A talk on mentors and influences for YBCA

Thanks very much to Myra Melford, Isabel Yrigoyen, Roko Kawai, Doug Katelus, and Anya Rome over at the Yerba Buena Center for The Arts in San Francisco. Yesterday evening I gave a presentation in their "Mentors and Influences" series. Unusually for me, I wrote the entire thing out beforehand, and more or less read the paper. That makes it easy to present here, albeit without the live musical interludes played by Dan Seamans and I. Here goes:

When one is a novice at something one usually over explains, over writes… and over explains. So I ask for your forbearance in advance. I didn't expect to write a formal paper and read it here, but thinking about this topic so got my wheels turning that I needed the contemplative, critical thinking that writing provides me.

[ first live musical interlude: West End Blues ]

As long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable appetite for teachers, mentors, role models and, let’s just come out and say it, HEROES. My life has been an obsessive, life-long, sometimes anguished, sometimes comical quest for people, in my life and in the pages of history, to serve as my personal North Stars. To be Moses, and lead me out of degradation and bondage, to the promised land. My relationships to the actual mentors in my life have sometimes been very intense. Not Whiplash intense, mind you. No one threw a guitar at me!

Today I’m thirty years out of school, I have a family, a mortgage, a modest discography, and yet I still feel the same innate compulsions that I did at 1, at 8, at 16, and at 20. I am an eternal baby in search of a breast, a third grader eager to impress the teacher, a teenager hungry to bond with a pack of boys, and a junior ninja-in-training, devoutly mimicking the Sensei, down to the last mannerism. I am like the character K. in Franz Kafka's The Castle, perpetually knocking on the door, seeking admittance to the inner sanctum of music.

The population of my gallery of self-selected art heroes of history would comprise a small and very crazy village!

[Read as fast as possible, in one breath:] Bach Beethoven Brahms Schoenberg Stravinsky Berg Webern Wolpe Carter Babbitt James Joyce Karl Kraus Emily Dickinson Wallace Stevens Louis Zukofsky Ezra Pound Allen Ginsberg Charles Olson Marcel Duchamp Claude Debussy John Cage Merce Cunningham Franz Kafka Alice Coltrane Louis Armstrong Jelly Roll Morton Duke Ellington Charles Ives Sviatoslav Richter Jimi Hendrix Bob Dylan Skip James Bessie Smith Billie Holiday Howlin Wolf B.B. King Muddy Waters Thelonious Monk Charlie Parker Lester Young Sonny Rollins John Coltrane Miles Davis Ornette Coleman Cecil Taylor Lee Konitz Anthony Braxton Bill Evans Elias Canetti Gustav Mahler Lorine Neideker.

Wagner would be on that list except for my no anti-Semites rule. Except for the Jewish ones.

I assure you, I am unhealthily obsessed with all of those people, those artists, and I’m very familiar with the biographies, as well as the works of, all of those artists.

As I expect is true for all of us, any question of mentors and influences in my life must begin here: I was born in 1966, more or less in the middle of the era of the great martyrdom: the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, of saintly Medger Evers and of radical Malcolm X. I saw their faces everywhere when I was growing up. Not just their faces, also the faces of Jackie Kennedy, of Nixon, Shirley Chisholm, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, the Beatles…. yery much a time of icons and heroes. Young people of my era were expected to carry on and fulfill that legacy, to bring about a better world. This was an absolute imperative in my house growing up. My mom was born in 1927, two years before the Depression. Her mother had buried two husbands, was very poor but very active in leftist and labor causes. My mother was completely in her mold, with no higher education, she worked tirelessly her whole life for school integration, ecological issues, democratic party causes, against the death penalty, and in anti-nuclear campaigns. My father was a German Jew who had grown up in Italy, and then in bomb shelters in London, and finally graduated high school here in Berkeley in 1941. A warm, bookish man, fluent in three languages, he became a high school teacher and librarian in Seattle, where I grew up.

Did any generation before my parent’s generation put as much of their heart and soul into the public education of their kids? PTA meetings, constant levies and other school measures on the local ballot, and my mom’s own cause, voluntary transfer students. Since the district wouldn’t impose integration, a group of people came together and said, well, at least let us set up something for people who want to send their kids to other schools. So I was bussed all the way across Seattle to a large predominantly Black elementary school. I was very lucky. This school, like all the Seattle public schools I went to, had a fantastic music program! In my middle school there was a band and an orchestra! And these weren’t the kids of rich software engineers, these were the kids of Boeing employees, workers for the County, as well as the kids of doctors and teachers. But those people supported their local schools like it was their religion, which of course it was.

By starting this talk with my parents and grandparents, as well as a quasi-sociological observation, instead of the Jazz musicians I’ll eventually come to, I am demonstrating a parallel obsession along with my mentor obsession, that of continually seeking to go further and further back to foundations. Call it the syndrome of: “Before you can talk about X, you have to talk about what came before X.” This is coupled with the belief that to live is to participate in a chain of personal relations and activity that goes back through time. I studied with Julian Priester who played with Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Art Blakey. I spent a half hour talking to pianist David Tudor about his mentor Stefan Wolpe and it changed my life forever. For a short but profound time I was a student of pianist Jeanne Stark, who had studied with Mieczyslaw Horsowski, who had studied with Leschetizky, who had studied with Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven! At this point it’s like doing a crossword puzzle, five degrees of separation and I could claim to be connected to Napoleon.

You know the joke about the great pianist Artur Schnabel: he’s staying in a little village in Switzerland for a year and there’s a pianist living across the street from him, who practices Mozart all day long with his windows open. He has a shingle hanging outside that says "Mortimer Snerd, Piano Virtuoso". And he’s terrible, he’s really butchering Mozart. This continues until finally Schnabel can’t take it anymore, and he yells up to him, “Please, Herr Snerd! If you insist on playing the Rondo by Mozart, please observe the key signature – all of those Fs should be F #s.” The next day the guy has a new shingle: "Mortimer Snerd, Piano Virtuoso, Pupil of Schnabel".

[Second live musical interlude: All Of Me]

Somehow, when I was a junior in high school, I knew that the bassist Gary Peacock was a very heavy musician who lived in Seattle. He had a reputation as a mysterious genius, a deep thinker. Somehow I was aware that he had played with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler. I hadn’t heard any of these recordings.

I didn’t take my guitar to lessons with Gary, and I don’t recall him taking out his bass.
We sat at the piano and discussed harmony. He had me do a lot of basic written harmony exercises, of a very specific nature. He would look at what I did and critique it. It was all quite plain. Several years later, when I fancied myself an advanced Jazz musician, I lamented that I had studied with Gary Peacock when I was so green, and thus focused on elementary things, missing the opportunity to talk about cutting edge matters of improvisation. But then a few years after that, I came to feel that there is such a profundity in the fundamentals, it is a great fortune to get fundamentals from a master.
Here’s a short clip from an instructional video he made, about fifteen years after I studied with him. (I played this video from 11:56 to 12:50.)



What he’s saying here is that the tones of the Major scale have gravitational impulses. They have weights. The first note is the most stable, it's the sun around which the other notes revolve. The second note wants to resolve to the first. It has energy. The third note is somewhat stable, although it too seeks to descend to the tonic. The fourth note wants to resolve to the third. And so on. The notes have tendencies. That may seem very obvious, but Gary Peacock made me understand it as a way of life.

[Third live musical Interlude: Meditation on Major Scale Tendencies,
in C and Ab]

A Gary Peacock story: during the time I was studying with him, he went to New York and recorded with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, the sessions that produced Standards Vol. 1 and 2, and the record Changes. God Bless the Child is on that record, and it’s a very celebrated performance. I remarked to Gary that I had been playing it, and that I was surprised to find that the A section was ten measures long, instead of the expected eight. “No, it isn’t, it’s eight!” he replied. We looked at the song, and he was as surprised as I had been: the A section was in fact ten bars. He had recorded this fantastic version of the song, and it had been utterly unconscious, and without any discussion between the musicians. This fascinated me.

Another Gary story, very much related to that one: I asked him about free improvisation: what should I know about playing free? He said he had reached a point around 1960 or so, when he knew all the standards, the several hundred songs that were played a lot at that time. He could play them in any key, and he didn’t even have to think about the changes. He could just play what he heard. He said free music is just playing what you hear, no matter what you’re playing. Even if you’re playing a standard, you’re still free to do whatever: stop playing, quit music, cook a chicken, whatever. At a certain point, as I understood it, you reach enlightenment, and you are free. When you are playing what you hear, all music is free music. I thought about that a lot.

One more: at one lesson I told him it was Miles Davis’s birthday, and Gary just up and called Miles Davis, right then and there, to wish him Happy Birthday. Mind = Blown. I learned something there too: Miles Davis is a real person, living at that time in the same time zone as us, and he had a phone.

A second video clip. Here he seems to be addressing the very issue I was talking about earlier, of wishing I could have studied the more “advanced stuff” with him. [I played this clip from 1:08 to 1:24]

The simplest things are the most important. That’s Gary in a nutshell. Listen, LISTEN!, pay attention to your body, and be aware.

[fourth live musical interlude: Solar]

After high school I went to Cornish in Seattle, which Gary had just stopped teaching at. At Cornish there were lots of great teachers, but today I’ll just talk about the drummer Jerry Granelli. Gary and Jerry played a lot together at this time, in a trio with Ralph Towner, and in other situations.

Jerry was a San Francisco boy. He was the drummer on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music. He had played with everyone. He was a lifer, a soldier in the trenches, a Jazz musician to the marrow. Addiction, the road, Newport Jazz Festival, drum endorsements, you name it. Like Gary he had at one point totally retired from music for several years. Like Gary he was deeply involved in a spiritual practice. Jerry had taught at Naropa in Colorado and was a very devoted Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

The core of Jerry’s message to the musicians he mentored was to listen, and to be in the moment. “First thought – best thought” was, I think, a saying of his teacher, the famous Trungpa Rinpoche. The first way he demonstrated that was by listening to us, his students, when we played together. He feeling of being listened to by Jerry is indescribable. He knew what you were playing better than you did. He heard what you were trying to do. He heard when you wanted to do something but didn't, or couldn't. He even heard you hearing. That, I believe, is one of the greatest needs we have, to be heard. And perhaps never more so than in those formative years between 17 and 22. 

My two best friends and I were a trio, guitar, bass and drums. We had known and played together literally since kindergarten. During this time we studied with and were utterly devoted to Jerry. Jerry told us “when I get through with you, you won’t be able to play with anyone, and no one will be able to play with you!” What he meant was that even in Jazz, real improvising is a rare and special thing. He was warning us that if we were doing it right, we might be lonely. Real listening and real creating in the moment – you can go through a lot of musicians without finding that. We felt like we were in a secret cult. I come back to K. in The Castle: when you have a mentor that you really believe in, and that believes in you, you feel yourself to be in the inner sanctum of musical art. A mentor is a rudder, a compass, a shield, a servant and a master all in one.

Watch this video of Jerry from perhaps fifteen years ago, playing duo with a great drummer who Jerry influenced, Joey Baron. Jerry’s in blue, Joey’s in black. Watch Jerry react to what Joey plays, the way he listens with his whole body. Watch also how Jerry reacts to what he himself plays; once it’s played he has to hear what comes next. Drums are the ultimate instrument that it’s possible to get carried away by, to go into autopilot. Jerry is never on autopilot. Every time he hits something, he’s making a conscious choice. He is playing what he hears, and only playing what he hears. [I played the clip from 3:03 to 5:19]

Jerry story: Jerry was playing at the Jazz Workshop with Lenny Bruce. Lenny was deep into some long digression, talking about something in the news, and someone in the audience heckled him: “Lenny, you’re not funny!” And Lenny immediately shot back: “Fuck you, I am so.” That was important to Jerry – believe in yourself, be strong.

Another Jerry story: he’s on the road with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Paul Chambers in the early sixties. Vinson, the leader, asks PC to call a tune, on the bandstand. PC calls The Touch of Your Lips. They play it, and all sorts of weird notes are coming from the bass. The next night, same request, same song, same thing. Third night, Cleanhead says “MF, I beginning to think you don’t even know The Touch of Your Lips.” PC replies: “Yeah, well, I’m trying to learn it!”

The hidden Jerry message: at home or on the bandstand: don’t just play what you know. Learn something!

So now we’ll play a song we don’t know. Well, a song we know in a key we’re not used to playing in.

[Fifth live musical interlude: How Deep is the Ocean]

I’d like to show one more video clip. Here’s Gary Peacock and Ralph Towner playing an intro. They are going to play Witchi-tai-to, the composition of Jim Pepper. The way these mentors taught me to play, when you really know a song, you can start from a completely free place, and sort of discover the song organically as you go. Similarly, the outro of song can be a place where magic happens. Never go on autopilot! Notice here how relaxed they are, how they let the song come to them. [I played the clip from the beginning to 1: 55]

Ralph Towner also lived in Seattle at this time and I got to know him a bit. I would go to Jazz Alley, sneak in through the back door, run into the Men’s room, and then exit into the club. Using this strategy I saw the trio of Towner, Peacock, and Granelli, play there the day Count Basie died, and they played a blues for Basie, and I’ll never forget it. One time my friend Aaron and I snuck into Jazz Alley to see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and when we ran into the bathroom Art Blakey was in there, completely by himself, standing with his back to us. A short black man in overalls with a big grey afro. He turned around, still zipping up, and we were so excited. “Hey Art Blakey!” “Hey yourself.”

My point, and I do have one, is that Art was short, but life is long.

Thank you. 

Posted in Music Thoughts | Tagged | Comments Off

emerging from the cave (well, at least there’s a record to show for it)

photo:Myles Boisen 

credit Myles Boisen It's been so long since my last record that just now I had to check whether it was five or six years. So I am thrilled, and more than a little relieved, to have just finished the recording of a record with the trio, the Actual Trio, in fact. We did the entire record in one ten-hour day, at the legendary Fantasy Studios, just fifteen blocks from my house. The project feels exciting and new to me in several respects:

1) the trio has been playing together regularly for three years, longer than any other ensemble I've put on record (not counting the collaborative band T.J. Kirk). We play a repertoire written for this group, that is, for John Hanes, Dan Seamans, and myself. The songs are "lived in", for sure.

2) working with producer Hans Wendl, the first time I've had a producer for one of my own records. I've known Hans and his impressive body of work for at least twenty years, and worked with him recently on Sarah Wilson's to-be-released record Kaleidoscope. I felt there was a family resemblance between the trio's music and Sarah's record, and so it just sort of flowed out of that. He was crucial to the success of the recording, to hear the whole trio from above, as it were, thus giving me some space to concentrate on the guitar playing. 

3) a guitar, bass, and drums trio record. of original music. sans effects, minimal editing. live. from which the question arises: do I really have something that must be said in this regard?  I simply would not want to release something that could not more or less hold its own with the guitarists and records I admire. I think that making a record in this manner - one day live in the studio - severely exposes a musician. But - what a great thing, to be exposed!   

4) Going outside my normal practice of recording at one of two studios operated by close friends. Guerrilla Recording and New, Improved have been recording homes for me for a long time, and I really cherish the work I've done there, with Myles Boisen, John Finkbeiner and Eli Crews. For this recording, I wanted to be in that incredible room, Fantasy Studio A, where Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans and mentors of mine like Jerry Granelli and Julian Priester have recorded. To give the drums that warm, spacious sound that lets them fully speak, lets them breathe, lets them sing. We worked with engineer Adam Muñoz, who is to engineering what Marc-Andre Hamelin is to pianos: a virtuoso's virtuoso.

So it's now mixed and sequenced, and we feel that it came out QUITEWONDERFULLY !   Hey, how 'bout that? Eight songs, all first or second takes, originals. The record that comes out after the end of records. Also the record that comes out before our second record. Like the man said: "This Is Our Music."

commitment, openness, and clarity of intent

More news soon. Thanks.

Posted in Recordings, new and used | Tagged | Comments Off

Scales: 2014 Musicians Poll Results

Most Over-rated Scale: the Diminished scale*

Most Under-rated: the Chromatic scale**

Most correctly rated: the Whole Tone scale

Scale Deserving of Wider Recognition: the 5th mode of Melodic Minor

the "Money" scale: 5th mode of Harmonic Minor

Special citation, for work in Black-Jewish relations: the 4th mode of Harmonic Minor.

* virtual tie with Pentatonic

** also a virtual tie with Pentatonic

Posted in Music Thoughts | Comments Off

Coltrane. Offering’s “Offering”: An Offering

     One of the highlights of the new Temple University concert is Coltrane's late composition Offering. The only other version of this fascinating meditation on harmonic cells is on Coltrane's final official record Expression. Since the piece so seamlessly weaves together composition and improvisation, a second recording tell us something about which parts of the piece were fixed and which were open. However, because Alice is almost completely inaudible when John is playing, the Temple recording is like The Magnificent Ambersons or Smile: an artwork that has only partially survived. We have to try and infer what the totality was from the fragments we have.

     Here is my transcription of Offering (11/11/66). The chords written above the staff are based on the fragments I can hear of Alice between Coltrane's phrases, which I compared to what Coltrane plays, as well as what Alice played on the studio recording a few months later.

     The rhythms as written here are a humble attempt to notate the un-notatable. Morton Feldman said something like "Notation is a metaphor. It's a question of finding the right metaphor." That very much applies to this kind of transcription. Of course other people might come up with very different conclusions about how to show what they hear in a piece like this. That's why I hesitate to share transcriptions at all: my ideas about Offering are just as much about me as Offering, and so will your transcription be in some ways about you, and that's a great way to learn about yourself, while you think you're learning about Coltrane.

     In my next post I intend to compare the two versions of Offering.

Posted in Music Thoughts, Recordings, new and used | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Coltrane: November 11, 1966 released on September 23, 2014, his 88th birthday

 Offering

     If it had been recorded properly, this could be one of the greatest recordings in Coltrane’s discography, which is to say one the greatest recordings in Jazz. Taken as it is, Offering: Live at Temple University is a crucial document, imperfect and fragmentary, but complete enough, of a concert in which Coltrane was able to markedly expand his conception and presentation of music performance. He had recently played twenty concerts in Japan, all in concert halls. Back home he was mostly still in nightclubs, which his music had long outgrew. Here, at an educational institution in his hometown, he could present the music without liquor, cash registers, cramped stages, low ceilings, without the people who come to nightclubs to play the mating game, and without having to take breaks every 50 minutes. 

     At Temple he had onstage with him black and white musicians, men and women (err, woman), professionals and amateurs. The music embraced diversity. The instrumental configurations changed with each piece: solo bass, delicate tenor and piano duo, roaring drum ensemble, the quartet without Pharoah, the quintet with the added percussion. This was matched by the contrast of Pharoah’s extreme noise-tenor, with the lyrical consonance of Coltrane brought to his pieces Offering and Naima. Coltrane let two young people sit in, one a white student, the other a black saxophonist friend of Rashied Ali's. Sitting in was common enough when Coltrane played the Vanguard or the Village Gate in New York, but these were people he had never met, never heard. No problem, say your piece. 

     The nine member group and its guests played, most likely continuously, for an hour and a half. The audio recording, from a college radio broadcast, was most likely captured by a single mike at the front of the stage. That's great for the saxophones, and not bad for the drums, but when those two are playing that's pretty much all you can hear. The piano becomes audible when the horns drop out, and the bass becomes audible when everyone drops out. There are plenty of weird volume dips, off-mike moments, and beginnings and endings of songs cut-off. But when Trane plays, his sax is clear, vivid, and achingly, heart-breakingly beautiful.

     Coltrane had started using his voice on A Love Supreme, and subsequently on Om and the posthumously released Reverend King. On Kulu Se Mama, Juno Lewis had sung his titular poem. Here at Temple, Coltrane twice lets fly with almost a minute of improvised, melismatic singing. As Ashley Kahn and Ravi Coltrane point out in the liner notes, he sings something quite similar to the melodic cells he favors in his solos. Here's what it sounds like:

1. Leo-vocal-excerpt.mp3     

     For me, this may be Coltrane's most radical move yet. He is, obviously, not a practiced vocalist, and equally obvious, he doesn't care. We're no longer "just" in the world of "music" here, if we ever were. We've crossed over to community, to ritual, to happening, to an all-embracing vision in which raw, unmediated expression is more important that any commercial, professional standard. Coltrane sings, students sit in, the local drum circle does its thing. Even if this had been a great audio recording, it could only be a one-dimensional rendering of a multidimensional event. Our hearts and imaginations must fill in the rest.

Posted in Recordings, new and used | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Motherload: Dust to Digital’s Awesome African Compilation

Opika Pende (Stand Firm): Africa At 78 RPM

Dust To Digital #22, 2011. Four discs

Jonathan Ward: co-producer, notes, source material, audio transfers.

Debbie Berne: design (Hey! Oakland banjo player!)

A PALTRY FORTY BUCKS!

     I have been in rapturous awe for two weeks, listening to practically nothing except the five hours of music in this infinite garden of African delights. A neat 100 sides, the earliest from the turn of the 20th century, about twenty from the 20s and 30s, almost none from the 40s (WWII), a few from the 60s, and the rest from the 50s. The sound is incredible: clean, detailed, rich and satisfying; despite the ultra-rarity of these discs, you never feel like you are listening to scratchy old 78s. Of course, listening to CD compilations of scratchy old 78s is pretty much what I do every night, but I don't fetishize noise for its own sake.

    Jonathan Ward, the producer, is the host of ExcavatedShellac.com, an exemplary website of historic ethnic music on 78s that I frequented a couple of years ago. In an effort to trim online audio collecting obsessions, I let this particular rabbit hole go. With all my classical, jazz and rock and roll collecting, I feel that if I let anything more in through the gates, that's all I would do.

     On the other hand, I pretty much feel like I could listen to nothing but these four discs for the rest of my life. The whole tapestry of life is here: the Muslim call to prayer, elegant urbane jazz-highlife, folkloric field recordings, and records that were regional African popular hits in the fifties and early sixties. Solo vocal recordings to huge massed choirs. Solo instrumental recordings to huge ensembles. A handful of the tracks were recorded in London or Paris, the rest on location in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Senegal, South Africa, etc. Some bear a marked influence of the Caribbean and the West, others seem like a glimpse into something very ancient and totally African (although what do I know?).

     There are many astonishing instrumental performances here. A solo on a bowed one string fiddle from Niger, recorded in 1950, brings to mind the high lonesome fiddling of Gaither Carleton and the ornamentation and circular breathing of Free Jazz saxophonist Evan Parker. The great Congolese fingerstyle guitarist Jean Bosco is represented by a virtuoso solo performance that will make guitarists swoon. A whirling, pulsing rosewood flute accompanies a part spoken, part chanted recitation, and you can imagine this music ringing through a cave by firelight fifteen thousand years ago. If complex yet deeply grooving rhythmic polyphony is your thing – and by gosh, don't ya think it should it be? - tracks 5, 6, and 7 on disc two ought to keep you occupied for a few years.

     And while you're on disc two check out Yeboa’s Band, recorded in Ghana in 1937. They were a professional dance band, with saxophone, clarinet, piano, percussion, and vocal trio. It took me several times before I grasped the way the squirrely melody, in vocal harmony (reminds me of Franco and TPOK Jazz), lays over the rolling ¾ meter.(Of course "meter" isn't really an African concept, but this is certainly a Caribbean-influenced recording, and so perhaps not so irrelevant in this case). 

     The sequencing is organized according to region of Africa, but this in no way makes the songs clump into similar sounding chunks. The four discs are utterly similar in their astonishing diversity, if you'll pardon the expression. Like the fabled Anthology of American Folk Music, I want to listen to the whole thing every time I listen to any of it. Every song of the 100 here sounds like a whole country unto itself.

Posted in Recordings, new and used | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Blindfold Test-O-Rama: Plonsey/Schott Blindfold Test #2 (turnaround)

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but as usual, I had no idea what I was getting into, or, after all these years, who I was dealing with. Check and mate, game to Mr. Plonsey. (Dan Plonsey undergoes the famous Blindfold Test.) At least for now! I'll leave the blindfolding to Isis for the time being. Ouch -- too soon?

Posted in Blindfold Test, Recordings, new and used | Comments Off

Blindfold Test: Second Attempt

Following my disastrous attempt to self-proctor a “blindfold test”, I opted to try a more traditional method. I conscripted my friend Dan Plonsey to play the role of interlocutor. Dan is saxophonist and a prolific composer of astonishing breadth and beauty. He is also very knowledgeable about all sorts of matters pertaining to records: the intricacies of Sun Ra and Lee Perry’s discographies, Bollywood composers and performers of note, Pere Ubu, Classical records of the 60s and 70s, independent artist-run labels, and on and on. Another reason Dan seemed like the perfect choice was that he was very familiar with my listening tastes, biases, and potential blind spots, and so could choose accordingly.

One afternoon a few weeks ago I brought my portable recorder to Dan's house in El Cerrito, and proceeded to record us talking and playing records. Thanks very much to Surry Flavinoid for transcribing the audio into the text you read here ( I have added some comments and "stage directions" in italics).


Dan Ok, so you sit there, with your back to the speakers. I arranged a seat there, there’s a glass of water…
John Yeah, this way seems much better, not being actually blindfolded.
Dan I was thinking of having you wear those headphone-like things they wear for directing traffic on airport runways, that isolate the ears and shut out sound, and then play you the records. Or just play the records from the farthest away room in the house, so you could just hear them very faintly.
John Perhaps we could do a whole series of them. One where you play the typical twelve different records, but all at once, and the person has to guess and evaluate all of them. One where you have a live band try and replicate the recordings. One where you have a musician from a non-Western culture try to recreate the records all by him or her self, using er-hu or rebab or what have you. One where you call the person and play them records by holding up your cell phone to your iPod earbuds.
Dan One where you’re playing a gig, I keep approaching the stage and trying to play you these records. “Excuse me, could you identify this trumpet player?”
John One where I wake you up, I’m suddenly playing records in your bedroom in the middle of the night.
Dan Stalking someone: at the supermarket, public restroom, always with a boom box, playing Jazz records, pulling up alongside them on the freeway, rolling the window down, “What does this make you think of?” Or they’re driving across the Bay Bridge and you’re there standing on the bridge by the side, holding a sign that says “Do you recognize the pianist?”
John Well, should we get started?
New Monsters: New Boots For Bigfoot (Posi-tone, 2012)
personnel as guessed
John (after the head) Hmm, that was cool. Electric Bass, that narrows it down. That's an odd Tenor sound. This feels familiar … is this the New Monsters record? Yeah, oh right, that’s one of your pieces, I might have played a different version of that piece.
Dan Do you remember who’s on the record?
John The New Monsters CD? Uh, well, yeah, you and Steve Adams, Scott Looney, and Steve Horowitz, and, uh, I can’t think of his name… the drummer…
Dan Rhymes with “anchovy”.
John “Paul E. Phony”?
Dan “If you’re feeling mazel-tov-y, then you should call ___”
John I don’t know. “Bramwell Tovey?”
Dan Jim Bove.
pause
John Ok. Should we move on?
Dan Plonsey: L Is For Legitimate “Understanding Human Behavio” (Limited Sedition, 1999)
John What is that? Is that… an oboe? (listens) Oh, this is that record you made, the oboe one, uh, Understanding Human Behavio.
Dan Do you remember the name of this track?
John Why are you asking me that? No, I don’t remember the name of the track, or the drummer on the New Monsters record. But I did identify the records! Do you expect me to know every record of yours, the titles, the personnel…?
Dan It’s called L Is For Legitimate.
John Ok, fine, it’s great. Can we keep going?
Dan Plonsey: 12 Different Boxes of Jello Have I “Jazz” at Yoshi’s (self-released, 2002)
John Dan, I’m on this record!
Dan Ok, sorry, tee-hee, ok, wait, here’s another:
Count Basie: The World Is Mad (Part 1) Okeh
Lester Young – saxophone; Dicky Wells – trombone; Buck Clayton – trumpet; Freddie Green – guitar; Walter Page – bass; Jo Jones – drums.
John Ok, this sounds great. (during sax solo) Lester! Huh, well, I don’t recognize the composition, but that’s Count Basie and Lester Young, so that’s probably Dickie Wells on trombone. At first I thought it was Hot Lips Page on trumpet, from those half-valve effects, but it’s probably Buck Clayton. Or "Sweets" Edison? And of course, Jo Jones, Freddie Gr-
Dan Nope.
John Really? “Nope” to Freddy Green or “no, it’s not Count Basie”?
Dan It’s Duke Ellington, with Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, and Cootie Williams.
John Really? Really?
Dan Yup, Ellington.
John Wow, that’s, that’s amazing… what’s it called?
Dan “Police Officer Stomp”.
John What?!?
Dan Yup. Pretty sure.
John “Pretty sure”? What does that mean? "Police Officer Stomp" doesn’t sound like something you could call a song in the thirties!
Dan Are you ready for the next one?
John Could I look at that Ellington record?
Dan Let’s keep going for now and then at the end we can look at everything.
John Ok, but you have it here?
Dan Actually, a lot of these are on a CD-R that I made.
John Oh, man. I sort of thought –
Dan Ok, check this out:
The Rolling Stones: Brown Sugar Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records, 1971)
John (immediately) Dan!
Dan Just guess!
John Ugh… Dan!
Dan Just guess!
John This is guessing – you’re supposed to play me something that is tricky for me to identify!
Dan Just guess!
John Uh, “The Rolling Stones”? “Brown Sugar”?
Dan Oh. (someone disappointed) Yes.
John This is dumb.
Dan Ok, one more.
Dan Plonsey: Open Door Dinosaur Open Door and Desire (Felmway 2000)
Dan Plonsey, saxophone, keyboards, scat singing.
John (clearly annoyed) I’m going out on a limb here, and saying, oh, I don’t know… Dan Plonsey?!?
Dan What record is it from?
John I don’t know what record it’s from! You have, like, seventy records! (Listening to “scat singing”) I can’t believe you put this on a record!
Dan Ok, one more.
(simultaneously) John You're supposed to -       Dan I just -      John ...records that -
Dan ...let me play ONE more...     John ... have to do this all again -
Dan Just one more, ok... good...uh, don't peak... ok:

After ten seconds I heard a "needle drop", and then the familiar sound of a scratchy 78. This went on a little longer than it should have; a real 78 would have had the music enter after a few seconds at the very longest. It was a full eight seconds before a sax drifted in, singing an Ornette-like song, sounding like someone pining for family after too long away. It took me a long second to realize what should have been obvious: Dan was playing sax out in his backyard, directly behind the living room. This clumsy little ventriloquist act, which should have been no less annoying than everything that had come before, made me suddenly and unexpectedly happy. That one second of not knowing just what I was hearing, even though I was completely expecting it to be a prank, indeed had already known that it was a prank before the sax entrance, that one second, alone in Dan's living room, was worth the aggravation that had led up to it. In fact the aggravation had probably made that illuminated moment possible. This is a lot like Dan's music, which in rehearsal can sometimes seem incoherent and formless, only to reveal itself in performance as unique and strangely profound. 

All right: no more messing around. How much could it cost to hire a real, actual Jazz Critic to play me records? 

Posted in Blindfold Test, Recordings, new and used | Comments Off

This is my brain on crumbly yellowed paper

I collect scores and sheet music. By collect, I mean that I acquire music beyond what I can strictly justify as things I want to study. Having the Beethoven quartets and symphonies, the Wagner operas, Brahms right and left - that's not collecting, that's just stuff I need. But having the vocal score to Webern's 2nd Cantata, in addition to the pocket score, that's collecting. Having two copies of Carter's Piano Sonata, 4-hand arrangements of Bruckner - that's collecting. By "collecting" I suppose I also mean a life of trolling used book stores, music stores with big sheet music sections, library sales, and the like. These days it's simple to locate a second-hand copy of Wolpe's long-out-of-print String Quartet - you just type it into you-know-what. Of all the things in my collection, only two or three were acquired that way. I got tired of waiting for a copy of Erwartung to turn up somewhere, and by waiting I mean at least 25 years, so last year I tracked down a nice used copy on the interweb. See, obviously I could just order a new copy of Erwartung. But that's no good - I don't have the money to just simply own every score of Schoenberg's, just 'cause I want to. But I do have the money to slowly acquire used copies of every score of Schoenberg's, at the trickling rate they come to me through combing used book stores.

Kids, I came up the hard way! You have to get out there, pound the pavement, get down on your hands and knees in dusty, crowded bookstores, down the with cats and the cat hair, going through a beat-up cardboard box on the floor near the music books, the box is half full, so that all the music is slumped over and getting banged up, and you go through it: Elton John's Honkey Chateau songbook; Hanon exercises; Dover's The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; lots of loose pieces of music that make no sense by themselves, such as a 2nd violin part to Schubert's Death and the Maiden; the song "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", but missing the middle page; Mozart Easy Graded Piano Pieces; the Moonlight Sonata; several Met Opera librettos; a Phantom of the Opera program book; maybe a Bach Cantata vocal score; the mimeographed program for someone's amateur piano recital, circa 1979; Mel Bay Publications Graded Guitar Method and/or Berklee School of Music's William Leavitt Guitar Method; the booklet that came with Neil Young's Decade LP; and then maybe if you're lucky, every eighth box like this that you go through, might have, say, the Kalmus vocal score to the Symphony of Psalms, or a Eulenberg score of the Grosse Fugue.

And then you need to go back to those places at least once a week, going through that same box over and over again, getting to where you just numbly flip through the contents, everything is still there, in the same order it was last time. No one has bought that copy of Handel's Messiah, or the easy piano arrangement of The Entertainer. Perhaps you can even tell by looking at the box without touching it whether it has been in any way added to or subtracted from since the last time you were there.

All of this is to explain that I have posted my personal sheet music inventory on this website, where I can access it, because I don't have a smart phone, where it would more sensibly reside. I am a little embarrassed about doing so; it seems like "conspicuous consumption", a little show-offy.  But it has started to happen that I am, for example, at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and I cannot remember if I own, say, La Valse in the two-piano arrangement or the solo arrangement. So I'm putting it here, where I can find it! And also so everyone who has an extra copy of Ives's 4th Symphony lying around can check my list and see that I don't have it, and feel smug, knowing that I am bitterly envious. 

Posted in Music Thoughts | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Blindfold Test: First Attempt

     I have always enjoyed the DownBeat “Blindfold Test” feature in each issue, in which a famous or up-and-coming jazz musician is played one track each from several Jazz albums with no information, asked to guess the musicians and to candidly appraise the music. Partly it’s a machismo test: if you are a young cat, you want to be able distinguish your Hank Mobleys from your Dexter Gordons, or Roy Eldridge from Red Allen, or Jaki Byard from Charles Mingus playing piano (a not uncommon fakeout in the blindfold test annals). Then there is the tantalizing possibility of having someone offer a much more critical assessment of a famous musician then they might normally be expected to. After all, if the person is unaware of who’s playing, it can’t be a personal attack.

     I have spent my life wishing someone would test me on these things. Having the reached the age of 48, I have come to the sober realization that I will probably never be anything remotely like a celebrity in the Jazz world, and thus will never get a blindfold test in DownBeat, much less the Holy Grail of something like being on Fresh Air. (By the way, can you imagine the disappointment of people who get booked on Fresh Air only to discover that they’re to be interviewed by Dave Davies? When they confide this to friends, they must say “I mean, nothing against Davie Davies (or David Biancouli who writes for TVworthwatching.com, or Lloyd Schwartz”), but… y’know… Terri Gross…” they say, wistfully.)

     So recently I decided to take matters into my own hands.

The Self-Administered Blindfold Test

     Of course, I know my CD and vinyl collection and its various categorization schemes better than I know the birthdays of my immediate family. So first I set about creating chaos from order.
     It is surprisingly difficult to achieve a state of blindfoldedness. I tried several bandannas, hats and towels, but nothing satisfied. I finally hit on a solution: I took out one of our typical suitcases and put it on my head. By zipping it up to my neck, I couldn’t look down and accidentally see a cover.

trying it on 2

     Having cleared a space in the middle of my studio, I began criss-crossing the room, taking stacks of records and handfuls of CDs from their shelves and blindly strewing them across the floor, intending to kneel down and further shuffle them around the room.
      Almost as soon as I began, disaster struck. One of the bookcases full of lps was precariously balanced on a ledge, and when I pulled out enough records from the bottom, it became top-heavy and fell forward, taking me down with it. I was buried in records, with a heavy bookcase on top of me, and a suitcase on my head.
     Fortunately Ezra was home, heard the crash, and my muffled screams, and came down to see what had happened. But not right away. He was very deep into a level of Team Fortress II that had just come online, playing with and against anonymous, faceless players from who-knows-where. So superior were his efforts on this particular occasion, his team had been granted something like immortality. In reality it was probably only twenty minutes. He later said that he could actually hear my muffled calls during this time, and for a moment was torn: loyalty to his father or to his blank, empty doppelgangers? But the moment passed, and he was at peace in sacrificing the one for the many.
     At length Ezra came down and surveyed the scene. He remained calm. One might even say he demonstrated a curious lack of urgency. By and by, he recovered himself, and took out his phone. Someone must document this exotic travesty, he thought to himself. He busily circled around me, clicking photos.

blindfold test 012 crop

loss of feeling in one arm, dizziness, slight loss of appetite... loss of feeling in one arm, dizziness, slight loss of appetite...

     Finally he was persuaded – I may have kicked him – to lift up the bookcase and help remove the suitcase. I had failed my first blindfold test.

Posted in Blindfold Test, Recordings, new and used | Comments Off