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.

****

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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Travel Mandolin by Robert Collins (Tin Guitar)

4-string model in maple and spruce
The idea of a travel mandolin might seem unnecessary because mandolins are already small and can usually fit into the overhead bin of an airplane with no problem.  In my case I play GDAE-tuned "Irish" tenor banjo but no longer owned a mandolin.  Since it was going to be used primarily for travel, I wanted my next mandolin to be one specifically designed with that in mind.

After some research, I reached out to the English ukulele luthier Robert Collins of Tin Guitar in Hebden Bridge, United Kingdom because I liked the design of his travel mandolin. I placed my order in March of this year for a left-handed 4-string model in maple and spruce: maple for the integral neck/body and spruce for the top, with a walnut center stripe down the neck for both looks and reinforcement. The neck is carved into something of a "V" profile to give it more of a mandolin feel, compared to the flattened D profile of Rob's uke necks.

Tin Guitar 4-string Travel Mandolin Size Specs:
Overall length = 21.25"
Lower bout = 6"
Upper bout = 2.75"
Body depth = 68mm
Scale length = 14"
Nut width = 30mm

Sound Sample:

The strings it came with are light gauge, D'addario J62. Note: single course light gauge mandolin strings can be sharp to uncallused fingers. Playing it some more will help me with that. I chose the 4-string model mostly for minimalism (it shaves an inch or two off the length and cuts down on neck weight) but also because it mimics the number of strings on a tenor banjo. This mandolin will fit into a soprano uke gig bag. 

There’s no truss rod, but Rob says tension shouldn’t be a concern. Being a relatively short neck in hard maple and with the walnut skunk stripe as well, the neck is pretty strong and with 4-strings it's only handling 50% of the tension that a regular mandolin would take, so GDAE tuning is fine.

My overall impression is that it is an efficient, well-conceived, minimalist design...crafted with the same care and attention to detail that I imagine all of Robert Collins' instruments must receive. It's hard for me to find a flaw. As you can hopefully hear from the sample above it has a pleasant sound that exceeds expectations for such an instrument.
Neck and body sides are integral
Curly figure on back
Walnut skunk stripe on neck

****

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Making Room for Mercury on Phish's Big Boat

Phish has several top-shelf songs that have never made it onto a proper studio album, including Harry Hood, Slave to the Traffic Light, Tube, The Curtain, Halley's Comet, Carini, Strange Design and more.  Now we can add Mercury to that list.

The multi-part composition was recognized as an instant classic when it debuted in July 2015, so it seemed like a shoo-in for inclusion on Phish's new studio album, Big Boat.  However, producer Bob Ezrin cut the fan-favorite from the track-list, presumably due to time constraints.  This is a questionable decision, especially considering that there are much weaker songs on the finished product.  Mercury could have taken Big Boat from good to great.


If time really was an issue, then what other songs could have been cut to make room for Mercury?

Big Boat kicks off with Friends, a Fishman sung number that doesn't get any less bizarre the more you listen to it.  Maybe it's about alien conquistadors?  Although it's not a monumental song, the opening notes to Friends do start things off in a bold, distinctive fashion.  Songs with Fishman on lead vocals are rare, so this one earns its keep on that fact alone.

Breath and Burning is the first of many Trey Anastasio contributions.  It has a tropical vibe, which is a bit unusual for Phish.  The lyrics are strong and the TAB style horn part adds the right amount of hook.

Home is the first of three Page McConnell songs on Big Boat and it's the least compelling of those three.  Home might be catchy, but I don't know that there is a strong need for this song in the Phish oeuvre.  The experimental part at the end isn't enough to save it.  Although, cheers to Page for the burst of creativity.

Track 4 is Blaze On, which would not sound out of place on a 1970's Little Feat album.  This is a feel good, grooving song that borders on jamband 101 territory, but because this is Phish that rudimentary path has a lot of skill behind it.  Blaze On qualifies as one of the best new songs in Phish's repertoire.

Trey was obviously trying to write a Motown song with Tide Turns, and from what I can tell he succeeded.  For a song that may not always go over well in a live setting, it works well enough in the studio and adds diversity to the styles represented on Big Boat.

There's always room for a bluegrass song at a Phish show, so Page's Things People Do will easily fill that void.  The low-fi demo version that ended up on the album would have easily fit on 1992's Picture of Nectar.

Waking Up Dead is a total Mike Gordon song and you need at least one of those on every Phish record.  It has potential and the spicy sonority is appealing, but more time could have been spent fine tuning it.  Mike's other new song, Let's Go - which like Mercury was left off of Big Boat - might have been a better choice for him.

Running Out of Time is OK enough, if a little lightweight, but hasn't Trey already written other songs that sound like this and dwell on the same themes and emotions?  Apparently this song dates back to the Round Room writing sessions and finally found a home here.

For some reason I'm not a huge fan of No Men In No Man's Land, although a song with this type of improv potential is an asset.  The looseness of the studio cut captures some of its off-the-cuff versatility.

My appreciation of the ballad Miss You grew tremendously after hearing the live recording from 10/18/16 in Nashville with Bob Weir sitting in and tackling the lead vocals.  That interpretation took the song from insular to inclusive.  Phish has struggled to add crowd-pleasing ballads in recent years, but this one might do it.

Now that it's been played live, I Always Wanted It This Way has perhaps had the warmest fan reception of any of the songs from Big Boat.  Hopefully this synth-focused all-star burns its way into our collective consciousness with just as much merit as the decades old Phish classics.

It may always sound cheesy, but More, with its "gotta be something more than this" refrain, is a timely reflection on the current Phish worldview, in much the same way that "was it for this my life I sought" captured our emotions decades ago.  Even cynics occasionally need to vibrate with love and light.

Petrichor gets an A for effort.  It succeeds where Time Turns Elastic tried and failed.  This ambitious composition hearkens back to the Junta days when Trey studied with composer Ernie Stires to create complex masterworks that formed the foundation of all things Phish.  In Petrichor's case, the sophistication of the music is offset by the zen koan simplicity of the lyrics.

That's a rundown of all the songs on Phish's Big Boat.  So, which one(s) should get axed to make room for Mercury?  I think you could easily drop Home and still have two great Page songs in Things People Do and I Always Wanted It This Way.  Mike Gordon's flawed Waking Up Dead needs to stay because without it you wouldn't have a Mike Gordon song unless you replace it with Let's Go.  Of the Trey selections, Running Out of Time is the most expendable, although I still kinda like it.  If I had to give up two songs to make room for Mercury, it would be Home and Running Out of Time.