The fiery, life-of-the-mind, maverick high school teacher is an American archetype. Insert your favorite film, lit or real-life incarnation here: the mercurial, off-script renegade in perpetual hot water with the administration. Science has its own great teacher myth. The one that I am talking about is usually in English, always Humanities. In the lore, he/she may not have primed you for your exit exams quite as well as the state would have hoped, and, in the more gritty and realist variations, may not have done well by every student in the class; his/her patience for the herding of captives toward demonstrable competence was thin to begin with.
But if you wanted it, this teacher was the match to the fuse of your creative mind (and if you didn’t want it, get thee to the insurance industry already). This was the cult leader, the poet, the minister of the arts, the synthetic thinker, the cultural call to arms and the one whom you remember. If you believe the current narrative, he/she is currently being programmed out of schools entirely as teachers are more and more defined as quantified curriculum delivery systems with a vanishing margin for play.
But it is a myth, you know, in the broad sense of that term; and it was a performance, a role filled in every district: If there were no one in the role at present, some schmoe would step into the romantic vocation. So how you feel about the maverick, life-of-mind pedagogue really depends on the quality of the one or two whom you had.
I had a truly great one: the real deal and no act. His name was Richard Cattabiani. He was living it then and still does, as the Director of International Programs at SUNY-Ulster and faculty member in the English, Foreign Languages and Philosophy department (still, as ever, the insider’s choice). In his early career, he was a vociferous, dynamic presence in the classroom, making mad connections that ignored the divisions between the disciplines long before “interdisciplinary” was an academic buzzword. An actor himself (one quite highly regarded by my professional actor friends), he directed some stunningly high-grade lab theater in the New Paltz High School of the ’70s; he had us killing Strindberg and Saroyan whilst jocks and cliques played Guys and Dolls on the main stage.
And he was a musician, a songwriter and a mentor to that cult as well, a pianist and traditional tunesmith in the age of the hairy rock guitar, writing and performing songs striking both for their obvious credibility and for a weird otherworldliness (to our ears). Oh, what did we know then of Mose Allison or King Cole? Ray Charles or Blossom Dearie? (Warren Zevon? Randy Newman? Tom Waits?) Nothing. It was all Dead, Feat and Santana for us. But we knew that Cattabiani had substance when he would correct the way that we were hitting the timbales, for example, or when he helped me dial in some sensible tone settings on that hideous Super Reverb that my spiderweb arms were hauling around for a while.
So was I surprised when Gene Pool’s new CD ready. fire. aim came across my desk for review? Of course not – just pleased as punch that Richard had chosen to dedicate a few tunes to tape recently, produced family-style with his younger brother Al (guitar) and his nephew Jack (everything else) accounting for every note.
Ready. fire. aim is a six-song-collection of smoky, swinging, old-school piano pop, boogie and rag with some sly harmonic moves from the non-rock playbook. The band (especially young Jack, ironically) play with real genre fluency and era assurance, buoying the ambling tunes with sprightly brushwork and roots atmospherics. Every song invokes a few period gestures, a string flourish from out of the wee small hours here or a piping soul horn chart there. The periodness is far from over-the-top; its subtlety and naturalism highlight the fact that literate piano pop is an evergreen touchstone, ripe for the coming of a Rufus Wainwright or a Nellie McKay or three every generation.
As a writer and vocal persona, Cattabiani remains a heavy cat with a light touch. His wry, urban, Mose Allisonesque voice delivers life truths and musings in a deceptively easygoing way. The often-cryptic titles (“Mythic Carrier,” “Axiomatic”) belie the straight-shooting armchair philosophy of these bright, playful tunes. On the few occasions when the writing does approach a kind of mountaintop didacticism, as on “Mythic Carrier”…well, I am biased ’cause this man started a whole bunch of small fires in my mind, but I buy it, 100 percent. And when, on the tricky little tropical meditation “Old Dominion,” he sings “It’s never too late to make a new start,” the truth and the fruit of it are right in front of us. No one is forever young. Forever vital is the real goal.
By the way, just for historical accuracy and good relations with the past, Richard was not my literary mentor in high school. That dubious honor belonged to a no-less-worthy cat named Pat Masson who identified both a fiery way with words within me and the ship-sinking discipline issues that must still make him cringe if he follows my columns with any regularity. I was beyond well-served by both gentlemen.
Gene Pool’s ready. fire. aim is available online at iTunes, Spotify and all the major music retail sites. For a physical CD, visit www.cdbaby.com.