Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Poor Man's Electric Vibraphone

My fantasy instrument is some type of mallet percussion instrument - like a xylophone, vibraphone or marimba.  Whether being used in the Brazilian Classical/Folk recordings for Ney Rosauro or Uakti; in the jazz of Bobby Hutcherson, Walt Dickerson and many others; in the indigenous music of Guatemala's Marimba Chapinlandia; or in the rock-like settings utilized by Tortoise, Frank Zappa, and more; I just love this melodic yet percussive sound.

I especially like the idea of an electric version of this type of instrument, but considering the costs of a Marimba Lumina, malletKAT, or Xylosynth, I don't think I'll be spending that kind of money on a musical whim any time soon.  A decent quality piano keyboard like the Roland GO:KEYS can be had for $300 or less, so you'd think that someone would have produced an electric synth vibraphone/marimba/xylophone at a similar price point.

Enter Keith McMillen Instruments.  While their $79 K-Board isn't intended to be an electric vibraphone, it comes close to scratching that itch.  In fact, it might be just what I am looking for!

I'm used to playing melodies on an acoustic 4-string tenor banjo, so when I came across the K-Board through an online search last week I wasn't quite sure what technology it was supposed to be.  I assumed an instrument like this would have its own internal sounds, built-in speakers, and power source/battery.  None of that is the case.  After a little bit more digging, I learned of MIDI sound modules like the Midiplus miniEngine  and the MidiTech PianoBox which could provide the necessary power and sounds, as alternatives to a computer or iOS device.

I took a chance and ordered the K-Board, along with the Midiplus MiniEngine Pro and a couple cheap, tiny rubber mallets.  I already own a little speaker that can plug into the headphone jack.  These items arrived yesterday and worked right out of the box!  Here's a sound sample:

The K-Board features 25 chromatic keys, making it super compact and portable.  The bottom row contains the white piano key notes C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C from low to high, while the top row contains the black keys C# D# F# G# A# C# D# F# G# A# (also known as Db Eb Gb Ab Bb Db Eb Gb Ab Bb).

Before ordering I thought about the tunes that I like to play and realized that almost all of them contain melodies that live within that 25-key range.  On my GDAE tuned tenor banjo, it is rare for a tune to have a note higher than the high B of the 7th fret of the E string (the 2nd to highest "white key" on the K-Board) and it is fairly unusual for these same tunes to have a note lower than the open D on the D-string (the 2nd to lowest "white key" note on the K-Board).  Basically, my tunes would fit.

I wasn't sure how that MidiPlus MiniEngine pro would sound, but considering that it looked like the exact same same design as the supposedly German made - and twice as expensive - PianoBox, I opted for the cheaper version and it sounds OK to me.

The K-Board is described as being unbreakable - designed to withstand drink spills and being run over by a vehicle - so I figured it could handle being struck by mallets.  The 25 chromatic keys are designed like mini drumpads anyway, so it wouldn't be that unusual to hit them with a mallet or drumstick.

Having now tried playing it with mallets, I'm not sure if that will be my preferred method or if it will be more enjoyable to play with your fingers.  As someone who once took a typing class and can type on a computer keyboard, I like how the layout of the K-Board's keys - while based on the setup of a piano - could ultimately lend itself to a typing influenced approach.

Despite having less than a day's worth of experience with this instrument, I'm thinking that the K-Board will be fun to play.  It will also be a handy thing to have around for working out melodies by ear.  As a left-handed stringed instrument player, the layout of a keyboard like this is very non-intuitive at first, so it's a great brain exercise to realize that higher notes are to the right, if that makes sense.

My hope is that Keith McMillen Instruments does come out with something actually designed to be an electric vibraphone, at a price range well below the few other items currently on the market.  However, at the moment I don't mind pretending that the K-Board is already that instrument.  I probably would be a two mallet player instead of four, and key size and authenticity aren't as important to me as simply being able to play melody lines in a fun and easygoing way.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to be introduced to The War on Drugs’ new album A Deeper Understanding. Its expansive, 66-minute running time matched the open-ended luxury of a three-day weekend.

An initial attempt to deride their perceived similarities to other artists - as in trying to sing Tom Petty's "Learning To Fly" lyrics over the "Up All Night" melody - quickly subsided after the first song.

This album was my first proper exposure to The War On Drugs.  It's almost impossible not to draw comparisons as you take in a new (to you) band for the first time.  The best I can come up with is A Deeper Understanding sounds like that late-great 1980's Bob Dylan album that never existed.  The War On Drugs have the uncanny ability to sound both new and familiar.

There is a static nature to the music on A Deeper Understanding that I am finding to be extremely refreshing at this moment in time.  The lack of peaks, boldfaced hooks, rousing sing-along choruses, recycled folk-song lyrics and melodies, crazy time-signatures, and key changes keeps the focus on atmosphere throughout its hour-long plus running time.

The lyrics, when you take time to catch them, are effective at conveying the overall mood of the album, which seems to be cautious optimism.  The lyrics can also be, at times, inconsequential in a (good) way that blends in and serves the music.   

The static consistency I mentioned above does of course have some fluctuation that bubbles out with repeated listens.  Melodies and colorings that weren’t obvious at first start to take shape.  One gets the impression that these little synth keyboard and vibraphone(?) sounds are very carefully placed.

Sequence matters. Like a lot of albums, A Deeper Understanding leads with what could be said are the best three songs back to back. It could also be said that the uniformity of the remaining songs makes the latter half of the album start to drag. 

In actuality, the last 30 or 40 minutes of the album are where it really starts to open up and take form. While songs like "Thinking of A Place" don’t stray too far from the formula, these tracks definitely aren’t trying to be singles and are allowed room to breathe as necessary.

It's been a long, long time since I've heard a new rock album as good as A Deeper Understanding.  I think I prefer to start it mid-way through (side 3 if you have it on vinyl) and let it play through to side 2.  It's just one big loop.  


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Six More "Original" Tunes (There's 14 Now)

On August 5th I posted about the 8 tunes I'd written over the previous 8 weeks.  These were the first 8 tunes I'd ever tried writing.  Well, here it is 4 weeks later and I have 6 more melodic compositions to add to the list.

Number 9 - Carolinseay

Number 10 - Phigure It Out

Number 11 - Maoro

Number 12 - Burteeb

Number 13 - Shamisen

Number 14 - We'll Hum


Saturday, August 26, 2017

How To Get Into Classical Music (A Question, Not A Statement)

I think I like the idea of liking classical music more than I actually like it, if that makes sense.  It can be an enticing, challenging, and artsy style of music to get into for those tired of the same old, same old.  The stiff, stereotypical way in which classical musicians usually perform and present the music - both in their dress and body language - is one of the obstacles a gen-X-er has to overcome, especially if you're automatically drawn to the black t-shirt and corduroy pants adorned, scruffy haired, relaxed coolness of a Jerry Garcia type of vibe.
Answering the question "how to get into classical music?" is different than answering "how to get into rock n roll?"  Rock and roll is such a part of the pop culture that most people from my generation and the one prior couldn't help but be exposed to the commonly held belief that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are the best rock bands.

Being a skeptic, cynic and contrarian, I didn't trust or accept the notion that The Beatles or Stones were the best, so I explored deeply and obsessively only to find out that for my taste that title should go to Phish and then backwards down the number line to various other artists who may or may not fully align with the rock classification but who appeal to me.

Delving into jazz is a bit different too, because you are instantly going to encounter Miles Davis and then it's pretty much downhill from there.  Almost without argument it's easy to see how he is the best ever to define, conform, refine and expand that style of music.  And yet, no one could have told me that I would develop a slight preference toward Sun Ra's eccentric and prolific output over Miles' more tailored approach.
Harry Partch
One tactic for classical is to research the composers that artists like Frank Zappa and Eric Dolphy were listening to.  That'll lead you to people like Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Varèse, Boulez, and Moondog.  In my experience, further research will dig up names like Penderecki, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Raymond Scott, Arvo Pärt, Pablo Casals, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  A bunch of old white dudes.

One thing about classical music that can be confusing is do you seek out the composer, who may have died so long ago that there aren't any actual recordings of him or her playing his or her own music, or do you seek out the group/performer (AKA symphony, AKA orchestra, AKA ensemble, AKA violinist, AKA cellist, et cetera) and focus on their recordings/performances?

Rather than star with Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, I'm assuming that I'd like to start contemporary* and then work back (or forward) from there.  I haven't exactly found my Phish or Sun Ra of the classical world yet, but I'm still looking.  Suggestions are welcome.  Maybe I'll discover that more mainstream movie soundtrack composers like John Williams, Alfred Newman or Ennio Morricone are where it's at.

*None those composers or classical musicians I namechecked above are what you would call new, even the modern ones.  By contrast, in the rock world and even the jazz world I'm aware of artists under 40 who are making great music.  Is there a relatively new composer and/or classical music ensemble offering a vast reward to those who find them?

Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh, Nostalgia Acts, Missed Opportunities

At one point in his life Phil Lesh was an adventurous musician.  He's often described as being some type of weird, mid-20th Century avant-garde composer prior to becoming a founding member of the Grateful Dead.  Then there's that whole head-scratching Seastones thing with Neg Lagin in the 1970's - quadraphonic electronic music.

There's no question that Phil Lesh is/was one of the most influential bassists of the rock era, and perhaps even the best electric bass improviser thus far (looking at you Jaco).  Phil's distinctive low end was certainly an integral part of the Grateful Dead's synergy and drive.  Unfortunately, there aren't many examples of him playing music outside of the Grateful Dead canon.  If there were, I'm guessing that Phil's brilliance would be even more apparent.

For sure, the Grateful Dead took up the majority of his time for the 30 years that they were a touring band.  Difficulties with alcohol during parts of that stretch might have also cut back on Phil's output.  But, in the post-Jerry days since 1995 you'd think that a clean-living Phil might have found some other outlets for his creativity.

However, it seems as though Phil has spent these last 20+ years wrapped up in nostalgia.  Yes, his various Phil and Friends ensembles have consistently found new ways to explore the Grateful Dead songbook, but it's always just been that:  the Grateful Dead songbook.

The fact that Phil never branched out to work with artists outside of the jamband community, and/or never really pursued an original, compositional path post-Grateful Dead is a major loss for the music world.  Just imagine if Phil had revisited his interest in the avant-garde by doing an album of free jazz with the late Ornette Coleman - an artist who remained vital right up until his 2015 passing. Or what if Phil had indulged his composer persona by writing music for one of the many impressive "new" music ensembles around today, such as eighth blackbird.

I recall a Phil and Friends show with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Billy Martin, but instead of it being an all improv trio set of those two guys + Phil playing all new music, it turned into just another Phil and Friends show where the skills of Frisell and Martin were not really utilized or called for, and we still didn't get to hear Phil in a more experimental context.

Bill Frisell just released a beautiful duo album with bassist Thomas Morgan recorded live at the Village Vanguard (called Small Town).  Thomas Morgan sounds fantastic on it, but just imagine for a moment if it were essentially the same material but with Phil Lesh filling the role of bassist.  It definitely would have modified the vibe to have Phil in that historic room due to the expectations of the crowds it would have drawn, but I would love to have a recording like this.

Last night I tuned in to a few minutes of the LOCKN webcast.  After waiting for that awful Warren Haynes set to finish 30 minutes past its allotted time, I watched a couple songs of the Phil/Bobby Terrapin Station set.  If performing an entire album you recorded in the late 70's song-for-song isn't nostalgia, then I don't know what is.  What I saw was not a good performance or interpretation of the music.  The only guiding light was that - amidst all the missed cues, flubbed lyrics, lack of direction, confusion and other sorts of Bobby-related failure - there was Phil's pristine bass guitar, sounding just as incredible as always, if not more.

It was bittersweet to hear this man in this context, on stage part of a group that is trying (and failing) to make something interesting when it is not.  And yet, with every note he played, Phil conveyed an artistry that belied its surroundings.  Too bad we'll never get to hear that side of Phil to its fullest extent.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Deep Post-Phish Late Summer 2017 Music Queue

During the three weeks of Phish's Baker's Dozen Madison Square Garden residency - and for at least a week after - I listened to almost nothing but Phish music.  Mostly live recordings from that run as they were happening and then some.  I emerged from that binge with not just a modern love of Phish, but a sobering and possibly unprecedented drive toward musical exploration.  Here's a summary of where this is leading.

Sun Ra
Several years ago I acquired CD copies of Sun Ra's mid-to-late 70's albums Lanquidity, On Jupiter and Sleeping Beauty.  It's time to revisit those as well as some other Sun Ra records that have been released from Saturn, including In the Orbit of Ra, Jazz in Silhouette, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow.  Bonus points to obscure albums where Sun Ra performs as a sideman:  Walt Dickerson's Impressions of a Patch of Blue and Billy Bang's A Tribute to Snuff Smith.  While on subject of Ra, it's time I ordered the Living Lanterns LP New Myth/Old Science.  This is sort of like a Sun Ra tribute featuring such heavy-hitters as Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Ingrid Laubrock and Tomas Fujiwara.  How bad could it be?

More Jazz
I love listening to vinyl records, but as I recently found out some albums like the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots have TOO MUCH BASS when played out of my Audioengine A5+ speakers.  Classic jazz, however, sounds great through those speakers.  Lee Morgan Sidewinder, Eric Dolphy Out To Lunch!, Horace Silver Song for My Father, and Bill Frisell Small Town are in the queue.

Da Funk
It's gotta be OK to groove out to albums such as Grant Green Blue Breakbeats, Donald Byrd Ethiopian Knights, Miles Davis Tribute to Jack Johnson, Herbie Hancock Head Hunters, and New Mastersounds The Nashville Session.  And if time ever allows...Mwandishi, Agharta, Pangea...aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!

I put on the 2nd LP of the Circles Around the Sun Interludes for the Dead record the other day, containing the tracks Kasey's Bones (side 3) and Space Wheel (side 4), and I don't remember this "background music" ever sounding so good!  There may be nothing new under the sun, but I still haven't found anything else that sounds quite like Circles Around the Sun.  However, just today I was poking around and discovered a recording called Psychic Temple Plays Music for Airports.  Remember that name.  Bang On A Can's interpretation of Brian Eno's Music For Airports is one of my all-time favorite CDs, so I was eager to hear this loose version which approaches it from a Miles Davis In a Silent Way point of view.  The 2nd track - Music for Bus Stops - is pretty killer too.

Continuing on; learning about Psychic Temple led me to a band somewhat associated with them called Invisible Astro Healing Rhythm Quartet.  Yep.  This needs to be listened 2!  I should also mention a brand new release by Spafford called Abaculus: An Improvisational Experience.  This recording follows in the one-track jamband album tradition pioneered by Phish's Headphones Jam and moe.'s Meat, and manages to sound on par with those two classics.  Lastly, this style of space jam music brings to mind Rhyton Kykeon and Khruangbin The Universe Smiles Upon You - both of which are worth returning to.

Kronos Quartet
Like Sun Ra, Kronos Quartet gets to headline its own category.  More alimentative than their counterparts Turtle Island String Quartet and Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Kronos Quartet is a group I probably had penciled in to listen to 20+ years ago in the pre-digital age but never quite got around to.  With albums like Pieces of Africa, Caravan, Music of Bill Evans, Monk Suite and the newly composed collaboration with The National's Bryce Dessner called Aheym, Kronos Quartet can open that classical door.

I'm pretty ignorant toward classical music, and, as such, I don't have a strict definition of what it is and what it is not. Nonetheless, late last night I went down a rabbit hole - determined to uncover some satisfying recordings in what you might call "contemporary classical".  The most rewarding find in that search appears to be Primal Light -- an album of Mahler music by Uri Caine.  It. Is. Trippy. (!) This search also led me to an Norwegian band called Jaga Jazzist, which sounds like a mixture of neo-classical, jazz and post-rock.  I was digging their album One-armed Bandit because it reminded me of Tortoise.  You could also put String Trio of New York, featuring Billy Bang, into this quasi-classical category.  They seem to have existed in an avant-garde area between chamber music and jazz.  Area Code 212 that is.

After going in this classical direction, I was reminded that quite a few years ago I had done similar research that left me with knowledge of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, Terry Riley's In C (as done by Bang on a Can), and the aforementioned Music for Airports.  Good stuff when the time is right.  Now there's a newish recording of In C by musicians from Mali (Africa Express) worth checking out.  Additionally, as a Phish fan I shouldn't ignore the fact that our very own Trey Anastasio has put out at least two classical recordings: Seis de Mayo and Time Turns Elastic.  How is it that I had never listened to Seis de Mayo until this morning?  That first track Andre the Giant is so good!

Regular Music
If regular music means artists who sing and perform songs in a rock n' roll and/or singer-songwriter fashion, then the two in that category who I am currently the most interested in would have to be David Bowie and Lucinda Williams.  Until recently the only David Bowie album I had ever listened to was Ziggy Stardust, and my primary Lucinda Williams familiarity was stuck on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.  I'm ready to expand beyond those starting points.  Hello Low and Ghosts of Highway 20!  Shit.  I almost forgot, and it's kinda stupid to admit this, but Phish's cover of Everything in its Right Place from 8/4/17 prompted me to give Radiohead another spin, and for a few days there I listened to Kid A on repeat.  I get it now.  At least I think I do.  OK.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Mary Halvorson and Phish

What is a band?  For three nights in July my two favorite musical artists had overlapping residencies in New York city.  July 21, 22 and 23, 2017, guitarist Mary Halvorson was playing the last half of her six night stint at the Village Vanguard, while on those same dates Phish was starting their 13 night Baker's Dozen run at Madison Square Garden.  I didn't go to either event.  But that's not really the point.

I have seen Phish 60 times over the last 23 years.  They've been my favorite band from 1994 until now.  That has remained constant.  What has varied over the years is how I listen to and view Phish compared to other musical artists.

In my  20's, when I wasn't listening to Phish or the Grateful Dead, I still wanted to listen to some of the tumble-down bands associated with the jamband genre, including moe., Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and Sector 9.  In my 30's, indie-like bands such as My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog and Ween got in line behind Phish.  Now, in my 40's, I'm not really looking for the next band to really get into, and Phish has only increased the distance between themselves and the other standbys.

With so many places to hear and consume music, both old and new, I do probably listen to a wider variety of stuff now than ever before.  Definitely heavy on jazz and older, ethnic folk music.  However, it's also easier now than ever before to simply listen to Phish, with access to so much of their live shows online.  Phish plus everything else.  With one exception.

Around 2013 to 2014 I started checking out a little known New York-based avant-garde guitarist named Mary Halvorson.  Her angular, unsettling playing requires some major recalibration of the ears, but I stuck with it and have been slowly delving deeper and deeper into her surprisingly vast and constantly expanding output ever since.  (Her discography includes 40+ albums findable on Spotify plus many more through other sources).

Phish's complex compositions and inclination toward 20+ minute improvisations helped prime my senses for something really out there, and Mary Halvorson stepped in and opened a door I didn't even know was there.

Where Phish has a whole community surrounding it, Mary seemingly has none of that baggage. Phish you can at least peg as being a form of "rock".  It's difficult to tell what Mary Halvorson is.  Experimental jazz is the closest term we have to encapsulating her untethered creativity, but I don't think it can be branded.  She's more about practicing her instrument than marketing her product.

Poster art, performance art, phan art, inside jokes, engaged online forums, a killer light show, setlist analytics, "Shakedown Street", goo balls, parking lot scene, bootleg t-shirts, blissed out jams, audience participation, hippie white person dancing, and more are all part of the Phish experience.  With Mary Halvorson I don't know that you even get a sticker.  She sits there on stage looking at a music stand that has some sort of written notation on it that helps elicit the unmistakable sounds coming out out of her guitar to her amp.  No frills.  No negative bias from critics.  No preconceived guidance.

Phish can go to deep outer space and bring a crowd of 20,000 right along with them, but Mary's music seems bent on shaking off even the most ardent, or not even concerned with that at all.  It's a totally different set of emotions being triggered when I listen to her music.  Both have their faults: Phish and their predictable tension/relief peak jams; Mary Halvorson and the when-in-doubt revert to noise and call it free jazz card.  But hey.

There is no connection between the two, other than both seem like the culminations of pathways that can lead forward or backward.  They aren't stopping points along the way.  They are the journey and the destination.  Still, Amazon is not going to recommend one if you like the other.  You're not going to hear Mary Halvorson on the Jam_On channel.  The connection I'm making is based on the appeal they each have to me.  Basically, I just typed the words "Mary Halvorson and Phish" in the post title and then had a blank screen below that needed some more words, a couple images and a couple videos.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Original Tunes I've Been Writing

I've written 8 tunes over the last 8 weeks. These are pretty much the first original melodies I've ever written.  I use the terms "written" and "original" loosely.  What I seem to be doing is incorrectly transcribing a melody that I already like, and then morphing it further from there and adding or deleting notes as needed.  Part of the fun with writing is not being bound by any rules. When you write something yourself there is no right or wrong.
I take what I already know about scales and notes and the scalar and modal nature of traditional melodies, and combine that with the free world of the avant-garde. Chords, or being diatonic, or rhythm, or time signature, or what type of tune it is, or whether it has a connection to anything aren't really concerns.

Yesterday I decided to record all 8 of these tunes in one sitting (it took about 30 minutes) and today I am posting that audio while these newbies are still are fresh in my mind. Playlist below.


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:
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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Joys of Limitation

Fredrik Sjöberg's book The Fly Trap is partially about limitations.  The limitations of living on a small Swedish island.  The limitations of studying hoverflies on this island, as opposed to in a larger geographical area or researching a species with more variation, such as beetles.  In Sjöberg's view, the art of limitation is a method of exercising slowness that promotes concentration and bliss.

I've been thinking of limitation a lot myself recently, as it applies to music and other aspects of life.  Limitation may be why I have chosen the tenor banjo for a musical instrument.  Limitation may be why I view the tenor banjo as a melodic instrument rather than a rhythm or chordal instrument.  Limitation could be why I don't currently play much music commonly associated with tenor banjo, such as New Orleans Jazz, Irish trad, Klezmer or Jamaican Mento. 

It could be limitation that has led me to focusing primarily on melodies of Caribbean origin (Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Venezuela, et cetera), even though these types of melodies have little or no connection to the tenor banjo.

Limitation could be why - despite listening a wide assortment of music that is increasingly abstract - it still gets filtered back through the interpretation of the music that I like to play, which is those Caribbean tunes.  Limitation is why - despite the unique compositional elements that give each tune its unique identity - it all seems improvisationally interconnected back to the major scale or the 12 notes in the chromatic scale.

I try to limit my active repertoire to about 40 "tunes".  That way I can limit my playing to 1 or 2 hours a day (working on 5 or 6 tunes a night) and still get through most of that active repertoire in the course of a week.  I have a limited amount of time that I can devote to playing anyway.  The time spent typing this is not time that was spent playing music.

Painters and poets seem to limit their work to a certain style, even if that style can't be easily defined.  
I had never previously ever made a meal from a cook book, but over the last two months I've gotten into cooking and even though I'm not vegetarian or vegan I've restricted myself to only making dishes out of the Happy Herbivore series of cookbooks by Lindsay S. Nixon, which are vegan.  I've made about a dozen recipes out of those books so far and every single one of them has been great!  That's more of a testament to the inventiveness and ease of the recipes, rather than any skill I'm bringing to it.  But it's another example of blissful limitation!

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

"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 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 -
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

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.