Sunday, August 14, 2016

Not sure how that happened

My piano, when it it not in use (which is most of the time)

My piano, uncovered and ready for use
Somebody sent me an inquiry about my musical background, so I sat down and wrote an email about how I got where I am today musically. I bragged a bit about my Yamaha C-1X grand piano, and while doing that, I thought I could prove my point by providing a link to my blog. Imagine my surprise, then, when the only picture of my piano is the one where it was sitting in themusic professor’s room at UAH, before I actually purchased it and moved it into our house.

What the …?

Open for quiet time, which is pretty much all the time (it's a really good piano, so it is loud)
I have pictures of us putting in hardwood flooring, including multiple shots of the cats out of their element. I have photos of myworking studio, which includes my self-repaired P-70 digital piano and the new paint and CD rack. I even have shots of the dining room being painted andreorganized into a music room. There are shots of the piano bar moved to its new location. All very impressive. And yet, somehow, there is not a single picture of my grand piano. I say again:

What the …?
Open and ready for some music
I even have a couple pictures of my grand piano on Amazon, from when I reviewed some music related goods. Somehow, though, none of those made it to my blog either.

The inside, obviously
 If you had called me up yesterday and made a bet with me for, say, $1000, that I had only one picture of my grand piano on my blog and none showing it in my house, I would have taken that bet and you would be $1000 richer. I just couldn’t believe it.


Elton John-esque
So, anyway, this entry is just a ditty to rectify that situation. This is my piano. This is where it sits in our house. This is what it looks like, closed, partially open, fully open, and even lit by a string of LED lights. I do own a damn fine piano. One day, I may even be able to play it.

My piano, being used (which is occasionally)



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Speaking of Grammy winners

I actually had some more dealings with another Grammy winner prior to my visit to New Orleans (where I met Grammy winner, Irvin Mayfield). The pianist Laura Sullivan released her latest album a little while ago, a lush recording of moving, delicate, and inspiring pieces, more in the line of easy listening or New Age than the traditional jazz that Mr. Mayfield is all about. Here’s a light reworking of my review of Ms. Sullivan’s latest work:

This is my second CD by Laura Sullivan, and although I am a jazz musician and blogger, I enjoy listening to different types of music, including Ms. Sullivan’s work. It brings back memories of years ago when I was enamored of Enya, Dream Academy, and Clannad and was making my own soothing sounds and songs in my small but versatile studio.

Cover and CD, both signed.

It is a joy to listen to this recording. Laura has broken some new ground and is moving in a subtly different direction by focusing on her piano composing and playing. The backing to her piano work is lush and complex, soothing at times, and pushing the music forward at others. Personally, I would have preferred if there was actually a bit less instrumentation, simply because I was getting a little frustrated with having to pick out the piano lines from all the other stuff that was going on with some of the tracks. I feel that her piano playing is one of her strong points, and I wanted to hear it a little more. As a jazz musician, I just found some of the effects and accompaniment distracting from the heart of the music. Fortunately, the production (by Laura’s husband, Eric Sullivan) is clean, crisp, and technically efficient. The songs are pretty and well-conceived and even when it is slightly overdone, the instrumentation still breathes some spirit and energy into the thematic elements of the songs. As the music flows, the distractions fade and the melody surfaces, calm and reassuring.

I guess my musical sensibilities just aren’t what they used to be, but I still know good music when I hear it. Laura Sullivan is one artist who is truly making good music, whether I get a signed free copy of her CD or not.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

My first appearance on stage in New Orleans

The working title of this entry was: "My debut as a blues poet"

This year, with July 4 falling on a Monday, our factory found itself in the enviable position of being able to basically shut down for a week. Since that meant we could travel with little or no impact on my vacation hours total, Mrs. S and I decided to take a road trip. Then, when she found a great rate on a fancy, famous, landmark hotel in New Orleans, The Roosevelt, our destination was decided. One night of fireworks, half day poker tournament, three days of good food, and infinity of heat and humidity in the land of jazz was what we had in mind, and what we got.

Before the action: Make sure the stage looks nice for my NOLA debut
I won’t go into all the details of the food. We spent a lot, ate a lot, and thoroughly enjoyed everything. Even a travel day breakfast of southern fare at the Ruby Slipper was good. The fireworks over the Mississippi River were, well, average, but it had been a while since I had seen a professional level fireworks show, so even having to stand for an hour to hold a spot for the twenty-minute display seemed worth it in the end. The poker tournament, the first I played in like, I don’t know, five years, almost ended well, too. I finished fifth out of 26 players, but that was one out of the money. Just a few different cards, a few more calls, a few faster folds, and I’d’ve cashed.

On the last night, the eve of Mrs. S’s birthday, we got a front row table at Irvin Mayfield’s to see the Grammy award winner himself. He was appearing with what I guess is his sextet, with a phenomenal, sax player named “Choo-Choo” and a newly married trombone player with incredible chops, TJ Norris. I believe the drummer was the indefatigable Adonis Rose, but I’m not sure. Anyway, they were good.
 
Irvin does his thing
At one point in the show, Irvin brought up some famous poets who were in the audience, and they regaled us with some of their works over a slow blues riff that the band kept swinging. Then, he had one of the audience who was not a poet, who earlier in the show had commented about being married for 48 years and Irvin thought he would be a good candidate to talk over the blues. He said something about how happy he was, and got a warm reaction from the crown. Then Irvin asked for somebody to come up (I raised my hand) who was “unhappily married”. I lowered my hand. He asked for anybody, but nobody was forthcoming. I said, let me have a go. He looked at me kind of funny and said, “Come on up.”
I was not lying. That's me, on stage, at Irvin Mayfield's Playhouse.
I have little recollection of what I said while I was on stage, except for when Irvin tried to get me off stage by saying, “This isn’t working!”. I stated firmly into the microphone, “I’m trying to do the blues, Irvin! Did I not say I lost a poker tournament?” This got a good reaction from the crowd and enabled me to sort of rap a little rhyme that I masterfully ended in rhythm with the blues riff. I got a very appreciative round of applause from the crowd, and the saxophone player gave me a warm congratulatory handshake. As I made my way back to my seat, Irvin grabbed the mic and said, “White guy’s got some skills!”

Mrs. S, Irvin Mayfield, and the best improvisational blues poet wearing a gray shirt that night
After the show, I chatted with Irvin a little bit and he held still for some photos. He’s a very nice guy and a consummate musician. (Honestly, I don’t know how this guy isn’t more well-known. He’s tremendous.) Both Mrs. S and I commented about him not selling his CD’s at the show. We decided that he’s above that level. He’s one of the few who is truly keeping jazz alive and in the forefront. All that said, his show was terrific and we really enjoyed it, which says more about the power of jazz than anything else.


Although this wasn’t our first time to visit Irvin’s Playhouse, this was our first time to meet Irvin. Hopefully, this wasn’t our last time to do either of those.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Chris Botti sticks it to me…twice

So call this the resurrection of Late to Jazz.

Back in April, we drove up to Nashville to catch our third Chris Botti show. Chris continues to try and build his reputation with an electric show of stunningly talented musicians playing an eclectic mix of jazz standards and less often heard songs, calling upon a diverse group of singers and soloists to add spark and interest and surprise. In Nashville, the biggest surprise was the appearance of young pianist Taylor Eigsti, an up and coming virtuoso who is recognized almost as much for his good looks as for his stunning pianistic skills. Of course, Sy Smith made an appearance, and the ever reliable Richie Goods, who I met a few years back, holds down the rhythm section.
L-R: Taylor Eigsti, Chris Botti, Richie Goods (Nashville)
Speaking of rhythm, Chris seems to have parted ways with his longtime drummer Billy Kilson, a percussionist of limitless talent who many, including myself, would have considered irreplaceable. But the man taking over the stool, Lee Pearson, is a force of musical nature unto himself. Besides incredible technique and force, he brings an originality and unique approach to his playing that adds so much more dimension to the music. His solo, utilizing everything from mallets, sticks, castinets, and even his hands, elbows, and head, leaves anyone who knows anything about music and drums just shaking their heads in amazement.
Sy Smith, Lee Pearson, and drumsticks during pre-flight.
Of course, he plays so fanatically, drumsticks occasionally go flying. And being in the front row, they end up tantalizingly close. Chris even picked one up and handed it to me. Then, with one laying on the stage as they strode off after their encore, I yelled to Lee to toss me the stick that was laying in front of his bass drum, and he did! We hung around just long enough to still be stage side when Lee came out to clean up a bit, and he was kind enough to sign the sticks. We almost got a photo of him doing so, but our goofy Nikon picked the wrong mode to use for the shot. (It does that a lot.)
Provenance: Lee Pearson signing a drumstick. Blurred image and lack of focus courtesy of our point-and-shoot piece-of-shit Nikon.
Then two weeks ago, we traveled to Atlanta to see Chris again, this time with Joshua Bell doing a classical bit up front, followed by a shortened version of Chris’s show with Joshua putting in a couple of appearances. Lee again did his solo, also a little shorter, with two sticks flying at the end. I was in the second row and this time, Chris just kicked the sticks to the front edge of the stage, well removed from me. At the end of the show, I casually wandered over there and asked the guy doing the breakdown if I could have the sticks. He said, “I’m sorry. They aren’t mine to give away.” Then he kind of looked away and said, “But I didn’t see anything.” I said, “I heard that,” and picked up the sticks. Just then, I noticed an usher at the end of the row heading toward me. I thought about hiding the sticks, but there was no sense, since he’d already seen me grab them. He said, “Those will make a really nice souvenir for someone.” I told him that I asked for them and that anyway, it was my second set from Lee. He just said, “Oh really?” and left it at that. I mean, I guess he figured that at that point, I wasn’t going to put the sticks back, they didn’t need to be put back, and somebody had to pick them up.
The mixed pair of drumsticks from the Nashville Chris Botti conccert, signed by Lee Pearson
So I’ve got four of Lee Pearson’s drumsticks.

The Atlanta concert, by the way, was the debut concert of a tour that Chris and Joshua are doing together. The classical bits that Joshua did with the orchestra were sort of in a traditional vein, with a bit of modernity thrown in with some lesser well-known pieces on the theme of the four seasons. (The show started with Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer”.) Joshua kept it light, more or less setting the stage for Chris to rock out the place.

Joshua Bell and Chris Botti (Atlanta)
Chris’s numbers are definitely getting repetitive for me, but he continues to demonstrate incredible mastery of his instrument as his musicians help him and each other to dazzle. Geoffrey Keezer, who I also met acouple of years back, was on piano, and he was sensational and bluesy as always. He actually was another highlight of the jazz set, as he seemed to be crafting some edginess and surprises to throw in at unexpected moments. I think part of it was that he could see the orchestra, so he was helping his bandmates stick with the orchestra with musical signals. I noticed Lee had to keep turning around a lot and motioning with his eyes, head, and occasionally arms and hands. I won’t say the orchestra was missing their cues, but I think the conductor, Maxim Ashkenazy may have been a little out of his element.


L-R: Geoffrey Keezer, Chris Botti, Richie Goods (Atlanta)
Still, it was a great privilege to attend the first ever Chris Botti/Joshua Bell 2016-17 (?) tour concert, and we had a really great time in Atlanta. And I got four bashed up drumsticks for good measure. Not a bad deal all around.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Miles from everything

I went from reading a biography about Thelonious Monk to reading this autobiography by Miles Davis, and I have to say, you would be hard pressed to find two more diametrically different books about jazz artists. Where the Monk book was carefully researched, cross checked, and objectively constructed, the Davis book is filled with suppositions, vague recollections, and biased, one-sided editorial comments. Of course, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were also two completely different kinds of people, one rich, outspoken and philandering, the other poor, quiet, and dedicated to his family. Really, the only thing these two jazz greats share is their love of, and their impact on, jazz music.

Not your average autobiography

One thing that drove me crazy about the Miles Davis book is his (and his writer’s) insistence on not checking anything. There are pages of anecdotes that begin or end with comments like, “At least that’s what I think happened,” or “…during that year, or maybe the year after, or the year before, I don’t remember.” Really? You can’t call someone and ask them when they came and bailed you out of jail (or whatever)? Then there’s the “I don’t want to say who it was, because they are still alive, but …” and he then proceeds to lambaste this person were supposed to guess about, but later in the book, he’ll write pages about how much he hates Wynton Marsalis, or how Dizzy Gillespie is pandering to white people and businessmen, or how some (evil and white) record producer screwed him over. I guess it’s okay for him to draw random lines with his hatred, but it doesn’t make for the best reading.

Also telling for me was how he glossed over the fact that his was a privileged upbringing. With a well-respected dentist father and a musically inclined mother, Miles and his family owned, land, stocks, buildings, cars, all the trappings. Just being aware of that makes his railings against white-dominated society sound hollow and contrived. And I don’t want to start or continue a big racial argument, but it seems to me that Miles only played the race card when it was to his real or perceived benefit. All the rest of the time, he was perfectly content to take white people’s money and bask in their adulation.

There are no two ways about it: Miles Davis was a polarizing character in the world of music who neither invited controversy nor did anything to avoid it. As a result, it is hard to take anything he says at face value, even when he is talking about his own life. I found it oddly curious, too, how after reading about Monk, I wanted to explore his music and learn more about it, get deeper into it, but while reading Miles’ book, I didn’t have any curiosity or desire about his work fanned inside me. Probably the fact that I am already well familiar with Miles’ music and the fact that it played a role in setting me on the path toward learning and playing jazz in the first place have something to do with it. But I would have thought I would feel at least a small spark of passion to explore something, anything, of Miles’ work based on what I read about it. But when I finished reading, I was maybe not disinterested, just not willing to expend any extra effort to experience his music. (While reading Monk’s biography, I bought 6 CD’s and two books of sheet music of Thelonious Monk – quite a different reaction.)


I’m still glad I read this book, and I feel like I learned something. I just feel like the time spent didn’t have quite the payoff I hoped. At least that much is completely unlike his music, which pays off every time I listen to it, so I suppose I am simply more grateful for the music itself than for its history. That’s just as well.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reading that makes me play


I just finished reading a biography of Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley, a very serious and enlightening look at one of the greatest jazz artists who ever lived who I didn’t know was one of the greatest jazz artists who ever lived. I say that because, of course, anybody who knows anything about jazz knows about Monk, but for me, he was just one of those guys who wasn’t worth approaching. I suppose I was “contaminated” by reading an article about the great pianist Dick Hyman (who I do respect and admire) who said something in a Wall Street Journal piece like, “I don’t appreciate Monk. His music doesn’t sound right and I think most of the time he’s just hitting wrong notes.” That kind of embodied how I felt and I didn’t think I was missing anything by giving Monk’s music short shrift.

The subtitle says it all.
As I was reading Mr. Kelley’s book, however, some things about Monk started to make sense. I started to see what kind of person he was and how that could lead to him being ignored, or overlooked, or even ridiculed. Then too, Mr. Kelley does a great job of illustrating the formulation and evolution of a lot of Monk’s work, and it caused me to revisit some of the tunes. And whaddaya know? Here I am almost ten years down the beginner’s jazz blog road, and things I never understood started making sense.

I can’t really cite specific examples but I can say this, when I read about a song and then the next day pulled out the lead sheet and started to play it, suddenly Monk seemed not only approachable, it seemed like playing his music was helping me achieve things I could not before that point. It’s hard to put clearly, but, I started to see how Monk is more or less the next level I need to go to. But what that really means is, if you can play Monk on Monk’s level, I started to feel like I could probably play anything.

Haven't found any Miles Davis beer yet. I'll buy it and drink it if I do.
Now, I’m not suggesting that if I work out all the changes to Epistrophy, I’ll be able to zing my way through Ellington, or Coltrane, or Hancock, or anybody. What I’m saying is, Epistrophy is harder to play, harder to understand musically, and harder to make sound good than just any old song, so if you reach the pinnacle on Epistrophy, you must be doing something right.

Ruby, My Dear is a good example. Here’s a song that once upon a time, I could play pretty decently in an ensemble format. I could solo over the changes and make it sound Monkish, and I knew what the song was making me do harmonically to make it sound good. Now that I’m playing that song in solo piano format from a book of Monk transcriptions, I’m finding what I learned before did not much prepare me for what I’m playing now. Again, it’s very hard to put into words.

The long and short of it is, Kelley’s biography isn’t supposed to make you better piano player, but in my case, that’s exactly what it has done. It’s broadening my musical interest and bringing me back to vast swaths of the jazz landscape that I’ve never bothered to visit. I truly believe that learning to play Monk tunes is going to help me play piano more and better.  We’ll see.

Of course, having finished the book (check out my review on Amazon) and being now embarked on reading Miles Davis’ autobiography, I may feel different as I progress through that. Then again, I can and do play a host of Miles tunes, whereas I don’t have one from Monk that I can call my own. Yet. That and the fact the Miles can’t write like Mr. Kelley can may well leave my Monkish attentions unaffected. Again, we’ll see.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Pick me, Mr. Brown! Pick me!

I haven’t played with a whole lot of jazz bands and ensembles, but one thing I noticed when I did: As long as the band had a good bass player, I was able to hold my own, and even (on rare occasions) shine. I suppose the fact that the piano is part of the rhythm section along with the bass, but I just think that when the bass is driving the song, whether lagging or tipping, it’s one less thing the piano player has to worry about, making his job much easier. I think this compendium of hits from Ray Brown demonstrates that fact.

Taken from a 23-year stretch, five of some of the best jazz pianists of the last fifty years are here: Monty Alexander, Cedar Walton, Gene Harris, Benny Green, and my personal favorite, Geoffrey Keezer (who I happened to meet a few years back). It doesn’t hurt to have drummers like Jeff Hamilton and Elvin Jones, or soloists like Terrence Blanchard, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Stanley Turrentine, but ultimately, this music shines for me because of Ray Brown letting the piano players ring out.

Notice how Mr. Brown takes center stage, but thoughtfully includes the drums and piano in the shot. He's part of the rhythm section, and I think it's great that he acknowledges that.

Probably my favorite track is Gene Harris’ take on Summertime, which he turns into a rolling, vamping, boogie-woogie blues that is utterly fascinating. (The crowd goes wild!) That’s saying a lot when you have competition like Monty Alexander on Blue Bossa, Gene Harris on Have You Met Miss Jones, and Cedar Walton doing Horace Silver one better on Sister Sadie. These in turn have to compete with even older standards, which may not even have been standards the first few times Ray Brown played them, like Cherokee and Caravan. There’s just so much great music here, and I love being able to study how the bass frees up the other instruments while also dictating to them the terms of the song. I hear it a little differently each time.


Thankfully, I’m sort of kind of sticking to my New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve actually been playing piano a lot more of late. Maybe I’ll run into Mr. Brown before long and I can cajole him into playing with me. (Okay, no.) But I will say, the next time I run into a capable, dynamic bass player, I’m going to see about latching on. You never know who the next Ray Brown is going to be, but I do know one thing: He’ll need a piano player. And one more thing I know: I play piano. (Kind of.)