Sunday, March 12, 2017

24 Hours in Greenwich Village and 10 Things To Do

I'm just back from a touristy overnight stay in New York City -- about 24 hours from morning to morning.  I knew that most of the time was going to be spent in Greenwich Village, the iconic neighborhood on the west side of Lower Manhattan, so before going I made a list of ten things to do while there.  Those were:
  1. Walk the High Line
  2. Sip on a Caffeinated Beverage at Cafe Reggio
  3. Sip on an Alcoholic Beverage at the White Horse Tavern
  4. Re-Enact Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' Album Cover
  5. Catch a Set of Jazz at The Village Vanguard
  6. Check Out the Historic Foodie Shops on Bleecker Street
  7. Ogle the Exotic Instruments at Music Inn
  8. Visit Washington Square Park
  9. Walk Out Onto Pier 45 and Look for the Statue of Liberty
  10. Find "Old" New York
Here's how that plan turned out!

Walk the High Line (Success!)
Although most of this this former elevated rail line turned public park is in the Chelsea neighborhood directly north of Greenwich Village, the Southern end of it does put you out on Gansevoort St. in what amounts to the northwest edge of the Village. It's a pretty easy walk from Port Authority (bus station) or Penn Station (train station) to the northern entrance(s) of the High Line.  We found the High Line with no trouble at all and walked a mile plus on it in frigid, windy, 20-degree March weather!  There are even a couple vantage points where you can see the Statue of Liberty off in the distance.  Walking along this above ground urban pathway was a brisk way to start the day.
Laura on the High Line. Statue of Liberty far far in background.

Me on the High Line. Not crowded on 20 degree day!
Sip on a Caffeinated Beverage at Cafe Reggio (Success!)
Caffe Reggio is the oldest coffee shop in Greenwich Village, circa 1927.  It was also the first place in the United States to serve cappuccino. I'm willing to bet this historic caffe stays pretty busy, so we were fortunate to walk in and find a nice, cozy table straight away on a super cold morning.  Classical music was playing softly over the speakers.  The poetic atmosphere was everything one could have hoped for and we lingered for quite some time over latte and espresso.  That was exactly the experience I was hoping to have here.
Latte and Espresso at Caffe Reggio.
Sip on an Alcoholic Beverage at the White Horse Tavern (Success!)
Poet Dylan Thomas once drank 18 shots of whiskey at this establishment...and then died shortly thereafter.  Jack Kerouac was also kicked out of the bar several times.  And, oh yeah it was built in 1880.  Lunch time was a good time to duck in for a drink.  It wasn't crowded yet and, surprisingly, hardened regulars outnumbered the few tourists that walked in.  I sat at the bar, sipped on a well poured Guinness, and took it all in.  This time the house music playing was pleasant jazz.
Too cold to sit outside today at the White Horse Tavern.
Re-Enact Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' Album Cover (Somewhat Success!)
The cover of Bob Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, depicts the songster walking down a wintry New York street in a light jacket with then girlfriend Suze Rotolo clutching his arm.  The photo was taken in Greenwich Village on Jones Street between W. 4th Street and Bleecker (facing W. 4th Street).  The street hasn't changed that much in the 50+ years since.  It was probably about the same temperature (25 degrees) during the Dylan photo shoot, but instead of thin jackets we were bundled up with several layers.  There was also no photographer handy so a selfie it was.
Standing on the street where Bob and Suze stood in 1963.
Catch a Set of Jazz at The Village Vanguard (Definite Success!)
New York is still the hub of jazz in America, if not the entire world, and the Village Vanguard is arguably the most prestigious jazz club in the world; certainly the most famed in New York.  This was pretty much the whole point of going to New York for just one night.  On short notice I had seen that Bill Frisell was doing a two-week residency at the Vanguard so off we went.  Did I mention that it was cold this day?  That probably prevented most people from lining up early, so when we arrived 15 minutes before doors there were only about 4 or 5 people in line in front of us. This meant that upon entering I was able to select THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE for seeing one of my all-time favorite musicians in THE MOST legendary jazz club.  A dream-like dream come true.  Bill played in a trio format with the drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Thomas Morgan.  Let me just say, Royston is a kick-ass drummer.  Bill was in peak form, but some of that credit goes to Royston for help taking him there.  I got what I needed from that set!
My view for Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston at the Vanguard.
Check Out the Foodie Shops on Bleecker Street (Success!)
This list is out of sequence, because after walking the High Line we made a B-line to Bleecker Street to sample the little cluster of venerable food shops between 6th and 7th Avenue, offering cheese, meats, coffee, tea, sweets, baked goods and more.  The $1 arancini (stuffed rice balls) at Faicco's Italian Specialties are the stuff of legend and deservedly so, as we found out.  Yeah, yeah...everybody talks about those and now I do too.  After walking around and adding some tea, bite-sized Bantam bagels and a NY pizza slice to that mix my stomach was feeling pretty sated.
Bill Frisell stood behind these pedals. I sat right in front of them. 
Ogle the Instruments at Music Inn (Fail)
This music shop on West 4th Street opened in 1958; a true holdover from the bohemian folk age.  Within its walls are hundreds upon hundreds of exotic instruments from around the world.  I was looking forward to seeing what they've got but then totally forgot to look it up when in the area.  Oh well, not everything could go exactly as planned.
Stone Arch. Washington Square Park.
Visit Washington Square Park (Very Brief Success!)
Washington Square Park - with its stone arch and fountain area - is a focal point in the Village.  On nice days people gather all over the park, but on this cold, cold day it was quite barren.  We were there just long enough to say we saw it.  I made a point of seeking out the "Hanging Elm".  Located in the northwest corner of the park, this urban-legendary tree remains the oldest tree in New York city.  Fun fact: over 20,000 bodies are buried under Washington Square Park.  The area where the park is now was once used as a burial ground for the unknown, the indigent, and victims of the yellow fever.  Creepy!
Hangman's Elm.
Walk Out Onto Pier 45 and Look for the Statue of Liberty (Fail)
This pier and green space juts out about 850 feet into the Hudson river, offering views of Hoboken, New Jersey as well as the Statue of Liberty.  That's all well and good but it was too damn cold to fool with trying to do that on this day.  Briefly taking off my gloves to take the above pictures was battle enough against the freeze.  Maybe on a nice summer day, yes.  Besides, we had already seen the Statue of Liberty off in the distance from the High Line and we didn't need to walk out on the water in that wind.

Find "Old" New York (Success?)
It may be cliche to go to Greenwich Village in search of wistfulness, but I would call this a successful attempt.  Yes, the folk scene that hatched Bob Dylan is long, long gone, although a few stubborn jazz clubs, cafes and vintage pubs do remain.  And unfortunately (?), after about 3 or 4pm it seemed like every formerly quaint restaurant or quiet pub had suddenly turned into a boisterous scene with club music playing at volumes that anyone over 40 is probably not going to appreciate.

However, in the morning hours (you know, "brunchtime"), in the just the right light, the Village does seem to retain its classic hue of days past.  You can almost imagine encountering a Welsh poet drinking his final whiskey, or a jazz musician playing with fierce passion, or crossing paths with an old folkie on Macdougal street.  Wait a minute...I did cross-paths with an old folkie on Macdougal street!  Village resident Steve Earle was walking by himself, minding his own business, when I managed to stammer out "Hey Steve, big fan of your music" as he passed by.  To which he replied "I appreciate it man" and then just kept on walking to wherever he was headed. Probably the gym.

It's amazing what 24 hours in New York can do for you.  It would be impossible to ever replicate this experience but I'd be willing to give it a try all over again, fully expecting different results.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Decoding Jerry Garcia with GratefulGuitarLessons.com

"The greatest changes on earth don’t mean anything to me if they don’t have a great melody tying them together." (Jerry Garcia, 1978 Guitar Player magazine interview).

Last week I emailed Seth Fleishman of GratefulGuitarLessons.com to thank him for creating his online video lessons on the playing of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Even though I'm not a guitarist, I still play a plucked, fretted, stringed instrument that contains the same 12 notes that Jerry was working with. Seth's lessons and learning materials have made it easy for me to apply these concepts back to my instrument of choice.

Anyway, one thing led to another and Seth shared a whole bunch of knowledge with me via our email correspondence, and he's been kind enough to allow me to share this information below. Read on for Seth Fleishman's insights into the guitar style of Jerry Garcia!


Describe Jerry's approach to soloing.
In general what differentiates Jerry’s approach from most rock guitarists is that he was almost always playing to the chord changes, rather than playing a modal scale over the changes. So if a song goes from D to C to G to F, he would play to the chord he is on. He was trying to outline or identify melodically each chord using chord tones at key moments in his phrases, so that if all you could hear was Jerry, you would still hear the changes happening. 


Some might say, oh, so he was using arpeggios? And I would say, for the most part, not really. JG was using chord tones. He had ideas on the fretboard based on chord shapes, but because chords are derived from a particular major scale, he always had a choice of using chordal-based ideas, or scale-based ideas, or both. I usually refer to chordal-based ideas as vertical and scale-based ideas as horizontal, but that’s just a general idea, and doesn’t always apply. So whether he was using a chord shape or a scale, he was going to most of the time hit a target note -- a root, a third, or if applicable, a dominant 7th, on the change, to mark the movement of the harmony, all within a hopefully logical melodic idea.

On top of playing to the chord he was on, Jerry also tried to connect that chord to the next chord with a phrase that begins on the current chord, and lands appropriately on the next chord with some kind of natural resolution, using target notes that make you hear the chord change.

He had a whole bag of licks he could fall back on as needed -- no one can be purely creating at all times -- but he was always trying to make his solo well-composed, made up of phrases that become sentences, sentences that become paragraphs, and paragraphs that become the theme. Jerry tried to create these phrases based on the song at hand. Sometimes he’d play lines clearly based on the melody, other times it might be very loosely based on the melody -- perhaps the phrases are entirely novel, but they are rhythmically arranged in a way that follows the pattern of the melody. He had an ability to recall and build on what he'd already done up to that point in a solo. Sometimes he might imagine the melody continuing in his head, and he’d be playing around where it would be if it were there, creating a sort of counterpoint.

He's always playing to the song, never slathering over it with licks willy-nilly. And he's trying to build whole thoughts in a logical way. JG was able to retain that big picture and stay focused and concentrated, even while dancing out there on the high wire all the time. He was relentless in trying to find a new permutation each time. In a way, within each song, it's like he's trying to do the SAME thing each time, just differently. So the Sugaree solo is always Sugaree. He doesn't want to take it out a new door. He wants to find an undiscovered way of taking it out the SAME door, differently.

He made great use of ornamentation to make the solo interesting. With ornamentation, he could use returning tones, approaching tones, turns and trills to decorate a chord tone, thus transforming a simple chord outline into an elegant passage. Those ornaments could sometimes become a motif unto themselves -- an idea he could use to build and develop as a central theme for a solo or a section of a solo. He also made frequent use of sequencing (scale patterns of a certain ascending or descending character).


Jerry also had an incredibly wide dynamic range. He wasn’t blasting away the whole time. His lead volume would be set loud so that he could use his touch and pick attack to vary the delivery of notes from very soft to very loud.  

When playing repeated patterns and sequences in a modal jam, he would use his pick attack to make certain notes pop on unpredictable beats, creating interesting sounding lines that didn’t just sound like running scales.

On more lyrical passages, he could create emotional impact by emphasizing certain notes. He could also be incredibly tender and subtle, bringing things down to a level that was unusual for a rock player in a big arena. The Grateful Dead had an audience that listened intently, and because of this, Jerry was able to use a wide range of dynamics to great effect.

Last but certainly not least, Jerry used a tremendous amount of chromaticism. Perhaps because triad-based music only gives you so many note choices, he would use chromatic passing tones, approaching tones, and returning tones to turn the simple into something interesting. He had a somewhat rich, elegant style that reminds me of early Baroque violin. So he wanted as many notes as he could have to work with. Chromaticism also enabled him to create phrases with a wide variety of rhythmic contours and length on the fly. If he needed an extra beat or two, he could fill in the gap with chromatic tones, as long as he landed on a solid target note.

Seth Fleishman - GratefulGuitarLessons.com
He was a brilliant and original player with a truly artistic mindset.


How did Jerry incorporate a wide range of influences into a unique(?) style? He seemed to be simultaneously distinctive and closely tied to various traditions.

He said in an interview somewhere that the only two major influences he could name were Chuck Berry and Earl Scruggs. I can see how that forms a simplified, but very true idea of his sound. The brightness of it. There was a joyful rock and roll spirit. The banjo incorporates so many of those time-worn folk tradition licks that provided a reservoir of ideas for Jerry to play with and reinvent. Even the tuning of a banjo, to an open G major chord, seems to suggest something of Jerry’s sound, which featured major 3rds so much more prominently than most rock players.

I think the raw power of simple chords on a somewhat dirty sounding electric guitar (Chuck Berry), plus the major 3rd leaning, 8th-note filled, always moving, ornate style of bluegrass banjo (Earl Scruggs) really do go a long way towards describing his sound.

I think Jerry also took inspiration from other instruments. That’s really a great way to come up with fresh ideas, and I recommend it to anybody. Transpose ideas from a different instrument. Floyd Cramer’s famous piano style derived from his copying of pedal steel licks. A piano can’t bend strings, so the bends became little approaching tone licks, and a whole style was born. It’s a great way to get out of a rut and find fresh ideas, not based on your instrument, but based on music itself.

I hear Jerry getting ideas from horns. I think some of his ultra-distorted guitar work, anything from Minglewood to Stella Blue, could be imagined as emulating a saxophone, and inspired by what a horn might do.

In fact, when he started tinkering with the midi set-up, you could hear him quite literally applying horn sounds. So where he might have imagined a trumpet in Let it Grow, it became a trumpet. I wasn’t crazy about this, honestly. I thought he took midi too literally, and I missed his beautiful guitar sound, and I found Weir’s rather sneaky, mischievous and creative application of midi far more interesting. But it shows you where Jerry’s inspiration may have been coming from.

Like everyone else of his generation, where needed, he could draw from the three kings -- BB, Albert, and Freddie, but I think he tried to use their ideas very sparingly. There were so many guys ripping off the blues in those days. I think his artistic mindset demanded that he find something different to do.

And I’m sure he picked up bits here and there from all over. He’s mentioned Django Reinhardt, and I could see how he might have been able to get some ideas he could use. I definitely think he was into Roy Buchanan around 1980 or so. I hear the influence in there. It comes out in JG's own unique way, but it’s there.


Did Jerry play differently in the Grateful Dead than in the Jerry Garcia Band?

That’s a good question. He played a lot more cover tunes, and the mood was a little more somber. I always used to say the difference between a Dead show and a JGB show is that at a JGB show, there are no beach balls. That may not be entirely true, but you get the point. JGB shows, in tone, reminded me more of a Dylan show: somewhat more serious, slightly less celebratory, less spacey or psychedelic. That comes from the songs he chose when he was on his own, and is reflected in his playing.

He was perhaps a little looser and freer with JGB. If you think of it, his band is there to support him. There’s interplay, to be sure, but in the GD, they were all presumably equals, and so the give and take was probably a little different, and perhaps more challenging.

I personally think he was more himself in the JGB. A little looser, but a little more serious. Maybe you could say in the GD he was rock player, and in the JGB he was a soul player, an R&B player. The first time I saw the JGB, while they were still playing the opening bars of “How Sweet It Is”, my first reaction was “Holy crap-- they’re better than the Dead!” Which also may not be true, but to this day I am a huge fan of R&B and soul music, and not so much a fan of rock.


How did you go about learning the styles of Jerry and Bobby, and what is your approach to teaching and explaining it through GratefulGuitarLessons.com?

Just listening. I refer to video where possible, but usually just to try to confirm what my ears are telling me. I have a pretty vast collection of soundboards, so when I am working on a particular song, I’ll listen to many, many versions, with my eyes closed, headphones on, and try to pick it all up. Some of that, honestly, is a gift. I didn’t always know the fretboard or music theory, but I’ve always had an ear.

In a way, particularly with Jerry, I just got kind of lucky where I was able to sort out what he was doing, and see the logic and the method behind it, or at least divine a logic and a method from it. And then this logic ends up applying over and over again. What’s amazing is how inventive he was within that framework. Just an amazing improviser.

My approach to the videos has not changed. They are very straight-forward and come with tablature and a backing track to use for practicing. I perform a demonstration of whatever we are going to work on, and then I walk through it note by note, step by step, discussing whatever I think is important as I go. The song, or the solo, is the script for me.

I work in bits of music theory, ideas about what makes a good solo, ideas about scales and chords and understanding the fretboard, all in the context of whatever it is we’re working on. I always try keep the explanations simple and practical. I never try to make it sound high-minded or intellectual. So, for example, I’ll say "here’s some chromatic passing tones", but then I’ll say “just think of them as in-between notes.”

I like to use note-for-note stuff almost exclusively because otherwise one could get lazy and miss the true brilliance of the artist. Let's check out what he actually did and see what we can learn from it. It will usually be a combination of things. So you get to steal some actual licks, which is fine, or learn how to play a song the way they played it, but hopefully you learn how to create, you learn more about the fretboard, about music itself, about improvisation, and composition.

I’ve been very fortunate because the feedback has been so great, and leads me to believe that my approach works for a good amount of people. I love the music of the Grateful Dead. I love Jerry and Bobby. I respect all those guys so much as artists. I just wanted to show folks how cool the stuff really was that they were up to.



***

Seth says that two lessons readers might find useful are 10 Steps to Jerry Style Blues and 10 Steps to Jerry Style Solos, because both of those get right to the heart of Jerry's overall strategy and approach to basic melodic improvisation in a mostly triadic work. If you start with those lessons, when you later look at specific songs and pick apart JG solos to get ideas, you'll get more out of it, and better appreciate his creative ideas within the context of his approach to the task.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017 Will Be The Year Of The Ear

In 2016 I had fun pursuing a unique assortment of melodies from sources including Camper Van Beethoven, Bill Frisell, Ween, Gillian Welch, Neym Rosauro and more. What these tunes all had in common is I learned them either from Fakebooks or from someone else’s transcriptions, and I was focused on just playing the head melody without regard for, knowledge of, or concern with the underlying chords or their structure.

Toward the end of this year I discovered that I did in fact have the ability to transcribe a vocal melody by ear. For a few weeks in Nov/Dec I would write out the lyrics to Phish songs, then just by listening to the song figure out the musical notes to each sung syllable so that I could play the melody line as an instrumental. I doubt I was 100% accurate but at least this broke the ice.

While that ear breakthrough was happening I was also discovering the New Orleans jazz banjoist Emanuel Sayles, who seemed to have an approachable comping and soloing style. For the first time I now had a home base for modeling a "jazz" banjo technique, should I choose to do so. I also started to dig the New Orleans jazz repertoire, especially on some select recordings that Manny Sayles appears on.

In 2017 I want to continue along this aural path by doing things such as improvising over chord changes and “transcribing” solos by artists that inspire me, such as Jerry Garcia or Manny Sayles. I don’t know if transcribing has to mean writing anything down. It might be completely by ear – a feel thing. I want to connect the ear and disconnect from the page. I also want to gain a greater understanding of harmony, chord structure and improvisation up and down the neck. A great, non-analytical way of doing this is by simply listening to the masters and then trying to mimic that sound on your instrument.

Instead of being a chore this activity can now be an opportunity for advancement and discovery.

A New Kind of Lead Sheet

I've been creating lead sheets that don't use sheet music notation or tab.  I simply write out the chords in Roman numerals and the melody notes based on their scale number.  For example, for a song in D every D chord is the I chord, every Eminor chord is the ii- chord, etc.  An F# note would be the number 3, an A note the number 5.  "Accidentals" and chords outside of the 7 chords from the scale are no problem.  An A# note in D would be a 5# note.  An F7 chord in D would be a III7 chord (capital letters because it's not minor).

This type of numbering system makes all keys universal. With this approach you can play any song in any key that you know the scale of and the chords for.  For songs that change keys, just choose the major scale that fits the best.

I've created a table containing boxes representing measures/bars to use as a template for writing out songs this way.  For songs where the melody comes straight from the vocal melody, I also write down the lyrics and apply a note number to each sung syllable.

Here's an example lead sheet for the song I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now.  I encourage others to try this.  It's also good ear training because it's less visual and less tied to a certain key or fingering.  It makes it easier to practice a song in all 12 keys and in various ways, which is good for building an aural connection.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New Orleans Jazz Banjoist Emanuel "Manny" Sayles

A few weeks back I came across an article titled 10 Great Jazz Tenor Banjo Players To Listen To, written by David Bandrowski for the Deering banjos blog.  On that list was a musician I had never heard of named Emanuel "Manny" Sayles.  I checked out some of the records he played on and was instantly captivated by the music.  Manny is a superb rhythm player and an inspiring soloist.  Finding out about him has opened the door towards listening, appreciating and learning about traditional New Orleans jazz, and it has given me someone to focus on as a possible influence.
Emanuel "Manny" Sayles
Emanuel Sayles was born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on January 31, 1905 (or 1907). His father George Sayles was a musician who played many instruments, including bass and viola.  Manny studied violin with a teacher in New Orleans named Dave Perkins and eventually taught himself to play banjo and guitar. He formed a neighborhood band with some of Perkins' other students and in 1924 they were hired to work in Pensacola, FL. The band became known as the Pensacola Jazzers and played all over the Gulf Coast.

In 1926 Manny returned to New Orleans where he was the banjoist in various groups for the next 12 years, including regular gigs at the New Orleans Country Club and on the Streckfus riverboats.  When electric guitars were invented Manny was required to get one for playing on the riverboat.  The electric guitar eventually took him to Chicago in 1938.  He would stay in Chicago for a decade, playing electric guitar and working as a sideman and band leader.

Manny returned to New Orleans in 1949 and by the mid 50's had taken up the banjo again and gotten back into the traditional New Orleans jazz music, which was starting to have a revival.  He subbed for the great George Guesnon at Preservation Hall and eventually replaced Lawrence Marrero on banjo in George Lewis' band after Marrero passed away.  

In the early 1960's Manny Sayles was featured on several classic GHB LPs, including Louis Nelson Big Four - Volumes One and Two, Kid Thomas/George Lewis - Ragtime Stompers, Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music, and Sayles' Silverleaf Ragtimers, to name a few.  These records are worth seeking out, not just for Manny's banjo playing but also for the intricate way the clarinet, trombone and/or trumpet interact in the New Orleans style of music.


I had always heard that Elmer Snowden's Harlem Banjo album was the holy grail of jazz banjo music, which it certainly is.  However, for some reason it never really captivated me.  Now, with the discovery of Manny Sayles, I have found a prime example of jazz banjo, as played in New Orleans.  Those Louis Nelson Big Four albums are doing it for me.

Sayles continued recording until the 1980's and had multiple opportunities to tour internationally in his later years.  He died on October 5, 1986.  Manny wasn't the flashiest of players or one of the most well known, but his musicianship is certainly among the best of the 20th century New Orleans jazzers.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Best Music of 2016 - Five Old and Five New

For me 2016 was as much about discovering or re-discovering older records as it was about keeping up with the latest releases.  Nevertheless, I was grooving to some new albums this year so I'll list my five favorite new albums first.

Nels Cline - Lovers
2016 was full of old vinyl findings and some of the ones I liked best are in the cheesy, mod, bachelor-pad category.  That's the very reason this Nels Cline record is so great.  It's brand new but approaches that vintage sound in a wise, refined way that is all meat, no cheese.  Lovers is strong all the way through but every time the Sonic Youth cover "Snare, Girl" would come on it would catch my ear as the standout track. Naturally I had to get this on vinyl.

American Babies - An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark
Rock and roll is a dying you know, but you'd never know it by this album which covers lots of ground from jamband to alt. country to arena rock, and more.  Tom Hamilton's American Babies has been around for a few years but this year their profile really elevated due in part from the strength of this work.  Go see them live.  Such a great band.

Holly Bowling - Better Left Unsung
Holly Bowling followed up her 2015 album of solo piano interpretations of Phish songs with, yep, an album of Grateful Dead songs re-imagined for solo piano.  A perfect choice as far as I'm concerned.  If anything, this album tops the previous one in terms of sheer beauty.  The song list is extremely strong: she picked top shelf Dead songs while still avoiding some of the more overdone, obvious choices.  Holly has a deep connection and reverence for this material and her thoughtful arrangements and interpretations makes this easily my favorite Grateful Dead tribute album of all time.  Holly's own skills as an improviser are becoming more and more evident, most notably in the 27-minute exploration of Dark Star.

Mary Halvorson Octet - Away With You
Mary Halvorson's sessions as band leader keep getting larger and larger.  This time she's up to 8 in the ensemble, thanks to the addition of steel guitarist Susan Alcorn.  Away With You is the most recent addition to the trajectory that began in 2008 with Dragon's Head, a trio recording.  Some day I want to do a listening marathon where I play Dragon's Head (2008), Saturn Sings (2010), Bending Bridges (2012), Illusionary Sea (2013), Reverse Blue (2014) and Away With You (2016) all in succession just to hear the progression taking place.  I guess I'll need to do this soon before Mary adds to that list.  Mary's guitar artistry is already well known, but her legacy as a composer and band leader is starting to take shape as well.  I also really liked her highly-improvised guitar duo album with Noël Akchoté that was quietly released this year.

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels - I Long To See You
This laid-back jazz album plays heavily on country, folk and Americana themes.  78 year old Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is new to me, but I was really drawn to his sober readings of the head melodies to these tunes.  Don't get me wrong, he goes "out", but more importantly he also knows how to go "in".  There's a deep connection to tradition in every note he plays.  Bill Frisell is on here and anything with him is bound to be golden.  Plus, these types of songs are right in Frisell's wheelhouse.  The other musicians - Greg Leisz on pedal steel, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland - pretty much crush it as well.  Guest vocal turns by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones certainly don't hurt.  It's rare to hear music exuding this much love.

That's it for the new.  In with the old.  Here are the five older releases I most got into in 2016.

The Upsetters - Return of Django
I found this album via Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin's recently re-released 1969 album Boss Reggae.  There's a track on Boss Reggae called Soulful I that I really took notice of, which I learned was a Lee Scratch Perry tune released earlier in 1969 under The Upsetters' name.  Return of Django is pretty awesome.  It sounds like a stoned version of a spaghetti western soundtrack, chock full of repetitive melodies that are brilliant because of their simplicity, not despite of it.  If you have a keyboard at home (or better yet, an organ) you need to start sounding out some of these tunes on it.

Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach - Money Jungle
I took a chance on this 1963 album and bought a brand new vinyl copy at Deep Groove Records in Richmond without knowing anything about it.  The word "Essential" was hand-written on the plastic sleeve by store employee Chris Pittman.  That was enough of a testimonial.  There's some massive tension and power on display in this motherfucker.  I don't know what was going on in the studio that day, but Mingus plays his bass like his life depends on it, and Max Roach makes sure the drums have equal say.  Not to be outdone, the elder Ellington shows these two hipsters a thing or two about music before it's all said and done.  This is either a prime example of collective improvisation or collective chaos - sometimes they are having one musical conversation but more often three competing voices are shouting to be heard.  Very essential indeed.

Camper Van Beethoven - Telephone Free Landslide Victory
Telephone Free Landslide Victory was already known to me, but getting it on LP and diving back in has propelled it into the "desert island disc" category.  So much so that I learned how to play nearly all of its instrumental tracks on my tenor banjo this year, including Yanqui Go Home, Payed Vacation: Greece, Skinhead Stomp, Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China, Balalaika Gap, and Opi Rides Again.  In addition to those quasi-ethnic instrumentals, the song songs are some of the best examples of the snarky, freaky, acid-drenched Santa Cruz, CA attitude that defined CVB's early work.

Lucinda Williams - Car Wheel On A Gravel Road
Do you ever go through periods of your life where the portal between the real and the surreal, the natural and supernatural seems to be open wide?  The Third Eye, if you will?  Well, this album found me in a time earlier this year when that door was wide open and every song on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road took on a deeper but definitely out of context meaning that felt entirely apropos.  Because of the way this album oozed its way into my psyche it is lodged in there forever now, sitting right alongside John Prine.

Louis Nelson Big Four - Volume 1 and Volume 2
My exposure to New Orleans jazz is still in its infancy, but it's taken a recent boost upon the discovery of banjoist Emanuel “Manny” Sayles. After searching out some of the recordings he plays on, I’ve honed in on these Louis Nelson Big Four recordings (volumes 1 and 2) as overall favorites. These feature trombonist Louis Nelson, clarinetist George Lewis, pianist Joe Robichaux and Manny on banjo. I dig everything about these mostly instrumental cuts recorded on August 1, 1964: the cozy yet sonically clear recording quality, the lazy pace and relaxed vibe, the somewhat eccentric but non-flashy warts and all soloing, the small-band interaction full of homegrown non-intellectual contrapunal countermelodies, and the rough/unrehearsed jam session nature to it all. Most notably, you can really hear Manny’s staunch banjo strumming and craggy solo plucking.  This is ground zero in ear training for me at the moment.

That's this year's list!  Thanks for reading.





Friday, December 9, 2016

Jazz Age Phish

Last month I decided to see if I could transcribe the vocal melody line to some Phish songs on my tenor banjo just by listening and assigning a note to each sung syllable in the lyrics. To my surprise and delight, this came rather easy. Years of familiarity with Phish’s music probably helped.
I soon thought of the Ran Blake book Primacy of the Ear.  I’ve mentioned this book before. The main point of Primacy of the Ear is putting your ear, rather than the fingers (technique) or the brain (theory) at the center of your musical learning. In doing so you are encouraged to focus on a couple divergent musical interests and study them both in depth. For one person this might be the music of Eric Dolphy paired with Cretan traditional music, for somebody else maybe Arvo Pärt and Aretha Franklin.

It’s taken me years to develop the mindset to give learning anything by ear a legitimate shot but the fun I had transcribing Phish vocal melodies made me consider following the advice in Primacy of the Ear by using Phish’s songbook as a means for improving my aural skills. Then I remembered a 2012 album called The Jazz Age by The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, where Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry songs are re-imagined in a 1920’s big band style. A musician named Martin Wheatley plays what sounds like 4-string banjo on most of the tracks on that album.
I had never heard of or listened to Roxy Music before discovering The Jazz Age, but I created a playlist in Spotify, alternating the original song with the 1920’s jazz version to hear the comparison. These artsy pop/rock songs work incredibly well as 1920’s jazz numbers (or even standalone pieces) and it sounds like Martin Wheatley didn't really change anything about his banjo technique for that recording. He is using the usual 1920's style rhythm playing.

This helped me realize that I could pair the learning of Phish songs by ear and the learning of traditional New Orleans/Creole banjo playing by ear into one study.  One example might be figuring out the vocal melody and general chord structure to the song Lawn Boy and then strumming over those changes in the standard "straight fours" jazz banjo rhythm.  Freedom through limitation.