Friday, February 24, 2012

Elmer Snowden - Harlem Banjo!

In the world of tenor banjo, especially jazz tenor banjo, Elmer Snowden's 1960 album "Harlem Banjo!" is considered the Holy Grail.  At the time of its release, four-string banjoists were basically just strummers, but Elmer did more: he alternated between inventive leads and tasteful, intuitive backup.  Interestingly, he played tenor banjo tuned a fifth lower than most players of that time, with a low G on his bottom string, like a mandolin.  This is the same tuning that the innovative Irish tenor banjoist Barney McKenna of the Dubliners would later adopt.  Nowadays GDAE tuned tenor banjo is commonplace, no small thanks to Elmer.
Elmer Snowden Quartet - Harlem Banjo!
Snowden began his musical career in the 1920's and even worked with Duke Ellington and Count Basie early on.  Elmer fronted many bands over the next three decades including one with the very cool name of The Red Hot Eskimos. Unfortunately none of these bands were ever recorded and Elmer spent most of his career far from the limelight in relative obscurity.  Elmer was "rediscovered" at age 59 in 1959 when Philadelphia area producer and radio host Chris Alpertson heard him playing banjo and decided to record him. After scrapping an initial recording session that didn't quite work, Alpertson assembled a backing band consisting of Cliff Jackson piano, Tommy Bryant on bass, and drummer Jimmy Crawford.  This quartet gelled. "Harlem Banjo!" was the result and it was Elmer's first appearance as a leader on a recording. Additional recordings of Snowden playing banjo from these and other sessions are rumored to exist, but those have yet to surface.

Elmer played with a hot, swingy style and had an amazing sense of drive. Raw and primitive yet free-spirited and soulful.  Accomplished musicians like Cynthia Sayer and Jamie Masefield list Elmer Snowden as a primary influence. Sayer considers Snowden to be one of her two main "teachers", along with Django Reinhardt.  She even once transcribed all of his solos from this album!  Masefield modeled his style after Snowden and regards him as the only tenor banjo player to really improvise like a jazz musician.
Elmer Snowden, 1960
Although "Harlem Banjo!" has had a significant impact within the insular 4-string banjo community, banjo remains an under-appreciated instrument.  It's thought of as being backwoods by some and theatrical by others - something you might play for fun but not something to make real music with.  Nevertheless, Elmer Snowden helped prove that any instrument is as good as you choose to make it.

Modal Practice: Scales and Arpeggios, or The 9 Most Common Modes of Irish and Oldtime Traditional Music

I’m starting to think of traditional music in terms of modes, tonal centers and arpeggios.  There are arguably 9 modes that players of Irish and oldtime tunes are most likely to encounter.  These modes are (in basically no particular order): D ionian, E dorian, A mixolydian, G ionian, A dorian, D mixolydian, A ionian, A aeolian and C ionian.

Tip:  Practice scales in these modes and also noodle around with the arpeggios these modes are built around.  One benefit of such practice is that it will make you a better ear player.  For help with selecting the arpeggios for a given mode, think about it this way: Ionian tunes are usually built around the I-IV-V chords.  Meanwhle, Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian tunes are typically constructed with only two chords a whole step apart - a "home" chord and a "contrast" chord. See table below for more details.

About the modes
Ionian is the same thing as the major scale.  It is the most common mode. It sounds major and is built around the I-IV-V chords.
Aeolian is the same thing as the natural minor scale. It sounds minor. It is typically built around two chords: a minor "home" chord and a major "contrast" chord a whole step below.  
Mixolydian resembles Ionian but has a flattened seventh note (minor seventh).  The Mixolydian mode sounds major with a hint of minor. It is typically built around 2 chords - a major “home" chord and a major “contrast” chord one whole step below.
Dorian mode resembles Aeolian but has a flattened sixth note. Dorian sounds minor with a hint of major.  It is built around two chords: a minor "home" chord and a major "contrast" chord a whole step below.

Scale Notes
Used For
D ionian
d, e, f#, g, a, b, c#, d
D(d, f#, a ), G(g, b, d), A(a, c#, e)
Oldtime, Irish
E dorian
e, f#, g, a, b, c#, d, e
Em (e, g, b), D (d, f#, a)
A mixolydian
a, b, c#, d, e, f#, g, a
A (a, c#, e), G (g, b, d)
Oldtime, Irish
G ionian
g, a, b, c, d, e, f#, g
G (g, b, d), C (c, e, g), D (d, f#, a)
Oldtime, Irish
A dorian
a, b, c, d, e, f#, g, a
Am (a, c, e), G (g, b, d)
Oldtime, Irish
D mixolydian
d, e, f#, g, a, b, c, d
D (d, f#, a), C (c, e, g)
A ionian
a, b, c#, d, e, f#, g#, a
A(a, c#, e), D(d, f#, a), E(e, g#, b)
A aeolian
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, a
Am (a, c, e), G (g, b, d)
C ionian
c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c
C (c, e, g), F (f, a, c), G (g, b, d)

You may be wondering how I came up with that list of 9 modes?  Well, for starters most but not all Irish tunes are comprised of different inversions of the D scale (2 sharps) and the G scale (1 sharp). With 2 sharps you can cover the D ionianE dorian and A mixolydian modes, and with 1 sharp you can cover the G ionianA dorian and D mixolydian modes. That's 6 of the modes right there.  (Why no Aeolian so far?  Well, in Irish music, the Aeolian mode is rare.  If you hear an Irish tune that sounds minor, it is likely to be in Dorian).  When it comes to oldtime, folks tend to play in D, G, A, C or what they call "modal".  D and G mean the same thing as D ionian and G ionian - already listed with the Irish modes. A and C mean A ionian and C ionian.  Those are modes 7 and 8 on my list.  In oldtime the term "modal" often refers to a minor sounding tune with A as its tonal center.  Since we've already listed A dorian and A mixolydian that leaves A aeolian - number 9 and the only aeolian on the list!

Nine modes is enough for now, but if you wanted to take it further you could add the slightly less common modes of B aeolian, E aeolian, D aeolian, G dorian, G aeolian, B dorian, D dorian and G mixolydian, and work through those scales and arpeggios as well.

The fine print: I'm relatively new to learning traditional music. I have not spent much time in the saddle yet, and by no means am I an expert on the subject.  I just like to share concepts as I hit upon them. For a lot of traditional players, learning the tunes by ear is its own informal form of etudes, so the above described exercise is simply meant to be a supplement to aid in that process. Nothing beats total immersion in the music and the tunes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Listening for Pleasure vs. Listening for Practice

Last week while listening to the new Dr. Dog album Be The Void (review forthcoming) I was reminded of the bands I listened to prior to my current traditional music obsession.  This primarily included The Grateful Dead, Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, Ween, Dr. Dog and My Morning Jacket.  I listened to this music all the time - going deep with my study of Phish and Dead lore and set lists  - but not being a musician I never had any intention playing it.  Then for some reason I got a tenor banjo.  For a while I hung onto this jamband/indie rock fascination and spent many a music lesson having my teacher Josh Bearman translate these types of songs to tenor banjo.  But ultimately I never achieved much satisfaction from trying to play Franklin's Tower or Water in the Sky, for example, compared to tunes like Arkansas Traveler or Swallowtail Jig which seemed to really resonate with my newfound interests.

Mind you, I was completely ignorant to both old-time fiddle music and Irish trad when I first got a tenor banjo, but the more I tried to play this stuff the more its allure grew.  Over the last couple years my music listening has gradually shifted away from the Relix/Paste/Glide Magazine format to the type of traditional tunes I am now trying to play. I listen to traditional music for pleasure, and more importantly, for practice...with the mindset being that the more I listen the more it will be ingrained into my psyche.  It recently got to the point where I considered any time spent listening to anything other than the music I wanted to play as a waste of time.  Then, last week I allowed myself the luxury of listening to Dr. Dog and breathed a sigh of relief when I was legitimately enjoying the new album!  I wasn't listening to each note thinking about how I might do that on tenor banjo, as I would with some fiddle tune I heard at the local session, and I wasn't wishing I was listening to something else more fruitful.  I was simply caught in the sheer joy of listening to one of my favorite rock bands in the process of creating new music!

This doesn't take away from the fact that I'm still in this traditional music game for the long-haul with the intention of getting better at learning it by ear.  But I'm now trying to strike a balance between the traditional music I want to play (which I also love to listen to) and the jamband/indie rock music I enjoy listening to even though it's not what I necessarily want to play.
Who knows, maybe some day after I nurture my ear it'll come full circle and I'll be able to adapt some of that knowledge into being able to figure out that riff in Off the Record or Bubblehouse and play those notes with the same sense of fulfillment as I currently get from learning a new fiddle tune!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Session Beer: Bitter American

The 2nd installment in my ongoing session beer series concerns Bitter American.  Like my previous entry this beer also comes in a can.  Bitter American is made by 21st Amendment Brewery out of San Francisco. In fact, all of 21st Amendment Brewery's beers come in a can.  The brewery affirms that cans keep beer fresher and are better for the environment. With spring right around the corner, I'll also attest that can beers are better for taking to festivals.  Why sacrifice flavor when there are now so many craft beers that come in a can?

Bitter American is a true rarity: an IPA session beer.  IPAs are all the rage among beer snobs yet they are usually too high in alcohol content to be considered a session beer.  Not so with the Bitter American:  at 4.4% alcohol content you can have one or three and still have all your faculties intact. 

I'm not always keen on aromatic hoppy beers, but I found Bitter American to have a nice balance of hop (42 IBUs) and malt taste.  Light amber color, citrus hop aroma, moderately bitter.  It's a refreshingly lower-alcohol American session ale that won't fill you up.  Look for it in cans at you local beer specialty store!  For some reason it's considered a late winter seasonal brew and is currently only available January through March.  There's still time to find it this year although it might be worth petitioning 21st Amendment to make Bitter American year round.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Play Along Tracks for Old Time and Irish Practice

A great way to build your repertoire and nurture your ear is by playing along with recordings.  The key is to find straightforward, quality versions of tunes that are fast enough and interesting enough to be musical, but not so advanced or embellished to make ear playing more of a struggle than it needs to be.  If you know what you're looking for, YouTube can be a good source, and so can music subscription sites like Rhapsody and Spotify.  However, below I've listed some specific CDs and websites to check out, broken down by genre. These will help you get the melody under your fingers and with a little dedication you'll soon be making the tune your own!

Caveat: Listening is practice too!  If all you do is regurgitate stripped down versions of tunes your playing is going to be rather bland.  So, combine this play along practice with lots of listening to the masters of the style to drink in subtleties that don't come through in tutorials. What this play along practice will do is allow you to participate more in sessions. If you can participate more, you'll have more fun and want to attend more.  When you attend more you learn more. It's exponential!

Irish Play Along Tracks
Comhaltas Foinn Seisiún: Traditional Irish Session Tunes by Le Ceoltóiri Cultúrlainne
Volumes 1, 2 and 3 contain over 325 traditional Irish session tunes arranged in sets and played by musicians from Dublin and Ennis.  The tracks are pretty fast and straightforward - just below full session pace. Features several melody instruments playing at once for an authentic trad sound. Most of the tunes played at your local Irish session are bound to be among the 325 covered here.  Rhapsody: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.

Tenor Banjo - Sets and Tunes Part A and B by Johannes De Wal
This stripped down recording of tenor banjo, bodhran and a few other instruments is a good source to hear many of the more common session tunes as played on tenor banjo.  66 tracks containing over 135 tunes played at a medium pace complete with obligatory triplets and other ornamentation. Streams on Rhapsody: Part A, Part B.

Slowplay Jigs Reels and Hornpipes by Jeffrey Hillgrove
Relaxed, moderate tempo.  Guitar with bodhran accompaniment.  Good selection of popular session tunes. Rhapsody link.

Slow and Easy by John Weed, Stuart Mason
Slowplay fiddle with rhythmic backup guitar in DADGAD tuning. Streams on Bandcamp!

SlowPlayers Session Tunes volume 1 - William Bajzek - flute, Angeline LeLeux - fiddle
Reels, jigs, hornpipes and polkas played slowly.  Also streams on Bandcamp!

Tunes for Practice - Seamus Creagh
69 total tracks played slowly but not too slowly.  Each tune is performed plainly and then with ornamentation. Great tutorial.  More info here.

Pegram Jam
Old Time Play Along Tracks
Old Timey Fiddle Tunes Site
Fairly comprehensive collection of field recordings, direct from expert sources and workshops.

Nashville Oldtime Music Association
This group has gathered numerous old-time tunes in its mp3 "jukebox" for streaming.  Recording quality is sometimes sub-par, but the arrangements are spot on.  Here's the link.

Pegram Jam
Public domain mp3 files from this long running jam in Pegram, TN.  You may need a password to listen. If you have trouble logging in contact me directly; I might still have the log-in info that allowed me to access the tracks.

Charlotte Folk Society
They have posted audio samples of the tunes from their monthly slow jam.

The Flatpick Apprentice Blog
This blogger and guitar flatpicker has put up some fiddle tune rhythm practice tracks at varying tempos.  Sorta  bluegrassy.

Mandolin Instruction: Old Time, Country and Fiddle Tunes by Michael Holmes
Audio files from a classic 1970's tunebook.  Features a lot of the core tunes.  Streams on Rhapsody here.

Wendy's Old-Time Tunes List
Site containing a long list of old-time tunes and links to where you can hear them.  By clicking on Wendy's links you'll find out about even more play along sites that aren't covered here.  Link to Wendy's links.

Contra Dance Play Along Tracks
Portland Play Along Selection
97 tunes selected from the two excellent Portland Collection tunebooks.  These are my all-time favorite play along recordings!  A wide variety from standards to obscure, from traditional to recently composed, from Celtic to Appalachian to Maritime and more.  Played at about 20% below session speed but still very musical.  Features Clyde Curley on mandolin and tenor banjo.  Purchase here.

Montville Project
Over 100 tunes representing the essential repertoire of New England dance music. Nonetheless, this project likely includes some classic cuts from your local session or fiddle tune jam. Details here.

If I've omitted any really good sources for ear playing let me know and I'll add them!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Developing Individual Style Within the Folk Tradition

Being original does not mean you have to be different from everyone else.  In fact, to play with other folk musicians you must be sympathetic to what they are doing and keep your variations and ornamentation within the confines of the tune, rhythm and implied chords.  Despite this, most roots music players eventually find their own style.  Doing so often requires some kind of personal mission statement - knowing what you want to achieve or attain...and how you're going to get there.

In my case I primarily want to be an old-time jammer and Irish session player and learn the music via osmosis, immersion and exposure.  I want to be able to take part in any jam where Irish trad or old time fiddle tunes are played. You can always acquire more physical technique, music theory understanding and fretboard knowledge, but to play traditional music properly you mainly need to listen a lot, learn the subtleties of the style(s), learn the repertoire of the musicians in your area, and train your ear to pick up the tunes.  

My instrument of choice is tenor banjo.  I tune it in 5ths - GDAE - and flat-pick it with a plectrum.  The linear 5ths tuning is very orderly and intuitive.  Tenor banjo is closely associated with Irish music.  Irish tenor banjo players double the melody in unison with the fiddle and rely on a heavy use of triplets for ornamentation. This can sometimes result in a sound that is too busy and "notey" for my taste. I prefer a more minimal, non-tremolo, single-note sound.  I'll strip a tune down to its bare essentials with the hopes of re-building and refining it from there in my own way over time.
Tenor Banjo
Very few people today play old-time music on tenor banjo, but you can extrapolate some ideas by listening to flat-picking guitar players like Norman Blake and transferring that to your instrument for a creative arrangement.  In addition I like to listen to old time banjo uke players like Linda Higginbotham who provide solid "chucka-chucka".  Back in the day, tenor banjo held a similar role in string bands and when played in a more chordal style the tenor banjo can cover some rhythm along with snatches of melody. 

Irish bouzouki players incorporate rhythmic grooves based on strumming and chord construction to add tone color and variation, with bass-runs, fill licks and melodic fragments tying together sections of the tunes.  This technique is kinda similar to what a pre-Doc Waton country guitar picker might have done.   Contradance music - which draws from Celtic and Appalachian source material - is also a good place to listen to how rhythm, groove and harmony can find a contemporary home in this traditional material.

Another style of music worth drawing inspiration from is Jamaican mento.  Tenor banjo is its main instrument!  Mento requires a looser, more improv-based and bluegrass-like method of soloing that uses little snatches of chords and melody to deliver the rhythm.  These are things I  can then directly or indirectly apply to other folk music.

To find your own style you must ultimately trust your own opinions about what sounds good or bad and train your ear so that you can experiment and manifest your own ideas into music. Don't worry that much about stylistic rules that might inhibit imagination and creativity or dictate what you can or can't do.  With a sense of taste and temperance toward flamboyance you can definitely find your own niche within the folk music traditions.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Apogee MiC has arrived!

The long-awaited Apogee MiC has finally arrived.  The MiC is described as being a portable, studio-quality microphone for iPad, iPhone and Mac.  I must say it's pretty easy to use.  When it arrived yesterday I took it out of the box, plugged it into my iPad, opened up GarageBand, and immediately recorded the following tune set.

I'm definitely not a sound engineer (or musician for that matter!) and I hardly did any adjustments for gain or mic placement on these takes, but I think it came out pretty good for a first try.  It's three overdubbed tracks...I recorded a rhythm part then listened back through headphones and played the melody over it (both with my tenor banjo).  Then I had my wife get out her bodhran and add some percussion.  She wasn't that pleased with her playing last night or with the sound she was getting out of her drum, but I think she did OK for someone who has only been whacking a bodhran for a few months.
Apogee MiC

By the way, the tunes we recorded are Whalen's Breakdown - an old-timey sounding tune from Canada in the key of C, and Tralee Jail - a hard driving Irish polka in Eminor (also spelled Tralee Gaol; known in Scotland as Haughs of Cromdale).

I intend to do many more recordings with the Apogee MiC to document our musical progress.  It's portability also makes it great for taking to jams or sessions!