Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Grateful Dead Songs of Their Own #28 - Playing In The Band by Max Creek

JamBase teamed with microphone and headphone company Telefunken to produce "Songs Of Their Own", a 50-day tribute in honor of the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary celebration, featuring a daily cover of a Grateful Dead original song -- 50 videos in 50 days.  

I particularly like this jammed out version of Playing In The Band from day 28 by music veterans Max Creek.  The vocals aren't that strong but the improvisation gets really out there!  


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Getting Musical Fulfillment From An Acoustic Instrument

The tenor banjo was my first instrument and after 9 years of playing I keep sticking with it.  I've messed around with mandolin, electric mandolin, guitar, electric guitar, tenor guitar, mandola and baritone ukulele.  None of them feel as "right" to me as the tenor banjo does.  (Although, as I write this I'm wondering if I would like an electric tenor guitar or an electric baritone ukuele? )

I don't really understand why tenor banjo is the instrument for me.  None of my all-time favorite musicians are banjo players.  Example:

Favorite Guitarists:  Jerry Garcia and Bill Frisell.
Favorite Bass Players:  Phil Lesh and Chris Wood.
Favorite Piano Players: Page McConnell and Brent Mydland.
Favorite Drummers: Billy Martin and Jon Fishman.
Favorite Singers: Jerry Garcia and Gillian Welch.

The musicians that I most admire don't conform to categories, traditions or styles, as far as I can tell.  In other words, they aren't constrained by a box.  The banjo player who best espouses this musical philosophy is probably Béla Fleck, but he plays a five-string banjo.  My banjo has 4-strings and I play it with a guitar pick!

At this point in my musical development, my focus is on getting my ear and understanding to the point where I can actually learn things just by listening to my musical heroes, such as hearing the way Jerry Garcia or Bill Frisell improvises.  I don't know that it matters that they are playing a different instrument than me; theirs are six-string electric guitars and mine is an acoustic 4-string banjo.  The feeling is there regardless of instrument.

When I have played a plugged-in instrument through an amp something about it didn't seem right.  There were too many sonic options, perhaps.  This doesn't mean that the music I want to play on my tenor banjo can't be inspired by the music I have heard coming from players of electric instruments.  It just means that my interpretation is going to have to be a little different.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Learn Guitar With David Brent from The Office

David Brent of the original BBC The Office (Ricky Gervais) has a series of guitar lesson videos on YouTube.  These are of course meant to funny and an opportunity to showcase David Brent's original songs, but the funny thing is that they also serve as actual guitar lessons.  The information that David Brent provides has some merit to it and is not that different from other guitar tutorials on YouTube.  See for yourself!


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Steve Korn's Talking Pictures Blog - Featuring Bill Frisell

Seattle-based photographer Steve Korn has a blog called TALKING PICTURES, on which he asks jazz musicians Leading Questions, such as "When I'm playing well __________", and "I've never understood _________".  I became aware of Steve Korn's blog when I saw that he had done a Leading Questions with guitarist Bill Frisell.  Below are some highlights from Bill's succinct responses.  The comments by other musicians in this series are worth reading as well!

Bill Frisell with clarinet (photo by Steve Korn)
Someone once told me "Music is good."
When I was 14 I got my first electric guitar!
Practice makes me feel good. 
When I look at where I’m at right now, I think I'd better get started. 
Some of my best ideas come to me as a gift when least expected. 
Fear is part of the deal. 
Motivation is not something to take for granted. 
Discipline is something I could use more of. 
I’ve never understood politics. 
The future of jazz is happening. 
The history of jazz is overwhelmingly rich with beauty, mystery, and reveals infinite possibilities for the future. 
The clarinet was my first instrument.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ornette Coleman's Harmolodics

Sadly, most of what I know right now about Ornette Coleman I've learned only in the days since he died on June 11, 2015 at age 85.  I've been really impressed thus far with what I've heard and read in interviews with the forward-thinking jazz musician.  Always thoughtful and well spoken, he often says cool, cryptic things like "sound has no parents" and "let's play the melody, not the background".

A term that Ornette used to describe his musical philosophy is "Harmolodics".  From what I've been able to gather, it's an elusive concept that seems almost impossible to define in words or word sounds.  The following quote is perhaps Coleman's most clear and succinct attempt at describing it:
"Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop."  (ORNETTE COLEMAN)
To get a better sense, I turned to Joe Morris' book - Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music. Morris devotes a chapter to Coleman's Harmolodic methodology.  Coincidentally, I had purchased this book just a few weeks prior to Ornette Coleman's passing.

Morris states that Coleman created a platform that was highly rhythmic and allowed for spontaneous melodic invention, but did not rely on notes that related to a specific chord, scale or harmonic line/progression.  His compositions were an open dialog in which the melody, rhythm and harmony were all in play and no one player had the lead.  Coleman's work encouraged an open kind of contribution from his collaborators and therefore he valued musicians with a personal style more than a "schooled" or "correct" one.

Of course, the best way to understand Coleman's music is by simply listening to it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Four Types of Chords - Major, Minor, Dominant and Minor-Flat-5

I have heard people say that there are only three – or maybe four – different types of chords (major, minor, dominant...) but I never really understood this until I started reading the book Improvise for Real by David Reed.  What I’ve written below is in my own words from my own perspective, but it’s based on what I am learning in David’s fascinating book. (anything said incorrectly is my doing!).

A Major Chord is like the notes 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 of the major scale.  (notes 4 – 6 – 1 – 3 also follow this same pattern).

A Minor Chord is like notes 2 – 4 – 6 – 1 of the major scale.  (notes 3 – 5 – 7 – 2 and notes 6 – 1 – 3 – 5 also follow this same pattern).

A Dominant Chord is like notes 5 – 7 – 2 – 4 of the major scale.

A Minor-Flat-5 Chord is like notes 7 – 2 – 4 – 6 of the major scale
this image has nothing to do with this article!
I like to think of these patterns as miniature scales to be plucked as single-notes, rather than as a stacked grouping of notes to be strummed simultaneously.  Within these chords are the intervals of a half step, a whole step, a minor third (a whole + half step) and a major third (a whole + whole step).

To get a better sense of the differences between these chords, play a G note on your instrument and assume that it is note 1 or note 4 of the major scale.  Now play notes G – B – D – F#.  That is the sound of a major chord.

Now play a G note on your instrument and assume that it is note 2, note 3 or note 6 of the major scale.  Then play notes G – Bb – D – F.  That is the sound of a minor chord.

Now play a G note on your instrument and assume that it is note 5 of the major scale.  Then play notes G – B – D – F.  That is the sound a dominant chord.

Now play a G note on your instrument and assume that it is note 7 of the major scale.  Then play notes G – Bb – Db – F.  That is the sound of a minor-flat-5 chord.

Does that make sense?

For the dominant chord you played G-B-D-F.  You can also play that arpeggio starting on different notes of the chord, such as B-D-F-G or D-F-G-B or F-G-B-D.  You can also in reverse/descending order: F-D-B-G.  Each of these inversions conveys the sound of the dominant chord.

Try applying this same inversion formula to the major, minor and minor-flat-5 chords.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I Like “Jambands” So Why Not “Jazz”?

I like bands which specialize in collective group improvisation.  To my knowledge, the bands that best exemplify this are the Grateful Dead, Phish and Medeski Martin and Wood.  Some might call this "jamband" music.  Improvisation is also a big component of jazz, so after all these years why haven’t my tastes made the leap?

When I think of “jazz”, I tend to think of the innovative musicians who made their most groundbreaking work during a 10 to 15-year span from the mid-to-late 50's to about 1970. People like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Sun Ra. In the age of Spotify and YouTube, much of the music that these artists made is only a click away, yet I often have to force myself or remind myself to listen to it rather than come by it naturally. Why is this?

I think it partially has to do with the way this music comes across when compared to the music that someone of my generation was conditioned to listen to; we're not taught to prize the sound of a trumpet or saxophone or a noisy solo, but we are taught to worship the sound of the electric guitar…or in my case the guitar as played by a select few masters including Jerry Garcia and Bill Frisell. (There are plenty of “great” guitarists whose style does not appeal to me at all).
By the time I was in college I had a pretty clear grasp on the type of music that I liked and it didn’t necessarily have to include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd. I didn’t omit these bands altogether but I also didn’t focus on them.  With the broad variety of music under the rock n’ roll umbrella I could cherry-pick my favorites – based on what appealed to my particular tastes rather than just what is popular or what other people have said is good – and still feel like I was getting a full view.

I don't have that same nonchalance with jazz so I can't help but wonder if I am missing something by not devoting more time to the jazz equivalents of The Beatles or The Stones (Miles and Coltrane and so on)?  Perhaps by listening to improvisational "jambands" I had found not a gateway to jazz but a modern-day substitute for the innovative spirit of jazz.  So, in effect, that jamband music wasn't an alternative to the standard forms of rock n' roll as one might think, but a tie-in to a freer type of expression more akin to the jazz aesthetic.

However...things may be slowly shifting more toward jazz anyway as I get older.  For example, whenever I know that I'll be visiting a new city one of the first things I research is where to hear jazz music...not where to hear rock music.  This is because I know that generic rock music is probably going to annoy me but generic (AKA authentic) jazz is going to be pretty cool!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Keep An Open Mind With Music

Sylvan Esso
While watching the Bonnaroo webcast this past weekend I was reminded of the importance of staying open when it comes to music.  It's easy to get jaded and/or just stay within your own comfort zone(s).  You need to remember be receptive enough to recognize good music making no matter how it is being presented.  Don't ever turn that sensor off.

Case in point: I switched over to the Bonnaroo web channel on Friday as the unknown to me duo Sylvan Esso was performing.  It was a dude playing some kind of computer-synth thing with prerecorded beats, and a non-instrument playing girl singer dancing around the stage.  Sooooo not my thing.

My instinct was to immediately reject something like this upon seeing/hearing it but I had tuned in during an ecstatic moment in their set.  As I watched it didn't take me long to start to think that maybe this was pretty good.  Not just OK but actually really good!  In that moment Sylvan Esso was giving it their all and the crowd was into it.  I was totally into it!

Here's a clip.  I love the way Amelia Meath dances.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Anna and Elizabeth - NPR Tiny Desk Concert

Anna and Elizabeth
The mountain-music duo Anna and Elizabeth taped an NPR Tiny Desk a few months back.  It was finally posted yesterday. If you don’t know what a crankie is then have a look at the video below. This crankie is really good.

I had the opportunity sit in on an impromptu jam with Elizabeth LaPrelle a couple years ago, late, late in the evening around a festival campfire. That was a pretty awesome experience - trying to play along as she sang songs such as Cluck Old Hen and June Apple. 

Earlier this year, Anna and Elizabeth recorded some music with The Murphy Beds (Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary).  I'm definitely looking forward to hearing that!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Dawes "All Your Favorite Bands" and My Morning Jacket "The Waterfall"

Dawes and My Morning Jacket continue to be two of the best rock bands around right now, both in concert and on record.  My Morning Jacket has held that status for over ten years - at least since 2004's It Still Moves, with Dawes joining those ranks more recently, albeit instantly, circa 2009 with the arrival of their first album North Hills.

Both of these bands have new albums out:  My Morning Jacket's The Waterfall was released May 4, while Dawes' new album All Your Favorite Bands came out today, June 2.  I've had more time to digest The Waterfall and I can say that it might be the best album of My Morning Jacket's career.  Their previous album Circuital was a bit of a dud, in my opinion, causing me to lose some interest in MMJ's trajectory.  But The Waterfall has brought them back.  It's hooky, diverse, soulful and quirky, but not in a way that feels forced.
The Waterfall is more compact than some previous MMJ albums, but no less magical.  They manage to express the trippy vibe of Stinson Beach, California (where the album was recorded) with hints of a Kentucky accent that's been lying dormant for a while.  Many different genres are intermingled in a way that manages to not be derivative.  It's safe to say that The Waterfall could be My Morning Jacket's masterpiece, usurping 2006's divine Z for that title.

By contrast, the new Dawes album All Your Favorite Bands is not quite as career-defining.  It does sound A LOT like Dawes though, which is a good thing.  The songs are mostly solid and will help add some variety to their live show, but when you start to look for songs to add to the Dawes "best of" only 3 or maybe 4 songs might make that cut: The catchy title track "All Your Favorite Bands", the rocker "I Can't Think About It Now", the groovy yet radio-friendly "Right On Time" and the album closing ballad, the stunning "Now That It's Too Late, Maria".

When I heard that David Rawlings had produced the album and that they focused on playing live in the studio, I was expecting/hoping for more of a Jerry Garcia Band type of looseness to be present.  This never really shows up until the last song, the aforementioned "Now That It's Too Late, Maria".  There are some econo-jams, the song "Somewhere Along the Way" comes to mind, but it's not quite as open-ended as one might want.  The same Taylor Goldsmith lyrical stylings are there, the same chorus reliant songs are there, the same solid musicianship.  Does all that sameness stir up the same excitement as previous batches of songs?  Maybe it still needs to grow on me.  Sink in more.  Dawes is like that.  It takes time for their songs to gain identities.  But that fadeout on "Somewhere Along the Way" is not cool.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Fourths Tuning and Fifths Tuning

I've been toying around with an all fourths D-G-C-F tuning (low to high) on a baritone uke - normally tuned D-G-B-E - by tuning up the B and E strings by a half step to F and C.  This tuning really opens up the whole fretboard and it's become apparent that you can have a world of fun just by noodling around in this tuning.  It makes everything interconnected.

The Irish tenor banjo fifths tuning of G-D-A-E is great for playing traditional tunes (single-note melodies) in first position where you utilize open strings as much as possible, but the reaches are too far to intuitively transpose to other keys when playing in different positions up the neck, unless you are way up there.  The tenor banjo's scale length makes the fifths tuning too spread out for that.  It is a tuning designed for the shorter fingerboard of the violin or mandolin.

A fourths tuning on tenor banjo would put all the notes under your fingers anywhere you are on the neck.  It's like an equalizer that frees up the ability to play by ear and by feel.  My main concern is that with fourths tuning - with only four strings - is that you lose some range when compared to the fifths tuning.  For example, if I started with same open G for lowest string, it would take all the way up to the 9th fret of the highest string to play two octaves ("G-C-F-Bb tuning"), whereas in G-D-A-E you have that same two-octaves higher G on the 3rd fret of the highest string.

However, I don't think lack of range will be too much of an issue.  Fourths tuning is the same tuning as used on bass guitars and many of the world's greatest bass players, including Chris Wood and Jaco Pastorius, do just fine with a 4-string bass.  If I found that I definitely needed more range, you could always have a banjo neck made to accommodate 5 full-length strings.
I definitely won't abandon fifths tuning altogether, because it's the best way to play Irish traditional tunes on the tenor banjo.  But for playing more freely having a 4-string banjo tuned in all fourths will be a super fun outlet.  The most obvious tuning seems to be D-G-C-F, although E-A-D-G and A-D-G-C are also possibilities.

It's almost unheard of to do this on 4-string banjo, but the fact that all fourths is the standard tuning for bass guitars at least means that there is at least some form of instructional material out there, if necessary.  Some guitarists use an all fourths tuning as well, sometimes called P4 tuning.  Stanley Jordan is probably the most well known guitarist who uses this tuning.  He tunes his six strings E-A-D-G-C-F, so if I do D-G-C-F I'll be matching his 4 highest strings.

I'm not too concerned with having some more difficult chord shapes by using an all fourths tuning.  I'd mainly be using it to play single-note, scale-based, melodic stuff and not full four-string chords, although I bet you can get some cool, weird, dissonant voicings.  And finally, the all fourths tuning might make everything sound a little different but that is OK.  The concept of music itself is the roadmap and it doesn't have to be instrument specific.

Irish Session at Midnight Brewery, Friday, June 5th, 6-8:30pm

I'm organizing another special Irish music session at Midnight Brewery.  This will be my 6th time doing so.  By "organizing" what I mean is that I invite some of the best area players of Irish traditional music (people better than myself) to come play some tunes at this great brewery!  It's pretty easy to do when you think about it.

If you like listening to Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes and maybe the occasional song, then come have a listen.  If by some crazy chance you are reading this before 6pm Friday June 5, 2015 and you play Irish fiddle or accordion, etc., then feel free to bring your instrument and join in the fun.
Photo from May 2014 session at Midnight Brewery
This will be the first session since the brewery expanded to its new adjacent location in September, so I'm really excited.  If it all works out we should have 8 to 10 experienced players taking part, ranging from fiddle to flute to banjo to concertina to uilleann pipes to bodhran to to guitar and tenor guitar.  Sessions can be unpredictable but we've been fortunate to always have some good juju at these Midnight Brewery sessions.  I'm hoping this time is no different, or even better.

I took a break from practicing this past Saturday to visit Midnight Brewery and they've got some excellent beers on draft at the moment, including an Irish Red, a Southern English Brown Ale, an Oatmeal Stout, a Rye Porter, a Vanilla Double Stout, an IPA, a Pale Ale, a Belgian Tripel and more.  What I like about Midnight is they seem to make solid versions of classic beer styles without feeling the need to get too "innovative" or fancy.

Irish Session

Friday, June 5, 2015

Midnight Brewery
2410 Granite Ridge Road
Rockville, VA 23146

I definitely couldn't do this without the help and participation of the very talented players we are fortunate to have in the Richmond area.  Midnight Brewery is located a little bit west of Richmond, about 45 minutes from Charlottesville, so I'm hoping that some trad players from the C'ville area might make it out as well.