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.