Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Making Time for Down Time

One of my favorite times to play/practice music is during a short 15 to 25 minute window.  Like, for example, on the rare morning that I am ready for work about 20 minutes early, I’ll set the timer on my phone, remove all other distractions, and then devote my full attention to working on one musical task for the next 20 minutes until the alarm goes off.  It might be a difficult passage, a whole tune, an improvisation, etc.  Later on that evening when I pick up my banjo again I’ll find that the brief but dialed-in time I put in that morning really had an impact, as opposed to mindless noodling with a TV in the background.

The bottomless lake that is music can easily become an overwhelming, all consuming task with no end in sight.  It’s easy to get burned out.  I don’t want music to be a source of stress and anxiety.  I want it to be a source of pleasure, mindfulness and relaxation.  I need to have an off button.

I’ve realized that I need to make music playing more like my “down” time and not my “up” time.  One way to help achieve this is by focusing completely on the now when playing or practicing.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Set a timer for 20 to 25 minutes and then single-task on one very short term goal or project.  When that time is up take a short (or long) break.  Allow yourself to step away and be (temporarily) done.  When you resume – maybe just 5 or 10 minutes later – set the timer again and either continue working on the same project or try something new.  The important thing is to devote that short amount of time to your single goal of the moment.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Break Time

I've become a tenor banjo homebody.  I haven't been keeping up with the Irish and oldtime tunes played at local jams and sessions so I haven't been getting out to these events.  In fact I haven't been playing that type of music at all.  There's been zero overlap.  It's been such a relief to (temporarily?) let that go.

Instead, over the last several months I've solely been indulging in the music that gets me off the most, which consists of most of the tunes from The Etcetera String Band's out of print Bonne Humeur CD (nobody is familiar with these old obscure Caribbean melodies so they feel like my very own!), over a half-dozen Jerry Garcia ballads from the Grateful Dead songbook, and selected snippets from about 10 Phish songs, as well as a handful of additional Caribbean tunes from other sources, some Latin/Mexican songs, and a few Middle Eastern sounding pieces that use unusual scales.

Let's face it - I play tenor banjo which isn't exactly a common choice.  It would help things if I was passionate about playing tenor banjo in a traditional style or currently focused on learning Irish or perhaps Appalachian traditional music. If that were true then there would be some common ground because there are a lot of people tuned in to traditional music and that learning process.  But my tastes are flowing in a different direction and I'm not attempting to re-direct them or interfere with that course.  It's all part of the journey.

My favorite musicians are guitarists.  Electric guitarists. Jerry Garcia, Trey Anastasio, Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell.  But, I don't play guitar. I play tenor banjo - an acoustic, four string instrument tuned in 5ths.  It doesn't make sense but it makes sense to me.  That combination of loving to play tenor banjo but also loving music that has no association with tenor banjo is so odd that it's not worth trying to relate to others by documenting this because there probably aren't any others in that same boat!

I don't play gigs or "perform".  (Is that why most people play music?).  Most importantly I'm just a mediocre (at best) hobbyist musician obsessed with playing music but at the same time with no real interest in entertaining anyone other than myself with this pursuit.  I'm also not an expert or an authority of any kind so I have no business trying to come up with this stuff.  I'm also tired of sharing these things.

As I sit around the house and play, to some degree I feel myself moving away from structure and tradition or any sense of right or wrong or having to sound a certain way or be at a certain speed or rhythm. And this perspective is so much fun I don't want to stop and have to go back into the real world where I perceive people to be critical and judgmental and full of opinions about what someone should or shouldn't do.  Admittedly, most of the "do this/not that" philosophy stems from a person's good intentions at preserving a type of music they hold dear.  An outlook that I don't share I guess.  So I'm going to stay here a while longer.

I only get an hour or two per day to play and I'm no longer letting unnecessary obligations seep into that time.  I'm going to practice what I want to play when I want to play it with a more laid back attitude about the whole process.  As long as it takes.

To sum up...the above are some reasons are why I'm not updating this blog at the moment.  However, not posting any sort of explanation has been nagging at me so I felt compelled to write this.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thanks For Reading

Thank you for reading this blog.  I'm kind of done with writing it for a while.  There's nothing else that I really need to post here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Six Water Grog's Best Albums/Music of 2015

Here are my favorite albums of 2015.  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.

Circle Around the Sun: Interludes for the Dead (Fare Thee Well setbreak music)
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 was released - in a slightly edited form - 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.

Update - I would like to add the self titled album by Zane Campbell to this list.

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.

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.