Monday, April 30, 2007

Square pegs, round tables

A quick link - Carl (Zoilus) Wilson has a rather thorough five part recap of the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, and raises many questions that I'd like to weigh in on at a later date. Go forth and ruminate.

Also, Ethan on this business of creative music. Again, I think we may be at a fallow point in the financial backing of our music, what with label dissolutions, rampant venue closings and the like, but creatively there seems to be so much springing up.

What I take away from both Carl and Ethan is that the rhetoric needs to move away from lamenting the disappearance of the old models - crit-lit in print, traditional venues/receptions/career paths of creative music - and embrace the burgeoning alternatives.

Filling the blanks

Apologies for the protracted absence again, dear readers; between rehearsals, gigs, technical glitches, and life, I've been away from the blogosphere for a while.

Most of my time these past few weeks was spent rehearsing with May Cheung for her final graduation recital. She put together a great band for the event - myself, Dave Watts on bass and Karl Schwonik on drums, with Phil Parenteau guesting on tenor sax on a couple of tunes. It was my first time playing with May, Dave and Karl. The last time I played with Phil was in second year. May chose some fantastic and challenging repertoire - the monster being a transcription of Kurt Elling's recording of "Downtown" off Live in Chicago. Written by Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, the chart we got was actually sent to May by Ferrante himself, and for that alone he has my utmost respect. It's a deceptively tricky tune; it sounds difficult, and it takes a little while to grasp, but on the page it's not nearly as hard as it sounds. (Then again, I didn't have to do that bass-vocal soli.)

Last night, I went to see Fieldtrip, fresh off their Banff Centre residency and a national tour. Full disclosure: Colin, Pat and Mark friends and frequent colleagues. They've got a unique sound - a chordless trio with alto is rare to begin with. Colin's alto tone is very edgy, somewhere between Cannonball and Ornette, though he can get it down to a whisper when he wants to. They play tunes to their fullest and are equally comfortable with free improv; indeed, many tunes would start with a theme, break away into open improvisation, and culminate in a new theme or a re-iteration of the earlier theme. The melodies are quite tonal and almost traditional. Pat spent a year in Africa, and I may be projecting the influence of kora on his bass playing, but objectively, he spent a lot of time in thumb position with open string drones, and his facility has vastly improved since I heard him last (and he was really good then, too). Mark is one of the most sensitive drummers I've had the pleasure of playing with, and I always love listening to colleagues in their other bands, with a little bit of distance. I'm really proud of those guys. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I'm fighting a cold and was fading fast.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday/May Day), I'm playing with drummer Wali Muhammad, bassist James Challenger, and vocalist Sara Latendresse at Winnie's (1455 Crescent). It's a new residency for the month of May, wherein we get down with our bad selves and cover some old-school R&B and neo-soul. Sara and I knew each other back in Toronto, but I haven't played with her much since we've both been in Montreal. It's going to be a fun night.

World Skip the Beat Playlist 4/30/2007

World Skip the Beat - FUNDING DRIVE edition
Hosts: Shawn Kennedy & David Ryshpan

Milton Trio Banana - "Alegria, Alegria" (s/t)
Dom Salvador e Abolição - "O Rio" (Som Sangue e Raca)
Hermeto Pascoal - "Little Cry for Him" (Slave's Mass)
Caetano Veloso - "Blue Skies" (A Foreign Sound)
Curumin - "Solidão Gasolina" (Achados e Perdidos)
King Sunny Ade - "Mo Ti Mo" (And his African Beats)
Angelique Kidjo w/ Joss Stone - "Gimme Shelter" (Djin Djin)
*Autorickshaw - "So the Journey Goes" (So the Journey Goes)
*Kiran Ahluwalia - "Meri Gori Gori" (s/t)
MIDIval PunditZ - "Fabric" (s/t)
Natacha Atlas - "Buthaddak" (Mish Maoul)
Andy Palacio & Garifuna Collective - "Amuñegu" (Watina)
Fanfare Ciocarlia - "Ibrahim" (Queens and Kings)
Ivo Papasov & His Bulgarian Wedding Band - "Byala Stala" (Orpheus Ascending)
Balkan Beat Box vs. Mahala Rai Banda - "Red Bula" (Electric Gypsyland 2)
Shukar Collective - "Taraf" (Urban Gypsy)
Konono No. 1 - "TP Couleur Café" (Congotronics 2)
Ex-Centric Sound System - "Bring Your Calabashe" (West Nile Funk)
Antibalas - "Beaten Metal" (Security)

As evidenced by the link above, CKUT is in funding drive mode. Gift giveaways and pledge info are available at the link above. The goal is $100K, but every little bit counts to keep CKUT on the air. I'll be hosting a special Funding Drive edition of Jazz Euphorium on Wednesday at 8 pm, and I'll be joined in the studio by Gordon Allen (pocket trumpet), Fred Bazil (tenor sax) and Remy Bélanger-de-Beauport (cello) for some live-on-air free improv.

Friday, April 20, 2007

RIP Andrew Hill

The great jazz composer and pianist Andrew Hill lost his battle with lung cancer this morning. He was 75.

I was a latecomer to Andrew Hill's music, only getting into it around the time of his millennial "comeback" with Dusk, A Beautiful Day and Greg Osby's Invisible Hand. His sense of line was invaluable in my development, and something I'm still trying to incorporate into my music.

Remembrances at Night after Night and be.jazz. Mwanji also has a link to one of Hill's final public performances (if not his last).

Each passing year seems to be more and more devastating for the loss of masters. In this young year we've already lost Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane, Kurt Vonnegut and Hill, among many others. I become increasingly grateful for every note I get to hear, and more so for the notes I'm blessed to create and share.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Have you ever seen the rain?

This nor'easter may or may not put a damper on my travel to the BMI reading on Tuesday. I'll only know early tomorrow morning whether Amtrak is running and whether I'll be able to get a room at my hostel of choice. I'm eager to return to NYC after an unfortunately long absence, due to other commitments here in Montreal. The piece I'm working on is significantly different from anything I've written before, so I'm curious to hear how it sounds. I had a sort of constructional epiphany a couple of days ago, and thanks to Sibelius it was easy to enact. Normally I write pieces top-to-bottom and rarely reorganize anything; that happens in revisions, post-reading. It's also the most "rock"y of any music I've written.

Some gig announcements for the New Yorkers who read this blog:
- Tomorrow at Bar 4 in Park Slope (7th Avenue & 15th St.), guitarist/composer Lily Maase brings her band thesuiteUnraveling, to the stage after a hiatus. She's a really imaginative writer; I got to work with her briefly in Banff a couple of years ago, and her music really pushed the limits of my comfort zone. I've missed her recent hits in Montreal due to conflicts, unfortunately.
- If I make it to NYC, I'm definitely going to be at Ethan's 7 pm Klavierhaus hit, featuring the music of Bach and duos with violist Mat Maneri.
- Tuesday, thesuiteUnraveling's altoist Peter Van Huffel graces the Stone's stage (such as it is) with a new project called Quartetto Cui Bono, featuring Canadian ex-pats Michael Bates on bass, Ernesto Cervini on drums, and Art Bailey on accordion with special guest violinist Alicia Svigals. I'm guessing there's klezmer influences somewhere. They hit at 10 pm.
- Next Tuesday, April 24th, fellow BMI-er Mariel Berger brings her Obsidian Nonet to the Bowery Poetry Club. I always look forward to hearing her pieces at the readings - she's a bright, vibrant soul with some intricate, intriguing music.

Manhattan on the Rideau - 04/11/2007

So, as Mwanji mentioned in an earlier comment, this past Wednesday Indigone Trio went down to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to participate in a videoconference master class with Kenny Barron. NAC and Manhattan School of Music have this broadband linkup so that people performing in Ottawa can be coached by MSM professors. I had participated in one of these master classes a year ago, when the McGill Jazz Orchestra went down and played student compositions for Michael Abene. I attended as a composer, not playing in the band, so it was a nice change to be playing on the Fourth Stage of NAC.

The attendance in Ottawa was astounding. For the Abene master class there were only a smattering of people; this time it was standing room only, even with additional chairs. There were three other pianists performing: Steve Boudreau, from Ottawa; Hoyuen Lee from Humber College; and Victor Cheng from U of T. Both the Toronto pianists study with Dave Restivo, one of my favourite piano players from my old stomping grounds.

My participation in this whole thing was very last minute, as my fellow McGillian Chad Linsley was supposed to attend but couldn't, due to a conflict; McGill professor Joe Sullivan ran into me before a rehearsal and asked me to do it. I was under the impression that Alex and Phil were not only going to play for me, but serve as a house rhythm section. I didn't realize that the clinic was geared towards solo piano, so I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was all rather hastily organized between me, Joe, and Pace Sturdevant at NAC, whose assistance and patience were invaluable.

Barron started the master class by briefly talking and playing through his history, starting with a short boogie/blues excerpt, then a piece played in the style of Tommy Flanagan, Monk's "Light Blue" and a Monkish rendition of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." I was quite impressed with the quality of the transmission from Manhattan to NAC; it sounded like sitting in the first few rows of a concert hall, if the piano were miked. There were a couple of glitches in the feed, but they were sorted out in short order.

Steve Boudreau then played "How Deep is the Ocean," in a manner reminiscent of Chick Corea's solo excursions, extending and massaging the form. He also played an original impressionistic ballad. Turns out we both studied with Jeff Johnston, which isn't surprising given our similar tastes and biases. Indigone played "Day Dream" as per Mr. Barron's request, and then we played "Not You Again," the Scofield line on "There Will Never Be Another You." Later in the Q&A, Barron revealed that Scofield is one of his preferred guitarists, so we lucked out with that selection - the other uptempo choices we had on our list were "Law Years" and "Enumeration" (my original composition).

Hoyuen Lee played a very minimalist rendition of "It Never Entered My Mind," starting with a series of As in different octaves. It would have fit in well with David Byrne's recent "one-note" concert at Zankel Hall. He followed it up with "All The Things You Are," exploding and exploring the form. His citation of Radiohead as an influence wasn't surprising, but his mention of hip-hop was, as I can't really decipher what about hip-hop had filtered into his playing. Of course, solo piano + Radiohead immediately conjures the spirit of Mehldau, which I know is something I try to escape. No disrespect to Mehldau or Lee, but it seems like Mehldau is the omnipresent comparison for pianists these days, and one that I've gotten a fair bit myself. Victor Cheng closed out the master class with impressive takes on "Tones for Joan's Bones" and "Hot House," swinging hard in appropriate ways. Of all the pianists, he was my favourite.

Barron is a fantastic musician, but he seems to be part of a camp of players who rarely, if ever, consciously tackle aspects of their playing and, as such, do not (I'm hesitant to say can not) address issues in specificity. The comments he had for me were diametrically opposed to what I've been told in the past, so maybe I've fixed my previous problems too much. On "Day Dream," I left a lot of space and played the melody sparingly, as Jeff always said I took up too much room. Barron felt I left too much space. He advised playing with the soft pedal, which to me can often be a crutch. The soft pedal is a specific sound, and isn't the same as a soft or light touch. On "Not You Again," he said the trio didn't have enough forward momentum, a far cry from our days when guitarist Mike Gauthier called us an "energy band" and every tune took off, whether it needed to or not. He didn't really have much to say about Lee's modernist excursions, and the most specific thing he said to Victor Cheng was that his left hand was getting in his right hand's way (which was true at times), but didn't really give much detail in how to go about fixing it.

During the Q&A, after a ridiculously oddball question (some archaic piece of trivia that had nothing to do with the previous hour and a half) and some fluff questions ("When can we see Sphere again?"; "Who's your favourite guitar player?") good questions about technique and practicing came up. Barron admitted he plays a lot and doesn't practice much, and doesn't have a warm-up routine. He also said he doesn't work with his students on technique because he doesn't really have to - all his students have their technique in order. Alex asked him if he had any ensemble rehearsal tips, which he didn't aside from "play together more." Someone asked about balancing one's solo playing and one's trio or group playing, and again Barron admitted that he never really consciously worked on solo playing, he just had a bunch of solo gigs and figured it out on the bandstand. Combined with the physical disconnect of the videoconferencing, the master class felt almost impersonal. I don't mean to denigrate Barron's musicianship, but there's only so much one can get out of generalities. I'd almost rather deal with someone like Wayne Shorter, whose statements often live in their own little world - at the very least it gets the mental gears turning.

After the session had ended, I had the pleasure to meet James Hale, of DownBeat and Coda fame. He interviewed me briefly for a piece he's writing about this whole NAC/MSM interface, I'm not sure for which publication.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

The venerated and controversial satirist, Kurt Vonnegut, has passed away at age 84. Unlike many people, I didn't read Vonnegut in high school. I went on a tear of making up for lost time a couple of years ago, reading Hocus Pocus, The Sirens of Titan, Slapstick and a couple of others, I believe, all in the course of one summer. One thing that always struck me about his writing - besides his casual yet dry wit - was how he sets up these running gags, usually catchphrases that recur at (in/)opportune times. Ethan refers to "So be it" in Slaughterhouse Five; my favourite may be the use of "the excrement hit the air conditioning" in Hocus Pocus.


Via Dan, a letter from guitarist and activist Marc Ribot regarding the closing of Tonic (tomorrow) and Sin-é (a couple of weeks ago) and the changing place of improvised and/or experimental music in Manhattan. He links to the collective blog Take It To The Bridge. Unfortunately, not living in NYC, I haven't been able to make many of their meetings nor can I attend the last hurrah tomorrow night at a club that quickly became an important part of my life over the past few months. If you're within commuting distance of the place, show your support for fringe music in the Lower East Side.


There has been lots of buzz on message boards and blogs about the social experiment conducted by the Washington Post and Joshua Bell. A quick summary for those who haven't been following: Bell, a fantastic violinist and one-time poster boy for major label classical indulgences, was "busking" in DC's L'Enfant Plaza metro station during morning rush hour. They then surveyed the reactions (or lack thereof) of commuters. The consensus in many a post is how ashamed North America should feel as a culture, that they can't recognize beauty and art when it's staring them in the face. Is there something inherently wrong with classical music that even when stripped of its "elitist" trappings and customs, it still doesn't attract listeners? I don't really feel like that's the point at all.

Personally, I somewhat resent busking. The idea of having music thrust upon me, without my desire or consent, is not one I appreciate. In five years of daily commuting in Montreal, I've learned to tune out the subway musicians and the blaring iPods, or at least attempt to. I make a private note of which buskers are halfway decent, but I rarely tip or even go over to them. (The one recent exception was a kid in Lionel-Groulx metro doing a passable version of "Karma Police," only because I would never expect to hear that by a subway musician.) But quite honestly, because I consume so much music between my own performances and rehearsals, composing, record reviews, radio shows and pleasure listening, I don't want to be bombarded with anything during my commute, be it Rachmoninoff or Crowded House. And if I'm unfortunate enough to be commuting during morning rush hour, the only things on my mind are:
- Where's the metro train? and
- Has the caffeine kicked in yet?

Would I have appreciated the musical quality? Surely, but privately. Would I have recognized it as Joshua Bell? Probably not. Does that make me a horrible person, or uncouth pseudo-aficionado of the arts? No. It just makes me yet another impatient commuter. And in DC especially, time is precious. I don't think some Capitol Hill flunky can afford to be late for work just because some dude was playing nice tunes at a subway stop, and that is the case for many of us. If I'm commuting that early in the morning, it's because I have a very important place to be, and it could be Oscar Peterson at the metro entrance and I'd still probably offer nothing more than mild bemusement.

I have noticed that on the whole, I've experienced higher-calibre musicians in the NYC subways than here. There's this Mahavishnu-sounding violinist in Penn Station when I get off the train, and I've encountered some passable alto renditions of Jobim in various subway corridors.

Monday, April 09, 2007

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

A quick plug/announcement:

Some may know that I'm a big Bruce Hornsby fan, well beyond "The Way It Is." If you haven't heard his music since The Range dissolved in the early '90s, you're missing out on some very inspiring music, and strong piano playing. Today, Easter Monday, is a good chance to rectify that and to do a good deed.

Si Twining, proprietor of the fansite has run a "Daily Dose Day" for the past three years, wherein he uploads a live mp3 or other such goodie (rare demos provided by Hornsby himself, videos, etc) every hour on the hour for a full 24 hours. In return for his generosity he asks his patrons to donate to the charity he has linked to on his site. In the past, and again this year, the recipient has been the Merlin Foundation, helping them build a Multiple Sclerosis therapy centre in the UK (where Si is located). This year a second charity has been added - the Carolinas Healthcare Foundation for ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). The addition of this charity is at the behest of Hornsby's long-time assistant, Melissa Reagan, who has recently been diagnosed with ALS. I only had one e-mail encounter with Melissa, but she has been an integral part of the Hornsby organization and everyone who has dealt with her has nothing but praise for her. I wish her all the best.

So go forth and download, and if you're not a Hornsby fan, at least donate whatever you can. Later on today, Si will be activating Caesar Salad, the second edition of two-volume tributes to Bruce's music. Once it's live, you can download my cover of "Valley Road."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Been caught stealing

It saddens me that the 100th post in this blog is dedicated to the theft of instruments.

Patrick Krief, a Montreal multi-instrumentalist probably best known for his role as guitarist in The Dears, has had his jam space cleaned out, which he shares with a guy named Mike Nash. In the bounty were Nash's iMac and backup hard drives and Krief's white 1999 Fender Stratocaster, which family and friends bought him for his 18th birthday. The list, complete with serial numbers, is over at Krief's MySpace and enumerates around $20K in gear. He's offering $1000, no questions asked, in reward for the return of his Strat.

Robbery absolutely sucks, no matter what gets taken, but when it's loaded with original music that can't be replaced (in the case of Nash's computer drives) or instruments filled with priceless sentimentality, it cuts especially deep. Montrealers, keep an eye out in the pawn shops for this gear and let's all be aware and cautious of our gear and its surroundings.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The politics of fusion

Via Ethan and Dan, who got it from Jeff Parker, a great 1968 DownBeat piece by Wayne Shorter, "Creativity and Change." One prescient passage, below, reminded me of similar discourse around the height of the "jam-band" phenomenon, when fans of bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident also started gravitating towards Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Scofield, and Charlie Hunter:
When I hear a jazz musician say, "Well the young people—rock ‘n’ roll is their thing—they’re not going to even listen to jazz"—I think that they’ll change and grow up. Rock ‘n’ roll is changing with them. I’m hearing a whole lot of things from them. The "labels" are being taken off the bottles. As I said about the different scales, Western and Greek, it’s all one big thing. I saw kids with their long hair, beards and sandals sitting right down in front of the bandstand and they were part of a thing called jazz.
Speaking of labels being taken off the bottles, Hot Jazz meets Metametrics: Kyle Gann's impressively honest piece about utilizing external genre influences for his own gain. The discussion of the use of pop influence in classical music (and vice-versa to whatever extent that exists nowadays) hearkens back to Dave Douglas' essays around his piece Blue Latitudes a couple of years ago. The strength of a hybrid is the degree to which it integrates its heritages and traditions into a new creation. Even in the most irreverent music, there has to be some sort of respect for every element, otherwise it's shoddy patchwork.

I feel these essays are related, in the sense that the debate around the validity of pop-influenced classical music (read a few posts back on Gann's blog, or surf over to NewMusicBox) is fostered mostly by the critical, competitive spirit foisted upon art that Shorter writes about. The idea that hybrid music somehow demeans the music it's fusing has more to do with staunch traditionalism from critical figures. I know that in my own work, if I borrow external influences to jazz, I bend over backwards not to make it sound like a parody. One of the pieces I've written this year was inspired by the dancehall-toasting cabbies in Jamaica, but I did not want the drummer, much less the whole band, to play reggae. There's not much music more ridiculous than having 13 horns attempting to bubble and skank away in concert.

Musical discourse also needs to learn to separate the music from the musician. I consider myself a jazz musician, in that the jazz vocabulary and tradition is the bedrock of my musical education, and that a certain jazz sensibility informs everything I play, be it playing keyboards in a hip-hop band or writing for string quartet. That doesn't necessarily mean that my involvement turns the projects into "jazz-rap" or "jazz classical"; I try to approach each musical tradition on its own terms. As Gann mentions, there's a difference between writing a piece about (or a depiction of) jazz or reggae or hip-hop, and writing a jazz, reggae or hip-hop piece. There's a certain amount of dedication that varies between the two.