Monday, November 9, 2015

Six Water Grog's Best Albums/Music of 2015

After 5 years, more than 500 posts and over 550,000 pageviews - and very little commenting, likes, feedback or interaction! - this blog is about to go on hiatus for the rest of the year. Before doing so I wanted to share my best of the year list a little early since I've already got it figured out (it's mid-November as I write this).  This was the year of the woman, with more than half of my selections featuring women as solo performers or band leaders.
Tomeka Reid Quartet - Tomeka Reid Quartet
Seeing this quartet perform live in Baltimore this summer is a big reason for their inclusion at the top of the list.  The album is like a slightly more condensed version of that live set; it's "out" in the way that some of the more avant-garde music I've been listening to is, but is also easily identifiable as jazz.  These are still tunes with a form, played freely in a way that still has groove or swing.

Dave Rawlings Machine - Nashville Obsolete
I loved this album from the moment I first heard it.  David Rawlings has taken his time warming to the idea of being a front man but now he's fully developed that attitude.  When the wave of newness crashes, I think we'll be left with a unique album that is a perfect complement to his usual work with Gillian, where the roles are reversed.

Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer
A group of twentysomethings playing what could be described as retro sounding 90's rock is probably not the kind of thing you expect to find on a 40-year-old dude's best of the year list, or is it?  Speedy Ortiz does this well.  There's always a lot going on musically in each of these songs and Sadie Dupuis' lyrics have a way of wrapping around your brain the way bacon wraps a scallop.  How's that for 3rd place?

Secret Keeper - Emerge
Secret Keeper is a perfect example of where my tastes have been heading the last couple years.  Yes at their essence these are compositions, but that only accounts for about twenty percent of what's going on.  The rest is an in-the-moment bass and guitar conversation between Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson that could probably never come out the same way twice,  Think of it like this:  the way that you are able to fluidly chat with a really good friend...that's the music that Secret Keeper makes.

Holly Bowling - Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined for Solo Piano
Holly Bowling became an overnight internet sensation (among Phish fans) due to her spot-on transcription and arrangement of a particularly inspired 37-minute instant-classic improv Phish did in 2013 now called the Tahoe Tweezer. That piece is included on this album, but surprisingly my favorite tracks are the ones on "disc one", which are very devout instrumental readings of about a dozen different songs, including Harry Hood, The Squirming Coil, Wingsuit and A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.  If this wasn't such solidly written music in the first place it wouldn't work in this solo piano format, and if Holly weren't the player she is she wouldn't be able to bring out the fullness of that beauty.  It works on each of those levels.

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Indie tastemakers, and maybe even some mainstream outlets, have already been heavily touting the talents of Courtney Barnett.  I suspect that this album will show up on a lot of best-of lists this year, as it should.  Courtney Barnett has a way of looking at the world that is inclusive.  She can turn a personal experience into something that transcends generations and cultures and speaks toward a universal view of the moment.  I think that's why people are digging her so much.  That's why I am.

Susan Alcorn - Soledad
Susan Alcorn plays pedal steel guitar.  Not in a country and western style but in a singular way as an outlet for channeling her inner improvisations.  On Soledad Alcorn patiently re-interprets the work of Argentinian composer and accordionist Astor Piazzolla.  The result is something out of this world yet very down home.

Neal Casal's Fare The Well setbreak music (Circle Around the Sun: Interludes for the Dead)
When I watched the Santa Clara webcast of first of the five GD50 shows this summer, one thing that caught my ear was the mesmerizing music being played during the setbreak. It wasn't just filler. It turns out that musician Neal Casal was commissioned to create about 5 hours of music to be played during intermission at the Grateful Dead's Fare The Well Shows in Santa Clara and Chicago. Ever since I figured out what it was, who was doing it, and why, I knew it would be on my list of the year's best regardless of whether it was being officially released or not.  Fortunately it has been announced that this music - in a slightly edited form - will be released as Circles Around the Sun on 11/27/15.

Mary Halvorson - Meltframe
Meltframe is Mary Halvorson's long awaited debut solo guitar album and it doesn't quite sound like anything she's ever done.  For one thing it's an album of covers.  Most of her recordings thus far have been original compositions or pieces by her various band members. I hesitated to include Mary three times on the top ten list (Tomeka Reid Quartet, Secret Keeper and Meltframe) but the impact of this album is too sustaining for it to be omitted.  My level of appreciation for Meltframe is only going to grow over time.

Erik Friedlander - Illuminations
2015 is the year that I started listening to the Bach Cello Suites as played by Pablo Casals (as well as the classical Haitian guitar of Frantz Casseus).  That is some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard, so I went looking for something more recently made in the same vein, which is how I found this new album by Erik Friedlander.  Illuminations is a suite for solo cello that uses the Bach suites as inspiration.  Instead of being based on French dances, Friedlander's pieces sometimes have a hypnotic, Eastern touch.

Honorable Mention (the next 10):
Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra - To Those of Earth... And Other Worlds
Mandolin Orange - Such Jubilee
Joan Shelley - Over and Even
My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall
Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands
Alex Bleeker and The Freaks - Country Agenda
Pharis and Jason Romero - A Wanderer I'll Stay
Trey Anastasio - Paper Wheels
Michael Gibbs and the NDR Big Band - Play a Bill Frisell Set List
Built to Spill - Untethered Moon

That's what I was listening to this year.  Thanks for reading.  At the moment I'm taking a little break from posting unless I happen upon something so epic that I have to share.  Cheers.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Little Tune Inspired by Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus by Medeski, Martin and Wood

I've been listening to some live 1995-1996 Medeski, Martin and Wood recently.  The It's A Jungle In Here > Friday Afternoon in the Universe > Shack-man era.  This is my favorite period of MMW music.  Particularly the tune Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus has been floating around in my head all week.

As an amateur hobbyist musician one great thing about reaching the point where trying to figure out something by ear is no longer an incredibly frustrating ordeal but rather a quite pleasant exercise, is that a door opens toward the possibility of personally interpreting the music by some of your favorite artists.  Even creating something of your own based on this music.  If you are in need of more tunes to learn you can just turn to existing recordings for ideas.

In light of yesterday's announcement that the Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump) "house" concert would now be taking place in a church, I decided that now was as good a time as ever to see what listening to Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus could spawn.  Here's what came out of my banjo with me playing it.

I obviously wasn't trying to exactly duplicate this piece.  For one thing, I don't have the ability.  Secondly, I was hearing something a little different with maybe a few more measures or something repeated that doesn't happen in the original composition.  This is how it sounded about an hour ago when I recorded it.  This is like a first draft.  Things could definitely change as time goes on. 

I don't know how to play piano properly, but I have an electric keyboard that I use to help me discern certain notes because it has more clarity than my banjo does sometimes.  I kind of view the piano as a marimba with my fingers being the mallets.  Anyway, it's not heard on this recording thankfully but I used the piano before recording to help with deciding on some of these notes.  At other times I just did what I thought I wanted to hear.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump) Friday, November 6, 2015 Richmond, VA

LOCATION UPDATED (and revealed) for the Secret Keeper "House" Concert on Friday, November 6, 2015 at 7PM in Richmond, VA!

This was originally supposed to be a house concert with very limited space but it has been moved to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church at Forest Hill and 43rd Street in Richmond, VA - a still intimate venue but one that will allow more people to attend.  There's a $10 to $20 suggested donation.

You might be thinking "experimental, challenging, freely improvised, modernly avant-garde compositions in a house of worship???"  (Actually, isn't there a history of free-improv within the church organ community?).  However, even as a non-religious person I know one thing:  I'll be worshiping some Mary Halvorson!!!  There is a guitar god.  Seriously though, this'll more than likely be a good room for appreciating this complex yet beautiful music.
Secret Keeper - Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson
Secret Keeper is Mary Halvorson, guitar and Stephan Crump, bass. Mary Halvorson has been described as "the most future-seeking guitarist working right now" (Lars Gotrich,, "the most impressive guitarist of her generation" (Troy Collins, and "my current favorite musician" (me!). Grammy-nominated bassist/composer Stephan Crump is known for his work with mainstream jazz luminaries, downtown explorers, singer/songwriters and more, and is a long-standing member of the esteemed Vijay Iyer Trio.

Together as Secret Keeper, Mary and Stephan create something akin to improvisatory chamber music. Stephan says, “Mary and I each have extremely varied influences within music and beyond…we’re not trying to bar any of these influences from the music we create together, nor are we concerned with genre in any way”.  Anyone who enjoys art, experimentation, and virtuosic musicianship should try to attend. 

A $10-20 suggested donation will help pay for these top level New York-based musicians.

Secret Keeper
Friday, November 6, 2015 at 7pm
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Forest Hill and 43rd Street
Richmond, VA 23225

Monday, October 26, 2015

JAZZed "What's On Your Playlist" - Clave Patterns by Los Munequitos de Matanzas

JAZZed Magazine has a regular segment called What’s On Your Playlist where a featured musician will list what he or she has been listening to. These artists usually select current releases and/or things they’ve discovered recently, but in the August/September 2015 issue baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus took a different route: he listed five recordings that have had a big influence on his playing.
Brian Landrus on contra alto clarinet
One of the albums he mentions is Rumba Caliente by Los Munequitos de Matanzas. Landrus says “While at the New England Conservatory I was fortunate to study with Danilo Perez. Danilo was working on my rhythmic groove. Danilo had me tapping various clave patterns with my foot and playing bebop heads. It was, and is, very difficult, but it took my internal groove to the next level. He told me about Los Munequitos so I listened to all of their recordings available and transcribed as many of the clave patterns I could find. They’re a great source of compositional inspiration for me.”
I had not heard of this Cuban group so I looked them up. The music is good and I can see how Landrus found it to be a great source of compositional inspiration. The idea of tapping various clave rhythms while playing head melodies sounds very challenging, but worth trying. You can read the full article – and the entire issue – here:

The JAZZed interview with Ran Blake in the same issue is also worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Know the Chords, Hear the Changes...or Not

In the 9 years that I’ve been playing music I’ve never fully believed in the concept of chords being a predetermined order of stacked notes that you then solo over. I don’t think I hear music this way, which may be why I was initially drawn to the single-note melodies of traditional Irish music despite having no cultural or social connection to that type of music. In Irish traditional music it seems that melody comes first and harmony/chords are a non-essential modern add-on.

Traditional Irish music is great, but I really want to play music that is not tied to any tradition, style or genre. Music that is completely free of those connections. So, then the question becomes how do you extend this concept of melody first into the realm of free improvisation?

For one thing I never know what the chords changes are to a song – I can’t really hear “right” from “wrong” in this way – and the idea of having to be aware of the chord changes and basing my selection of improvised notes on this knowledge seems restrictive. If I play a “B” note why does that have to be a G-major chord to meet someone’s idea of what sounds “good”? Couldn’t you pair that B note with the notes in a B-minor chord, or an E-minor chord, or any combination of notes that somehow complements that B note? And can’t you change it every time? 

Then I read about Ornette Coleman - the great melody writer and improviser - and how he had dispensed with chord sequences in his compositions and instead used melody as the basis for improvisation.  This gave him the freedom to take those melodies in any direction he wanted at whatever length, pitch and speed felt right.  Knowing about this makes me feel a lot better and when I listen to Ornette's music I hear something similar to what I have in mind or hoped could be done.
I won't pretend to even begin to understand what Ornette Coleman was doing or how he heard and interpreted music, but knowing that such an important figure in the history of jazz did not rely on predetermined harmonic structure gives me some confidence that you can effectively improvise melodically without concern for the underlying or implied chords.  Now I just need to find other musicians who want to practice this type of playing.  Hello?  Anyone?  Is there anybody out there?  Maybe an upright bassist or a cello player is reading this?  I'm sending out smoke signals.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Practicing a Two Bar Section of the Haitian Meringue La Douceur

There's a tune I've been learning called La Douceur.  It was written by the Haitian composer/violinist Arthur Duroseau who was part of the Duroseau musical family from Port-au-Prince who made some recordings in the early 1950's.  La Douceur is a Meringue type of tune.  It has some syncopated timing that takes some getting used to and a seemingly difficult sequence of 8th notes at the end of the B-part which can feel very sped up when compared to the rest of the piece.

I wrote that two-bar lick out in the notation form that I have recently adopted which uses major scale note numbers which can then be applied to any key or tonal center you want.  See image below.  The note numbers correspond to the notes of the major scale.  This morning I was practicing that lick in the key of B, which means that my note "2" is a C# note and 2b (flat 2 or "doo" for diminished two) is the note C in the key of B.  With this kind of notation it's pretty easy to transpose.  All you have to do is know a major scale and then apply that knowledge to the sequence of notes.  After I'm done writing this I will try it in a different key.
La Douceur "lick" at end of B part
Michael Doucet recorded La Douceur on the 2013 BeauSoleil album From Bamako to Carencro.  Here's a link to that recording.  The lick starts just after 50 seconds and is only a couple seconds long:

And here's a video of the amazing banjo-mandolin player Dennis Pash of the Etcetera String Band and the Ragtime Skedaddlers playing it.  Dennis' version is where I first heard La Douceur and it made me want to learn this tune!  The section transcribed above starts at about 33 seconds into this video.

Remember, this method of notating is not like a tab or treble clef anything like that.  The numbers correspond to major scale notes, not finger placement, so it's not instrument specific or key specific.  You can use this notation system for any melodic instrument....saxophone, flute, guitar, mandolin, et cetera, and you can use it for any mode.  A tune in Dorian would probably have 2 as the tonal center.  Makes sense, right?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is Music Theory a Science or a Religion?

Duh, it's a science.

Penn Jillette has said:
"If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again."
What Penn said is true and I feel the same way about music theory. It's just an attempt to explain what is already going on. The existing vocabulary we've been given to describe music is absolute, but it's not for everyone. It covers more than most of us need to know.
Which is why if you're feeling confused by music theory, I challenge you to find your own way of interpreting it. Try and really get to the essence of what this terminology is attempting to convey and then imagine that all existing knowledge of music theory has been wiped out and put those same concepts in your own thoughts or words.

I have sort of done this myself by applying a notation system that views all 12 "keys" universally as equals, and all 7 notes of the major scale as a sequence of diatonic numbers based on a tonal center, and the five remaining "blue notes" as raised or diminished diatonic number sounds ("dive" for a flat five note and "rive" for a sharp five note, for example).
This way of analyzing the notes of a universal scale makes it easy to transcribe.  Perhaps think of it like this:  most melodies in the key of C-major/ionian or its relatives (D-dorian, F-lydian, G-mixolydian, etc.) use only the white keys of a piano keyboard.  When they do use use a black key it is a "blue note".  In other words, some note in the major scale has been sharpened or flattened.

Now imagine if you could transpose the sound that comes out of the keyboard so that the white keys were A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A and so on.  The same song played the same way would now come out in "A" instead of in "C".  If that melody in C had a "flat" 7th note that made B change to Bb, that same melody in A would mean that the "flat" note makes G# change to G natural. (G natural doesn't seem "flat", does it?!).  I would just call this note "dev" [diminished seven] regardless of key.  These are the building blocks of seeing it more universally.

As soon as you can start thinking of music theory in a way that (correctly) applies your own personal meaning to it, you'll understand the existing science that is music theory a whole lot better.