instrumentalist Sam Kulik, who created and performed a nice three-trombone arrangement on the track "Boulevard Six." Bravo, Sam.
Baritone saxophonist Claire Daly makes a special appearance on the track "Sputare il Rospo." You should hear her for yourself -- she often performs with New York pianist/composer Joel Forrester, who is an entire subject unto himself.
"Pale Afternoon" also features percussionist Michael Evans, one of the leading lights of the New York avant-garde and creative music scene.
The first two albums, "Side One" and "Mood Lit," featured brass virtuoso Mac Gollehon, who played trumpet and flugelhorn. Mac is like a comet -- he comes and goes as he pleases. Duffy is still not sure how Gollehon devises and executes those arrangements on valve trombone, flugelhorn and trumpet, and yet Gollehon does it -- the evidence is on the tape. Then he vanishes, as mysteriously as he came.
You look as though you're about to tell me more.
Only that "Pale Afternoon," like the first two albums, was mastered by Scott Hull, who has won several of those prizes that look like little gramophones.
Duffy looks kind of old and creepy
I'm sorry, I'm not hearing a question.
How old is he?
Jim Duffy was born in Long Branch, N.J., during the second term of the Eisenhower administration. Cars still had big fins, and black-and-white television sets had round screens and took a long time to warm up, but the recent launch of Sputnik was already changing all of that. Duffy remembers very little of this period. You do the math.
Via a quirk of history, Duffy was too young to remember the Kennedy assassination, but his first living memory came three months later, in February 1964, when at the age of 3 he witnessed the Beatles' first performance on the "Ed Sullivan Show." This was a life-altering experience from which Duffy has yet to recover.
Is it true that Jim Duffy is the brother of Karen "Duff" Duffy?
Any formal instruction?
As a child, Duffy had four years of piano lessons with a Mrs. McCarthy in Rumson, N.J. He says, "Anything I have done in music falls back on those four years with Mrs. McCarthy."
In 1966, when Duffy was a cool 6 years old, he played a recital at the local high school auditorium, dressed to the baby-teeth in his new suit and a fresh crewcut. When he had finished playing "The Alphabet Song," he turned to the audience, bowed and retreated to the wings, at which point he realized that he had left his musical score on the piano. He went back on stage, retrieved the music, then turned and bowed again. The whole auditorium broke up laughing. This was Duffy's first taste of showbiz.
(Jim Duffy, 1967, Staten Island, N.Y., photographer uncertain)
In the year 1975, he purchased an early-'60s short-scale Fender Musicmaster bass for $90. (The same model bass was recently displayed in the window of Matt Umanov's guitar shop on Bleecker Street with a price tag of $1,800.) He took bass-guitar lessons for a couple of years, off and on, studying from the Simandl book. More to the point, he started jamming in a basement with a bunch of young burnouts, playing the Who's arrangement of "Summertime Blues" over and over again. Every time they approached that big modulation at the end, they all looked at each other with great anticipation.
The band came to be called Pangolin, but nobody knew that because we never performed anywhere. We just jammed and jammed in a basement of a high-school freshman named Carl in Montvale, N.J. The year was 1975. It was a suburban New Jersey high-school scene. Carl's mother did not mind if the young guys in her basement smoked cigarettes in her basement and made a horrendous racket. The guys would smoke Marlboros by the carton and they had stacked hundreds of empty Marlboro packs into a pyramid shape in the corner of the room.
Duffy had hung out at that jam session a couple of times and was considering taking up the electric guitar, but Carl said to play bass, because they were getting sick of the guy who was playing bass. About two weeks later, Duffy was showing up with a Fender bass that his parents had rented for him. A couple of months later, Duffy bought that Fender Musicmaster for $90, and by that time, Pangolin was playing Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," but there was nobody there to hear it.
Not much was happening with Pangolin. Duffy booked the band's one and only gig, at a teenage social in the gymnasium of Holy Trinity School in Hackensack, N.J. We performed on the gymnasium stage, while a basketball game was in progress.
At around this time, a musical opportunity appeared, to join another high-school-level band that had a higher profile. The 17-year-old Duffy made a rookie mistake: He told Carl that he was quitting Pangolin and said he would come by the next day to pick up his Barcus-Berry bass amplifier. He should have picked up the amp before he quit the band. By the time he picked up the amp, the guys in the basement had vandalized that amplifier. They tore the Tolex covering, and stole a couple of the knobs. Lesson learned: Pick up your gear before you quit the band.
The up-and-coming band was called Fragile. The lead singer, Sam Tarrant, looked like a teenage Peter Frampton and played electric guitar through a talk-box. The band played hits from "Frampton Comes Alive," which had conquered the world the previous summer. The keyboard player was Joe DiNicola, the son of "Mr. Peppermint Twist" himself, Joey Dee. On drums was Nick Policastro, who played a clear lucite drumkit with lights all around it, and a gong. Fragile had a dry-ice smoke machine, strobe lights, flashpots (yes, pyrotechnics), the whole works. They performed at church "dances," at which no one danced. We played dances in Park Ridge, N.J., and Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
As the name of the band may suggest, Fragile's specialty was doing epic-length opuses by the British band Yes. Bear in mind that the year was 1976, and these guys were not yet shaving daily. The teenage Duffy would step into the spotlight and play the excruciating bass solo to "Heart of the Sunrise." (RIP Sam, who died in 2015, and I was sad to hear the news.)
(Duffy playing a Fender Musicmaster bass through a Plush amp for Fragile, 1977, in the auditorium of Our Lady of Mercy school, Park Ridge, N.J. Photo by John Vallancourt.)
Despite all this prog-rocking, Duffy managed to kiss a girl for the first time, at which point all that hobgoblin stuff went -- poof -- out the window.
None too soon, I'd say.
When Duffy arrived at Boston College in the late 1970s, he found that the Summer of Love had not yet faded away. The aura of Grateful Dead hung over the campus like a cloud of day-old patchouli. The hottest party band around, the the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band, featuring the remarkable Chris Jenner on guitar, was playing mostly Grateful Dead repertoire. This band was also attracting the best-looking women on campus. If you wanted to play music, that was the only game in town. Duffy learned a bunch of Grateful Dead tunes without having much feeling for it, but it was a way in. He started jamming with a guy down the hall, and one night he got to sit in with some members of the Mouser band, and that's how he finally got to meet the keyboard player Brian "Herman" Hess, whose musicianship Duffy had admired.
Let me hasten to add that also, in about 1979-80, I , Duffy, was going to the Rat in Kenmore Square, a club that booked original music.
The legal drinking age was 18 or 19, and of course the Boston metro area has hundreds of thousands of college students who were drinking legally their first year out of high school. And rock had recently had a boost of adrenaline when the punk revolution moved in. Original music was the thing, and I got to see a lot of good Boston bands.
Human Sexual Response was my favorite Boston band of the time and still a favorite now. First time I saw them as on the Boston College campus, and I went to see them play at the Inn-Square Men's Bar and other places.
One night I went to a place on the North Shore and saw the Atlantics, and the opening act was the Maps. If I ever want to establish my Boston rock cred, I can say that I saw the Maps.
It took me years to realize that Mission of Burma was the best band to ever come out of Boston. I did see Burma on their first go-round, and it may have been at the Paradise, when they opened for one of Human Sexual Response's farewell gigs. At the time, I thought they were just three guys in black T-shirts going ra-na-nana-ra-na-nana. I didn't understand them at the time.
Lots of music clubs in Boston in those days. The Rat in Kenmore Square was always the most essential music venue. The house sound man, Granny, a.k.a. Richard Weidman, had worked at the Rat since its beginning in the early '70s, and he had the brilliant idea of loading several tons of sand under the stage. That gave the Rat the best drum sound in town. And Granny was a great soundman who had a great sound system. At the Rat I saw such good bands as Robin Lane and the Chartbusters and the Rings.
The Channel, a warehouse-sized place in the old waterfront area, Necco Street, big capacity, several hundred people, so if you were booked there you had to hustle and promote so you weren't playing to a huge empty room. At one time or another at the Channel I saw the English Beat, the Fixx, the Replacements, reggae artist Dennis Brown, the Charlie Watts Orchestra, Ian Hunter with Mick Ronson, Bo Diddley with Ron Wood and many Boston bands. One of the worst shows I ever saw in my life, John Entwistle, was at the Chanel.
The Inn-Square Men's Bar, in Inman Square Cambridge, was my favorite music venue at that time, and it still may be my favorite. It was a long, narrow bar that held about 75 people. The stage was set up on the right-hand wall as you walked in, and the band played directly into the bar, which was about 20 feet away. It was a long, stringbean-shaped room with paneling on the walls that could have suited a rec room or a home poolroom. At the Inn-Square I saw Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Til Tuesday, Lou Miami and the Kozmetix and 007, plus some Sunday night blues sets by Paul Rishell. Years later, in New York, I briefly met Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and told him I saw them at the Inn-Square, and he said more people have told him they were at that show than could have possibly fit into that club.
At a short-lived club called Streets, on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston, near Harvard Avenue, is where I saw the Neats and the Dangerous Birds. Another short-lived club was Storyville in Kenmore Square, where I saw the Raybeats. And a club called Jumpin' Jack Flash on Queensbury Street in the Fenway came a little later and soon went away.
At around this time, 1980, I saw the greatest concert I have ever seen in my life: Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Hynes Convention Center. It was not a concert hall - it was a convention room with metal folding chairs. Even then, the city of Cambridge had a large Rasta population, and many of those folks were in attendance, and many spliffs the size of ice cream cones were being passed around. Well before the show started, everyone was standing on the metal chairs. Then the large band came out - a stage full of Jamaican witch doctors wearing colorful clothes and sporting dreads such as I had never seen at that time. And the three women singing backups. They started playing "Jamming" at a pace much slower than the record. The whole room was going whomp-whomp-whomp, and the song kept going and building and building. Then out from stage left came bouncing Bob Marley himself, wearing an auto mechanic's zip-up overall, the dreads on his head flying like ropes. He had fire in his eyes, and he led the show like a preacher. An absolutely magnetic performance. At the time of the show it was well known that Marley was a sick man, and he died about six months later, at age 36.
While I'm at it, let me add that in the summer of 1981, Miles Davis had not performed for an audience for about five years. Word got around town that Miles was coming to Boston to play a series of shows at a disco called Kix, in Kenmore Square. This was strange, because Kix typically did not book live music. But the news was real, and I managed to get into the very first of those comeback shows. It was a big funk and rock band that had Mike Stern on electric guitar, and it was loud as hell. Miles was all in white, a beaked cap covering most of his face. Miles would play a handful of notes, then he would turn his back to the audience, and people would cheer. I didn't know what to make of it - it seemed that most people in the place were just proud of themselves for being there, and maybe that's what I'm doing now.
That summer I also saw Dizzy Gillespie at Symphony Hall, with Chick Corea on piano. And on and on ...
Is this the same Jim Duffy who played played bass guitar in the 1980s Boston band Rods and Cones?
Yes, Mister Anticlimax, I'm getting to that. The Mouser band graduated and went their separate ways. Hess went on a trip to the Holy Land, and when he returned, he and Duffy hatched plans to start a band that would play original material. No more of that warmed-over hippie stuff. They recruited baritone singer Chris Kelley from the Mouser band, and they already had the drums-and-percussion team of Chris and Jimmy DiNardo. They already had a gig booked at the Inn-Square Men's Bar, and they needed a name. Their friend Pete Newman christened them Rods and Cones. They weren't exactly "going punk" or "going new wave," whatever that was, but something had to change.
The results were decidedly weird. What did the early Rods and Cones think they were doing? The beats were funky and chomping. Mike Napolitano on guitar was doing a sort of low-rent James Brown vibe, Hess was putting his Farfisa organ through a phase shifter. They had a two-brother percussion team, and Duffy was by this time playing a clunky Guild bass guitar through an Acoustic 301 cabinet that was as tall as he was. In front, Chris Kelley was at the mic, singing, "Excuse me, do you have change of a Kennedy half?"
They conjured up all these strange tunes in a basement on Duval Street in Brighton, Mass. Or maybe it was all a weird dream. Maybe it didn't really happen. Then again, the evidence exists in a box of dusty cassette tapes, so maybe it really did happen after all.
Why didn't that band go to some little eight-track studio for a day and document what they had? This is lost history. So much goes unrealized. It was the strange, early period of Rods and Cones. They could have made an oddball record to make Captain Beefheart blush. Instead, they spent months and months (and months) doing overdubs and mixes on one tune, "Round Room," produced by local radio deejay Bob Slavin, which was released on a vinyl compilation, and which holds up pretty well.
(Rods and Cones, 1983, Chris DiNardo, Brian Hess, Chris Kelley, Jim Duffy, Mike Napolitano and Jim DiNardo. Photo taken by Tom Schneider at 14 Duval St., Brighton, Mass.)
Rods and Cones went through several distinct phases. Mike Napolitano left the band, and when Gary France came along, they became more "rock" and more acceptable, and that stuff was just as valid. But the early material, Duffy says, "gives me the willies."
Duffy: "Back in the 1980s, Boston was a great place to be a local band. In Kenmore Square, the Rat was spawning punk rockers, in Cambridge, the Inn-Square Men's Bar -- my favorite music venue of all time -- was featuring creative music every night. Further out on the fringes, thousands of college students were looking for a good time, and the drinking-age rules were not enforced the way they are today.
(Rods and Cones competing in the 1984 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble at Spit, on Landsdowne Street in Boston. Left to right, Mike Napolitano, Chris Kelley, Jim Duffy, Brian Hess. Photographer unknown.)
"In those days, Boston radio stations -- not only college stations but commercial stations as well -- would play records by local bands. You could be a big fish in a small pond, flopping around merrily."
In 1984, Mike Napolitano left the Cones, and Gary France, who at the time was a sophomore at Emerson College, joined as our guitar player.
"In the midst of all this, a local TV station blinked onto the air, on the other-worldly UHF dial. It was V-66, and it was a free version of the then-new MTV. You might have to move your antenna around to tune it in, but it was music on TV, and it was free.
Rods and Cones arrived at the right time. We had had something of a local hit with our tune 'Education in Love,' and Gary France arranged for some talented Emerson film students, Kris Hockemeyer and Peter Martinez, to create a video for that track. For a long stretch of time in 1986, V-66 was broadcasting the video to 'Education in Love' every day of the week, and more and more people started coming out to the shows. By the spring of 1986, we were playing 20 to 25 shows a month.
"Great memories and high times. There are worse ways to misspend one's youth.
"Go check out 'Education in Love' on YouTube.
I'm the skinny guy on bass.
(Jim Duffy, 1987, performing with Rods and Cones at the Channel, Boston. Photo by Kristen Westhoven.)
Rods and Cones performed and recorded from 1982 through 1988. "Round Room," from 1983, appeared on the vinyl compilation "Boston Rock and Roll, Volume 3." Then came the self-titled, five-song EP in 1985, recorded by Alec Murphy (RIP) at Polymedia studio, featuring "Education in Love." Finally, in 1988, came the band's swan song, the full-length album "New Breed," on Invasion Records. That LP, never released on CD or download, has its moments but suffers from some too-fast basic tracks and some effects of 1980s-style production. You live and learn. Some live material was recorded live at CBGB in New York and was released on vinyl and cassette on the short-lived CBGB label.
None of this music was ever released on compact disc. And now that CDs are going the way of the 8-track cartridge, it's getting a bit late in the day. They skipped a format! Ah, but in this interconnected world, nothing gets lost forever. These tracks will soon be available, via MP3, at a screen near you.
A couple of notes from this period. One night in 1982 or 1983, Duffy and Herm went to the Jonathan Swifts club in Cambridge to see Johnny Thunders, who was performing with a trio called the Daughters. Thunders was fucked up out of his mind, and the group never finished a song. Midway through the set, Thunders fired the bass player and kicked him off the stage, then asked if anyone could play bass. Herm nudged Duffy, saying, "Do it! Do it!" But Duffy said, "No, no." So he missed a chance to jam with Johnny Thunders.
And in the fall of 1984, the Cones' primary performing venue, the Inn Square Men's Bar, also in Cambridge, was set to close, and the Cones would play the final night -- rather, the final afternoon. It was an emotional day, people hugging and bemoaning the end of an era. The small room was packed with local celebrities -- deejays form WBCN and local media people. At the sidebar, facing the stage, was Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Before the Cones took the stage, someone told Chris Kelley, "Joe would like to jam with you guys." Yeah, sure. We didn't believe him. We got up and played a trash-and-burn set of music. Afterward, Joe Perry came up to Chris Kelley and said, "I was really hoping you were going to invite me up to play."
And there were plenty of good times, not just missed opportunities. Thirty-odd years later, when I think of the good times I have had in this life, I get an image of the Saturday afternoon in 1982 when Herm went to buy a new keyboard -- a Roland Juno 6! -- at the old E.U. Wurlitzer shop on Newbury Street. The whole band piled into one car and went there together.
We carried on until 1988.
Brian "Herman" Hess died in 2004, in Park City, Utah.
The surviving members of Rods and Cones reunited for one night in early 2010, playing their first Boston show in 22 years at House of Blues. You can find some of the results here. And although the Cones are spread out across the country, they can reconstitute on a moment's notice.
After the Cones, what happened next?
The Cones split up in the spring of 1988. Duffy didn't know how to do anything, and in a moment of panic, he registered for business school at Northeastern University. Rather than spending his evenings plucking the bass in black-box rock clubs, he was under a lamp with a calculator, studying economics and the principles of capital depreciation. It was a lost period of Duffy's life, a black hole in his personal history.
Something had to give. In the summer of 1990, he went down to New York to visit his sister in Greenwich Village. In one afternoon, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, he dropped off a resume at New York University. Half an hour later he was interviewing for a job, and was offered a job, which he accepted. He then stopped at the NYU housing office and saw a notice for a sublet on Perry Street in the Village, which he went to see and agreed to take. So in one afternoon, without meaning to, he got a job and an apartment in New York City.
He told only a few people in Boston that he was moving out of town. A week later, he rented a van, packed up his belongings and moved down to New York, New York, which then and now is Duffy's favorite place on earth. He was glad to be back in the metropolitan air where he had first breathed air as a child. As usual, he didn't know what he was doing. All he knew was that he was effectively retired from music. It was high time to get a real job and get serious about life. You will soon see how long that resolve lasted.
(A Polaroid of Jim Duffy and Karen Duffy taken by Mary Lorson in 1995 on St. Marks Place, outside the Sine club.)
What else happened?
Duffy ran into Don Gilbert (RIP) at the old Nightingale pub on Second Avenue. Gilbert suggested they get together and play, and when they did, Gilby introduced Duffy to the guitar player Chris Gray. The three of them, Gilbert, Gray and Duffy, plus the Cones' Chris DiNardo on drums, played a few gigs under the name Load. At their first live performance, they played a version of Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours," complete with deejay, and then...
Wait a minute, is this the same Jim Duffy who played in the band Martin’s Folly?
Yes, I was just getting to that. After some trial and error, Duffy and Chris Gray founded a band called Martin's Folly. The name of the band was meant to evoke an imaginary historical incident, perhaps from the Civil War. The idea was to make melodious music in which the vocals would be prominent. Gray and Duffy went looking for a keyboard player but couldn't find anyone suitable, so Duffy switched to keyboard, "temporarily."
Martin's Folly got lumped into the "roots rock" category, but the songwriting strayed outside the lines of typical country-and-western and blues. Under the veneer of melody was an undercurrent of ornery originality that was not recognized at the time. Maybe it's not too late.
Martin's Folly's rough-but-melodic aesthetic became associated with the artwork of Steve Keene, who created much of the CD artwork.
(Martin's Folly, circa 2001: Jim Duffy, Chris Gray, Pat Fitzgerald and Paul Page.)
The "classic" lineup of Martin's Folly had Chris Gray as lead vocalist and guitarist, Jim Duffy on electric piano and organ, Pat Fitzgerald on drums and Paul Page on bass. From 1996 through 2002, Martin's Folly made three album-length CDs produced by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. Highlights include a version of Mott the Hoople's "I Wish I Was Your Mother," featuring guest vocals from the great Ian Hunter.
Martin's Folly performed up and down the East Coast, with forays into Nashville and Chicago and points in between. Duffy was singing less and less, and pretty soon he no longer had a vocal microphone. He started composing asymmetrical tunes that did not have verse-chorus-verse forms. Late one night in 2001, he had an idea to record an album's worth of instrumental compositions, using the best musicians he knew in New York. He phoned drummer Dennis Diken, and that -- alley oop -- takes us back to the present day.
OK, so what does he think he's doing?
As the glory of rock reverts to the bookshelf of history and takes its place among the many other forms of music and culture, this leads us to the impasse that any incorrigible musician must face sooner or later: After 60 years of rock, what next?
In Duffy's case, he did not have much formal training, and he did not grow up with a "jazz" background, and that was most likely for the better. No one would ever accuse him of being overly sophisticated. He switched from bass guitar to the electric piano in order to make his musical grunts and groans more intelligible.
Still, he had gaping holes in his musical wherewithal. What was next? He scrambled to fill in the gaps. He found himself in a race against time, to save his own life. He must justify himself.
He was not cut out for the "me-and-my-problems" school of singer-songwriting. Nor was he about to don an unearned cowboy hat and "go country," especially since he was born in Long Branch, N.J. Nor was he ready to go retrograde and turn himself into a laugh-at-me parody of a lounge act, unless it was unintentional.
This impasse explains a lot. Behind that skittish, jumpy exterior is a man who is a bundle of nerves.
In early 2001, a lightbulb appeared above his head, marked "instrumental pop music." Three-minute pop tunes, each one a tightly composed soundscape, in which anything can happen. So simple, yet so seldom done. He telephoned Dennis Diken, and things began looking up.
Duffy: "Having grown up in the era of 1960s hit radio, I have a deep appreciation for the tightly arranged three-minute record. A great three-minute record glows like a gem. There's no wasted motion. It's like a dream that you can return to again and again.
"Over time, and having listened to many other styles of music, I found that many hard-bop jazz records of the 1950s and early 1960s, the early LP era, had such great vibe and hi-fi sound to them -- the whole band is performing live in the studio, and there's such great feeling and playing. The only trouble is, so many of those records are just too long. They have so much soloing and take so long to get to the point.
"The idea may not be original with me, but I wondered, what if you tried to get that great vibe and feel and musicianship of those great hard-bop records, but had the concise, tight structure of a three-minute pop tune?
"When I had the opportunity to make my first record of instrumental pop tunes, 'Side One,' the sound engineer, Greg Duffin, understood all of this immediately. Greg had earned a degree in broadcast engineering, then worked for Lou Whitney in Springfield, Missouri, in an all-analog setting. Greg knows a warm tube tone when he hears one.
"What's a bit odd about all of this is that the recording group of myself, Dennis, Paul and Lance is sort of a rock band. We can't help it -- we came up through the rock basements. As much as we may try to stretch away from a rock background toward other forms of music, the rock will always be there. So there's a bit of tension that I believe benefits the records -- a rock band stretching toward other forms.
"Since there's no vocal in the center, we're free to move away from verse-chorus-verse song forms. This opens up all kinds of possibilities and allows for bits of improvisation. If it gets 'jazzy' at times, it's as a style, not as an art form. The composition comes first. This is pop music, and that means that anything can happen.
"With the second album, 'Mood Lit,' the production is more stripped-down, more immediate, fewer overdubs, and the band may be swinging it a bit harder. We just grooved and rocked and tried to swing it as hard as we could. Some of that feeling made it onto the tape, I believe.
"To make swinging, grooving and moody instrumental music in the form of three-minute tunes -- it seems like such an obvious thing, but not many people are doing it."
(The Jim Duffy Combo at the Lakeside Lounge, NYC, 2009, clockwise from top left, Paul Page, Dennis Diken, Lance Doss and Jim Duffy. Photo by C.S. Gray.)
It sounds as though anyone could make this kind of music.
Yes, but they don't.
Duffy has a reputation for being whiny and needy, and he is not interested in trying to change that.
Has he done any more formal studying?
One evening in 1991, Duffy was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the home of his friend Martin Iannaccone, an accomplished cellist, bassist, percussionist and all-around musician. They had been hanging around for a couple of hours, then Iannaccone pulled two bass guitars off the wall. They plugged in and started to improvise, and they were getting into it -- a two-bass-guitar duet. At one point Iannaccone sort of winced and crouched as if to say, "Don't play so hard." Duffy eased up on the bass and let the notes ring out more, and it all started to sound groovy again. This is one of the most profound music lessons that Duffy has ever had.
In early 2001, Duffy had not taken a formal music lesson in almost 25 years. Then, while under the spell of the music of Burt Bacharach, he decided he would learn to play the trumpet. He bought a decent Bach student horn and took a dozen or so lessons from a Polish trumpeter in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But trying to develop an embrochure at that stage in life would have been a full-time job, and Duffy already had one.
In the late 2000s, Duffy studied with the Brooklyn pianist and composer Lee Feldman. Beyond that, he tries to learn and pick up what he can, sometimes from the very birds in the trees, and when he says that, he is not kidding.
"And I have had the privilege to study at the Creative Music studio in Big Indian, N.Y., which is run by Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso. I have participated in workshops led by composer and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, trumpeter and extraordinary bandleader Steven Bernstein, guitar hero and punk theoretician Nels Cline and percussionist Susie Ibarra, among others. At CMS workshops I have had the honor of playing with many great musicians. What have I learned? Mostly I have learned how to listen harder - to do "deep listening," as Pauline Oliveros said. In late 2016 I performed with the Karl Berger Improvisers Orchestra, a group of about 30 of the finest classical, jazz, ethnic, rock and creative music talents in the New York area.
Who else has Duffy played with?
Thanks largely to producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, Duffy got to play on records by the Bottle Rockets, Go to Blazes, Greg Trooper, Florence Dore and other artists. This led to other opportunities, such as an eventful gig with the rock-and-roll pioneer Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon. He also got to play on a live album by rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. Duffy has also performed or recorded with Speedball Baby, Reid Paley, Tandy, Will Rigby, the Fleshtones, Bone-Box, Sour Jazz, the Damnwells and many others. A nearly complete discography of Duffy's appearances on recordings can be found here.
The latest development is that he is performing gigs with an eight-piece band called Mitra Sumara, which performs Persian pop music of the 1960s and '70s. Yes, you heard me right. Singer Yvette Perez, who is of Persian descent, has been studying the Farsi language and Persian singing, and she assembled a large band of New York players to create a full-on, rhythmic, funky, psychedelic Persian party band.
This is funky, psychedelic pop music that has tricky time signatures and wheezing, pumping sounds and tragic, keening lyrics. Yvette Perez leads the band on vocals, and the other players are Peter Zummo on trombone, Julian Maile on guitar, Bill Ruyle on hammer dulcimer, Sam Kulik on bass, Brian Geltner on drums, Michael Evans on percussion and Jim Duffy on keyboard.
Duffy finds this music to be challenging. He has had to improve his music-reading skills and learn to play in non-western modes and rhythms. This has been a real eye-opener.
Mitra Sumara has been performing pre-revolutionary Persian pop in the New York area, at venues including Brooklyn Bowl, Drom, Cafe Nadery and the Manhattan Inn. In 2012, we had the honor of performing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In 2015, Mitra Sumara performed at the Freer Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute.
To see video of Mitra Sumara performing at the Kennedy Center, please go here.
(Mitra Sumara performing at the Westbeth Arts Center, Greenwich Village, New York, in autumn 2012. Left to right, Brian Geltner, Bill Ruyle, Sam Kulik, Michael Evans, Yvette Perez, Peter Zummo and Jim Duffy. Photo by Stephanie Zummo.)
In the meantime, Jim Duffy is writing the tunes for his next album-length collection. He writes very slowly, and he keeps trying to raise the bar, as they say. It will be more moody and bouncy instrumental music.
And at this point, let's drop the pretense. This is me writing this. When I'm not rehearsing and performing with Mitra Sumara, or composing and recording and performing my original music, or practicing my instrument, I am working at my proficiency on the melodica, which is another subject unto itself.
(On Broadway, 2014, photo by Amy L. Anderson.)
Any final words from Jim Duffy?
Duffy: "If I could explain it, I wouldn't have made the records."
Well then. That was fresh.
He apologizes. He says that this has been a long, obscure, checkered career, and sometimes he gets cranky. But he is grateful for the music-related experiences he has had, and he is practicing his instrument more than ever and still trying to learn new things. He says that he thanks you for reading this and appreciates your interest. He hopes you'll have a listen.