Monday, January 2, 2017

Visiting my piano’s birthplace

Yamaha's Kakegawa piano factory
Not long before Christmas, Mrs. S and I made our way over to Taiwan and Japan for a bit of vacationing, catching up with family, and eating beef-and-rice bowls (among many other Japanese foods we can’t get in Alabama). I didn’t particularly want to go, but when a dirt-cheap plane ticket came available, I was compelled to make the trip. Mrs. S wanted to know what I wanted to do there, but I had no agenda, so she came up with the idea of visiting the Yamaha piano factory in Kakegawa, near Hamamatsu, as another enticement to keep me on the trip.

In front of the one time home of my piano that now lives in Alabama
The factory is not easy to get to, but like most of Japan, it isn’t particularly hard to get to, either. Getting that far off the beaten track somewhere north of Nagoya was interesting, to say the least. It was actually harder to find a place to eat lunch than it was to visit the factory.

One of the nicer looking pianos in the lobby
Prior to the start of the tour, there is a large reception area with one or two of every musical instrument that Yamaha makes, plus about ten different pianos. There were even two concert grands in an isolation room, one of which was the one-millionth piano ever made by Yamaha. I spent a while playing that, trying to feel like the great pianist, Richter, for whom it was basically custom made. Needless to say, my halting renditions of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Maple Leaf Rag” did not do much to promote those feelings.
Perspective skewed by the camera makes the piano look about five feet long...

...but it's much, MUCH longer than that (almost ten feet).

I wasn't kidding: their one millionth piano. Numbers guy me loves that.
The tour is a conducted affair that takes about an hour and a half. They do give English tours, but ours was in Japanese. We were one of two couples, joined by a small eight or ten person group of (possibly?) music students. The tour starts with two videos where they show you the “3K” parts of piano production, 3K translating from Japanese into the 3D: dirty, difficult, and dangerous. So, we didn’t actually see any tree cutting, wood fabricating, hardware casting, painting, or frame assembly. After the videos, the guide took her time showing us whippens, hammers, felt, and things like that, which I had seen plenty of when I took my square grand apart. The factory was all about pin and string insertion, action assembly and adjustment, and tuning.
Some other pianos that could be tried out
For me, there were two particularly impressive things. First was the sheer number of people they have working on pianos. Of course, anyone who has worked on a piano knows how labor intensive it is, but the point is really driven home when you see how many people are working on the very mundane, but meticulous tasks of piano adjustment. The other thing was, Yamaha doesn’t make all of one piano at a time. If you stand at the top of one of the production lines and look down, you can see that the pianos are (mostly) all different sizes (lengths). It is not uncommon to see a couple G1’s or G2’s, some C1’s, C7’s and C5’s, and never see two in a row the same size. It’s actually kind of disconcerting. Not surprisingly, the parts racks are meticulously labeled and mixed all together. It’s kind of unbelievable.

Some boxes to test different string types
The tour culminates in a listening room where there are three identical pianos that each sound completely different from the other two. The guide played a bit of Fur Elise on them, and the differences were hardly subtle and quite noticeable. Again, for three identical pianos to come off the line within a few days (hours?) of each other and yet sound so different, it really makes a statement about the craftsmanship that goes into each piano. Truly remarkable. We also each received a keychain made from an authentic piano hammer embossed with the Yamaha logo. It was nice that Mrs. S and I both got one, so we can use one and keep the other clean and safe as a trip memento.

"Been there, done that, in their anniversary year" photo
It seems highly likely that I will never buy another acoustic piano, given how well my C1-X holds tune and how I will probably never live in a house larger than the one I’m in now. But I do know that if I do buy one, it will come from this factory. I owe it to myself to get the best possible musical instrument, and that is what the Kakegawa factory makes. I saw that for myself.

Our souvenirs.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Future musical instruments available now

I don’t know how often new musical instruments are being invented. My guess is, not very often. So when I had a chance to review the Roli Seaboard Rise keyboard for Amazon, I was not sure what to expect. I’m always up for a musical adventure, however, so I decided to expand my musical palette and resume and try it out.
A very well packaged, good looking instrument.
You will notice that the instrument is vaguely laid out like a keyboard, with sharps and flats between nominally longer keys, however, each key is actually not a key, but a raised hillock (I don’t know what else to call it – it’s the convex version of a trough) of silicone. You can try to play it like a keyboard, but you will be sorely disappointed and you will notice also that keyboard technique hardly transfers at all to the configuration of the instrument. That’s because the entire black surface is the instrument. You can actually sound each key by hitting, pressing, pushing, sliding, or otherwise coming in contact with it with some kind of finger motion. You can also play above and below the keys, and in between them as well. It’s actually quite unnerving at first. Attempting to play it like a keyboard, you end up with distinct, non-repetitive sounds across a wide spectrum of tonality. Any false move or lazy finger action will affect the sound. It’s actually hard to believe how difficult it is – at first.
The box can even work as a road case. Kind of.
The instrument comes with a program and sound module and while it is meant to be a MIDI controller (kind of), I think it actually works better as a standalone instrument. The best thing about the graphic interface is the sound curve at the bottom of the screen for each sound. It shows where you are playing the sound and approximately, what the range and frequency of the sound is. Since each sound is playable across 10-and-a-half octaves, this turns out to be pretty important, as some sounds turn into complete mush and wobble as they go lower, while other sounds actually become inaudible as they go up. (No sense in hitting the C above C above C above C above C above middle C if nobody can hear it, right?) The program also allows individual tweaking of the sounds by altering attack, fade, and things like that. Each mode has a four panel recall feature, so you can always leave on untouched to keep the original in place while you are working on altering the sound.

Looks kind of like a keyboard, but really, it's not.
The depth of this instrument is really incredible. Of course you can add other sounds to your sound library and tweak them the same as you would the ones it comes with. There’s even a dashboard for working on sounds more easily and quickly prior to putting them back into the library. I’ve had this for about a week and I know I’ve only scratched the surface, as I’m just having too much fun with what I can get my hands on and brain around to want to invest the time to try some different things. I have, however, printed out the manuals and I plan to start mucking around with more features pretty soon. Honestly, I feel this instrument can make a great piece of jazz performance gear, and I like how it will be practically one of a kind if I am the first to get it out there and start soling or comping with it.
Programmable sound. Awesome. 

This thing is simply incredible. I don’t know what else I can say about it. As I learn to use it and start to actually play and record, maybe some more interesting things will come to light. Until then, I will say that, like me, Roli may also be late to jazz, but they have invested an instrument that is here now. I intend to make it work for me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Worth the struggle

The musical heroes of our story, L-R: Eric Marienthal, Chick Corea, John Pattitucci
Last week, Mrs. S and I closed out our week and kicked off our symphony season with a jazz fusion concert, checking out the Chick Corea Elektric Band at the Schermerhorn Concert Hall. Despite leaving our house for the 100-mile trip two hours and fifteen minutes before our dinner reservation, we fell victim to the Predators’ opening night hockey crowd, plus, construction, plus more construction, plus the regular Friday-night-in-Nashville hullaballoo and nearly didn’t get seated at The Farm House for dinner. (Mrs. S ran two blocks to hold the table while I drove the last two blocks in fifteen minutes.) We forced ourselves on this battle because we had front row seats, right in the center, for Chick Corea's Elektric Band, making it hard not to go.
Chick Corea about to break his 0-for-4 autographs streak
To be honest, I’m only vaguely familiar with Chick’s electric stuff, and Mrs. S not at all. I remember a few issues of Keyboard magazine from the 1970’s that I may have skimmed the articles about Chick’s gear and music, but I just don’t know their songs, which are jazz to be sure, but lean heavily toward the rock side of the spectrum. After a rousing and rowdy start, where the crowd just screamed for the first thirty seconds of the show, the set sort of lulled in the middle of the show. After working fourteen hours the day before and spending an extra half hour on the road for the local high school’s homecoming parade to go past our subdivision, I too was starting to get lulled into a stupor of sorts, but the crowd continued to encourage the band, and they played some of their biggest songs to close out the set, which brought the whole crowd back to life, including me. One of the closing pieces included an audience participation call-and-response segment that The Music City crowd, along with me, pretty much nailed, no matter how challenging Chick tried to make. They even did an encore, which was exciting if only because it was so unusual for that type of concert.

Eric Marienthal gushes on, and autographs, a CD he didn't even perform on
As always, we came prepared to seek and receive autographs, but Chick has not done much in the way of autographs at other of his concerts we’ve been to, so I just had the “Now He Sings, Now he Sobs” CD at hand. This turned out to be quite lucky, because after the show, Chick lingered on stage and did in fact start signing autographs, and I was successful at getting him to sign the booklet right on the front. By the time he was finished, bassist John Pattitucci, who plays with Wayne Shorter and Danilo Perez, and the exemplary saxophonist Eric Marienthal, lead alto of the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band, had come out on the other side of the stage and were signing autographs. Even though neither of them played on the CD that I brought, both were kind enough to sign it and have a picture with me. Eric even said it was one of his favorite albums.

John Pattitucci and fan
Had I known that Eric and John would sign autographs, I would have brought some Gordon Goodwin and Wayne Shorter Quartet CD booklets with me. As it is, I still ended up with a Chick Corea signed CD booklet – which is a good get – along with some extra names you wouldn’t expect to find signed on that. It’s pretty cool.

The autographs, L-R: Eric Marienthal, Chick Corea, John Pattitucci
Next trip to Nashville, we are giving ourselves three hours to make the trip. If we get there early, we can always kill time in a bar, and that extra cushion should make it much less nerve racking getting to dinner and the concert on time. When Nashville gets some hotels built and gets all the construction scaffolding out of the streets and when they do something about that ridiculous roundabout that leads into and out of the city, it will really be a destination city. For now, it is a congested hellhole to get to, but truly a magical musical city once you are in.

Five happy musicians at the end of a fantastic show. Yep. That was our view from front row center.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My new bass guitar

One big advantage of not taking piano lessons is I don’t have to practice if I don’t feel like it. One big disadvantage of not taking piano lessons is I don’t have to practice if I don’t feel like it. This is coming into play this week, because I just obtained a brand new electric bass guitar, and now, I have to start being serious about learning some stringed instruments other than the ukulele. All this came about because of my considerable skill at writing reviews in general, but also because I am a musician who can apply those review writing skills to things musical. Add to that I am a beginner guitar player, and I was ideally suited and positioned to be one of the first people to test and evaluate the new beginner’s bass by Mitchell.

My Mitchell bass guitar, hanging on the wall, photo turned 90 degrees
Coincidentally, I had an opportunity a few weeks back to review an amplifier, but I decided to pass on it because all I could think to my grand piano owning self, was, “When will I ever need an amp?” Turns out the answer was, in a couple of weeks when somebody gives you a guitar. Anyway, I’m a musician and I’m not completely unconnected from the community of my fellow musicians, so I was able to get my hands on an amp and run this bass through its paces. Here’s what I’ve learned about bass guitar in general, and this bass guitar in particular.

Hanging up facing away, turned again
Playing bass is, for the most part, like playing a horn. Many lines are linear, and there is rarely any call for playing chords (although you can do that on any guitar, bass included). Bass is also fairly simple to play. Once you’ve got the strings and the frets down, there’s nothing to it. Playing it well, however, is a different matter, mostly because like any musical instrument, there is a certain feel and a certain intuitiveness that must be built up to. I did not get very far in that department, only because I played enough to experience the bass, not enough to become a bass player.

That looks Corvette red to me...
This one, which was given to me to sample and evaluate by Music 123, a seller on Amazon, among other place, is targeted for beginners. The “transparent red” (see photos) puts me in mind of an exotic sports car, and the angular shape of the one-piece body and the sharp cut of the head are cool and modern looking. Fortunately, it came with strings on, close to being tuned, and even a battery installed, so it was ready to use right out of the box. I even still had my Kliq aircell guitar strap that I was also asked to test (which I did with my acoustic guitar originally), so I put that on and I was ready to rock.

It's got some gizmos...
This bass has a solid, strong sound. My borrowed amp wasn’t the greatest, so I had to keep the volume high, but when I started to play with the tone adjustments, I was quickly able to get a wide variety of different tones, attacks, and finishes. The best thing about the knobs is, they have a “center” where they sit in a noticeable (by feel, invisible to the eye) groove for the most neutral, clear tone. If you play with a knob and don’t like the result, you can just twist it back to the center and get back to where you started. I experimented with the knobs quite a bit, and noticed they sometimes had a very pronounced effect, and sometimes not, and sometimes it made a big different on some strings, but not so much on some others. It’s like having a small effects box with reverb, echo, feedback, and “twang” built right in. If you open them all up, you get a big huge rock guitar sound, but my playing was too feeble to do much with it, so I kept everything more in the middle. I had “Stand by Me” and “Another One Bites the Dust” going pretty good, but I never could catch on to “Billie Jean”. Maybe someday.

The one design "flaw": A jack that keep you from putting the guitar down on the floor. That's a good thing, I guess.
I like that my wide ranging product reviews are starting to help me get some focus in the music area. Hopefully this one will catch on, get some popularity and attention, and make me more of a tester and evaluator of cool musical products. In the meantime, if it helps me to decorate my music room and broaden my musical horizons, so much the better. It may even get me to sit at the piano a little more, who knows?

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.