Friday, February 16, 2018

Why Money Jungle Might Be My Favorite Jazz Album

Money Jungle might be my favorite jazz album.  Here's why:

Time Period
It seems like a favorite jazz album should be from a certain time period where jazz was at its height developmentally and creatively.  That period is probably between the mid-50's and the mid to late 1960's.  Any earlier than that and it's either naive or chaotic.  Any time after 1967 or 1968 it just feels late to the party.  Money Jungle is from 1962.

Recorded In One Day
Like a lot of great jazz sessions, Money Jungle was recorded in one day.  Three individual jazz giants - Duke Ellington, piano, Charles Mingus, bass, and Max Roach drums - got together on September 17, 1962 in New York's Sound Makers Studio to make music.  It captures the music made in that moment.  Warts and all.  There's nothing polished about it other than the skill and life experiences each participant brought with them that day.

Tension and Aggression
Money Jungle is synonymous with tense, aggressive playing.  This notoriety work's in the album's favor.  It's not often you hear musicians playing this way.  These guys are definitely not always agreeing but somehow making discord sound very appealing. Sometimes it's a mess.  Sometimes it doesn't click.  Those become attributes.  There's a good amount of space between this tension though.

The Participants
Duke Ellington would have been 63 years old when this recording was made.  Charles Mingus was 40 and Max Roach was 38 - not exactly newbies but definitely of a different mindset than their elder Mr. Ellington.  In Ellington's outspoken playing on Money Jungle you can hear the whole history of jazz.  Meanwhile, Max Roach's drumming is always right on allowing for Mingus to dance freely.

The Improvisational Style
Often in jazz what passes for group interaction is just a dude waiting for his turn to solo.  However, on Money Jungle the piano, bass and drums improvise collectively.  Collective improvisation is an aspect of early jazz and somewhere along the way it lost out to extended soloing.  Not here.  This is equal parts collective and improvised.  The structure of the song but a sketch, how you get there unknown.  Music for music's sake.

The Instrumentation
A trio format seems like the right number of instruments for a jazz ensemble.  With three instruments you can cover the rhythm, the harmony and the lead melody.  Here we have piano, bass, drums.  Two of those three instruments are percussion instruments - drums and piano.  Two of those three instruments can handle the low end - bass and piano.  And three of those three instruments can switch roles on the fly.  The way these sounds interact is worth paying attention to.
Right Time Right Place
Money Jungle hit me at the right time and right place.  I was ready to claim it as my favorite.  It's an unusual but not unlikely choice.  I'm definitely not an educated jazz listener, or a savvy listener, or even an experienced listener.  It sounds right until proven wrong.  Hey wait a second, what album is this?  Oh right the Duke Ellington and John Coltrane album recorded 9 days after Money Jungle.  My bad.  It's so silky, smoothie smooth.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Formative Years for Music

People tend to look back fondly on the music they discovered during formative years - teens and early twenties.  Lately I've been wondering if the same is true for me and I suppose it is.

The music I was interested in uncovering during my teens was the music of a generation earlier: Janis Joplin, The Byrds, James Taylor, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and Hank Williams Jr.  I had cassettes by each of these.  That soon led to The Grateful Dead, John Prine, Norman Blake, The Allman Brothers and Little Feat.

It wasn't until the jambands came along that I started taking an interest in current music.  Phish, moe. and Leftover Salmon were the first ones to grab me.  By age 24 - when the acquisition of musical tastes peaks - my favorite bands would have likely been The Grateful Dead, Phish, moe., Leftover Salmon, and Medeski Martin and Wood.

I still have a great appreciation for that music today.  However, not represented in the groups listed above is the music I took great lengths to learn about from the categories of folk, blues, bluegrass, Americana and world music.  I owned an early printed copy of the All Music Guide and would pore through it to discover CDs to get - everything from The Red Clay Ramblers, to Cephas and Wiggins, and Fairport Convention.  A pursuit of this type of music has stuck with me.

The main difference between now and then is jazz.  Once upon a time, I didn't give myself the opportunity to appreciate jazz.  However, over the last 15 years, by fits and starts, I've let that become a primary interest.  In today's world, for the cost of a monthly subscription fee, a motivated listener could spend several weeks going through every important jazz album from 1954 to 1967, and in the process develop an individual take on what's really important.

It's funny that 25 years ago it was the rock music of the late 1960's and 1970's and now in the future it's gone even farther back.  Why just this morning I was listening to Washington Phillips.

This article was written while listening to Nefertiti by Miles Davis.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

50 Tunes in Less Than Nine Months!

I had a goal to write 50 tunes in one year.  The first tune of the 50, Toca Paseo, was completed on June 14, 2017.  The 48th tune, Frosted Cherry, was written on January 31, 2018.  In a little over 230 days I had come up with 48 new tunes to play.  Just two more to go.

I spent the first few days of February in a state of malaise, with subtle waves of illness making their presence known.  Although I never fully succumbed to whatever malady was horning in, it did stifle my interest in playing music and being creative for a few nights.  Instead of holding a banjo, I just wanted to hold a book and then go to sleep.  Some part of me may have been wanting to delay this process to hold on to the chastity of a project nearing consummation.

More and more, I've been applying words to a melody - a syllable for each musical note to use as a reminder.  I hadn't tried it the other way around - adding a melody to words - but I knew that for one of my last two tunes I wanted to try doing that for a Marosa di Giorgio poem.

The Curtis Mayfield/Impressions song People Get Ready had been stuck in my head recently.  With that in mind, early in the morning on February 8th I opened the Marosa di Giorgio book of poems I Remember Nightfall to page 197 and all of a sudden the words on that page began to sing.  It begins:  All of a sudden, gladioli were born. In a high place, in the North. I know that there are red gladioli, and blue, and black gladioli. Around my house there are only white ones.  I begin to walk toward them.  

Just like that I had found the poem I needed for inspiration.  I extracted a few other lines from the poem and in a manner of minutes had arranged these words on a scratch pad and appointed musical notes for each syllable, without concern for scale or theory or form.  I left for work thinking that I would edit later, but by evening the notes I had selected that morning seemed to solidify.  All of a sudden, there were gladioli.


Getting over the complex hump of tune number 49 made me want to make tune number 50 as effortless and lighthearted as possible.  Upon re-listen to Steve Earle's The Mountain, I took notice of the little instrumental track Connemara Breakdown with new ears.  It's sort of a bluegrass/Celtic mandolin tune, with possible similarities to Red Haired Boy.  

Yesterday morning I played around with the same general theme and came up with something similar, but different.  To add a little meat to it I referred to some scribbling from the night before based on a melody from Jean Ritchie's Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians.  It all fit and as simple as that, without overthinking it, I had tune number fifty.  

To give this tune a name, I thought back fondly on the tiny Irish village of Roundstone in the Connemara region that I had visited twice over a decade ago.  On one night there in Roundstone I might have set a personal record for most Guinness consumed in one "sitting", but that's another story that I'll have to hash out later.

This Irishy sounding tune provoked Laura to get out her bodhran for the first time in over a year and play along.  A mini Cardinal Puffin reunion of sorts.  I hit record to capture the moment.


What happens now?  I suppose I continue to enjoy the 50 tunes I've written, but also consider it done and start a whole new batch of tunes.  No need to rush though. 


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Steve Earle's Song By Song Description of The Mountain

After spending a few years removed from it, I had the urge to listen to Bluegrass music this week.  The first album I turned to was The Mountain, Steve Earle's 1999 masterpiece that featured the Del McCoury Band as his backing band.  As I listened to it I realized that for me, this is my all-time favorite bluegrass CD.

Other top contenders for favorite bluegrass album include Manzanita by Tony Rice, Hot Rize's self-titled first album, Old and In The Way's self-titled first album, and Aero-Plain by John Hartford.  I could go on, but you can tell I'm not exactly a purist.  The Mountain has a slight edge up on all of these for me.

Here are some liner notes and a track by track description of The Mountain written by Steve Earle.

Steve —
I wish I were as sure about anything as Bill Monroe was about everything.

Of course, Mr. Bill came by his self-assurance honestly.  He alone, as far as I know, could claim to have single-handedly invented an American art form.  We are a "democratic" society, don't you know, where musical idioms are normally arrived at by committee.  The great Bob Wills merelydefined western swing at the helm of the Texas Playboys, after serving apprenticeships with Milton Brown's Brownies and the Lightcrust Doughboys.  The race to invent rock and roll ended in a dead heat between two outfits, one working in Memphis (Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black) the other in Chicago (Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Johnny Johnson, Jasper Thomas and Jerome Green).  Not that "the Father of the Bluegrass Music" didn't have influences.  There was of course his uncle, Penn Vandiver, and the other local musicians he grew up listening to in Kentucky as well as people he heard on records.  I find it hard to believe that Mr. Bill never heard the late, great blues mandolin player from Mississippi, Yank Rachele.  In any case, when Bill Monroe switched from guitar to mandolin he decided that he was going to play his newlyadopted instrument like no one else had ever played it before — and he did.

This is my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all of my heart (as well as the assistance of the best bluegrass band working today) of the music that Bill Monroe invented.  Some of it I think he would have approved of ("why that's a fine number").  Some of it probablyhas him turning over in his grave ("That there ain't no part of nothin' ").  Of course that's all speculation.  I do know this — Mr. Bill was very kind to me whenever we met during what turned out to be the last few years of his life.  In December of 1995 he honored me by walking out, uninvited, on to the stage of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center twenty minutes into my show and remaining to sing five or six songs with Peter Rowan, Roy Huskey, Jr., Norman Blake and myself.  It was the biggest thrill of my life.  When I look back now, I believe this record was reallyborn that night.

My primary motive in writing these songs was both selfish and ambitious — immortality.  I wanted to write just one song that would be performed by at least one band at every bluegrass festival in the world long after I have followed Mr. Bill out of this world.  Well, we'll see.

The Mountain:  track by track
I've been asked to sort of breakdown where the bodies are buried on these songs, basically because I made the mistake of doing it before and everyone thought it was cute...

Texas Eagle:  Every single word of this song is true.

Yours Forever Blue:  Every other word in this song is not.  My Jimmy Martin impression.

Carrie Brown:  This song went through several rewrites and three different melodies.  It was important to me to include at least one real-live-bad-tooth-hillbillymurder ballad on this record.

I'm Still In Love With You:  Merle Haggard says Iris DeMent is one of the "best damn singers" he's ever heard. I agree.  She's also one of the best songwriters I know.  I was standing in the audience at a festival in Australia last year listening to Iris sing and I decided right then and there I was going to write something for us to sing together.  My obsessions are becoming more practical in my old age.

The Graveyard Shift:  We had to have a blues.  That's what the "blue" in bluegrass is all about.

Harlan Man / The Mountain:  These two songs were conceived as a kind of suite - one set in the past and one in the present.  Harlan Man (past) itself is a rock song on bluegrass instruments.  The Mountain is one of the best songs I've ever written.

Outlaw's Honeymoon:  I wrote this tune a couple of years ago for a great film called Niagara, Niagara.  Then the producers said they would have to have the publishing on the song and I told them to kiss my Texas ass.  I recorded a solo version of it for El Coraz√≥n which sucked.  It's finallyfound a home here, I think.

Connemara Breakdown:  A little mandolin tune I made up.  Basically, bluegrass fantasy camp.

Leroy's Dustbowl Blues:  Your basic pinko folk song at bluegrass velocity.  Gene Wooten digs into that dobro and Del peels the paint off the walls — god, I love my job.

Dixieland:  I stole this character from the late Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the best civil war novel I've ever read.
Paddy on the Beat:  Do you detect an Irish theme developing?  Oh well, maybe the next acoustic record….

Long, Lonesome Highway Blues:  Wherever you go - there you are.

Pilgrim:  I wrote this the morning of Roy Huskey's funeral because I couldn't think of anything else to sing.  When we got everybody together to sing it and listened to the playback - all the girls cried.  Us men-folk all made mental notes to cry later.

One more thing.  This is not my last bluegrass record.  I make a lot of different kinds of records because I write a lot of different kinds of songs and I'm a writer, first and foremost.  As I get older and more set in my ways however, this format becomes more comfortable all the time.  More everyday, this is my favorite kind of music.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January's Tunes: Numbers 40 Through 48

I'm getting close to reaching my goal of writing 50 tunes in a year. Very close. There's 48 now in a span of 8 months.  In January I added 9 new pieces of music.

Goodbye Carnival
If I achieve this goal of writing and playing my own tunes, then a possible negative is giving up the Caribbean melodies I had been playing for enjoyment.  So Goodbye Carnival (and Domovoi from the month prior) is an attempt to carry over elements of those Caribbean tunes into this new format while also leaving them behind.

Tropical Tango
You can see this Caribbean trend continuing in the naming of this tune at least: Tropical Tango.  When I was writing it I wasn't concerned with what key or what scale/mode I was using.  I intentionally didn't analyze it and just let the notes fall and resolve where they wanted to.  I naturally ended up with a very common scale (the Major scale) in an unusual key (F#).  The B-part might have an unintentional Beatles similarity.

Latin Lover
Domovoi (12/29/17), Goodbye Carnival (1/1/18), Tropical Tango (1/4/18), and Latin Lover (1/6/18) were all written within a span of 10 days so they feed into each other.  Latin Lover might be more in a Slavic/Balkan territory than the Caribbean, but the first time I played it the name Latin Lover was assigned.

On 12/29/17 Phish played an exceptional version of their song Chalkdust Torture. At about the 16-minute mark Trey goes into a really fetching melody that is reminiscent of Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel.  Those few measures stuck in my head and I found myself playing similar notes on the banjo - the beginnings of a new tune. I kept hearing the words "Gone, just like a train" in the melody. That is of course the title of a Bill Frisell album which I then listened to.  The 2nd track on Gone Just Like A Train is called Verona, and I took part of the Verona melody and did my normal mixture of getting it wrong and further tweaking.  Now I had a B-part and an A-part...another tune!  Meanwhile, during all this process I was also hearing and playing a melody that is similar to a section of The Grateful Dead's Scarlet Begonias. I slapped that on as the 3rd part and voila - a three part tune!

The Fox That Was Too Foolish
My whole point with writing my own repertoire is to have tunes that are uniquely my own, but it's also fun to carry over aspects of my favorite music into this format.  That's what I've done here with The Fox - perhaps too obviously.  This is definitely veering into Scents and Subtle Sounds territory, but it toys with that spirit just enough to veer in and out of it.  As an aside, I've been loving my K-Board recently.  It's such a fun instrument to play!

Brown Eyed Rig
When I first started playing a musical instrument - tenor banjo - back in 2006 one of the first things I instinctively did was try to write an "original" tune called Brown Eyed Jig, based on the melody to Beautiful Brown Eyes.  Eleven years would go by before I tried writing anything else.  A couple weeks back I found that year 2006 tab for Brown Eyed Jig and realized that by combining some portions, changing the key, and changing the rhythm from a jig to more of a rag, then I could have something of interest.  That became the B-part to this new tune called Brown Eyed Rig.  The A-part I added on 1/18/18 was fairly effortless, and a surprisingly good fit if you overlay them.

Montegno Cedeno
My tunes are instrumentals, but I've found that by adding phonetic, top-of-mind lyrics to them I can better remember how they sound.  Basically, each note in the melody equates to a syllable in the words I insert as reminders.  Sometimes now the rhythm of the words comes first.  That happened here with "Montegno Cedeno, the merchanteer", or "Montegno Cedeno, a merchant she".  It doesn't have to mean anything other than the sound it makes.  More syllables/notes followed "Danced for the guard-yun of the Redwood tree" / "Trained with the master of the Wu tai chi".  The B-part - where I heard the words "the soul of the sphere, the soul of the sphere, pumpkin of the patchwork, the giant hunts the deer" - matched up to portions of King Pharoah's Tomb by STS9.

Coffee and Tea
This whole time now I've been wanting to write something in 6/8 time that could be thought of as being jig-like.  That might have happened with Coffee and Tea.  Better yet, I was able to incorporate a minor-key vibe I had been wanting to laud.  I can tell where I got the second half of the tune from, but the first half is cloaked in a mystery that even I can't unpack.

Frosted Cherry
That was going to be it for January, but then Frosted Cherry turned up.  I already had the name Frosted Cherry and was fairly certain that my next tune - to be written in February 2018 - was going to be called that.  However, it got written and completed by January 31st.  It's so diluted that even Trey Anastasio may not be able to find it, but some of the notes in the first part of this tune are lifted directly from the Phish song Horn.  The B-part is lifted from what I believe to be a super obscure track called Margarita by Honore Bienvenu Et Son Orchestre from a record called Zouk Vol. 1. Together they are Frosted Cherry.  To record this example of it, I downloaded an app called SampleTank, randomly found the sound Synth Flute and recorded the first (and second) takes.

I'm at 48 tunes now.  I expect to write the last two this month, and already have ideas for those.  Then I'll have 50 and be done, right?