Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thanks For Reading

Thank you for reading this blog.  I'm kind of done with writing it for a while.  There's nothing else that I really need to post here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Six Water Grog's Best Albums/Music of 2015

Here are my favorite albums of 2015.  This was the year of the woman, with more than half of my selections featuring women as solo performers or band leaders.
Tomeka Reid Quartet - Tomeka Reid Quartet
Seeing this quartet perform live in Baltimore this summer is a big reason for their inclusion at the top of the list.  The album is like a slightly more condensed version of that live set; it's "out" in the way that some of the more avant-garde music I've been listening to is, but is also easily identifiable as jazz.  These are still tunes with a form, played freely in a way that still has groove or swing.

Dave Rawlings Machine - Nashville Obsolete
I loved this album from the moment I first heard it.  David Rawlings has taken his time warming to the idea of being a front man but now he's fully developed that attitude.  When the wave of newness crashes, I think we'll be left with a unique album that is a perfect complement to his usual work with Gillian, where the roles are reversed.

Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer
A group of twentysomethings playing what could be described as retro sounding 90's rock is probably not the kind of thing you expect to find on a 40-year-old dude's best of the year list, or is it?  Speedy Ortiz does this well.  There's always a lot going on musically in each of these songs and Sadie Dupuis' lyrics have a way of wrapping around your brain the way bacon wraps a scallop.  How's that for 3rd place?

Secret Keeper - Emerge
Secret Keeper is a perfect example of where my tastes have been heading the last couple years.  Yes at their essence these are compositions, but that only accounts for about twenty percent of what's going on.  The rest is an in-the-moment bass and guitar conversation between Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson that could probably never come out the same way twice,  Think of it like this:  the way that you are able to fluidly chat with a really good friend...that's the music that Secret Keeper makes.

Holly Bowling - Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined for Solo Piano
Holly Bowling became an overnight internet sensation (among Phish fans) due to her spot-on transcription and arrangement of a particularly inspired 37-minute instant-classic improv Phish did in 2013 now called the Tahoe Tweezer. That piece is included on this album, but surprisingly my favorite tracks are the ones on "disc one", which are very devout instrumental readings of about a dozen different songs, including Harry Hood, The Squirming Coil, Wingsuit and A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.  If this wasn't such solidly written music in the first place it wouldn't work in this solo piano format, and if Holly weren't the player she is she wouldn't be able to bring out the fullness of that beauty.  It works on each of those levels.

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Indie tastemakers, and maybe even some mainstream outlets, have already been heavily touting the talents of Courtney Barnett.  I suspect that this album will show up on a lot of best-of lists this year, as it should.  Courtney Barnett has a way of looking at the world that is inclusive.  She can turn a personal experience into something that transcends generations and cultures and speaks toward a universal view of the moment.  I think that's why people are digging her so much.  That's why I am.

Susan Alcorn - Soledad
Susan Alcorn plays pedal steel guitar.  Not in a country and western style but in a singular way as an outlet for channeling her inner improvisations.  On Soledad Alcorn patiently re-interprets the work of Argentinian composer and accordionist Astor Piazzolla.  The result is something out of this world yet very down home.

Circle Around the Sun: Interludes for the Dead (Fare Thee Well setbreak music)
When I watched the Santa Clara webcast of first of the five GD50 shows this summer, one thing that caught my ear was the mesmerizing music being played during the setbreak. It wasn't just filler. It turns out that musician Neal Casal was commissioned to create about 5 hours of music to be played during intermission at the Grateful Dead's Fare The Well Shows in Santa Clara and Chicago. Ever since I figured out what it was, who was doing it, and why, I knew it would be on my list of the year's best regardless of whether it was being officially released or not.  Fortunately it was released - in a slightly edited form - as Circles Around the Sun on 11/27/15.

Mary Halvorson - Meltframe
Meltframe is Mary Halvorson's long awaited debut solo guitar album and it doesn't quite sound like anything she's ever done.  For one thing it's an album of covers.  Most of her recordings thus far have been original compositions or pieces by her various band members. I hesitated to include Mary three times on the top ten list (Tomeka Reid Quartet, Secret Keeper and Meltframe) but the impact of this album is too sustaining for it to be omitted.  My level of appreciation for Meltframe is only going to grow over time.

Erik Friedlander - Illuminations
2015 is the year that I started listening to the Bach Cello Suites as played by Pablo Casals (as well as the classical Haitian guitar of Frantz Casseus).  That is some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard, so I went looking for something more recently made in the same vein, which is how I found this new album by Erik Friedlander.  Illuminations is a suite for solo cello that uses the Bach suites as inspiration.  Instead of being based on French dances, Friedlander's pieces sometimes have a hypnotic, Eastern touch.

Update - I would like to add the self titled album by Zane Campbell to this list.

Honorable Mention (the next 10):
Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra - To Those of Earth... And Other Worlds
Mandolin Orange - Such Jubilee
Joan Shelley - Over and Even
My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall
Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands
Alex Bleeker and The Freaks - Country Agenda
Pharis and Jason Romero - A Wanderer I'll Stay
Trey Anastasio - Paper Wheels
Michael Gibbs and the NDR Big Band - Play a Bill Frisell Set List
Built to Spill - Untethered Moon

That's what I was listening to this year.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Little Tune Inspired by Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus by Medeski, Martin and Wood

I've been listening to some live 1995-1996 Medeski, Martin and Wood recently.  The It's A Jungle In Here > Friday Afternoon in the Universe > Shack-man era.  This is my favorite period of MMW music.  Particularly the tune Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus has been floating around in my head all week.

As an amateur hobbyist musician one great thing about reaching the point where trying to figure out something by ear is no longer an incredibly frustrating ordeal but rather a quite pleasant exercise, is that a door opens toward the possibility of personally interpreting the music by some of your favorite artists.  Even creating something of your own based on this music.  If you are in need of more tunes to learn you can just turn to existing recordings for ideas.

In light of yesterday's announcement that the Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump) "house" concert would now be taking place in a church, I decided that now was as good a time as ever to see what listening to Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus could spawn.  Here's what came out of my banjo with me playing it.

I obviously wasn't trying to exactly duplicate this piece.  For one thing, I don't have the ability.  Secondly, I was hearing something a little different with maybe a few more measures or something repeated that doesn't happen in the original composition.  This is how it sounded about an hour ago when I recorded it.  This is like a first draft.  Things could definitely change as time goes on. 

I don't know how to play piano properly, but I have an electric keyboard that I use to help me discern certain notes because it has more clarity than my banjo does sometimes.  I kind of view the piano as a marimba with my fingers being the mallets.  Anyway, it's not heard on this recording thankfully but I used the piano before recording to help with deciding on some of these notes.  At other times I just did what I thought I wanted to hear.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump) Friday, November 6, 2015 Richmond, VA

LOCATION UPDATED (and revealed) for the Secret Keeper "House" Concert on Friday, November 6, 2015 at 7PM in Richmond, VA!

This was originally supposed to be a house concert with very limited space but it has been moved to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church at Forest Hill and 43rd Street in Richmond, VA - a still intimate venue but one that will allow more people to attend.  There's a $10 to $20 suggested donation.

You might be thinking "experimental, challenging, freely improvised, modernly avant-garde compositions in a house of worship???"  (Actually, isn't there a history of free-improv within the church organ community?).  However, even as a non-religious person I know one thing:  I'll be worshiping some Mary Halvorson!!!  There is a guitar god.  Seriously though, this'll more than likely be a good room for appreciating this complex yet beautiful music.
Secret Keeper - Stephan Crump and Mary Halvorson
Secret Keeper is Mary Halvorson, guitar and Stephan Crump, bass. Mary Halvorson has been described as "the most future-seeking guitarist working right now" (Lars Gotrich,, "the most impressive guitarist of her generation" (Troy Collins, and "my current favorite musician" (me!). Grammy-nominated bassist/composer Stephan Crump is known for his work with mainstream jazz luminaries, downtown explorers, singer/songwriters and more, and is a long-standing member of the esteemed Vijay Iyer Trio.

Together as Secret Keeper, Mary and Stephan create something akin to improvisatory chamber music. Stephan says, “Mary and I each have extremely varied influences within music and beyond…we’re not trying to bar any of these influences from the music we create together, nor are we concerned with genre in any way”.  Anyone who enjoys art, experimentation, and virtuosic musicianship should try to attend. 

A $10-20 suggested donation will help pay for these top level New York-based musicians.

Secret Keeper
Friday, November 6, 2015 at 7pm
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Forest Hill and 43rd Street
Richmond, VA 23225

Monday, October 26, 2015

JAZZed "What's On Your Playlist" - Clave Patterns by Los Munequitos de Matanzas

JAZZed Magazine has a regular segment called What’s On Your Playlist where a featured musician will list what he or she has been listening to. These artists usually select current releases and/or things they’ve discovered recently, but in the August/September 2015 issue baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus took a different route: he listed five recordings that have had a big influence on his playing.
Brian Landrus on contra alto clarinet
One of the albums he mentions is Rumba Caliente by Los Munequitos de Matanzas. Landrus says “While at the New England Conservatory I was fortunate to study with Danilo Perez. Danilo was working on my rhythmic groove. Danilo had me tapping various clave patterns with my foot and playing bebop heads. It was, and is, very difficult, but it took my internal groove to the next level. He told me about Los Munequitos so I listened to all of their recordings available and transcribed as many of the clave patterns I could find. They’re a great source of compositional inspiration for me.”
I had not heard of this Cuban group so I looked them up. The music is good and I can see how Landrus found it to be a great source of compositional inspiration. The idea of tapping various clave rhythms while playing head melodies sounds very challenging, but worth trying. You can read the full article – and the entire issue – here:

The JAZZed interview with Ran Blake in the same issue is also worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Know the Chords, Hear the Changes...or Not

In the 9 years that I’ve been playing music I’ve never fully believed in the concept of chords being a predetermined order of stacked notes that you then solo over. I don’t think I hear music this way, which may be why I was initially drawn to the single-note melodies of traditional Irish music despite having no cultural or social connection to that type of music. In Irish traditional music it seems that melody comes first and harmony/chords are a non-essential modern add-on.

Traditional Irish music is great, but I really want to play music that is not tied to any tradition, style or genre. Music that is completely free of those connections. So, then the question becomes how do you extend this concept of melody first into the realm of free improvisation?

For one thing I never know what the chords changes are to a song – I can’t really hear “right” from “wrong” in this way – and the idea of having to be aware of the chord changes and basing my selection of improvised notes on this knowledge seems restrictive. If I play a “B” note why does that have to be a G-major chord to meet someone’s idea of what sounds “good”? Couldn’t you pair that B note with the notes in a B-minor chord, or an E-minor chord, or any combination of notes that somehow complements that B note? And can’t you change it every time? 

Then I read about Ornette Coleman - the great melody writer and improviser - and how he had dispensed with chord sequences in his compositions and instead used melody as the basis for improvisation.  This gave him the freedom to take those melodies in any direction he wanted at whatever length, pitch and speed felt right.  Knowing about this makes me feel a lot better and when I listen to Ornette's music I hear something similar to what I have in mind or hoped could be done.
I won't pretend to even begin to understand what Ornette Coleman was doing or how he heard and interpreted music, but knowing that such an important figure in the history of jazz did not rely on predetermined harmonic structure gives me some confidence that you can effectively improvise melodically without concern for the underlying or implied chords.  Now I just need to find other musicians who want to practice this type of playing.  Hello?  Anyone?  Is there anybody out there?  Maybe an upright bassist or a cello player is reading this?  I'm sending out smoke signals.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Practicing a Two Bar Section of the Haitian Meringue La Douceur

There's a tune I've been learning called La Douceur.  It was written by the Haitian composer/violinist Arthur Duroseau who was part of the Duroseau musical family from Port-au-Prince who made some recordings in the early 1950's.  La Douceur is a Meringue type of tune.  It has some syncopated timing that takes some getting used to and a seemingly difficult sequence of 8th notes at the end of the B-part which can feel very sped up when compared to the rest of the piece.

I wrote that two-bar lick out in the notation form that I have recently adopted which uses major scale note numbers which can then be applied to any key or tonal center you want.  See image below.  The note numbers correspond to the notes of the major scale.  This morning I was practicing that lick in the key of B, which means that my note "2" is a C# note and 2b (flat 2 or "doo" for diminished two) is the note C in the key of B.  With this kind of notation it's pretty easy to transpose.  All you have to do is know a major scale and then apply that knowledge to the sequence of notes.  After I'm done writing this I will try it in a different key.
La Douceur "lick" at end of B part
Michael Doucet recorded La Douceur on the 2013 BeauSoleil album From Bamako to Carencro.  Here's a link to that recording.  The lick starts just after 50 seconds and is only a couple seconds long:

And here's a video of the amazing banjo-mandolin player Dennis Pash of the Etcetera String Band and the Ragtime Skedaddlers playing it.  Dennis' version is where I first heard La Douceur and it made me want to learn this tune!  The section transcribed above starts at about 33 seconds into this video.

Remember, this method of notating is not like a tab or treble clef anything like that.  The numbers correspond to major scale notes, not finger placement, so it's not instrument specific or key specific.  You can use this notation system for any melodic instrument....saxophone, flute, guitar, mandolin, et cetera, and you can use it for any mode.  A tune in Dorian would probably have 2 as the tonal center.  Makes sense, right?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is Music Theory a Science or a Religion?

Duh, it's a science.

Penn Jillette has said:
"If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again."
What Penn said is true and I feel the same way about music theory. It's just an attempt to explain what is already going on. The existing vocabulary we've been given to describe music is absolute, but it's not for everyone. It covers more than most of us need to know.
Which is why if you're feeling confused by music theory, I challenge you to find your own way of interpreting it. Try and really get to the essence of what this terminology is attempting to convey and then imagine that all existing knowledge of music theory has been wiped out and put those same concepts in your own thoughts or words.

I have sort of done this myself by applying a notation system that views all 12 "keys" universally as equals, and all 7 notes of the major scale as a sequence of diatonic numbers based on a tonal center, and the five remaining "blue notes" as raised or diminished diatonic number sounds ("dive" for a flat five note and "rive" for a sharp five note, for example).
This way of analyzing the notes of a universal scale makes it easy to transcribe.  Perhaps think of it like this:  most melodies in the key of C-major/ionian or its relatives (D-dorian, F-lydian, G-mixolydian, etc.) use only the white keys of a piano keyboard.  When they do use use a black key it is a "blue note".  In other words, some note in the major scale has been sharpened or flattened.

Now imagine if you could transpose the sound that comes out of the keyboard so that the white keys were A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A and so on.  The same song played the same way would now come out in "A" instead of in "C".  If that melody in C had a "flat" 7th note that made B change to Bb, that same melody in A would mean that the "flat" note makes G# change to G natural. (G natural doesn't seem "flat", does it?!).  I would just call this note "dev" [diminished seven] regardless of key.  These are the building blocks of seeing it more universally.

As soon as you can start thinking of music theory in a way that (correctly) applies your own personal meaning to it, you'll understand the existing science that is music theory a whole lot better.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Phish's A Live One 33 1/3 book by Walter Holland

I am happy that there is now a book about Phish in the 33 1/3 series of novella-length essays on music albums.  The album chosen - A Live One - makes sense.  Although Phish does make good studio albums, that type of work would have been too far removed from the improvisatory concert experience that makes Phish Phish.

As their first officially released live recording, 1995's A Live One retains the feel of an album due to its purposeful order of cherry picked selections from various 1994 concerts, but still allows for a jumping off point to discuss Phish as a whole.  For one thing, the band had already moved on by the time A Live One came out the summer after the recordings were made, and would move on again and again before the 90's were over.

Author Walter Holland says that his imagined reader is an interested non-fan who's heard of Phish but knows little of their music, without much experience listening to improvisation.  He also says that he resisted the urge to sell this reader on Phish.  In my view, it's a mistake to believe that the reader needs selling at all.  Such a perception only perpetuates an assumed negative popular/critical opinion that we should be past by now.

I do like the musical terms Holland occasionally employs to describe what is going on during jams, like when he says "in this context A7, as the dominant, leans hard toward the D-minor chord that grounds the whole song".  However, too much of the time is spent on clunky, cluttered writing and unrelated tangents.  There are footnotes for things that don't need footnotes and plenty of things that could use a footnote but don't have one.

On page 8 he says "Maybe A Live One isn't a great album", which he is probably right about.  But then on page 68 he says "Go ahead and put on the A Live One 'Tweezer' if you have it.  If you don't own the album go buy it (it's good)".  I find that to be frustrating.  Holland does make some good observations, such as his explanation of the hose as "anthemic major-chord catharsis after a tension-building passage".  Such matter of fact language is refreshing.

It's hard for me to be too critical of someone who set out to write a Phish 33 1/3 book because that person had to know he was going to be under intense criticism just by doing so.  I admire his effort.  Near the end of the book Holland provides perhaps his best synopsis:
"I like how they've aged.  A Live One has long had a terminal quality, to me - without meaning to, it concisely sets out the terms of a musical close-packing problem that their later explosive--minimalist improv authoritatively solved, and they've never gone back to their early combative style.  Nowadays the borders between their improvisatory episodes are more porous, transitions more gentle, improvisations less inclined to wander aimlessly--beauty is the chief imperative in Phish's late music, and novelty is all but set aside.  There's no didactic or antagonistic point, as there was in (say) the A Live One 'Stash' and 'Tweezer,' which run long and loud and play tricks on the listener partly for the sake of extremity itself; that is, for a laugh".
In my case I was so psyched for there to be a book like this that I pushed on through despite/because of some irritations.  It's a pretty quick read and if anything it might allow you better interpret your own opinions of this band.  Although, don't be surprised if you get to the end wondering if much, if anything, has been said.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Richmond Folk Festival is a Different Kind of Music Festival

If folk music is the classic Greenwich Village image of a guy like Bob Dylan or a gal like Joan Baez singing and strumming an acoustic guitar, then I can’t really think of many Richmond Folk Festival performers over the festival’s 11 year history that meet this description.  Peter Rowan maybe.  No, when this festival says "folk" they mean something more like indigenous traditional world music.  It could be multi-generational bluegrass musicians from up in the mountains or music of the Middle East or Eastern Europe.  The kind of stuff a songcatching ethnomusicologist might bring back as field recordings after journeying to far off regions. 

So many festivals are about headliners and featuring hot new acts.  The Richmond Folk Festival is not another Lockn’ or Bonnaroo or even a Newport.  You won’t find Phil Lesh, My Morning Jacket, Dawes, Grace Potter or Dr. Dog on the bill.  Not yet anyway.  There's always hope!  The biggest name or mainstream performer that the Richmond Folk Festival has ever had, best as I can remember, might be Rosanne Cash, and yet the festival regularly draws between 150,000 to 200,000 curious people over its 3 days.

So why do so many people come to a downtown festival featuring a bunch of obscure artists playing weird traditional music that most of us have never even heard or heard of?  Because that’s a very Richmond thing to do, it turns out. Eleven years ago when the festival started, Richmond was just on the cusp of embracing the arts, food and other things enlightened, but a sense of ennui and procrastination still lingered.  It was a complete surprise that so many people showed up and embraced this event from the very first year and it has stayed that way ever since, although it is no longer a surprise.  It's an annual ritual now.  Yay Richmond!

Myself, like a lot of others it seems, have learned to treat the Richmond Folk Festival with a great deal of respect and gratitude; a mature approach that tries to put the music first, and maybe partying second.  Where else can you stumble upon a tent where thousands of people are silently watching an Indian tabla player with rapt attention?  Or have your choice between seeing Native American Smoke Dancers or DJ Grandmaster Flash?  The cool thing is you can find yourself in any of these situations with a cup of craft beer because it is sold throughout the fest and you can take it to any stage and all over the grounds. That helps.

It's not so easy to pigeon-hole the Richmond Folk Festival crowd.  It's not just progressive white folks.  The festival also attracts many African-Americans as well as people from all sorts of different backgrounds and ethnicities, as it should.  If you want diversity – gender, age, race, families, culture – The Richmond Folk Festival brings it. Being walking distance from the thriving campus of VCU, the festival also pulls in a strong college contingent.  

Yep, I’m pretty psyched that we continue to have this festival and that all kinds of people go and support it.  Where would I like to see it evolve?  If possible, I'd love to see it continue to expand the definition of folk music by featuring more artists on the cutting edge or fringes of "traditions" and/or people who are pushing things farther instead of just those who represent retrogrades.  For example, how come they never got Ornette Coleman before he passed away, or Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, or the Sahara Desert rock band Tinariwen, or Bela Fleck, or Kind Sunny Ade, or modern acts with folk roots like The Decemberists or Gillian Welch?  In other words, there is room for both Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, but more Miles please.  We shall see.

Wynton's 12 Ways to Practice

I saw this list in a book a few years ago and had forgotten about it until I came across it again recently.  These 12 practice tips from Wynton Marsalis are very well thought out ways to get the most out of your practice time.
Wynton Marsalis photo from 1981
First Published in The Education Digest, September 1996

As a boy growing up in New Orleans, I remember my father, Ellis, a pianist, and his friends talking about “sheddinʼ.” When they got together, theyʼd say, “Man, you need to go shed,” or “Iʼve been sheddinʼ hard.” When I was around 11, I realized that sheddinʼ meant getting to the woodshed – practicing. By the age of 16, I understood what the shed was really about – hard, concentrated work. When my brother Branford and I auditioned for our high school band, the instructor, who knew my father, was excited about Ellisʼ sons coming to the band. But my audition was so pitiful he said, “Are you sure youʼre Ellisʼ son?” At the time, his comment didnʼt bother me because I was more interested in basketball than band. Over the next several years, however, I began practicing seriously. Practice is essential to learning music – and anything else, for that matter. I like to say that the time spent practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician. When you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to sound good. Even if practice is so important, kids find it very hard to do because there are so many distractions. Thatʼs why I always encourage them to practice and explain how to do it. Iʼve developed what I call “Wyntonʼs 12 Ways to Practice.” These will work for almost every activity – from music to schoolwork to sports.

1. Seek out instruction: Find an experienced teacher who knows what you should be doing. A good teacher will help you understand the purpose of practicing and can teach you ways to make practicing easier and more productive.

2. Write out a schedule: A schedule helps you organize your time. Be sure to allow time to review the fundamentals because they are the foundation of all the complicated things that come later. If you are practicing basketball, for example, be sure to put time in your schedule to practice free throws.

3. Set goals: Like a schedule, goals help you organize your time and chart your progress. Goals also act as a challenge: something to strive for in a specific period of time. If a certain task turns out to be really difficult, relax your goals: practice doesnʼt have to be painful to achieve results.

4. Concentrate: You can do more in 10 minutes of focused practice than in an hour of sighing and moaning. This means no video games, no television, no radio, just sitting still and working. Start by concentrating for a few minutes at a time and work up to longer periods gradually. Concentrated effort takes practice too, especially for young people.

5. Relax and practice slowly: Take your time; donʼt rush through things. Whenever you set out to learn something new – practicing scales, multiplication tables, verb tenses in Spanish – you need to start slowly and build up speed.

6. Practice hard things longer: Donʼt be afraid of confronting your inadequacies; spend more time practicing what you canʼt do. Adjust your schedule to reflect your strengths and weaknesses. Donʼt spend too much time doing what comes easily. Successful practice means coming face to face with your shortcomings. Donʼt be discouraged; youʼll get it eventually.

7. Practice with expression: Every day you walk around making yourself into “you,” so do everything with the proper attitude. Put all of yourself into participating and try to do your best, no matter how insignificant the task may seem. Express your “style” through how you do what you do.

8. Learn from your mistakes: None of us are perfect, but donʼt be too hard on yourself. If you drop a touchdown pass, or strike out to end the game, itʼs not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, analyze what went wrong and keep going. Most people work in groups or as part of teams. If you focus on your contributions to the overall effort, your personal mistakes wonʼt seem so terrible.

9. Donʼt show off: Itʼs hard to resist showing off when you can do something well. In high school, I learned a breathing technique so I could play a continuous trumpet solo for 10 minutes without stopping for a breath. But my father told me, “Son, those who play for applause, thatʼs all they get.” When you get caught up in doing the tricky stuff, youʼre just cheating yourself and your audience.

10. Think for yourself: Your success or failure at anything ultimately depends on your ability to solve problems, so donʼt become a robot. Think about Dick Fosbury, who invented the Fosbury Flop for the high jump. Everyone used to run up to the bar and jump over it forwards. Then Fosbury came along and jumped over the bar backwards, because he could go higher that way. Thinking for yourself helps develop your powers of judgment. Sometimes you may judge wrong and pay the price; but when you judge right you reap the rewards.

11. Be optimistic: How you feel about the world expresses who you are. When you are optimistic, things are either wonderful or becoming wonderful. Optimism helps you get over your mistakes and go on to do better. It also gives you endurance because having a positive attitude makes you feel that something great is always about to happen.

12. Look for connections: No matter what you practice, youʼll find that practicing itself relates to everything else. It takes practice to learn a language, cook good meals or get along well with people. If you develop the discipline it takes to become good at something, that discipline will help you in whatever else you do. Itʼs important to understand that kind of connection. The more you discover the relationships between things that at first seem different, the larger your world becomes. In other words, the woodshed can open up a whole world of possibilities.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Caribbean Jazz Standards: My Little Suede Shoes and St. Thomas

My Little Suede Shoes is a Charlie Parker tune with a Latin flavor and samba groove, although Parker didn't actually write it.  According to Brian Priestly, author of Chasin' the Bird, My Little Suede shoes is a French Caribbean tune called "Mes Souliers De Daim" that Bird picked up in Paris.  Parker explored Latin, Mexican and Caribbean Afro-Cuban rhythms during the early 1950's.  My Little Suede Shoes has an extremely catchy rumba beat that would have fit right in on Guadeloupe or Martinique.
My Little Suede Shoes

St. Thomas is a tune said to have been "composed" by Sonny Rollins.  His mother was from the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean and Rollins remembered hearing his mother signing a calypso song when he was a child.  The Rollins composition St. Thomas is based on the song his mother would sing, perhaps originally known as "The Carnival" from the West Indies and/or the song "Fire Down There" from Jamaica.  So, Rollins' version is more of an interpretation of these earlier traditional melodies than a full-on composition.  St. Thomas remains the most popular and well known of Rollins' calypso themed tunes.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

What are the Cliché Mexican Songs?

The band Phish announced earlier this month that they will be playing three nights on Mexico's Caribbean coast in January 2016!  This has inspired me to learn some Mexican songs.  I'm looking for the most cliché, or at least the most recognizable, of all Mexican sounding melodies...the Irish Washerwomans and Old Joe Clarks of that region or style.  So far, I've found six that I like and over the last couple weeks I've been learning them.  This morning I did some quick recordings of each on my tenor banjo and mandola.

La Cucaracha means "the cockroach".  It is perhaps the most famous of all Mexican folk songs.

South of the Border (Down Mexico Way) was written by Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr.  There have been many recordings of this cowboy song, including those by Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Flaco Jimenez, Chris Isaak and even Bill Frisell!

Jarabe Tapatio, AKA "The Mexican Hat Dance", is another of Mexico's most recognizable folk songs.  You may have heard it played on organ at a baseball game.

Tequila is a latin-flavored 1950's rock and roll song recorded by The Champs.  Pee-wee Herman famously dances to this song during Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Besame Mucho is a Mexican bolero written by Consuelo Velazquez.  The title translates to "kiss me a lot".

Sobre Las Olas is a Mexican waltz, also known as "Over the Waves" in the United States.  It was written by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas.  Sobre Las Olas is often played at circuses where trapeze artists are performing.

Can you think of any other well known, classic or fun Mexican (or Mexican sounding) songs I should add to this list?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What Makes An Album "Great"?

What makes an album great?  All time favorites often have many of the following characteristics.

Lack of Production - No Overdubbing
I could list several examples to the contrary, but nowadays I want it to sound like the musicians are in the room with you playing, or at least the same as it would sound if you were a fly on the wall in the studio or whatever setting it's being recorded in.  Ideally this means that everything you hear was being made in real time by musicians playing and interacting together, not added later, and they resisted the urge to go back and edit over "mistakes" or drop in other sounds.  In other words, a take is a take.

Cohesiveness to the Material
Maybe the songs all come from the same writing session.  Maybe they all focus on a certain style or theme.  Or maybe you're pulling disparately from various sources but you're still able to tie it all together.  The best albums seem to have something that unites the material on that album, the same something that separates that material from the material on a different album.  This is why greatest hits collections and box sets rarely, if ever, fall into this category.
The order of the songs or pieces of music is important.  It should convey something purposeful.  Eventually you start to anticipate the sound of the next song as the current song is ending, and you can't imagine anything other than what is to come next.  You don't have to like every song equally, but under the right circumstances it should be a sacrilege to skip through any of them.  Great albums need to be played in their entirety and viewed as a whole.
Unfolds Over Time
The best albums often take time to sink in.  How many of your favorites are ones that had to grow on you, and how many of the ones you liked instantly haven't stood the test of time?  The best albums reveal something new with each listen, even years down the road. Additionally, the best albums seem to exist outside of the era in which they were made, even if they fully represent that era.  The quality of timelessness should be present.
Recorded Over Short Period of Time
When the liner notes say something like "Recorded September 9, 2012 at ______", that's usually a good sign.  Projects that were recorded over a period of weeks or months often have too much tinkering going on, and you lose some of the in the moment urgency and spontaneity that can come from recording sessions that take place over just a few days.
10 to 12 Songs, 40 to 55 Minutes Long
The perfect length actually seems to be about 44 to 47 minutes, but you can go anywhere from just over half an hour to almost up to an hour.  Anything shorter than that doesn't feel substantial enough, and anything longer runs the risk of needing to have something edited out.  It's even better if there's some distinction between "side A" and "side B".  The number of songs is of course also quite variable.  Many of my favorite albums are completely instrumental, containing fewer than 10 tracks.  And some have 15+ songs.  But 10 to 12 songs seems to be a good number that will correlate with the proper length of time.
Means Something To You
Finally, your favorite albums have to resonate with you in a personal way.  It doesn't matter if some critic said it was the best thing ever if you don't feel it, and, conversely it doesn't matter if other people hate it or find it to be inconsequential as long as you love it.  An album that you hold dearly may have come into your life at the right time and your interpretation of it and relationship with it resonates for those individual reasons.  Although, it can be worth going back and listening to a critically-acclaimed classic you might have missed. Case in point: Miles Davis "Kind of Blue".
Always keep searching and trust your judgement.  Don't be content to have a stagnant Desert Island Disc list.  Your all time top ten should reflect your current state of mind, feelings, tastes, views.  It doesn't have to solely consist of albums from your late teens or early twenties. You can be open to music in unexpected ways at any point in your life.  My list is constantly shifting. Letting go of some things and making room for more.

Dave Rawlings Machine "Nashville Obsolete" - Four Stars

That's four stars out of four, baby. When I clicked play for the first time on Dave Rawlings' new Nashville Obsolete album and instantly started singing along with The Weekend - a song I had never heard before - I knew it was a good sign.  When the first signature Dave Rawlings guitar solo hits at about two-and-a-half minutes in I was reminded once again of just how great of a guitar player Mr. Rawlings is.  He's plucking an acoustic guitar with no other effects, so essentially it's flatpicking but with a more outside bent, like a Norman Blake being pulled in the direction of Derek Bailey.  His second solo a couple minutes later is more direct and to the heart.

We're still in the first song at this point, mind you.  There are only 7 songs on Nashville Obsolete, so each one is important.  A self-aware sleight of hand allows the 2nd song to begin with the words "I met her on a harvest moon".  Emphasis on the words "Harvest Moon".  The strings on these first two tracks are hanging out, watching from afar, as if the songs are the movie and they are responding to scenes on a screen, eventually joining forces and merging together.

Don't pay too much heed to the title of the album.  It doesn't mean what it means.  This album is trippy that way.  And not just because the next song is called The Trip.  This song should fail with its thrown together words and loping pace, but it's too big to fail.  It's too damn classic and perfect.  I love it when Gillian's voice briefly overtakes Dave's at points.  It's much too much to try and live a lie at home.  The harmonica is blown baby, throw it away.  Your denim shirt ragged and your dirty collar's frayed.  I tried to play my horn for ya', but I couldn't seem to find a note.  So I picked up pen and paper and this is what I wrote.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (by Henry Diltz)
We're three songs in and half-way through.  That Bodysnatchers riff...any resemblance to the Grateful Dead's Unbroken Chain?  The songwriting being used here is quite far down the river; more elevated, nuanced, poetic, veiled, provocative and intoxicating than what is usually required of this type of music, assuming that this is a type of music.  The only type that it really is is natural music.  The kind that pours out of you.  The fifth song The Last Pharoah follows the most conventional structure of any so far, which is totally cool actually, sounding like something that could have been on a Taj Mahal record.  One wonders where an artist like Mr. Dave Rawlings gets his inspiration to write songs like this?  How do you even come up with these words?

Your reaction to the song Candy will pretty much determine your overall appreciation of this album.  If you receive it well, you're likely going to sway in the four star direction where I'm leaning.  If you find it to be novelty or throwaway, then chances are it could tarnish the overall flow.  Candy is 14% of the album!  If this song sucks then the album is only at 86% at best.  That's only like 3.44 stars out of 4.  But candy doesn't suck.  Candy comes along at just the right time.

I won't get drunk no more more.  It doesn't rhyme, does it?  Hopefully you've been singing along the whole time, but especially here.  Pilgrim, you can't go home.  If Nashville Obsolete really is the first Dave Rawlings Machine album, as Dave and Gill like to say, then it's quite a debut.  It feels unresolved.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The 2015 Richmond Folk Festival Saturday Schedule

In previous years I’ve often gone to all 3 days of the Richmond Folk Festival – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. However, due to the way the 2015 lineup comes together, attendance could be condensed into one day this time around. The five bands I’m most interested in seeing all perform at non-overlapping times on Saturday, October 10.

First off, there’s Grupo Rebolú (1:15-2:00 Dominion Dance Pavilion) from New York who play Afro-Colombian music. Their highly danceable rhythms are rooted in the music of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. After their set, there's the “Masters of Rhythm” workshop also on Brown's Island (2:30-3:30 WestRock Foundation Stage), featuring members of many of the different world music groups performing at this year’s festival. I love these types of workshops where they talk to musicians from different regions and traditions and have them provide examples of their respective styles and then jam together.
Grupo Rebolú
I might cut out of this rhythm meetup a little early to walk just north of Brown’s Island for The Alt’s set (3:30-4:15 VCU Health Stage). The Alt is more artistically appealing than most Irish bands at this level.  They rely on songcraft more than showmanship, offering obscure, sometime eery ballads that will stick with you long after the playing is done.  Eamon O’Leary is one of my all around favorite musicians in any style, John Doyle is a living legend and stringed instrument master, and the lovely Nuala Kennedy is both charming and impressive on flute and vocals.
The Alt
After The Alt it’ll be time to head back over to Brown’s Island for more Latin/Caribbean music, this time presented by the New York based Amargue Bachata Quintet with Andre Veloz (4:30-5:15 Dominion Dance Pavilion). Bachata is a Latino music from the Dominican Republic. Andre Veloz is the band’s frontwoman, and from what I understand it is rare for there to be a female bachata singer. The bachata music ends by 5:15 which should leave ample time to get a good spot for The Alt’s 2nd set of the day (5:45-6:30 Westrock Foundation Stage). This stage, which is under a tent and seated, will be a good place to watch The Alt work their magic.
Andre Veloz
This day’s itinerary closes with two jazz ensembles: the Feedel Band (7:00-8:00 Dominion Dance Pavilion) and the Sun Ra Arkestra (8:30-9:30 Community Foundation Stage). Feedel Band plays Ethiopian Jazz out of Washington DC. I'm not sure what this will be but I'm eager to find out.  The Sun Ra Arkestra dates back to the 1950’s and is on the short-list of the most important jazz collectives of all time. Mr. Sun Ra himself returned to Saturn in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to explore the outer realms under the direction of alto-saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen.
Feedel Band
Sun Ra Arkestra
Another cool thing about this plan is that it is logistically easy to pull off. It doesn’t involve as much walking through the crowds as usual because of the multiple back-to-back performances all taking place on Brown’s Island on either the Dominion Dance Pavilion or the WestRock Foundation Stage. There are plenty of food and beer vendors in that vicinity. The only time it leaves the island is for The Alt on the nearby VCU Health Stage at 3:30 and then for Sun Ra Arkestra all the way over at Community Foundation Stage for the final set of the day. That too makes sense logistically.
2015 Richmond Folk Festival map showing the sets mentioned above
I will probably wake up on Sunday morning with the notion to head back down to the festival. Sunday's highlights include DJ Grandmaster Flash, a “Global Voices” workshop and Deacon John’s Jump Blues, along with bonus sets by some of the performers I will have seen on Saturday.  But, even without Friday or Sunday, Saturday is a strong enough day to be a stand alone.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Five Questions with DeadPhish Orchestra's Paul Murin (High Country Guitar)

Paul Murin
Paul Murin is the guitarist for DeadPhish Orchestra, a tribute band that bridges the gap between the music of Phish and The Grateful Dead. He is also the creator of High Country Guitar, an online resource for guitar players interested in improvising and composing. His formal study has included the Jazz and Commercial Music program at the Lamont School of Music at the U. of Denver, where he graduated in 2002.

These qualifications mean that Paul knows as much about the music of Phish and the guitar playing of Trey Anastasio as anyone not named McConnell, Gordon, Fishman or Anastasio. Plus, he is approachable and affable. So, fortunately, he was happy to answer the following Phishy questions.

How does Phish’s improvisation differ from jazz improvisation? How is it similar? 
Well, if you're talking about the classic, bebop style of jazz improv, which most true jazz musicians are familiar with (and I, by the way, do not consider myself a jazz musician at all, although I have studied jazz fairly extensively), then I would say it's a LOT different. Jazz is very sophisticated, harmonically--chords tend to be complex, and there are usually a lot of them in a typical jazz piece. Phish's harmony tends to be much simpler, more in the vein of rock, blues, etc., and more static harmony and mode-based as opposed to improvising over a long series of chord changes.

However, jazz did take a turn for the simpler (largely thanks to Miles Davis) starting in the late '50s, and even more so in the 60's and 70's. The crazy-complicated chords of the bebop era got scrapped, and improvisation became more modal, and more groove-based. Here, I do think you could draw some parallels in Phish's improv style, and I would imagine the guys in Phish would cite much of this music as being influential. But Phish's influences come from a lot of places, and this is only one of them. 

Are there specific songs or performances that exemplify Phish’s improvisational style(s)?
I would look to some of their best-known jams as being exemplary. Like the 2013 "Tahoe Tweezer" or the "Tweezer > Prince Caspian" from the Magnaball Festival this summer. I guess some people call these "Type II" jams, though I'm frankly not 100% certain what that means, exactly. The jams start with the key and groove of the song, but before long they stretch out into different feels, and different keys and modalities. And they may or may not return to the original feel. 

I have noticed some interesting chord progressions in some of their newer songs--Waiting All Night has a really interesting chord progression for Trey's solo, as does Wingsuit and Halfway To The Moon. So it seems to me like they are trying to explore some new improvisational territory. 

Compositionally, are there any traits or themes you’ve noticed in Phish’s written music that you’d like to point out?
Off the top of my head, one thing that I see frequently in Trey's older compositions is that a melody will be cycled through several different keys. It happens in David Bowie, Golgi Apparatus, Squirming Coil, Foam, etc.--the same melody played in several different keys. Sometimes there will be slight variations, making things less predictable. 

Another "trick" that you see is that phrases will sometimes be odd lengths. Normally stuff happens in twos, fours, etc., but in Mango Song, for example, each phrase is 5 measures long. And in Runaway Jim, the phrases of the guitar solo are 3 measures long. Again, I think this makes things a little less predictable. 

As a musician, what is the biggest thing you’ve learned by listening to Phish?
They taught me that it's worthwhile to get as good as you can at your instrument, and to never stop learning and improving. 

How might one go about incorporating some of Phish’s writing style and improvisational techniques into his or her own music?
That's actually a tough one--I was in a band in my 20's that was heavily influenced by Phish in our songwriting, and when I listen to it now, it mostly just sounds like second-rate Phish to me. So you do have to be careful, if you're influenced by Phish, not to make that influence too direct. Instead I would recommend reading up on the guys in the band and looking at the music that influenced them. Absorb some of that stuff, as well as the other music that you love. Study it all (at least a little bit), learn to play as much of it as you can. And as you do that, hopefully your own voice develops out of it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mary Halvorson on Reading, Interpreting and Improvising

Mary Halvorson
Jazz and Avant-Rock guitarist Mary Halvorson has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. Getting to see her play live for the first time last month as part of the Tomeka Reid Quartet - while sitting just a few feet away - helped solidify this growing appreciation and gave me a little bit better idea of how she does what she does.

Mary was working from written music on a stand. I happened to see one of the pages and what she was doing was way more abstract and varied than what could have possibly been written on the page, and yet she seemed to maintain her concentration on the notation even during long periods of free improvisation. I asked Mary about this process and this was her response.

“With Tomeka's music, there is quite a variety in how the compositions are structured. Some of the tunes are way more open, in which case I am reading less and interpreting more, and others are more highly structured. If you see me staring at the page, I might be reading or following a solo form to improvise over. However, it's just as likely that I might not be reading at all and my eyes just happen to stay focused on the page after I've finished the notated portion. This happens sometimes too.

But regardless of what I'm reading, I do try to let the composition guide the direction of the improvisation. Even if I'm not playing over a form, the written material that comes before and/or after is still integrated into improvisational sections. For me, this is what ties it together into a coherent piece of music and gives each piece its own identity.” (Mary Halvorson)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Notating Tunes as Numbers from the Major Scale

In David Reed's book Improvise for Real he uses a numeric method to notate melodies based on the major scale.  This method of writing out music doesn't require a key signature or sharps or flats; it sees all scales as relative, as equals. (The only time a sharp or flat is needed is when a note lies outside the major scale and is therefore "sharper" or "flatter" than the 7 notes of the major scale).

When you write out a melody this way it shows where the notes are found within the (universal) major scale, making it easier to play it in any key on your instrument.  It also allows you to notice patterns or commonalities that you might not otherwise notice when you segregate tunes by key.

For example, I noticed the occurrence of a sharpened 5th note in several of the Caribbean melodies I've been learning, especially those with a minorish sound.  This may be an indication of a dominant 3rd chord which creates tension that is ultimately released by the 6 chord (a minor chord), in much the same way that the naturally dominant chord (the 5 chord) creates tension that is then resolved when it goes to the 1 chord.  In other words, 5 is to 1 as 3 is to 6.

To provide an example of this numeric notating I have chosen Old Joe Clark because it is both simple enough and weird enough to be good fodder for analysis.  Old Joe Clark is what old-timers call a "modal" tune, which basically means that its tonal center is based on a note other than note 1 of the major scale.  However, the notes of the major scale are still 100% present in Old Joe just places more emphasis on notes 2 and notes 5 of the major scale than note 1, as you can see in the numeric transcription below.
Old Joe Clark numeric transcription
The melody to Old Joe Clark begins with notes 2, 3, 4, 3 and 2, 1, 7 of the major scale.  If you were placing this in the G-major scale (which is where Old Joe Clark typically resides, believe it or not) those notes would be A, B, C, A and A, G, F#.  I interpreted the melody as starting on note 2 of the major scale because that interpretation allows for all the notes to lie within the major scale.  The height of the number shows whether the melody is going up or down.  As Reed says, this helps avoid confusion when the melody crosses the octave line.

The brilliant thing about notating the melody in this way is that it makes all keys relative, so with a little practice you could just as easily play Old Joe Clark in any of the 12 keys simply by knowing where the notes of each of the major scales fall - in any position - on your instrument.  I am thinking of adopting this notation method for many of the tunes I am learning.  It provides significant insight into the construction of melodies.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Playing an Instrument as an Extension of Music Appreciation

I finally jumped on the vinyl trend as of August 2015.  I was in high school and college in the early to mid-90’s when CDs were at their peak, and before that I had cassette tapes.  I only recall having a few actual vinyl records as a kid.  By the time I really got into buying albums it was all on tapes or disk.  The nudge to vinyl happened last month when a friend gave me an old Radio Shack turntable/amp/speaker setup and some old records to go along with it.

After upgrading to a new turntable and speakers, I thought it would be fun to try and get some of my favorite all-time albums on LP, such as Ween “The Mollusk”, The Flaming Lips “Yoshimi” and My Morning Jacket “Z”.  While that stuff is fun to hear in this way, I was surprised to discover how receptive I am to jazz music when played on the turntable:  Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra….the kind of thing that I have long respected but never really focused on until now.  I see a lot  more of that coming my way.
This retrograde to vinyl is an opportunity to reevaluate my musical tastes.  Do I really have more interest in hearing Pablo Casals play the Bach Cello Suites than in hearing the new Built to Spill album?  It depends on how much I've had to drink, but I think so, yes.

One reason it took me so long to get on the vinyl bandwagon was because that for most of the last 10 years I’ve been learning to play an instrument, and for much of that time my focus has been on learning fiddle tunes – music that may be fun to play but isn't exactly what you might throw on the record player and chill out to.  I saw no reason to listen to vinyl records because that had no correlation.  It would just have been a distraction.

However, now I think I’m ready for that distraction.  By using my instrument as a means to figure out what might be going on in the music that I love listening to, it not only deepens the appreciation of this music but puts the work I've been putting into learning about music to good use.