Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Poor Man's Electric Vibraphone

My fantasy instrument is some type of mallet percussion instrument - like a xylophone, vibraphone or marimba.  Whether being used in the Brazilian Classical/Folk recordings for Ney Rosauro or Uakti; in the jazz of Bobby Hutcherson, Walt Dickerson and many others; in the indigenous music of Guatemala's Marimba Chapinlandia; or in the rock-like settings utilized by Tortoise, Frank Zappa, and more; I just love this melodic yet percussive sound.

I especially like the idea of an electric version of this type of instrument, but considering the costs of a Marimba Lumina, malletKAT, or Xylosynth, I don't think I'll be spending that kind of money on a musical whim any time soon.  A decent quality piano keyboard like the Roland GO:KEYS can be had for $300 or less, so you'd think that someone would have produced an electric synth vibraphone/marimba/xylophone at a similar price point.

Enter Keith McMillen Instruments.  While their $79 K-Board isn't intended to be an electric vibraphone, it comes close to scratching that itch.  In fact, it might be just what I am looking for!


I'm used to playing melodies on an acoustic 4-string tenor banjo, so when I came across the K-Board through an online search last week I wasn't quite sure what technology it was supposed to be.  I assumed an instrument like this would have its own internal sounds, built-in speakers, and power source/battery.  None of that is the case.  After a little bit more digging, I learned of MIDI sound modules like the Midiplus miniEngine  and the MidiTech PianoBox which could provide the necessary power and sounds, as alternatives to a computer or iOS device.

I took a chance and ordered the K-Board, along with the Midiplus MiniEngine Pro and a couple cheap, tiny rubber mallets.  I already own a little speaker that can plug into the headphone jack.  These items arrived yesterday and worked right out of the box!  Here's a sound sample:


The K-Board features 25 chromatic keys, making it super compact and portable.  The bottom row contains the white piano key notes C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C from low to high, while the top row contains the black keys C# D# F# G# A# C# D# F# G# A# (also known as Db Eb Gb Ab Bb Db Eb Gb Ab Bb).

Before ordering I thought about the tunes that I like to play and realized that almost all of them contain melodies that live within that 25-key range.  On my GDAE tuned tenor banjo, it is rare for a tune to have a note higher than the high B of the 7th fret of the E string (the 2nd to highest "white key" on the K-Board) and it is fairly unusual for these same tunes to have a note lower than the open D on the D-string (the 2nd to lowest "white key" note on the K-Board).  Basically, my tunes would fit.

I wasn't sure how that MidiPlus MiniEngine pro would sound, but considering that it looked like the exact same same design as the supposedly German made - and twice as expensive - PianoBox, I opted for the cheaper version and it sounds OK to me.

The K-Board is described as being unbreakable - designed to withstand drink spills and being run over by a vehicle - so I figured it could handle being struck by mallets.  The 25 chromatic keys are designed like mini drumpads anyway, so it wouldn't be that unusual to hit them with a mallet or drumstick.

Having now tried playing it with mallets, I'm not sure if that will be my preferred method or if it will be more enjoyable to play with your fingers.  As someone who once took a typing class and can type on a computer keyboard, I like how the layout of the K-Board's keys - while based on the setup of a piano - could ultimately lend itself to a typing influenced approach.

Despite having less than a day's worth of experience with this instrument, I'm thinking that the K-Board will be fun to play.  It will also be a handy thing to have around for working out melodies by ear.  As a left-handed stringed instrument player, the layout of a keyboard like this is very non-intuitive at first, so it's a great brain exercise to realize that higher notes are to the right, if that makes sense.

My hope is that Keith McMillen Instruments does come out with something actually designed to be an electric vibraphone, at a price range well below the few other items currently on the market.  However, at the moment I don't mind pretending that the K-Board is already that instrument.  I probably would be a two mallet player instead of four, and key size and authenticity aren't as important to me as simply being able to play melody lines in a fun and easygoing way.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to be introduced to The War on Drugs’ new album A Deeper Understanding. Its expansive, 66-minute running time matched the open-ended luxury of a three-day weekend.

An initial attempt to deride their perceived similarities to other artists - as in trying to sing Tom Petty's "Learning To Fly" lyrics over the "Up All Night" melody - quickly subsided after the first song.

This album was my first proper exposure to The War On Drugs.  It's almost impossible not to draw comparisons as you take in a new (to you) band for the first time.  The best I can come up with is A Deeper Understanding sounds like that late-great 1980's Bob Dylan album that never existed.  The War On Drugs have the uncanny ability to sound both new and familiar.

There is a static nature to the music on A Deeper Understanding that I am finding to be extremely refreshing at this moment in time.  The lack of peaks, boldfaced hooks, rousing sing-along choruses, recycled folk-song lyrics and melodies, crazy time-signatures, and key changes keeps the focus on atmosphere throughout its hour-long plus running time.

The lyrics, when you take time to catch them, are effective at conveying the overall mood of the album, which seems to be cautious optimism.  The lyrics can also be, at times, inconsequential in a (good) way that blends in and serves the music.   

The static consistency I mentioned above does of course have some fluctuation that bubbles out with repeated listens.  Melodies and colorings that weren’t obvious at first start to take shape.  One gets the impression that these little synth keyboard and vibraphone(?) sounds are very carefully placed.



Sequence matters. Like a lot of albums, A Deeper Understanding leads with what could be said are the best three songs back to back. It could also be said that the uniformity of the remaining songs makes the latter half of the album start to drag. 

In actuality, the last 30 or 40 minutes of the album are where it really starts to open up and take form. While songs like "Thinking of A Place" don’t stray too far from the formula, these tracks definitely aren’t trying to be singles and are allowed room to breathe as necessary.

It's been a long, long time since I've heard a new rock album as good as A Deeper Understanding.  I think I prefer to start it mid-way through (side 3 if you have it on vinyl) and let it play through to side 2.  It's just one big loop.  


  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Six More "Original" Tunes (There's 14 Now)

On August 5th I posted about the 8 tunes I'd written over the previous 8 weeks.  These were the first 8 tunes I'd ever tried writing.  Well, here it is 4 weeks later and I have 6 more melodic compositions to add to the list.

Number 9 - Carolinseay


Number 10 - Phigure It Out


Number 11 - Maoro


Number 12 - Burteeb


Number 13 - Shamisen


Number 14 - We'll Hum


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Saturday, August 26, 2017

How To Get Into Classical Music (A Question, Not A Statement)

I think I like the idea of liking classical music more than I actually like it, if that makes sense.  It can be an enticing, challenging, and artsy style of music to get into for those tired of the same old, same old.  The stiff, stereotypical way in which classical musicians usually perform and present the music - both in their dress and body language - is one of the obstacles a gen-X-er has to overcome, especially if you're automatically drawn to the black t-shirt and corduroy pants adorned, scruffy haired, relaxed coolness of a Jerry Garcia type of vibe.
Moondog
Answering the question "how to get into classical music?" is different than answering "how to get into rock n roll?"  Rock and roll is such a part of the pop culture that most people from my generation and the one prior couldn't help but be exposed to the commonly held belief that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are the best rock bands.

Being a skeptic, cynic and contrarian, I didn't trust or accept the notion that The Beatles or Stones were the best, so I explored deeply and obsessively only to find out that for my taste that title should go to Phish and then backwards down the number line to various other artists who may or may not fully align with the rock classification but who appeal to me.

Delving into jazz is a bit different too, because you are instantly going to encounter Miles Davis and then it's pretty much downhill from there.  Almost without argument it's easy to see how he is the best ever to define, conform, refine and expand that style of music.  And yet, no one could have told me that I would develop a slight preference toward Sun Ra's eccentric and prolific output over Miles' more tailored approach.
Harry Partch
One tactic for classical is to research the composers that artists like Frank Zappa and Eric Dolphy were listening to.  That'll lead you to people like Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Varèse, Boulez, and Moondog.  In my experience, further research will dig up names like Penderecki, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Raymond Scott, Arvo Pärt, Pablo Casals, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  A bunch of old white dudes.

One thing about classical music that can be confusing is do you seek out the composer, who may have died so long ago that there aren't any actual recordings of him or her playing his or her own music, or do you seek out the group/performer (AKA symphony, AKA orchestra, AKA ensemble, AKA violinist, AKA cellist, et cetera) and focus on their recordings/performances?

Rather than star with Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, I'm assuming that I'd like to start contemporary* and then work back (or forward) from there.  I haven't exactly found my Phish or Sun Ra of the classical world yet, but I'm still looking.  Suggestions are welcome.  Maybe I'll discover that more mainstream movie soundtrack composers like John Williams, Alfred Newman or Ennio Morricone are where it's at.

*None those composers or classical musicians I namechecked above are what you would call new, even the modern ones.  By contrast, in the rock world and even the jazz world I'm aware of artists under 40 who are making great music.  Is there a relatively new composer and/or classical music ensemble offering a vast reward to those who find them?

Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh, Nostalgia Acts, Missed Opportunities

At one point in his life Phil Lesh was an adventurous musician.  He's often described as being some type of weird, mid-20th Century avant-garde composer prior to becoming a founding member of the Grateful Dead.  Then there's that whole head-scratching Seastones thing with Neg Lagin in the 1970's - quadraphonic electronic music.

There's no question that Phil Lesh is/was one of the most influential bassists of the rock era, and perhaps even the best electric bass improviser thus far (looking at you Jaco).  Phil's distinctive low end was certainly an integral part of the Grateful Dead's synergy and drive.  Unfortunately, there aren't many examples of him playing music outside of the Grateful Dead canon.  If there were, I'm guessing that Phil's brilliance would be even more apparent.


For sure, the Grateful Dead took up the majority of his time for the 30 years that they were a touring band.  Difficulties with alcohol during parts of that stretch might have also cut back on Phil's output.  But, in the post-Jerry days since 1995 you'd think that a clean-living Phil might have found some other outlets for his creativity.

However, it seems as though Phil has spent these last 20+ years wrapped up in nostalgia.  Yes, his various Phil and Friends ensembles have consistently found new ways to explore the Grateful Dead songbook, but it's always just been that:  the Grateful Dead songbook.

The fact that Phil never branched out to work with artists outside of the jamband community, and/or never really pursued an original, compositional path post-Grateful Dead is a major loss for the music world.  Just imagine if Phil had revisited his interest in the avant-garde by doing an album of free jazz with the late Ornette Coleman - an artist who remained vital right up until his 2015 passing. Or what if Phil had indulged his composer persona by writing music for one of the many impressive "new" music ensembles around today, such as eighth blackbird.

I recall a Phil and Friends show with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Billy Martin, but instead of it being an all improv trio set of those two guys + Phil playing all new music, it turned into just another Phil and Friends show where the skills of Frisell and Martin were not really utilized or called for, and we still didn't get to hear Phil in a more experimental context.

Bill Frisell just released a beautiful duo album with bassist Thomas Morgan recorded live at the Village Vanguard (called Small Town).  Thomas Morgan sounds fantastic on it, but just imagine for a moment if it were essentially the same material but with Phil Lesh filling the role of bassist.  It definitely would have modified the vibe to have Phil in that historic room due to the expectations of the crowds it would have drawn, but I would love to have a recording like this.

Last night I tuned in to a few minutes of the LOCKN webcast.  After waiting for that awful Warren Haynes set to finish 30 minutes past its allotted time, I watched a couple songs of the Phil/Bobby Terrapin Station set.  If performing an entire album you recorded in the late 70's song-for-song isn't nostalgia, then I don't know what is.  What I saw was not a good performance or interpretation of the music.  The only guiding light was that - amidst all the missed cues, flubbed lyrics, lack of direction, confusion and other sorts of Bobby-related failure - there was Phil's pristine bass guitar, sounding just as incredible as always, if not more.

It was bittersweet to hear this man in this context, on stage part of a group that is trying (and failing) to make something interesting when it is not.  And yet, with every note he played, Phil conveyed an artistry that belied its surroundings.  Too bad we'll never get to hear that side of Phil to its fullest extent.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Deep Post-Phish Late Summer 2017 Music Queue

During the three weeks of Phish's Baker's Dozen Madison Square Garden residency - and for at least a week after - I listened to almost nothing but Phish music.  Mostly live recordings from that run as they were happening and then some.  I emerged from that binge with not just a modern love of Phish, but a sobering and possibly unprecedented drive toward musical exploration.  Here's a summary of where this is leading.

Sun Ra
Several years ago I acquired CD copies of Sun Ra's mid-to-late 70's albums Lanquidity, On Jupiter and Sleeping Beauty.  It's time to revisit those as well as some other Sun Ra records that have been released from Saturn, including In the Orbit of Ra, Jazz in Silhouette, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow.  Bonus points to obscure albums where Sun Ra performs as a sideman:  Walt Dickerson's Impressions of a Patch of Blue and Billy Bang's A Tribute to Snuff Smith.  While on subject of Ra, it's time I ordered the Living Lanterns LP New Myth/Old Science.  This is sort of like a Sun Ra tribute featuring such heavy-hitters as Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Ingrid Laubrock and Tomas Fujiwara.  How bad could it be?

More Jazz
I love listening to vinyl records, but as I recently found out some albums like the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots have TOO MUCH BASS when played out of my Audioengine A5+ speakers.  Classic jazz, however, sounds great through those speakers.  Lee Morgan Sidewinder, Eric Dolphy Out To Lunch!, Horace Silver Song for My Father, and Bill Frisell Small Town are in the queue.

Da Funk
It's gotta be OK to groove out to albums such as Grant Green Blue Breakbeats, Donald Byrd Ethiopian Knights, Miles Davis Tribute to Jack Johnson, Herbie Hancock Head Hunters, and New Mastersounds The Nashville Session.  And if time ever allows...Mwandishi, Agharta, Pangea...aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!

Jam-filled
I put on the 2nd LP of the Circles Around the Sun Interludes for the Dead record the other day, containing the tracks Kasey's Bones (side 3) and Space Wheel (side 4), and I don't remember this "background music" ever sounding so good!  There may be nothing new under the sun, but I still haven't found anything else that sounds quite like Circles Around the Sun.  However, just today I was poking around and discovered a recording called Psychic Temple Plays Music for Airports.  Remember that name.  Bang On A Can's interpretation of Brian Eno's Music For Airports is one of my all-time favorite CDs, so I was eager to hear this loose version which approaches it from a Miles Davis In a Silent Way point of view.  The 2nd track - Music for Bus Stops - is pretty killer too.

Continuing on; learning about Psychic Temple led me to a band somewhat associated with them called Invisible Astro Healing Rhythm Quartet.  Yep.  This needs to be listened 2!  I should also mention a brand new release by Spafford called Abaculus: An Improvisational Experience.  This recording follows in the one-track jamband album tradition pioneered by Phish's Headphones Jam and moe.'s Meat, and manages to sound on par with those two classics.  Lastly, this style of space jam music brings to mind Rhyton Kykeon and Khruangbin The Universe Smiles Upon You - both of which are worth returning to.

Kronos Quartet
Like Sun Ra, Kronos Quartet gets to headline its own category.  More alimentative than their counterparts Turtle Island String Quartet and Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Kronos Quartet is a group I probably had penciled in to listen to 20+ years ago in the pre-digital age but never quite got around to.  With albums like Pieces of Africa, Caravan, Music of Bill Evans, Monk Suite and the newly composed collaboration with The National's Bryce Dessner called Aheym, Kronos Quartet can open that classical door.

Classical-Lite
I'm pretty ignorant toward classical music, and, as such, I don't have a strict definition of what it is and what it is not. Nonetheless, late last night I went down a rabbit hole - determined to uncover some satisfying recordings in what you might call "contemporary classical".  The most rewarding find in that search appears to be Primal Light -- an album of Mahler music by Uri Caine.  It. Is. Trippy. (!) This search also led me to an Norwegian band called Jaga Jazzist, which sounds like a mixture of neo-classical, jazz and post-rock.  I was digging their album One-armed Bandit because it reminded me of Tortoise.  You could also put String Trio of New York, featuring Billy Bang, into this quasi-classical category.  They seem to have existed in an avant-garde area between chamber music and jazz.  Area Code 212 that is.

After going in this classical direction, I was reminded that quite a few years ago I had done similar research that left me with knowledge of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, Terry Riley's In C (as done by Bang on a Can), and the aforementioned Music for Airports.  Good stuff when the time is right.  Now there's a newish recording of In C by musicians from Mali (Africa Express) worth checking out.  Additionally, as a Phish fan I shouldn't ignore the fact that our very own Trey Anastasio has put out at least two classical recordings: Seis de Mayo and Time Turns Elastic.  How is it that I had never listened to Seis de Mayo until this morning?  That first track Andre the Giant is so good!

Regular Music
If regular music means artists who sing and perform songs in a rock n' roll and/or singer-songwriter fashion, then the two in that category who I am currently the most interested in would have to be David Bowie and Lucinda Williams.  Until recently the only David Bowie album I had ever listened to was Ziggy Stardust, and my primary Lucinda Williams familiarity was stuck on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.  I'm ready to expand beyond those starting points.  Hello Low and Ghosts of Highway 20!  Shit.  I almost forgot, and it's kinda stupid to admit this, but Phish's cover of Everything in its Right Place from 8/4/17 prompted me to give Radiohead another spin, and for a few days there I listened to Kid A on repeat.  I get it now.  At least I think I do.  OK.



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Monday, August 7, 2017

Mary Halvorson and Phish

What is a band?  For three nights in July my two favorite musical artists had overlapping residencies in New York city.  July 21, 22 and 23, 2017, guitarist Mary Halvorson was playing the last half of her six night stint at the Village Vanguard, while on those same dates Phish was starting their 13 night Baker's Dozen run at Madison Square Garden.  I didn't go to either event.  But that's not really the point.

I have seen Phish 60 times over the last 23 years.  They've been my favorite band from 1994 until now.  That has remained constant.  What has varied over the years is how I listen to and view Phish compared to other musical artists.


In my  20's, when I wasn't listening to Phish or the Grateful Dead, I still wanted to listen to some of the tumble-down bands associated with the jamband genre, including moe., Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and Sector 9.  In my 30's, indie-like bands such as My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog and Ween got in line behind Phish.  Now, in my 40's, I'm not really looking for the next band to really get into, and Phish has only increased the distance between themselves and the other standbys.

With so many places to hear and consume music, both old and new, I do probably listen to a wider variety of stuff now than ever before.  Definitely heavy on jazz and older, ethnic folk music.  However, it's also easier now than ever before to simply listen to Phish, with access to so much of their live shows online.  Phish plus everything else.  With one exception.

Around 2013 to 2014 I started checking out a little known New York-based avant-garde guitarist named Mary Halvorson.  Her angular, unsettling playing requires some major recalibration of the ears, but I stuck with it and have been slowly delving deeper and deeper into her surprisingly vast and constantly expanding output ever since.  (Her discography includes 40+ albums findable on Spotify plus many more through other sources).

Phish's complex compositions and inclination toward 20+ minute improvisations helped prime my senses for something really out there, and Mary Halvorson stepped in and opened a door I didn't even know was there.

Where Phish has a whole community surrounding it, Mary seemingly has none of that baggage. Phish you can at least peg as being a form of "rock".  It's difficult to tell what Mary Halvorson is.  Experimental jazz is the closest term we have to encapsulating her untethered creativity, but I don't think it can be branded.  She's more about practicing her instrument than marketing her product.

Poster art, performance art, phan art, inside jokes, engaged online forums, a killer light show, setlist analytics, "Shakedown Street", goo balls, parking lot scene, bootleg t-shirts, blissed out jams, audience participation, hippie white person dancing, and more are all part of the Phish experience.  With Mary Halvorson I don't know that you even get a sticker.  She sits there on stage looking at a music stand that has some sort of written notation on it that helps elicit the unmistakable sounds coming out out of her guitar to her amp.  No frills.  No negative bias from critics.  No preconceived guidance.


Phish can go to deep outer space and bring a crowd of 20,000 right along with them, but Mary's music seems bent on shaking off even the most ardent, or not even concerned with that at all.  It's a totally different set of emotions being triggered when I listen to her music.  Both have their faults: Phish and their predictable tension/relief peak jams; Mary Halvorson and the when-in-doubt revert to noise and call it free jazz card.  But hey.

There is no connection between the two, other than both seem like the culminations of pathways that can lead forward or backward.  They aren't stopping points along the way.  They are the journey and the destination.  Still, Amazon is not going to recommend one if you like the other.  You're not going to hear Mary Halvorson on the Jam_On channel.  The connection I'm making is based on the appeal they each have to me.  Basically, I just typed the words "Mary Halvorson and Phish" in the post title and then had a blank screen below that needed some more words, a couple images and a couple videos.