Saturday, December 30, 2017

December's Tunes

I'm in the midst of a goal of writing 50 tunes in the span of a year that I could then, presumably, have as a repertoire to play for fun going forward.  In December, six tunes were added to this project.

Pass Code
Pass Code was written on December 6, 2017.  I don't recall the inspiration behind the A-part.  I had spent the first part of December attempting to "transcribe" melodies out of some of the longer jam sections from Phish's Baker's Dozen run.  The A-part of Pass Code came to me independent of that, but for a B-part I looked to the notes I had transcribed from the Phish jams and saw how it could be directly applied, albeit with a different cadence and rhythm.  Pass Code should have a little lilt to it.

Snow Crawl
Snow Crawl was written over a two day period - December 9 and 10 - when we had a very pretty and non-disruptive snow fall in our area.  This was also the weekend of a local beer crawl that I did not participate in.  Instead I stayed home and this melody flowed out in full.  Show Crawl arrived to me as an existing composition that I simply had to transcribe from my own head by what felt like memory.

Tasting Room
Snow Crawl came to me unexpectedly.  I had been trying to write a sequel for Pass Code, or at least a tune that could be paired with it.  It took over a week of labor to come up with Tasting Room, although the end result seems fairly natural.  I'm not sure if it is original, but it serves my needs for a tune of this sort.

Matching the Breeze
Twenty to twenty-five years ago, long before I ever played a musical instrument, I would write little poems that were more like song lyrics than poems.  None of those writings have survived the years, but I can still recall snippets.  So this month I tried setting some of those to music.  I think it worked out in this case, even if I did steal a little bit from Bob Dylan (musically, not lyrically!).

The Gretchen
It's an annual tradition at my house to play Kokomo Jo's Caribbean Christmas album while putting up the Christmas tree.  The tree usually goes up on the night of Winter Solstice.  There's actually a song called Caribbean Christmas on that album and it got stuck in my head this year.  I don't know or care if I properly transcribed it, but I somehow managed to alter the lyrics to that song and apply it to fit words and themes from song lyrics I had written 20+ years ago about the characters Ray Hawk, Kelly Rainbow and The Gretchen. 

I thought I was being pretty creative to take something written in G-major and alter some of the notes to make it more like an Eastern European scale.  What I ended up with though, were the notes in a B-flat major scale with a tonal center of G, which is the same thing as G-minor.  Anyway, I've got a few traditional tunes in major keys from the West Indies and I pulled from aspects of a couple of those to accidentally put together this minor key AA/BB piece which I am calling Domovoi.  A domovoi is a protective house spirit in Russian folklore.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Playing Advice: A Re-cap of Musical Principles

At one point this blog was partially about the experience of learning to play music as an adult.  I did that even while knowing that my approach and viewpoint was a bit too peculiar to suit such a universal purpose.

With that disclosure, here are some musical notes (to self) - really just a re-cap of musical principles I've been keeping in mind over the last year or more.

Playing Music On An Instrument Is Like Whistling, or A Melody Can Be A Standalone Piece of Music
This stems from the belief that a melody is not something that is derived from or played over a set of chord changes, but that a melody is the music.  When you whistle a song what are you whistling?  Usually it's the vocal melody line.  You whistle it naturally without thinking about it intellectually or theoretically.  Instead of strumming chords and singing, I pluck instrumental melodies on tenor banjo to accomplish what is essentially the same thing as whistling.

This belief in melody also comes from my exposure to Irish music, where the traditional tunes are already complete pieces of music when played as melody lines by an individual on violin, or accordion, or flute, and so on.  My preference for melody may also come from listening to the playing of Jerry Garcia.  His "solos" on almost any conventional Grateful Dead or JGB song were really just further expressions on the vocal melody line.

Tell Your Subliminal Mind That Playing Your Instrument Is A Very Natural Thing To Be Doing
Basically this is simple - loosen up!  Playing and learning music should not be stressful or frustrating.  If you are tense or awkward during the playing of music your body will start to associate that activity with those feelings.  Posture and alignment are important.  Music playing should be a time of enjoyment, comfort and relaxation.

Scale Fingerings For Instruments Tuned in 5ths, or There Are Various Different Ways To Finger A Scale
I once took some mandolin lessons from Dennis Elliot in Richmond, VA, who I highly recommend.  Dennis introduced me to a complete, well thought out technique of closed position scale fingerings for the mandolin that could be applied to any position on the fretboard, starting on any note in the major scale.  This stuck with me even though it's not always easy to implement this technique on the longer scaled tenor banjo.

Then I discovered something called the Never Ending Scale by Dave Haughey, which is kind of like the cello version of the mandolin closed position scale fingerings that Dennis Elliot showed me.  Since tenor banjo is somewhere between cello and mandolin when it comes to scale length, an understanding of both the mandolin and cello closed position scale fingering best practices could lead to a hybrid form that could be fluidly applied to tenor banjo.

There's also the ongoing question of Irish tenor banjo fingering, pertaining most specifically to frets 2 through 5 (or 2 through 7) when playing in first position using open strings where available.  Some use a mandolin technique that assigns the middle finger to frets 3 and 4 and the ring finger to fret 5.  Others, like myself, try to use more of a one-finger-per-fret format that puts the middle finger on fret 3, ring finger on fret 4 and pinkie finger on fret 5.

The Major Scale Is The Foundation For Most Western Music, or Melodies Are Really Just Scale Exercises
The idea of scale fingerings described above really opened me to the section called Seven Worlds in David Reed's extraordinary book Improvise For Real.  The tonal center can be any note of the scale -- seven harmonic environments.

Learning the mnemonic I Don't Punch Like Muhammed A Li has helped me remember the seven modes.  The major scale from note 1 to 1 is known as Ionian, 2 to 2 is Dorian, 3 to 3 is Phrygian, 4 to 4 is Lydian, 5 to 5 is Mixolydian, 6 to 6 is Aeolian, and 7 to 7 is Locrian.  There are two scales that start with L but it's pretty easy to remember that 4 (the Phishy Lydian scale) is the one that you might actually play, while 7 (Locrian) is more theoretical than musically practical.

Melodies are really just scales arranged in a certain order.  Any melody line can be broken down by figuring out which major scale it is using.  A song in A-minor (a key signature with no sharps or flats) is probably using the C-major scale with note six of that scale as its tonal center.

Include Time In Practice For Improvisation, or Play Free
This quote comes from a 2011 JAZZed interview with pianist John Medeski:
I also recommend playing free as part of your practice. First do your technique warm-up and then sit down and play free. You can sit down and play a sunset, you can play an emotion, you can play a scenario – it can be programmatic, it can be romantic, it can be whatever but do it every day as part of your practice. Then you can go work on learning tunes, writing, studying harmony, lines, approach tones – all that other stuff that you need to learn – but first get yourself in a warmed up state and connected to your instrument and then play free. That’s how you find your voice and stay connected to it. That way you know what all these sounds mean to you. You can’t be taking your cues from everybody else – we need to know what every chord and every note means to us and what every combination of those notes means to us. Then when we play them it is coming from us. (John Medeski)
Lastly, Be Open (To All Influences), and Write It Yourself
Melodies can be mined from endless sources:  15 minutes into a Phish jam, sounds from nature, a theme song to a children's show or a TV jingle, adding music to a spoken phrase like “you are tearing me apart Lisa!”.  If you are open at all times the inspiration can come from anywhere.

By Write It Yourself I don't necessarily mean write your own songs or music, although that is one aspect of it.  What I mean is put it in your own words.  Take musical knowledge you are gaining and treat it as if you came up with it yourself.  A hobbyist musician probably doesn't need to have a strict by-the-book music school understanding of all aspects of music theory.  Music theory is really just an attempt to define what is already going on.  So just define it in your own terms.  That may lead to creating your own music under your own terms, which is great too!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Five 2016 Albums I Didn't Hear Until This Year

My best of 2016 list was just five new albums.  Had I known about these five additional recordings, it could have been 10.

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - We Be All Africans
Learning about Strut Records this year was a treasure trove of great music.  One of their best newer releases was this album by Idris Ackamoor.  I don't really know much about it other than it sounds good.  Once discovering Strut Records, I checked out every single recording on that label, and this is one of the ones that stood out.  Part African traditional music, part experimental jazz.

Psychic Temple - Plays Music for Airports
Music for Airports, as played by Bang on a Can Allstars, is one of my favorite all-time CDs.  When I learned of this interpretation of that music I was all ears.  Psychic Temple has taken Brian Eno's classic minimalist composition and loosened it up in electrifying ways.  The bonus track, Music for Bus Stops, ventures even farther into Electric Miles territory.  I only wish I had been able to order this on vinyl when it came out.

Kevin Morby - Singing Saw
Morby has put out another album since Singing Saw - called City Music - but for now I'm still catching up on this 2016 release.  There's a reserved, unresolved nature to the songs, waiting to break free.  Kevin Morby's secret weapon might be guitarist Meg Duffy.  She plays that instrument with a skill and depth that seems increasingly hard to come by.

Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom - Otis Was A Polar Bear
From the tradition of great albums with drummers as the band leader.  I may be naive, but the music here sounds as good as anything I could find by digging decades deep into a jazz catalog.  Otis Was A Polar Bear should have more recognition than it has received.  Cornet, clarinet, violin, bass and piano - those instruments combine with Miller's drumming to give this an almost chamber music, Third Stream type of feel.

Nolatet - Dogs
Yeah, this sounds modern but I really can't tell you why.  On the other hand it should be from another time.  The tunes come across as familiar even on first listen, like they are culled from some kind of public domain of the mind meld.  Dogs always seems to go by too fast - ephemeral...not even there.  I swear I heard this in the 90's.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2017

Albums have been around for 70 years, but this list is only about ones that came out in 2017.

Courtney Barnett / Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
This one ended up being my favorite of 2017.  At first I laughed at it sounding exactly as expected: witty yet abstract observational songs about writing songs and playing guitar.  Then it grew and grew into something warm and fuzzy all over - just what was needed this year.  It's debatable as to whether Lotta Sea Lice is more like a Courtney Barnett album or a Kurt Vile album.  Let's just say it's the perfect mixture of both influences.  The drumming on here is great, by the way.

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding could pass for an ahead of its time 1986 album by a German band trying to sound American.  Its expansive, 66-minute running time follows a pretty consistent path throughout, relying more on atmosphere and sonic delivery than on variations in song form and time signatures.  The overall mood is one of cautious optimism.

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Small Town
Small Town might now be my all time favorite Bill Frisell record on account of song selection, demeanor, instrumentation, arrangements, and more.  This is an intimate live album of just Bill Frisell, guitar and Thomas Morgan, bass from a March 2016 run at the Village Vanguard.  The sound is clean and sparse, occasionally adorned by the clinking of cocktail glasses.  Not since East/West has Bill's artistry been so clear.  Thomas Morgan's impeccable bass accompaniment is subtle and psychic.

Ches Smith's We All Break - We All Break
Primarily a percussion album, We All Break combines traditional Haitian drumming with the avant-garde. The band/concept of We All Break is the creation of Ches Smith, a New York city based jazz drummer. Smith composed this music for drumset, two hand percussionists and acoustic piano, and recruited Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz - two of his early traditional music mentors - to play the rada and petwo tanbou (Haitian drums) alongside adventurous piano player Matt Mitchell. Success!

Jenny Scheinman - Here on Earth
It is one thing to compose new fiddle tunes, it's a whole 'nother thing to do so from a place of legitimate inspiration that elevates such a traditional practice into an artform.  The music on Here on Earth was inspired by footage captured between 1936 to 1942 by a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, taking short movies of ordinary, small town folks living through the Great Depression.

Conor Oberst - Salutations
Over half of Salutations is a re-do of 2016's brooding solo demo Ruminations. All ten songs from Ruminations plus seven additional ones make up Salutations, now with more polished full-band folk-rock arrangements (thanks to the Felice Brothers).  It's boozy, dark and druggy.  Not really a background music kind of album.  Best for listening with your full attention, hanging on every word.

Afro-Zen Allstars - Greatest Hits
Ready to groove? Then check out this release by Richmond, Virginia's Afro-Zen Allstars. Despite its title, Greatest Hits is the studio debut by this 8-piece+ that channels the psychedelic-soul sounds of 1960's/70's Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. With horns at the forefront, Afro-Zen Allstars' tunes frequently jump out out of the gates with arresting melodies, but also have a way of settling into reflective jams - hence the "zen" part of the band name. The all star band members are cut and pasted from several renowned RVA groups of the past and present, including Bio Ritmo, No BS! Brass, Hotel X, Rattlemouth, and more.

Greg Saunier/Mary Halvorson/Ron Miles - New American Songbooks, Volume 1

Recorded for the magazine Sound American, this concept album documents a first-time meeting between cornetist Ron Miles, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.  The idea was to suggest new standards for the American Songbook: songs with simple, catchy and easy-to-sing melodies that were open to interpretation.  Selections include pieces by Elliott Smith, the Partridge Family and from the score to Star Wars.  The instruments function well together and no one musician outshines the other.

Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
I had a thing for trumpets, world fusion and vibraphones this year.  All three of those elements combine on this album by London-based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed.  On La Saboteuse, Ahmed takes modal style jamming and applies it to middle eastern scales, and then adds a level of modern production acumen beyond what you might expect from jazz.

WOLF! - 1-800 WOLF!
This actually came out in October 2016 but I didn't hear it until this year.  On record, WOLF! explores guitar driven micro-jams over simple themes inspired by surf rock and spy movie / spaghetti western soundtracks.  Nothing too complex here or overly serious.  Lots of fun.  I bet they can really take these out there live.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Seven November Tunes

Back in June I set a goal of writing 50 tunes in a year's time.  With 7 tunes added in November, I'm now up to 33 total - on the way to having 50 tunes by the end of May 2018.  Calendar-wise, this is the half-way point (6 months in).  The act of writing tunes is now more familiar, however, the concern over when is this going to get difficult is now apparent.  Am I repeating myself?  Falling back on repetitive patterns, characteristics, or intervals?  Is that wrong?  I had these concerns a few times in November.

The first November tune was actually written on November 1st.  To compose it I took some personal catchphrases from my childhood and added melodies to the rhythm of those nonsense sayings.  That supplied an A and B part.  Then I tacked on a winterish melody I had been playing around with to make a C part.  I don't always care if parts go together musically or thematically.  If I was writing them both around the same time then they fit together for other reasons.

Fall Winter Cold

After writing Fall Winter Cold, which arrived almost effortlessly, most of a week went by with no tangible results.  For several days I played around with an idea inspired by the sound of a children's TV show theme and/or a 1950's girl singing act.  I almost gave up until I realized that I might have something there.  What I arrived at was almost too minimal - more of a jingle than a fully fleshed out tune - but I really like it. 

Virginia Fur

I have a book called Musical Scales of the World by Michael Hewitt.  If/when I run I run out of ideas, my thought was that I could refer to that book and see if any melodies could be derived from an unusual scale.  On the morning of November 14th, I had about ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for work so I opened the book randomly to the page on the Major Blues Scale, which, believe it or not, was brand new to me.  The very first thing I played upon looking at that scale has become the A-part to The Sparrow Blues.  It seemed good enough to me.  I wrote down those notes before leaving for work.  By the time I had gotten home that evening I had an idea for the B-part: take a Russian folk melody and alter the notes to conform to the Blues Scale.  I walked in the door, got out the banjo, and within 30 minutes had the B-part.

The Sparrow Blues

The Sparrow Blues was ridiculously easy to come up with and it is super fun to play.  A tough act to follow.  Whatever I came up with next was going to be my 30th tune, so that made things a little more difficult.  It took a few days of ruminating, but I pieced together an odd, chilling melody called Change for a Thirty.  Something I've been doing recently, which really helps, is to quickly make up words to go with the melody.  In this case those words are (A part) "hey now how 'bout you, have you had enough to do, did the seasons change, be the change you're looking for", and (B part) "take it easy don't look back, it's the same old song, be the change you're looking for".

Change for a Thirty

There's a screw in my bed roll isn't anything I had to write - it was just....there.  Words and melody.  It was a non-premeditated improvisation that I played on 11/20/17 in real time out of the blue by thinking/singing the words "there's a screw in my bedroll" (whatever that means) while simultaneously playing a melody to go with it.  Without pausing I added "and it's nailed shut doors ten fold", then "all the people there complain about things that they don't know", then returning to "there's a screw in my bedroll".  I played that part again and knew I needed to go higher for the B-part, so without hesitation I went higher and improvised the words/melody "there's a brighter side I know, through open doors once closed, not ev-ry one needs another one, there's a brighter side I know".  Done.  I played it again, and again, and again to make sure this could legitimately be a composition.  Then slept on it.  I might have ultimately changed one note.  Will this ever happen again?

Screw in my Bedroll

At this point I was good for the month of November.  Five tunes.  I felt pretty sated, but the inspiration kept coming.  Change for a Thirty and Screw in my Bedroll are both pretty dark and cold, so I pulled a switcheroo with a cliche Jamaican-style melody called Job To Do. (formula = melody first > then words > name of tune taken from words).  Before I decided to write and play my own tunes, I had been learning and playing Caribbean melodies.  The 5th tune I wrote - Bougainvillea Moon - is a Caribbean melody, but Job To Do might be the first overtly Caribbean feeling tune since then.  I try to write melodies without any discernible relation to a style of music other than my own, but with Job To Do it's inevitable that it sounds Jamaican.

Job To Do

I was home sick on November 30th with a cold, but not too sick to play the banjo.  So with instrument in hand and the general sound of three songs in my head (I'm A Lonesome Fugitive by Merle Haggard, As I Went Out One Morning by Bob Dylan and Greenville by Lucinda Williams) I started plucking out a melody, with no intention of actually composing a tune on the last day of the month.  Four hours later, after having being sucked down the creative wormhole and forgetting to eat or drink or dwell on the fact that I was congested with a sore throat, I had something.  I love that feeling of churning out a melody.  After letting it sit for 48 hours, I just played through Night Time To Day again this morning and it can stay, having gotten in on the last day of November.

Night Time Today

That was the November re-cap.  I'm 66% of the way at the half-way point.