Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Four Albums Moving Me So Far in 2017

I haven't been putting a whole lot of effort into hearing new music this year.  By new I mean music being created now and put out in 2017.  However, there have been at least four albums so far this year that have broken through.

My favorite of those four is We All Break by We All Break.  Primarily a percussion album, We All Break combines traditional Haitian drumming with the avant-garde.  The band/concept of We All Break is the creation of Ches Smith, a New York city based jazz drummer.  Smith recruited Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz - two of his early traditional music mentors - to play the rada and petwo tanbou (Haitian drums) alongside adventurous piano player Matt Mitchell.  Ches Smith composed this music for drumset, two hand percussionists and acoustic piano.  The result is one of the best things I've heard in a long time.  I can't stop listening to it!



Another favorite this year is Norman Blake's Brushwood: Songs and Stories.  Norman is one of the most low-profile top-shelf musicians of the last 50+ years.  Now in his late 70's, this collection of 19 tracks is as good as anything he has done in his entire career.  Norman never was as flashy as his flat-picking counterparts like Tony Rice, but now in his elder years he has toned it down even more to a sage-like level of virtuosic, finger-picked minimalism.  For a reclusive, strongly Southern fellow, Blake frequently shares what might be seen as a progressive point of view, although this shouldn't come as a surprise to those that have been listening to his music over the last five decades.  The themes and subjects found on Brushwood are 100% within Blake's "Sulphur Springs" canon.  In that perennial timeline, these mini narratives are of equal value to Ginseng Sullivan, Last Train from Poor Valley, Billy Gray and Slow Train Through Georgia.


Next on my list is Salutations by Conor Oberst.  Over 50% of Salutations is a re-do of 2016's brooding solo demo Ruminations.  All ten songs from Ruminations plus seven additional ones make up Salutations, now with more polished full-band folk-rock arrangements (thanks to the Felice Brothers).  I'm more of a casual Conor Oberst fan than an ardent one, so this is the first recording of his that I have taken notice of since his 2008 self-titled gem.  This one has hooked me in pretty good though.  Taking the time to read along with the lyrics has further increased my appreciation of Salutations/Ruminations.  His use of words warrants comparisons to artistic minds of previous generations.


The only other new recording I can think of that I've been seriously grooving to is by a local Richmond, VA band called Afro-Zen Allstars.  Despite its title, Greatest Hits is the long awaited debut by this 8-piece+ that channels the psychedelic-soul sounds of 1960's/70's Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.  With horns at the forefront, Afro-Zen Allstars' tunes frequently jump out out of the gates with arresting melodies, but also have a way of settling into reflective jams - hence the "zen" part of the band name.  The all star band members are cut and pasted from several renowned RVA groups of the past and present, including Bio Ritmo, No BS! Brass, Hotel X, Rattlemouth, and more.  Sometimes it's best to start hyper-local in your search for music and then branch out from there.



I'm hoping to add more to this list as other new releases creep into perception.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Jazz Pirates and other sources for Caribbean melodies

In my previous post I mentioned how the Etcetera String Band and now Martiniquan musician Kali have become primary sources in the ongoing search for Caribbean trad tunes.  I also want to recognize a Swedish ensemble called the Jazz Pirates who are proving to be a great resource.
The Jazz Pirates of Gothenburg, Sweden
I don't know much about the Jazz Pirates other than that their clarinetist Lasse Collin has uploaded hundreds upon hundreds of lead sheets for "jazz age" type tunes along with home-made jam recordings and YouTube videos of the Jazz Pirates playing them.  The Jazz Pirates feature a tenor banjo as a chord instrument, while Collin plays the melodies and improvises on clarinet.

I've only just begun perusing the list of lead sheets in the Jazz Pirates' New Orleans Jambook, but have already found several Creole/Caribbean tunes including Adieu Foulard, Black Orpheus, Ce Filon, Femme Matinik Dou, Touloulou, and West Indies Blues.  For reasons I can't understand - it has something to do with Bb instruments vs. C instruments - the lead sheets are a whole step off from the audio, so I just saved the files and adjusted the pitch so that they would line up with the written music.

Another group who has recorded many tunes from the French West Indies is the Panorama Jazz Band of New Orleans.  Not surprisingly, they also have a tenor banjo in the band.  I enjoy listening to their hot jazz versions of Serpent Maigre, Mettez I Dehro, Pani Ti Mou, Asi Pare, and Ba Moin En Ti Bo to hear alternate takes on these classics.


Still another musician who draws from Caribbean sources is Leyla McCalla.  Even better...she plays them on cello and tenor banjo!  Leyla has recorded several Haitian folk songs on her two albums thus far.  Her debut Vari-Colored Songs features Latibonit, Kamen Sa W Fe, ManMan Mwen, Mesi Bondye, and Rose Marie.  The followup - A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey - contains Fey-O, Minis Azaka, Peze Cafe, and ManMan.  Of these, at the very least, Kamen Sa W Fe is going to be a favorite of mine to play on my own.
Leyla McCalla with tenor banjo
When thinking of the 4-string banjo in Caribbean music, it doesn't hurt to include Jamaican Mento.  Mento songs don't always make for the best "tunes", but Jamaican 4-string banjo greats like Nelson Chambers of the Blue Glaze Mento Band and Moses Deans of the Jolly Boys are musicians worth checking out and returning to for inspiration.


Lastly, I've been digging something called Zouk Vol1: Féérie Antillaise by Honoré Bienvenu Et Son Orchestre.  I'm not sure what this is or who they are, but there are some strong melodies on here, one of which called Mi Un Marchand De Mangue I actually figured out by ear.

Kali: Traditional Music of the French West Indies Played on Banjo (Banjo-Mandolin?)

Martinique roots musician Kali and his banjo in early 2017
Learning of and gaining access to the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD in 2012 significantly changed the trajectory of my music playing interests.  On that 1990 release, the then Kansas-City based string ragtime ensemble interpreted rare, early dance music from the Caribbean - Haiti, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands, Martinique, Venezuela, Creole Louisiana, and more.  What was really special about that recording to me was that the lead melodies were played on banjo-mandolin by the virtuoso Dennis Pash.  This meant it directly translated to "Irish" tenor banjo.

Now I've become aware another source for West Indies tunes played with equal skill on a 4-string banjo or banjo-mandolin in the lead.  This musician is named Kali and, ironically, his primary recordings in this style were also done around 1988 to 1990.  The albums are called Racines, Volume 1 and Volume 2.  Racines means "Roots" and Kali is a Martiniquan who took up the banjo and returned to his roots after having gone in a more contemporary French-Caribbean pop direction during the 1970's and 80's.


One or two generations prior to Kali, Martinique musicians living in Paris - including the clarinetist Alexandre Stellio - recorded 78's of biguines and mazurkas that paralleled but differentiated from the Calypso and New Orleans jazz music going on elsewhere in the world.  It is this traditional music heritage that Kali chose to honor on his Racines series.  What I find to be great about these recordings is Kali is faithful to the original melodies, but of course uses modern recording techniques and sensibilities to give it a superior audio fidelity when compared to the 78's of the 1930's.  Additionally, Kali's banjo playing is second to none; his tremolo would make Grisman proud!

From what I am learning, songs such as Mwen Desann St Pie, Manicou Volan, Vlope Mwen Doudou, Serpent Maigre, Ti Citron, Femme Martinique Dou, Fok ni tche, Mettez I Dehro, A Si Pare, Ba Moin Un Tibo and Pani Ti Moun are standards of the French Caribbean trad repertoire.  As such, they are on my list of tunes to learn.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Casio SA76 44‑Key Mini Keyboard

Casio SA76 44-Key Mini Keyboard
I've been using a 61-Key Casio CTK-2300 digital piano keyboard for the purposes of better understanding harmony/chords as well as for ear training.  It's over 3-feet wide, so I've been looking for a more compact keyboard that I can hold in my lap and casually play on the couch.  The only requirements I had were:
-37 to 49 keys (less than 30" wide)
-Built-in speakers
-Ability to plug in headphones
-Wall socket / AC-adapter powered (not USB)
-Piano-like sound

Surprisingly, in this world of Amazon and eBay, I could only find two digital pianos currently available that met all of these criteria - one of them at $399 and one of them at $50.  Every other digital keyboard was either 61-keys or larger (I already have that) or some kind of computer-reliant MIDI/USB device (not interested).  I just need it to make a piano sound.

The $399 option was the Yamaha Reface series, particularly the Reface CP model.  I liked the fact that the Reface CP was a professional quality instrument with simple, easy to use knobs.  What I didn't like was the cost and the bad reviews regarding its built-in speakers.  If I had chosen the Reface it seemed like I may also have needed to purchase some kind of external speaker or amp to use with it.  I also didn't love the fact that it was only 37 keys, but I did like how that made it super-compact.  The vintage Rhodes, Clavinet and Wurlitzer sounds it contains weren't a big deal to me one way or another.  It was hard for me to tell who these Yamaha Reface mini keyboards were intended for.  Not for me, I guess.

So I chose the $50 keyboard, which is the Casio SA76.  Actually, it was more like $60 because the AC adapter that you need to plug it into the wall is an additional cost.  You could just use six "AA" batteries, but I wanted to be able to plug it in.  This instrument is definitely intended to be more of a child's toy, but it actually suits my needs quite nicely.  You get what you pay for so it's not anything all that incredible, but I like having it handy for working out things by ear and for reinforcing stuff that I am learning on a more full-size keyboard.

The SA76 has 44 mini-sized keys, but I actually don't mind this too much.  That is seven more keys than are on the Yamaha Reface, which are also mini-sized.  (As a stringed instrument player, I go back and forth between the tenor banjo's 21-inch scale and the mandolin's 14-inch scale without much trouble, so I'm not too worried about this when it comes to the piano keyboard).

I've hardly used any of the features of the SA76 thus far, and don't really intend to do much of that. When it arrived I simply turned it on and started playing. Usually I just scroll through the sounds it can make and find one within the first 10 that seems suitable to me at that moment.  If it just had one sound and that was a sampled "piano" sound it would be fine with me.  That's all I'm looking for.

So the verdict is I'm glad I found something.  It's surprising that there aren't any other keyboards like this besides these two.  If you know of any other digital pianos that meet all of the requirements above PLEASE leave a comment!  What I really would like is a smaller version of the Yamaha P-45, with 44 or 49 full-sized keys instead of 88.  That would still be compact enough but would be more playable.  Or maybe if the Reface model cut its price in half to $200 and improved its built-in speakers, then it would be the perfect mini keyboard.  For now I'm happy with the Casio SA76.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Discovering Palace Music's Viva Last Blues 22 Years After It Came Out

When I think of the music that is at the tippy-top of my all time favorite albums it is mostly comprised of music that I was exposed to from the mid-90's through the mid 2000's.  Ween's The Mollusk, Dr. Dog's Easy Beat, The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi, The Sadies' Favourite Colours, Phish's The Story of the Ghost, Medeski Martin and Wood's Shackman, Tortoise's TNT.

That was a long time ago, and even though my tastes are constantly evolving and being pushed in different directions, it is rare for something newly discovered to really break into that ultra exclusive "favorite album" club.  Mary Halvorson's Meltframe comes to mind as a recording that has gained solid entry, although that came out in 2015 and I was primed and ready for its arrival.

Because of resources like Spotify and YouTube it's easy for a curious music lover to do lots of research into artists of the past, and you occasionally come across something incredibly awesome like Money Jungle, but that came out in 1963 - over a decade before I was born.  I couldn't experience that in real time.  
My very own copy
I recently discovered something that should have been in the crosshairs of my purview 20+ years ago but had somehow overlooked until now.  That is Viva Last Blues by Palace Music.  It came out in 1995.  Listening to it in 2017 is like opening a time capsule.  (Palace Music is a pseudonym for Bonnie "Prince" Billy, which is a pseudonym for singer-songwriter Will Oldham.) 

OK, at this very moment in my life I know very, very little about Bonnie "Prince" Billy, or whatever name is most appropriate for this artist.  I have yet to listen to any of his other music.  I accidentally heard a track from Viva Last Blues on YouTube about two weeks ago and had an instant reaction to it, causing me to seek out the entire album, and as of this week I now have it on vinyl.


I can only think of comparisons.  The voice reminds me of Magnolia Electric Company, early Meat Puppets, and O'Death.  The music and production is reminiscent of Gillian Welch's Soul Journey or Neil Young's Tonight's The Night.  The songwriting is a druggy-Appalachian blend - trippy and sexual - again like Meat Puppets or maybe even Conor Oberst, but from more of a farmboy first experiencing culture perspective.

Since I am convinced that this would have been an all-time favorite album of mine had I actually heard it in the 1990's, I am hereby elevating it to classic status as if I had a couple decades worth of listening to it under my belt.  The fact that it's only been two weeks matters not.  I can listen to it now.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

What Sound Does A Painting Make?

Where do artforms overlap?  Where does music (a sound art) meet up with visual art?  To me, a Jackson Pollock drip painting sounds like Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and vice versa.  On the contrary, the spectral, gliding paintings of Mark Rothko evoke the slow-build ambient works of Brian Eno, like his Music for Airports.
Other things come to mind.  The Bill Frisell album Richter 858 - featuring Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman and Hank Roberts - was composed of music inspired by the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter.  That came out sounding like modern chamber music. Frisell also famously wrote music to accompany the black and white photographs of Mike Disfarmer - an obscure, eccentric  portrait photographer in Heber Springs, Arkansas who died in 1959.  For the Disfarmer themes Frisell was in an Americana mindset.

I used to go see hippie bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 who often had a visual artist on stage with them creating paintings in the moment inspired by the music unfolding in front of the audience.  This bleeds into a lot of related areas.  Poster art.  Album cover art.  Soundtracks to films.  Phan art. John Cage's music looked like his art.  His art sounded like his music.  What about Mark Tobey?  Or Janet Sobel?
What sound does this Mark Tobey painting make?
Free jazz, as it is called, requires lots of discipline.  It's not just random notes.  Not always at least.  Same with abstract art.  I recently asked a painter of landscapes if he ever works in an abstract style and he said "no, it's too scary, too difficult".  Some say the best abstract art is more than just splattering a canvas.  Of course, it doesn't have to be.  Abstract art is my favorite kind of art, but I don't limit my appreciation to just human made pieces.  I'm also a fan of elephants, pigs and chimpanzees who work in that medium.  Nature works in this medium as well.  Look down at the street you're standing on, or zoom way in on a dog.  It can be completely random.  That's what I happen to love about it.
One of Michael Hamad's "Phish Maps"
People say stuff like "I'm tone deaf, I could never be a musician".  To those people I say go bang out some notes on the piano.  Right now.  Right, now.  Very good, now you are a musician.  Or at least a soundician.  Keep doing it every day.  More sounds will come out.  Monkeys will type.  Maybe make a painting that sounded like the music you just made.  
Anthony Braxton's written music.
Kids make good artists because they have fewer internal barriers preventing the muse from whispering.  Who's to say that a child's scribbling is any less artsy than something hanging in a gallery?  Sign the Mona Lisa with a spray can, call it art.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Anthony Braxton's Compositions Are Interconnected

It may be easier to appreciate his ideas than than the actual music it stimulates, but I remembered reading or hearing that the works of composer/creative musician Anthony Braxton are all somehow inter-related, so I just now (couldn't sleep) looked into that for clarification and found this manifesto: http://www.restructures.net/texts/Braxton-IntroCatalogWorks.htm
Anthony Braxton 

After quickly reading this, I understand the core of Braxton's musical philosophy to be:
  • His compositions connect together.  Shorter pieces can be merged with larger compositions and segments from one work can be mixed and matched or embedded into other works.  Individual sections can be isolated and multiplied (used repeatedly) by itself or with other structures.
  • The music can be played by any instrument or instruments.  Solo parts can be interpreted by orchestras, and vice versa.  Compositions can be disrupted and re-sequenced or re-envisioned to suit any combination of musicians.
  • Tempos, pacing and volume dynamics are relative. The way something might have been written or recorded is not intended to be the only option.  It can be fast/slow, loud/quiet...every option is open to each performer's interpretation.
  • This music can be played too correctly (AKA "wrongly"), as opposed to incorrectly (which is actually "correctly").  This freedom is meant to enhance creativity, not suppress it.  Mistakes are meant to be made with the materials.
  • A loose understanding of the materials or structure may be better than lots of rehearsals or advanced preparation.

This is all very interesting.  I've had similar thoughts and inclinations, which is why I've been shifting farther and farther away from music that feels like it requires strict rules by definition.  You certainly couldn't impose Braxton's approach onto traditional Irish music where tunes are typically played at relatively standardized speeds, with specific rhythms, and a common understanding of how many times through they should be played.  A jig is a jig, a hornpipe is a hornpipe, a reel is a reel, on down the line.  That music serves a different purpose, which is fine.

And you really couldn't do it with, say, the music of Phish or the Grateful Dead and still be doing that type of music justice.  As an amateur musician with unexceptional abilities, I can learn certain basic bits like the vocal melody line to Phish's Guyute, but it'll always feel incomplete if interpreted as a bare bones solo piece minus all the intricate sections that go along with it.  For me, I need music that is open to the freedom that a philosophy like Braxton's allows for; music that - with good conscience - can be removed from stylistic barriers without anybody getting too butt hurt about it.

It kind of reminds me of Leaves of Grass, in a way.  In an attempt to continually express his outlook on life, didn't Walt Whitman view Leaves of Grass as an ongoing, life-long work that united all of his poetry into one constantly evolving whole? Now, I don't know if you can chop up the poems in Leaves of Grass and reassemble them in a William S. Burroughs sort of way, but maybe you can.