Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fiddler Kenny Jackson: "My Own Music Will Always Be Pure"

As I was reading the interview with Kenny Jackson in the Spring 2015 Fiddler Magazine some of his comments resonated with me.  Jackson said:
These days I am not so interested in striving for purity because I know that my own music will always be pure if I play authentically from my own heart, soul, and experience.  I know my musical roots; they are well planted and always there, but I don't prevent myself from trying to do anything that I feel moved to do.
....Old time Southern traditional music is still my native fiddling language, but I allow myself the inspired energy from whatever calls to me. Beyond that I've no axes to grind, and no mission statement. I'm not trying to preserve, document, archive, be the most correct old time player, or be a musical re-enactor of the 1920's or any other era. For me, authenticity is primarily a matter of heart and soul.

Wise words.  Reading that interview coincided with some chapters that I was skimming through in a book I just got called Improvise For Real by David Reed.  I hope to review and discuss this book more in the future, but here are the quotes that seemed to match up.  "Your real music education is not contained in whatever theory you might have studied in a classroom.  It is in the music itself, the music that you have been listening to and enjoying all your life", says Reed.  "All musical knowledge is really self-knowledge. Instead of looking outside ourselves for rules and formulas, we look within ourselves to understand and organize the sounds that make up our own musical imagination."


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mandolin vs. Banjo

This time last year I was on a big mandolin kick.  Now I’m back to tenor banjo.  Here’s a comparison of the two.

Tuning and Scale Length
Both instruments are tuned in perfect fifths, ala violin or cello.  I actually tune my tenor banjo like a mandolin – GDAE – but one octave lower.  The 5ths tuning is probably more suited to (and a product of) the shorter scale length of the violin/mandolin, which is about 13-14 inches.  The longer scale of the tenor banjo – 21-23 inches – makes it impossible to play in some of the closed positions you can do on the mandolin, but with the right fingering technique you can work around this.  
Seeing as how the cello also uses a perfect fifths tuning means that there are more extreme versions of this standard tuning in use.  On the banjo you might use your pinky finger as much as the other fingers, rather than largely ignoring it as some mandolin players do.  The banjo fretboard is less cramped.  In first position at least, the fingering is more intuitive on tenor banjo.

Sound and Feel
The mandolin has a sweet sound, whereas the tenor banjo is more piercing.  Being louder, the banjo can usually make itself heard in an un-amplified jam session but a mandolin could easily be drowned out.  The skin-like membrane over the rim also makes the banjo more temperamental and therefore more unpredictable.  The unforgiving nature of the banjo works best when you don't worry about playing wrong notes and embrace those mistakes.  
I like the feel of plucking single strings, vs. the double course strings of the mandolin.  When I look at a tenor banjo I feel a certain affection, kinship and uniqueness that I don’t get from the mandolin.  Playing a tenor banjo is like Charlie Brown’s little Christmas tree all lit up and beautiful.

Style and Limitations
Whether true or not, mandolin is probably considered more versatile than banjo.  The type of 4-string banjo that I play is a more obscure instrument with its roots in jazz and now part of Irish traditional music.  Whereas mandolin is most closely associated with bluegrass.  Unlike its 5-string cousin, the tenor banjo has almost no relation to bluegrass music.  

The tenor banjo is like a blank canvas, with fewer precedents in the world of music.  You’ll run into more mandolin (and fiddle and guitar) players than you will tenor banjo players, and yet the tenor banjo contains the same 12 notes as those other instruments do and the same rules of music apply.  There seems to be more room for exploration with the tenor banjo, free from the baggage of genre implications that restrain rather than encourage creativity.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Playing Music in the Morning


The write-up accompanying the Vijay Iyer Trio's recent NPR Tiny Desk concert contained this description: "The morning after a gig in Washington, D.C., the trio got up to visit NPR headquarters before a noon train back to New York. There was a lot of espresso involved".

I take a little bit of an issue with the concept that musicians as a whole are nocturnal, that they are not morning people. Life on the road may not allow for this, but the morning can be a very creative, eye opening time.  I recall a Martin Hayes documentary where he talks about the benefit of playing tunes first thing in the morning, and I once read a David Lowery interview where he mentioned that his most productive writing time is in the very early hours of the morn'.  One of my musical idols, Bill Frisell, is also an early riser.

I used to host a music jam that started on Saturdays at 10 - the AM, not the PM.  I found it to be a fun, interesting time of day to interpret music collectively.  You can't tell me that some of the world's best musicians aren't already up and practicing by then!

The writer Jonathan Lethem describes morning benefits like this:
Write before the world wakes up and announces its clawing demands. This is more important than ever, given the way our typewriters and telephones have converged. Whenever you start, start earlier. Start while the coffee is still brewing, start while NPR is still playing BBC World News, start half asleep. Get it done first, and you'll be someone another human being might be willing to live with, at least eventually.
Musicians are certainly concerned with rhythm, so why keep in tune with the earth's rhythms?

Some Thoughts on Musical Improvisation

I had to make a conscious effort to learn Irish music.  I had to initiate the conversation with it - as an art form not as a folk art.  I've only just begun this endeavor, really.  On the one hand it's a very specific medium with a very deep well of collective human consciousness at its core.  On a lighter note, Irish music has served as a gateway toward the act of simply playing notes on an instrument, which is something I might never have done without it.

The music I've always been drawn to as a listener is improvisational music.  There is some improvisation - AKA "self expression" - to be found in Irish music, but traditionally it stays within a fairly confined melodic structure.  The kind of improv I'm talking about is of a more open, unstructured variety.

The on-demand commercialized way we hear and consume music - on our smart phones, on Spotify, in a TV show, or movie or advertisement - is a recent phenomenon.  The music that makes it to the top of these queues is the stuff that's the easiest to digest; dumbed down to a point of easy comprehension for those needing to be impressed and entertained.

It used to be that the only music anyone ever heard was made live on the spot.  I want to get back to that earlier connection, that closeness, that people had with music.  And when you think about it , improvised music had to have been the first type of music.  It wasn't analyzed or codified until long after it was created.

Improvised music is free -- free of the restrictions of style, idiom or prescription.  Anyone can do it without even thinking about it, but I kinda want to study it, which is why I might start taking some lessons on improvisation.

In the meantime, bang on a can / pluck a string.  See what notes and tones want to be heard today.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Dual Roles of the Notes Used in Irish Traditional Music

The majority of Irish session tunes use the notes found in either the D-major or G-major scale, even when the tonal center is E, A or B. 

For example…

The note D is usually going to be either the 1st note of the D scale or the 5th note of the G scale.  It’s not unusual for a tune to have D as its tonal center but be using the G scale (i.e. Tatter Jack Walsh, Rakish Paddy, Star Above the Garter).  More on this later.

The note E is either the 2nd note of the D scale or the 6th of the G scale.  Without going too far down the path of chords, which is a loose concept in Irish music, those two chord E-minor/D-major tunes like Cooley’s Reel and Swallowtail Jig can be thought of as using the II chord and the I chord of the D-scale, with the II chord (E-minor) being the “home” chord and the I chord (D-major) being the “away” chord.  That’s better than thinking of the E-minor chord as the I chord and the D-major chord as some kind of flattened VII chord.

The note F# is either the 3rd note of the D scale or the 7th note of the G scale.

The note G is either the 4th note of the D scale or the 1st note of the G scale.

The note A is either the 5th note of the D scale or the 2nd note of the G scale.  Those “two chord” A-minor/G-major tunes like Mist Covered Mountain and Congress Reel are using G-scale notes (A-Dorian), just like how those E-minor/D-major tunes are using D-scale notes (E-Dorian). 

The note B is either the 6th note of the D scale or the 3rd note of the G scale.  You occasionally have tunes like Musical Priest or Connaughtman’s Rambles that have B as the tonal center for portions of the melody, and/or modulate from B to D.  That’s usually an indication that B is acting as the 6th note of the D scale.

The note C does not reside in the D scale, but it is the 4th note of the G scale.  When you encounter a tune like Tatter Jack Walsh which resolves to D but has that prominent C-chord, you’re actually working within the G-scale.  The D-major chord in Tatter Jack Walsh, even though it is the “home” chord, is acting as a V chord, while the C-major chord, even though it can be seen as the “away” chord, is functioning as a IV chord.  These are characteristics of D-mixolydian, which is simply the G-major scale starting on its 5th note.

The note C# is the 7th note of the D scale.  It does not exist in the G-major scale, proper. However, C# does seem to be one of those notes that can sometimes be used in place of a C-natural note in a modal tune at the discretion of the melody player.  The presence of a C# in a tune like The High Reel is an indication that it is in A-mixolydian - the same notes as the D scale – meaning that the C# is serving as the 7th note of the D scale.

This is kind of a hard concept to describe, but it gets clearer the more you think about it.  Basically, most tunes use either the D scale (resolving to either the 1st note D, the 2nd note E, the 5th note A or the 6th note B) or the G scale (resolving to either the 1st note G, the 2nd note A, the 5th note D or the 6th note E).  It’s also worth noting that the tonal centers D, E and A show up in both the D and G scales, and that both scales use all the same notes except for C or C#.  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Closed Position Scale Fingerings for Tenor Banjo

I took some lessons a while back from Dennis Elliott, who is one of the best stringed-instrument teachers in the Richmond, VA area.  Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, bluegrass, jazz, classical, theory - Dennis knows it all!

Dennis really helped me understand scale patterns by teaching a closed position scale fingering method for mandolin.  In a nutshell, this was basically:

Scale notes 1-2-3-4 (and 5-6-7-1) use a "whole-whole-half" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 2-3-4-5 (and 6-7-1-2) use a "whole-half-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 3-4-5-6 (and 7-1-2-3) use a "half-whole-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 4-5-6-7 use a "whole-whole-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.

This works great for mandolin, but on tenor banjo some of those stretches and reaches are damn near impossible to do.  So, I kind of ignored that method for tenor banjo since for Irish music you usually play in first position utilizing open strings, and I prefer a cello/guitar fingering of one-finger-per-fret.

But, to play in closed positions up the neck on tenor banjo you do need to figure this kind of thing out.  Just this morning I searched and found an archived 2010 forum topic on Banjo Hangout on 'Scale Fingerings for Tenor' where Andrew Roblin added a comment that happened to summarize Buddy Wachter's approach to this tenor banjo fingering dilemma.  I've indicated in red text where this fingering approach differs from what Dennis showed me for mandolin.

Scale notes 1-2-3-4 (and 5-6-7-1) use fingers 1,2,4,4*
Scale notes 2-3-4-5 (and 6-7-1-2) use fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 3-4-5-6 (and 7-1-2-3) use fingers 1,1,2,4.
Scale notes 4-5-6-7 use fingers 1,2,4,1 -- the last note in that 4-5-6-7 pattern is on the next higher string.

Roblin explained that in Buddy's method he slides with only the 1st and 4th fingers, and avoids whole steps between the middle finger and the ring finger because it is too awkward.  Further analysis may be needed to figure out work arounds for all of the potential occasions when a whole step might fall between fingers 2 and 3.

*I'm assuming that 1,2,4,4 would be Buddy Wachter's fingering pattern for closed scale notes 1-2-3-4. In Andrew's explanation of Buddy's technique, this is the only closed position example he left out.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Secret Keeper "Emerge" Review - Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson

For the last five consecutive days I've been listening to the new release "Emerge" by Secret Keeper (Stephan Crump, acoustic bass and Mary Halvorson, guitar) on repeat.  It reminds me of last year's classic Greg Cohen and Bill Frisell album "Gold Coast" but weirder. With the exception of one Irving Berlin tune, Crump and Halvorson alternate writing duties.  This is modern, highly improvisation, avant garde music, yet on repeated listens compositional elements do start to take shape.
Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson, by Reuben Radding
Here's a track-by-track real-time analysis of "Emerge" using the words that came to mind as I was hearing it this evening.

What'll I Do (by Irving Berlin)
Rain.  Gentle open then quickly distorted both guitar and bass.  (1:15) Sparse, welcoming sounds of rain.  (1:34) A little more aggressive.  (2:00) Hints of melody. More distorted sounds. Dog barking, but not on your recording. (2:45) Starting to howl - this is on the recording.  Vibrations.  Acoustics. (3:30) Easing back out then leaving.

Emerge (by Stephan Crump)
Starts suddenly. Chordal. Forceful.  (1:11) Softens. Tune starts to show its face. Repeated phrase/intervals. (1:45) Bass crying like seagull. Animal noises. Water mammal. Smoothness. (2:15) Building to something. (2:40) Rattling of speakers.  (3:00) Tune returns, pauses.  (3:25) Wait for it - cool hook.  Perfect accompaniment by bass. (4:00) Still grooving, growing, morphing. (4:20) Getting totally badass. (4:45) Almost too much.

In Time You Yell (by Mary Halvorson)
Repeated motif starts.  First 40 seconds more open. (1:00) Acoustic properties of guitar. Post rock? Composed. (2:00) Next movement or section.  (2:39) Is this improv now? Some kind of recognizable tease there.  (3:00) Definitely improv now. Then back to something indigenous. (3:30) Grounded. (3:55) Cool chords. Back to beginning but bigger than before. (4:35) Tension > (4:51) Release.  There's the tune at (5:00).  And out...

Disproportionate Endings (by Mary Halvorson)
Plaintive. Intuitive. Quizzical. Relaxed. Patient. (:53) Somewhere Over the Rainbow? (1:10) Awesome Mary Halvorson sound. (1:35) Crump's bass like ship's horn or truck motor. (2:20) Things just got drippy. (2:35) NĂ¼ classical?  Not jazz. Tremolo. (3:00) Over the Rainbow again. Leads to bird-like tones. Asian feel.  (3:50) Inner peace. (4:17) Beautiful bass. Emotional. Could be film score. (4:45) Soft guitar awakens. (5:15) Rounded returns. (6:20) Reverberations, vibrations. (6:38) Rainbow achieved.

A Muddle of Hope (by Stephan Crump)
Playful. Call and response. Conversation. (:58) Speeds up. (1:01) Catchy melody snippet. Bass repeats. Scatting? (1:45) Pulling. Pushing. Landing. (2:00) Letting it out. Not playful any more. (2:33) Tantrum. Close to freakout mode. (3:01) Melody back in a stranger way. Bass mad at melody. Wants to fight it. Stretching. Poking. Twisting. A little idea made good. (4:12) Fully realized clean. (4:33) Love the high finish.

Bridge Loss Sequence (by Mary Halvorson)
"Here I am" says music. "Let me show you around". It's Black Sunday. Hints of metal. What is this that stands before me?  Note begets note. Nice use of intervals. (2:04) Something churning, coming around. (2:20) BIG TIME LOUD. Now (2:40) we're talking. Talk me down. (3:10) Sudden resolve. Heart beating. Can you hear it? Steady pulse. Accelerated. (4:00) Rock n' Roll familiarity. (4:26) Let's go everywhere, man. (4:55) Deep knowledge. Fully there. In control. (5:20) Using the force. (5:36) Rock n' Roll. (5:55) Reminder.

Nakata (by Stephan Crump)
Not rain. Toys. Wind up birds. That was fast. (:30) Sounds like jazz. (1:00) Hey wait a minute! Put some mustard on that. (1:46) Something is on its way. (2:13) Haven't we heard this before? Recall. Toying. No...different. (3:05) What we've been waiting for. (3:35) Here it is for real. It's been there all along. (4:06) Scatting again? Something human. (4:30) How did we get here so quickly?

Turns to White Gold (by Mary Halvorson)
Hello, my name is _________.  Has a theme been established? (1:17) Welcome to space. (1:28) Familiar melody. (1:50) In and out of space. Hello in there. Subtle earth shaking going on. (2:45) Exploration. Other sounds leaking in from outside. Let them in. (3:41) Going dark. Scoffing at that. The tape is rolling. (4:36) Where did that come from, plinky? Roger that. Breaker! Breaker! (5:13) Establishing contact. Hello Saturn. Goodbye.

Erie (by Stephan Crump)
What I meant to say is.  We heard you. Those sounds. Those noises. Embrace them. (1:25) You fill up my senses. Voice. Speak. Say something. (2:50) Sliding head first. Like a walk in the rain. That would be something, to meet you in the pouring rain...to meet you in the pouring rain. (5:24) Fluttering. It's morning again. Drops of brandy.