The "first hippie" in Bakersfield, John Cassel has helped build the music scene in Vermont for over thirty years. He is a classically trained jazz pianist who can and does play country, folk, pop, rock, and dinner music. He calls the latter the "kind of music you should talk over." And he has two new CDs out as well as an upcoming CD release party.
LOTS MORE THAN DINNER
Mr. Cassel hopes listeners will use Dinner Music at the Trapp Family Lodge, as background music for great conversations. Lyle Glidden reviewed Jade Lady last week in this space. Next Wednesday, March 2, Jade Lady will be officially released when Mr. Cassel assembles Bobby Militello, Dave Ellis, Paul Asbel, and at least three drummers a live concert at TBA at the Rusty Nail in Stowe.
I found him at home in Bakersfield, noodling on his restored 1882 Steinway B in 2005.
"They brought the grand piano up and they put it right here," he said. "Here" is the third floor music room in his eclectic home at the intersection of Cassel Road and Harmon's Way. Visitors are warned of the danger of parking in Harmon's Way. The Steinway B, one of the oldest of the modern pianos, arrived by crane. It sits at the very top of the house he built with ledge and stone and pieces of a sugar house and the ashes of the original home.
"This is my workshop," he said. The room, with a pine cathedral ceiling, a glass divider, and hard walls looks harsh. "This room seems to have nice sound. Peter Wilder came here and helped us. He had this theory, he wanted to get futons that would get hung" from the ceiling to absorb sound and quiet the room. They never did hang the futons, but there is enough soft fabric and sharp corners to move the sound well. It has a 16 track mixer that "I don't know how to use" but does capture the tracks he needs, the piano, and two very happy dogs.
"I recorded the beginning here, just playing the piano," he said. "All the vocals were done at Andre's [Andre Maquera's studio, West Street Digital]. He has the right everything. We are so lucky to have him in this neck of the woods.
"I took my business stuff over to the studio and used a keyboard [to] put down the basic tracks. Andre put all the tracks on here so I would have the bed track minus the keyboard and the vocals so I could practice here and lay down my piano tracks here and then I would take it back and he could dump it all [in his all digital system]. For the last three, 'Dazzle Me,' 'Jade Lady,' and 'Lady for a Rainy Tomorrow,' the newer the song the older the piano."
The Steinway B has the rich, full sound heard on countless hit records. Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man and John Cassel's Jade Lady both feature the recorded Steinway B sound.
He likes the thrashes and the quiet thrills. "I built [this room] for the piano," he said. "I mean I stole the living room. I hope we can do the living room some day, but Becky said of course you can have the living room."
"I wasn't even going to bring out the other one," he said of Dinner Music at the Trapp Family Lodge. "Becky said she liked the dinner music.
"Andre makes me sound OK. I did it all right here." Mr. Cassel played less commercially on the CD than at Trapp but the favorite requests he interprets are all well known. The playlist includes classics like Moonlight in Vermont and a Duke Ellington Medley to the Phantom of the Opera and the Sound of Music. "I just sat here and rolled it out.
"They are all love songs in one way or another," he said. They are not all love songs for people, "but 'Lady for a Rainy Tomorrow' was for Becky. We were trying to get our garden going about midnight and it was starting to rain and we said lets stay up and party tonight."
When he first came to Vermont, a band was always playing on someone's farm and he wrote the first of the songs that may become the next CD.
"They used to call us Hippies," he said, "but I was working for a living, playing at Smugglers Notch. We would have a party, the band would be playing, hard cider would be flowing, and we didn't know what was in the punch.
"What a great setting but the old songs I wrote at the time don't mix with the ones of today. I've been working with Andre, we re-did a lot of those songs, more bands without the horns, really good players, peddle steel, [and] he played some guitar. I would like, maybe to write a little story" of the experiences.
He also wants to write an opera, perhaps a story of the 70s. "I don't know what it is going to be," he said. "I would like to see it happen, write it, get the songs together, and orchestrate it for the Vermont Symphony. It would be great to have it staged, [to] have the story going off and have the musicians, some of them would be interacting and some of them would not." He wants a looseness, a bit of jazz-like improvisation in which good musicians are more than "just playing the score."
His next project is for kids and families with kids. He is thinking about some jazz arrangements of "kid recognizable" songs like Over the Rainbow so they can sing along. "Maria von Trapp has some of that," he said. He is working "with Maria to get ready for some Spanish Christmas Songs I do. She plays the melody."
The Opera House at Enosburg Falls presented Mr. Cassel's Green Mountain Lucky in a 3-day run in 2010. Co-written with Al Boright, the musical comedy in two acts is Mr. Cassel's first musical.
The original show featured Wendy Maquera (sore knee and all) and Jack von Behren, Matt Stebbins and Keeghan Nolan, and "flatlanders" John Schreindorfer, Jim Walsh, Steve Comeau. The Band is Skeeter Camera, Will Patton, Dono Schabner, John Cassel and Jim Pitman. It was directed by Suzanne MacKay with choreography by Taryn Noelle.
Mr. Cassel also made a return to classical music. When he works on a Cantata his dog sleeps under the piano.
Mr. Cassel has appeared in large venues with Dave Brubeck, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Maynard Ferguson, Pat Metheny, and Bonnie Raitt, and in small clubs by himself. He likes and is most comfortable in the small settings. His repertoire ranges from Jerry Lee Lewis to Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to Fats Waller to Frederic Chopin and Maurice Ravel to John Cassel. He appears Friday through Tuesday nights at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe and will play again this year at the Vermont Maple Festival in April and at the Jig in the Valley in July.
He suffered a heart attack after playing a show at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe in 2014 and has died at age 78.
His CDs are available in the area and online at casselmusic.com and at amazon.com.
Dick Harper, Chair
P.O. Box 1
Highgate Springs, VT 05460