Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Term: Octave Banjolin!

What do you call a banjo with four strings, tuned like a mandolin and played with a pick?  This is not a line from a joke; it's a question I ask myself when trying to figure out the name of the instrument I play.   

Tenor banjo is the term most people use, but I'm confused about where the name tenor was derived from. Some think tenor is a mispronunciation of the word tango.  But, tenor would seem to apply to the CGDA tuning and its relative pitch to baritone and alto. When you re-tune to the lower GDAE, as I do, doesn't it make the range too low to be called tenor?  By the same logic would you then call it a baritone banjo?

People often tell me that I play Irish tenor banjo.  However, I believe that phrase conveys a genre and playing style that I don't exactly adhere to. While I certainly enjoy playing Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes, I play at least as many or more tunes from the old-time/Southern Appalachian repertoire. Does that mean I also play old-time tenor banjo?  Also, the Irish tenor banjo playing style, which employs many triplets and other uniquely Celtic ornaments, is not a style I have adopted or necessarily aspire to mimic.  Two reasons why Irish tenor banjo might be a misnomer.

You'd think plectrum banjo would work. I do use a pick. However the name plectrum banjo has already been taken by an instrument with a longer scale and different tuning!  I suppose 4-string banjo fits, but it sounds rather nondescript to me.

Hence the words octave banjolin!  I use the mandolin tuning, one octave lower. Unless banjolin can only apply to an 8-string instrument?  I don't think it has to as evidenced by two vintage ads I found.  The first is from around 1885 and the 2nd is from around 1907. 
Farris Instruments banjo ad, circa 1885
Schall banjo ad, circa 1907
Both ads describe a 4-stringed banjo instrument tuned like a mandolin/violin and played with a plectrum/pick.  They use the words Banjolin and Banjorine.  Another interesting thing about these articles is the indication that the original tuning for a banjo of this type was meant to be like a mandolin and not like a mandola.  So now when we "re-tune" to GDAE we're not committing some act of heresy, but are actually honoring the instrument's roots!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Uniting the Old-Time Jam and the Irish Session

As of April 2012 our 1st and 3rd Saturday morning Old-Time Jam and Irish Session will now be held at Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 North Railroad Avenue, Ashland, VA 23005. Merging an old-time jam with an Irish session is not as hard as it may seem...

Focus on similarities; be mindful of differences
Both traditions involve friendly, enthusiastic folks gathering to play mostly instrumental tunes in unison using a variety of melody, rhythm and percussive instruments.  Unlike jazz or bluegrass, individual instruments rarely take "breaks" or solos.  Instead, as mentioned before, everyone plays in unison with limited  variation/ improvisation.  Both the old-time jam and the Irish session are (usually) open formats and everyone is welcome to participate.  However, for purists used to one or the other, certain compromises may have to be made.

The mechanics of certain traditional instruments limits the number of keys one can comfortably play in. So, with a few exceptions, both Irish and old-time center around tunes conceived in the keys of D, G or A and their modal/minor cousins.  Since most old-time banjo and fiddle players re-tune to get into different keys, old-time jams will typically stay in one key for a while (we try to do this).  This differs from an Irish session, where sets of tunes may jump from one key to another.  Those used to the key-jumping format of Irish trad should take heed of any instruments present that may not allow for this or you risk perturbing that overly sensitive clawhammer banjo player!

In old-time music the types of tunes played tend to be in 4/4 time (reels, breakdowns, hornpipes, marches, two-steps), whereas in Irish music you have all of those tune types plus the welcome addition of jigs in 6/8 time, the elusive 9/8 slip jig, and polkas.  For an old-time musician, playing jigs can be a challenge, but it is also a lot of fun!  The occasional slower tune in 3/4 time (often called a waltz or mazurka) can find its way into either format.

At an old-time jam one tune will usually be repeated many times through (at least 5 times but who's counting?) so that everyone can get into a nice groove and to help those unfamiliar with it learn it.  At an Irish session tunes seem to be put to bed after just three times through or strung together with other complimentary tunes to form a set.  However, the extended repetition approach to one tune can also be applied to Irish traditional music where it can bring out the sometimes overlooked mystical qualities of the melody.

In both traditions, each instrument used has a role - be it melodic, percussive or rhythmic - with single-note melody instruments taking the lead.  In old-time Appalachian the primary instruments are fiddles, 5-string banjos and guitar, along with dulcimer, bass, mandolin, autoharp, banjo uke, washboard and spoons/bones.  In Irish traditional music the primary instruments are fiddle, tinwhistle, uilleann pipes, flute, concertina, button accordion and 4-string banjo, along with bodhran, guitar, mandolin, and bouzouki/octave mandolin.  Other more "exotic" instruments such as cajon and harmonica might also be acceptable assuming the player is familiar with the music and understands his or her role.  At our Ashland jam, any combination of the above mentioned instruments is fine, so long as there's a strong foundation of melody.

Playing by ear vs. using sheet music
The music we are playing is part of an aural tradition.  Participants are encouraged to learn and play by ear as much as possible.  I will occasionally still pull out the tab if I'm called upon to lead a tune that I haven't fully ingested, but I'm trying to do that less and less as time goes by.  I encourage you to do the same.

The old-time and Irish tradition involves specific tunes in specific rhythms, played in specific ways in specific keys.  It's not a free for all where musicians improvise arrangements or solo over chord changes.  The most important thing is to show respect for the other players and to listen. Bring a list of common tunes you can play, sorted by key so that when you're called upon to suggest a tune you'll have some choices.  Feel free to ask someone else to lead a tune if you are not ready to do so.  Keep track of the tunes played that you don't know and work on some of those for next time.  By all means participate!  Feel free to play quietly until you are comfortable.  Don't spend too much time worrying about what others think of your playing, chances are they are more concerned with what they are doing than what you are doing.

Won't you join us?!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Mento Albums: Sweet Sweet Jamaica, We Will Wait and Great Expectations

Think of mento as Jamaica's version of old-time music: a cheerful, bawdy merger of European melodies and African rhythms, often featuring a (4-string) banjo.  Before ska, reggae and rocksteady, Jamaicans jammed to this indigenous folk music.  Interest in mento has spiked recently due in part to three very enjoyable albums.
First there's Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band's "Sweet Sweet Jamaica".  It’s the most traditional sounding of the three.  The rustic mix of instruments (slightly out of tune!) paired with the patois vocals (slightly off key!) gives it an authentic rawness.  The group was founded by Lanford Gilzene (AKA “Culture George”) who sings and plays guitar.  Donnett Leslie sings and plays the shaker.  Rhumba-box player Courtney Clarke provides low end.  The oldest member is 80 year old banjo player Wesley Balds who taught himself to play by ear as a child.  The recording is 100% natural – no overdubs, reverb or mixing.  Song topics include timeless tales of innuendo, sexuality and double entendre, performed the way you might have heard them in rural Jamaica many decades ago.  This is folk music.  Who cares if it's off-key?  There's no lock for that key to open anyway.
A little more contemporary sounding is “We Will Wait” by Blue Glaze Mento Band.  This album is bolstered by some guest appearances from reggae greats Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, Stranjah Cole and Uziah Sticky Thompson...none of them strangers to roots music.  Despite these high-profile sit-ins, "We Will Wait" retains an all-acoustic mento sound with touches of gospel and reggae.  Lead vocals are handled with ease by the talented Vernal Morgan.  This is a solid album from start to finish.  Notable tracks include some of my favorite mento songs: “Slide Mongoose”, “Mommy Turn Out De Light”, “Parson Don’t Bury the Man”, “Night Food”, “Mo By Chinaman” and “Lizard in my Bed”.  I especially enjoy the influential 4-string banjo playing of Nelson Chambers, who unfortunately passed away before the album was released.
Mento’s most well known practitioners are The Jolly Boys, now featuring the charismatic Albert Minnot as front man.  In 2010 they released “Great Expectation”, a collection of rock and pop covers that has been dubbed a “modern mento” album.  Great Expectation was conceived and produced by Jon Baker of Port Antonio-based GeeJam Studios, who chose songs ranging from Amy Winehouse to Steely Dan to The Stooges for the Jolly Boys to take on.  Baker recruited musician, ethno-musicologist and mento scholar Daniel T. Neely to lay down the banjo parts and add some of his expertise to the project.  The result is a contemporary sounding album that has played a big part in bringing mento to a wider audience. 

I hope that listening to these recordings will not only provide you with enjoyment, but lead you on a path of discovery to the many other mento gems of the past; as well as those that are yet to come!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fortune's Cove: One of the Best Undiscovered Hikes in Virginia

This past weekend Laura and I returned to our favorite Virginia hiking spot: Fortune's Cove, a 755 acre preserve in Nelson County near the town of Lovingston.  Fortune's Cove is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is situated within 29,000 acres of relatively intact forest habitat and rocky glades that is home to many rare plant species.
one of the views from Fortune's Cove trail
This demanding loop hike is my favorite for a variety of reasons:
-Solitude.  There never seems to be anyone else there!
-It offers two options: a steep, challenging 5.5 mile workout (allow 3+ hours - brisk pace) or a shorter, more moderate 4 mile trek (allow 2+ hours - semi-casual pace).  Just enough to feel like you've done something, but not enough to really wear you out.
-There are some decent mountain vista vantage points and lookouts along the trail, especially on the longer loop.
-It's 90 minutes from Richmond, which is about the distance you have to drive anyway to start getting to the good Blue Ridge hikes. So, it's no farther than anything else, really.  And it's pretty easy to get don't have to traverse any poorly maintained roads.
-Most importantly, it's directly adjacent to Mountain Cove Vineyards (VA's oldest active winery) and not far from more than a half dozen other Virginia wineries as well as three cool breweries (Devil's Backbone, Wild Wolf and Blue Mountain), so we always combine this hike with stops at Mountain Cove or another winery for bottles and/or a brewery to have growlers filled.

This section of Nelson county between Lovingston and Wintergreen is one of the most pleasant and beautiful parts of Virginia.  Visiting there is a joy and if you're looking for a challenging hike in that area you can't go wrong with Fortune's Cove!
Fortune's Cove Trail Map

Download the trail map here.

From US 29 near Lovingston travel north for 0.5 miles to Rt. 718/Mountain Cove Road. Turn left and follow Rt. 718 west 1.5 miles to Rt. 651. Go right (north) for 1.6 miles to Fortune's Cove Preserve.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Making the Most of Practice Time

If you want to have a great time when playing music, you should look at at practice time as something that's going to allow that to happen.  Figure out what it is that you want to do with music and then focus your practice time around that.

In my case I want to play old-time and Irish tunes with other traditional musicians.  I'm already attending as many as 8 sessions/jams per month.  At an average of 2.5 hours per jam, that's a good 20 hours per month in that environment. Simply putting myself in that situation is good practice.  Not only do I learn in the moment and gain confidence and familiarity, but I also become aware of things I need to work on - things that may not have been apparent otherwise - so that next time around I'll be able to enjoy more, understand more, and participate more.

Personal practice time is different than being at the session.  In that case, practice is focused-playing in a relaxed, non-critical environment where it's okay to be adventurous, noodle around and try and figure out what does and doesn't work. Nobody is listening or cares when you hit a wrong note.

I have also started to take lessons from a talented instructor with a wealth of theory-knowledge and jazz training, but who also happens to be an accomplished old-time mandolin player who hosts a weekly jam.  He assigns me drills and exercises designed to make me a better all around musician, not just a folk musician. The fact that I always have an upcoming jam or session to implement those teachings makes me more inclined to actually practice the drills and exercises he assigns. 

By becoming aware of areas I need to improve, receiving instruction that focuses on improving those areas, and having actual situations where I can test out what I am learning, I'm finally starting to notice some improvement in my playing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Making the case for 1980’s Grateful Dead

What’s your favorite Grateful Dead period or era?  Some folks like the Pigpen years, when the Dead were an ambitious psychedelic 60’s blues rock dance band.  Others like ’72-‘74 when they would transform from a 1st set country rock outfit to a 2nd set Miles Davis inspired acid jazz unit.  A lot of fans are drawn to the late 70’s period when the band presented itself as a consistently smooth touring ensemble that eased its way into polished shows night after night, best exemplified by May 1977.  And finally some aficionados prefer the post-Touch of Grey years of ’88 through spring ‘90 when Jerry and the boys peaked in popularity and became a rock and roll powerhouse able to shake the rafters of America’s finest football stadiums and deliver on a massive level.

However, one time-period that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the early-to-mid 1980’s…I’m talking ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’85 era Dead.  Similar to a vintage Cabernet Franc that tastes like perfection to some and like a filthy old boot to others, these are my go to years when I want to listen to some good ol’ Grateful Dead.  There’s a crazy vibe to these early-to-mid 80’s shows that is reminiscent of a locomotive on the verge of careening out of control but is somehow still able to stay on track and make its stops.  You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get and that’s part of the fun.  Even the supposed stinker shows from these years have ironic appeal, in a Japanese wabi-sabi sort of way.
Grateful Dead - May 1982, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA by Joel Eisenberg
It was the 1980’s after all…the Dead were already written off as dinosaurs by the world at large, seemingly lacking any relevance to the pop culture of the time and still a couple years away from their eventual commercial success and then ultimate demise.  But to the Dead and its fanbase most of the surrounding trends and “just say no” consumerism of the decade were just white noise.  Being a band that existed in the now, the Grateful Dead were just as much an 80’s band as they were a 70’s band or a 60’s band.

By the early eighties Brent had gained his sea legs and his intensity was revitalizing the group, Bobby was on some weird, hyper trip, Jerry (on the verge of some severe drug-related physical calamaties) cuts through in a far grittier, grungier, more urgent fashion than normal, Phil has some of his most stand-out and memorable performances (“the Raven”, “more nitrous”, “earthquake space”) and a new fire was lit under drummers Mickey and Billy as they grew accustomed to letting loose and going hog-wild during their drumz portion of the 2nd set.  In other words, the band meant bizness!

For even the most Deadicated fan, the 80’s aren’t the first place you look for gems, but they are well worth checking out.  In my opinion you really can’t go wrong with any show from this span.  Have fun panning for gold!