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.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Am I Getting Anywhere With Music? Does It Matter?

By not working as "hard" at music recently, I'm having more fun than ever playing it and practicing it.  And by not worrying about falling behind, I may actually be making some forward progress, just in a different way than anticipated.

It seems like so much of music practice is focused on improvement and/or increasing repertoire.  You can't enjoy where you are because you are anxious to get somewhere else.  However, for about the last six weeks or so I've been letting go of self-imposed pressures, structure and feelings of being overwhelmed in favor of simply doing what gives me the most pleasure.  I've abandoned rigid rules and have really enjoyed just noodling with no perception of right or wrong.

I'm very susceptible to the muse with no way of predicting where that might go. As I get more comfortable and fluent with music, the pull of the muse is a more direct, natural occurrence - less forced - so it becomes easier to perceive it and follow it down the path.