Saturday, December 24, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 4

Birdland –  On our last  day in New York, Friday December 9, it seemed that our chances of catching the late show at Village Vanguard to see and hear Bill Frisell was not going to work out. It was far away from where we were, and the guy taking our reservation couldn’t spell Sedensky to save his life. Since Birdland was close to where I was going to be and the thought was that Mrs. S would get out of her concert early enough to make time to get to the jazz venue, that’s what we reserved. Dinner was far more of a challenge. With the concert and musical to break up the evening, we didn’t really want to do a heavy dinner late, so we were leaning toward a light dinner early. Unfortunately, 3:30 on Friday afternoon is not the best time to be making reservations for 5:00 on that Friday evening. Faced with no choice and a long walk to the theater, I convinced Mrs. S to just walk down the street and see what we could find. We found a decent sushi place and ate sushi then headed to the concert/musical. Mine was a lot farther away and I had to navigate Times Square, and, stupid, I went looking for where Birdland was before I realized, I needed to get to the theater. I made it with enough time to go to the restroom and find my seat just as the lights were going down. It was great seeing Brooke Shields in The Addams Family musical, even with the drunk lady in the front row ruining the show. (Amazing that a house filled with families of small children was besieged and disturbed by a 50-year old drunk woman. Mercifully, they kicked her out at intermission.) After the musical ended, I headed straight out, made my way the two blocks over and one block down, and arrived at Birdland to find, they didn’t have my reservation. Fortunately, there were plenty of tables and I was quite early, plus it wasn’t that crowded, so I got a prime rail-side table overlooking the front row tables, right behind the piano. Mrs. S showed up after I was halfway through my first beer, and we ordered up beer and wine and sliders: 
That's Brooklyn Lager, the best beer I had in NYC, and don't those sliders look scrumptious!
We then settled in to hear the Frank Wess Quintet play one set. I’d never heard of this guy, but they played mostly originals and everything was good. I would say, however, that the show was too expensive ($20 to see Frank Wess, which would have been $40 if we didn't get half price for having a Broadway show ticket stub - Bill Frisell, by comparison, was just $25 at the Village Vanguard) and they only played one short (hour and ten minutes) set. 

The Frank Wess Quintet lights up Birdland.
‘Course old Frank turned 90 years old that week, so, we didn’t complain. At least he didn’t die on stage. Unlike the Blue Note, Birdland I would do again, as long as the performer was somebody I wanted to see.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 3

Cleopatra’s Needle – This club was recommended to us by my contact at McGraw-Hill, where I review business books for them. (You can check out my blog at She sent me three possibilities, and while Mrs. S was at her concert on Thursday, only staying for the Joshua Bell portion, she told me to pick a restaurant/Jazz club and make the reservations. The plan was for me to meet her at intermission and we would then go to the club for dinner and music. While any of the clubs would probably have been fine, I went for the one that was most convenient to the subway where we’d be and that looked casual and relaxing. (Seriously, who would go to a jazz club that makes you wear a jacket?) It turned out to be an inspired choice. First of all, Mrs. S and I had been talking about getting Greek food while we were in NY. Of course, we don’t have any ideas about where any Greek restaurants are, much less whether they are any good or not. But when we sat down at our comfortable, window-side corner table, the first thing Mrs. S noticed was the menu said “Mediterranean Cuisine”. Jackpot! Turns out the place is authentic and run by an Egyptian who’d been there a number of years and is a jazz fanatic. They had a full bar, intimate but not overcrowded tables, and a piano trio playing there.  We ordered up Moussaka and Kofta Kebab and Tambouleh, with a bottle of decent red wine and the best damned baklava on this continent. Here's me and the food:

Clockwise from closest dish to me: Kofta Kebab, Tambouleh, Moussaka (kind of cut off).
 The music was great, very vibrant and close. The pianist was an older guy and the drummer and bassist were two younger guys, and I assume Burt Eckoff is the piano player, as that was the name of the trio. They kept it swinging. 

The Burt Eckoff Trio at Cleopatra's Needle.
The food was wonderful, probably as good a Mediterranean as you could get anywhere in New York. In many ways, our time at Cleo’s was one of the best, and the meal was one of the best, making this a sure highlight of our trip. It helped that we had good weather that day but regardless, we would definitely go back there any time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Interlude

Interlude: Bella Hristova and Anna Polonsky – October 20, 2011

On our second night in New York, we attended the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance featuring Joshua Bell as soloist on a Tchaikovsky concerto, along with a short piece about Fireworks and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. The Stravinsky was definitely the highlight for me, but in any event, I’ve written enough about Joshua Bell’s concerts that for the second entry in the New York series, I’m going to write about a recital we attended in Birmingham in October instead.

It featured a young Bulgarian (since naturalized, I believe) violinist named Bella Hristova. She’s something like 23, but she had really good command of her violin (even though it did slip a string on her, causing the recital to pause briefly while she adjusted it). Her accompanist, Anna Polonsky, is Russian and a quite capable, dynamic pianist. The program was unremarkable, but I remember that I really enjoyed the piece Bella played solo, which was commissioned specifically for her. It was quite captivating. I’d never really been to a recital where I wasn’t playing, other than one jazz trumpet recital I attended at UAH, so this was quite a good, and new, experience for me.

Though both the young ladies looked quite statuesque on stage from our front row seats, at the meet and greet afterwards, they turned out to be rather petite. During the meet and greet, Bella was kept quite busy, but Anna and her page turner were by themselves at the fruit bowl, so I went over there and talked to them for about ten minutes. Anna’s English is strained in places, but she was quite patient with me as we talked about the value of page turners, practice time, and repertoire. She was also nice enough to let an old creepy guy, me, take a picture with her.
Eric and Anna Polonsky
I finally noticed that Mrs. S had gotten Bella to sign her CD for us, which was a natural, as we were the only ones who bothered to bring her (only published) CD. We chatted a little bit and then she let me take a picture with her, too.
Eric and Bella Hristova
New York was much more exciting, I admit. The Stravinsky was really a revelation for my now well-tuned jazz ears, plus the orchestra was really on top of that one. It was a great experience to hear such a famous and world class orchestra perform, but from there on out, it would be jazz on our last two nights in the Big Apple.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 2

Blue Note – Prior to arriving in New York, we toyed with the idea of visiting the Blue Note by attending a concert featuring Manhattan Transfer. Neither Mrs. S nor I, however, are huge MT fans, and the $65 price tag seemed prohibitive. Not to mention, the Blue Note website makes it sound like seating is pretty haphazard, and we didn’t really want our first jazz club experience to be something that we had to leave to chance even while paying through the nose for, so we decided we would just drop in to the club on our first night, time and energy levels allowing, and listen to whatever they had going on that night. Arriving in New York on a Tuesday and with rain coming down steady, we played it conservative and had dinner at a hole in the wall Japanese place first (not really being thrilled with the burger-and-fry fare on the Blue Note menu on their website). Hagi (name of the Japanese place) was tasty and expensive. From there, we managed to figure out how to ride the subway (computers were down, so buying a Metro Card was tricky), but we sorted that out and got to the Blue Note about fifteen minutes before the 8:00 show time.

There was already a pretty good crowd inside, but there were still plenty of seats. Problem was they were spread around and we didn’t have any way of judging which would be good or bad seats. When in doubt, the best seats are usually right in front, so that’s where we went. Mrs. S was right on the main aisle, I ended up across the table from her under the guitar player’s music stand, next to a Russian tourist drinking a nice bottle of red wine by himself (more about that later). I literally had to climb to get to my seat. The picture below shows approximately the kind of view I had, which is to say, the picture shows that I could hardly see much of anything despite sitting in the front row.

$5 minimum?!?! So one martini and I'm good for the night, right? Screw it! Get Chris Botti out here. NOW!
The show was a Christmas gala with a bunch of competent, not-famous musicians. They played some fancy arrangements of familiar tunes, nothing too exciting. We drank wine and enjoyed the show. Funny thing was, one-fourth of the Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel, sang one song, so we really made out good getting to see her and not paying $65 for the privilege. (She's the one with big funky glasses if you Google or YouTube "Manhattan Transfer Jeannine". Awesome!)

Ms. Janis Siegel, center, performing "Deck The Halls"
When our wine ran out and the show was winding down, the Russian tourist shared his bottle of wine with us. He was drinking the good stuff: a bottle of something Sicilian, very scintillating on the tongue, smooth on the palate, that left a faint grapey currant wash on the gums. Really stunning and all the more unfortunate that I can't remember what it was called. And more unfortunately, his English was completely non-existent, and my Russian from my college days was only a little better, so we couldn't really chat with the guy. (We did try.) Once we got outside, Mrs. S wanted to take my picture, which is generally a bad idea most of the time, and a terrible idea late at night after I've been drinking. No surprise then we ended up with this "deer in the headlights" shot with the Blue Note as background.

No. I mean, yes. What was the question? Leave me alone!
My conclusion after visiting the club is the Blue Note is the Mount Fuji of jazz clubs: Everyone should definitely visit once, but unless you are a local or there is a real headliner playing there, it’s probably not worth a second trip.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 1

Our recent trip to New York (December 6-10) was specifically for Mrs. S to (yet again) see violinist Joshua Bell in concert. While she would attend the concert three of the four nights we were to spend there, I was only to attend one concert, being left to my own devices to visit jazz clubs, hang out in bars, or otherwise kill two hours each night while Mrs. S enjoyed the concert. After discussing and planning, however, and considering that one of the highlights of any New York trip will certainly involve food, we decided to move things around a bit, cut short her attendance at one of the concerts, and keep our activities centralized so that we could enjoy the bulk of the activities together. This resulted in us being able to visit three jazz clubs (two of which we also dined at) together, and me being able to see Brooke Shields perform from the second row of a cozy theater (hubba-hubba). To sort of replicate the feel of that week, I will be posting reviews of the clubs over the next four days, in the order and two weeks after the fact of each visit. It should be good. Anyway, here’s Mrs. S and me in front of Macy’s. 

We hope you like this photo, because if you’re getting a photo Christmas card from us, this is the shot. (If you’re getting a plain card from us, this is what you’re missing.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Core Collection – A Picture

When I first became interested in jazz, I picked up the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings and decided that acquiring the entire core collection – 187 (in that edition, the eighth) “must have” historic jazz recordings – would be the best way to learn about jazz. So I went through the book and made a spreadsheet and then set about finding all the recordings. Some of my efforts over the years have already been documented in this blog. In March of this year, I was able to track down and purchase three very hard to find, pretty expensive CD’s and announced to Mrs. S that I had completed my collection. The next step was to photograph it.

Several times, I stutter-started the project (much like my piano restoration effort), usually giving up due to lack of space, lack of time, or general resistance to the huge effort it would take to lay out that many CD’s so that they would be more or less visible in one photograph. But after the tornadoes rolled through Alabama last April, I’ve sort of been on a mission of getting rid of “stuff”. “Stuff” is nice, don’t get me wrong, but if a tornado blows it all away, you won’t have any “stuff” and you won’t have much of a way of getting it back. So, I thought it prudent to lighten my load. And now that I’m much more mature and knowledgeable about jazz music and my likes and dislikes, I decided that I should sell off the CD’s that I’m never going to listen to. Before that, however, I needed to make a concerted effort to take a picture of the collection as evidence that, at one point in my life, I did in fact have possession of the entire core collection, all at one time. Here’s what it looks like in chronological order:

Me and the core collection: CD's are in chronological order
This was actually the second layout I did, and it’s good that I did, because the first layout was missing three CD’s. This was due to working from a bad list and oversight on my part, but the chronological list was complete and accurate. So, with the initial layout and this one, I was invested for about two hours of my time. Even though I was sweating bullets for all the bending and moving around without stepping on CDs, Mrs. S still talked me into rearranging them once more, to get the original shot that I set out to take: an alphabetical shot with me in the middle of them. So, here’s what it looks like in alphabetical order in five blocks of 36 CD’s, with some sets pulled out so as to not block the view.

Me and the core collection: Alphabetical order
Let me put that picture in perspective now: three years of collecting, three hours of arranging, one photo. This is, I believe, also the first time all the CD’s of the core collection have been photographed together. That is “photographed together” and not “PhotoShopped together”.

Although I am tempted to keep this collection together, simply because of the achievement, but also because I might fancy updating it with the selections from Penguin’s current edition, I believe I have proved all I could hope to prove by assembling this collection, once, and so now, for many of the reasons I mentioned above, I’m comfortable just liquidating this and getting rid of what I don’t want to listen to and trading them for some that maybe I do.

If you fancy you want to have your own core collection, you need to go to and ebay right now and buy up the CD’s I’m selling there. Some of them are really hard to find.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Another Night with a Different Jazz Legend

- and follow up photos from the first night with a jazz legend.

Four months removed from the concert where I saw Herbie Hancock perform and got the chance to meet him, it seems much farther away that it really is. I was recalling that night, as it was the first time I got to see a true jazz legend (Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Freddie Cole come close, but I wouldn’t consider them “legends” yet) in concert. It was not, however, my last.

On Friday night, Mrs. S and I made our way to Nashville to take in a concert featuring Sonny Rollins. This guy is ten years older than Herbie is, and he blows on a horn, so, yes, some of the edge is gone, but, wow! What a concert.

Here’s the stage set-up:

Schermerhorn Symphony Center stage, October 14, 2011, Nashville TN
He started off with a highly rhythmic original, B & K, moving smoothly into D. Cherry. He plays very solidly, moving around the stage slowly and calculatingly, which was good, because I would not have had a clue what to do if he passed out or, heaven forbid, fell off the stage. Then he took on a true jazz standard, My One and Only Love. That got a great reaction from the crowd, and I was happy to be able to listen to his take on a song I was vaguely familiar with (although I couldn’t think of the name of the tune to save my life). Then he did his trademark Patanjali followed by Nice Lady. Then he played to the crowd a little with Tennessee Waltz, followed by another recognizable standard, They Say It’s Wonderful. He closed out the show with Don’t Stop the Carnival, coming in at just about 90 minutes with no encore. That he played that long was amazing enough.

Sonny’s a truly class act and the music was unbeatable. The bass solo by Bob Cranshaw was one of the most remarkable solos I’ve ever heard, and the drum and conga duet “solo” was stunning. The guitar player was asked to keep one or two of his solos going longer than intended, so they did seem a little rambling at times, but there was nothing at all bad about them. His playing, and that of the entire supporting band’s, was phenomenal.

Unfortunately, as good a shape as Sonny is for his age, there was no autograph session or meet and greet or anything like that. So, here’s a picture of me receiving an autograph from Herbie Hancock back in June:

Herbie Hancock signing Eric's copy of "The Imagine Project"

And here’s me, Herbie and Mrs. S enjoying a group shot.

L to R: Eric, Herbie, Mrs. S (in case there was some doubt)
 Yep, I’m late to jazz, but catching up.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Days 92 and 93 – Sunday, September 4 and Monday, September 5 – Good progress

Goals: Work on it

Music: Doing some tuning, so none.

I did a second coat of acrylic on the mother-of-pearl inlay because the first coat did not come out very even. The second coat didn’t either, because it is basically impossible to get the acrylic even across the board, because it is so long and narrow and because it drips over the edge. I got it pretty close to what it needs to be, and I’m leaving it at that.

Then I got to work on the strings. I had to re-shim about 25 pins, but that’s all I did. I did not mess with bigger pins and whatnot. If a pin was loose, I shimmed it, re-strung the existing string and cleaned it up as best I could, then tuned it. Two days of that, and the strings are completely tunable, and, as of this moment, in tune. That’s as far as I’m going with that.

Next is to get the keys working. I’m very close to settling for a majority of the keys working, as opposed to a fully working piano, so if some keys are stubborn and do not work, there is some chance I may talk myself out of working on them and simply leave them dead in their tracks. I really just want to get the piano looking nice and trade it to somebody for a sweet black lacquered baby grand. There is still an outside chance I will end up with a bar or a desk, if I meet any severe adversity before the end of the project.

Inching closer to completion, and I must say, it feels good – again.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Day 91 – Saturday, Sept. 3 – Because I just can’t put it off any longer

Goals: Get the artistic stuff on the accent piece finished

Music: Charlie Parker’s “Complete Jazz at Massey Hall” and Complete Verve Master Takes, Discs 1 and 2.

There’s just no getting around it. Whether Mrs. S. cares if we ever get the dining room back or not, I for one am definitely sick of having this piano project hanging over me. I decided not to make excuses and to just get back to work.

Since I didn’t want to tangle with the strings, which is off-putting in general and particularly hard work in specific, I decided to exhilarate my artistic side and work on the mother-of-pearl inlay on the fascia board. I touched up the gold paint, having already done the black paint before the project went into hibernation, and I drew in some leaves and flowers to make it look nice. I poured a layer of clear acrylic over it, and that made a bit of a mess. I shook most of it off and left it to dry.

This morning I checked the board and the acrylic didn’t turn out bad, but it isn’t great either (pretty much like everything on the piano). So, I will try to put a few more touches on the board and then one more coat of acrylic and then we’ll see about the strings.

It’s supposed to rain today, which means I won’t be able to smoke the ribs I prepped, which means I won’t have to spend a ton of time cooking, running back and forth to the grill, etc. So I’ll be cooking in the oven and have plenty of time to work on the piano. Hopefully, I’ll make some genuine progress today.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Top ten reasons why finishing my piano is taking so long

10) It won't cooperate. Let's face it: even inanimate objects can be a bitch sometimes. This thing goes out of tune if I look at it cross-eyed. It's discouraging.
9) Runner's knee. Had it for four weeks. Doctor says I'm not a five-foot-five, 110-pound Ethiopian and that I need to run in shoes instead of barefoot or flats. Seriously, though, the single most painful activity with runner's knee is standing - the required posture for tuning a square grand.
8) I can't see the end so I'm reluctant to work toward it. I don't know what else to say about that.

I guess there are only three reasons.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Day 90 –Sunday, June 26 – Rain outside, gloom inside

Goals: Work on it

Music: Doing some tuning, so none.

A bad case of runners knee and cloudy skies and the threat (and actual falling) of rain more or less forced me to work on the piano. A while back when I inserted the keys, I realized that I had some double strings that I had tuned as if they were singles, meaning that my piano was severely under-tuned in the lower register. I set about correcting that. So, to be sure I had everything correct, I started at middle A, which, diligent readers will remember, I tuned to G# to lower the stress on the piano. Unfortunately, I seemed to have miscounted, probably because of the double strings I counted as singles, and what should have been G# was actually at F. Cripes!

So, starting at middle A, I moved everything up so that all the keys would be a half tone flat. That meant tightening everything. That meant finding some pins that couldn’t hold tune because of the increased stress. I wanted to get at least half the keyboard done, but standing up in that awkward posture made my knee start hurting too much, so I wasn’t quite able to do half the keyboard. And at that, I had four strings that were untunable. I might try for a whole tone down to see if that makes life any easier for me. Anyway, I could only work for an hour and half, but that was enough. The piano is getting closer and closer to being a decorative piece and not a musical instrument. I swear if things don’t start going right with it pretty soon, I’m turning the sucker into a bar.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Studying Up

It’s hard – no, make that impossible – to work on much of anything whenever you get called in to work on the weekend. This happened to me two Sundays ago and last Saturday, so progress on my piano has more or less ground to a halt. Because of my ruined Saturday, Sunday was overly hectic, but I did find time to leaf through and read my piano repair manual and try to figure out what to do with the wippens that are killing about fifteen of the keys in my piano (if in fact it is the wippens – there may be some fit issues with the hammers as well). In short, at this critical and hyper-detailed juncture, I’m not finding much help for my square grand in a manual that focuses almost exclusively on grands and uprights, not to mention the frequent detailed passages about Steinways. I was able to glean a few ideas from the book, but I’m still not really sure what is going to be the best way to repair the keys that keep dying. I expect it will require some experimenting.

So, this coming weekend, I think I’m going to move to some cosmetic work. Probably work on the mother-of-pearl inlay some and maybe even go back to the stool again (I’ve got the brushes for it).

I need to be pushing a little harder on this.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Night with a True Jazz Legend

Wednesday June 1 found me and Mrs. S once again in Birmingham AL, to attend a jazz concert at the Alys Stephens Center for the Arts. We sure spend a lot of time there for it being over a one and a half hour drive from our house. But when a guy like Herbie Hancock is performing in your neck of the woods, 90 minutes seems a pretty reasonable drive. As part-time patrons with dedicated front row seats, it’s hard to pass on an opportunity like this, so naturally, we also signed up for the VIP “Meet & Greet” package for our chance to meet the legend and possibly have a few photos taken and get a few CD’s signed. Imagine our surprise then when one of the event coordinators told us that his contract did not allow for either. (Turns out he did both.)

So come time for the concert and it’s mostly empty seats, but they filled up pretty quickly and the show started maybe only ten minutes late. Herbie’s drummer comes out and he starts right into a funky syncopated riff that I couldn’t see how he could keep going but that he did and never missed on. The bass player wandered on stage and it took him about thirty seconds to get to his five string axe, attach the strap, and get it settled before laying a line down on top of the drums. So, they’re on the right hand side of the stage, wailing, and I’m all caught up in the beat when out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of glittering orange, and there’s this tiny old guy moon walking toward the keyboard pit. (Yes, moon walking!)

And the crowd goes wild!

And those turned out to be the two main themes of the night: a little old dude who should be laid out on a recliner or playing bingo somewhere, funkin’ it up on a piano, computerized synth, and a keytar, and a bunch of people screaming at him as he does so. Which is also what got me: Here’s a guy who released an album in every one of the last six decades, has more than fifty albums of material to choose from, is over seventy years old, can do anything he wants musically and professionally, and if he was taking it easy and swinging through a quiet version of “Watermelon Man” or letting some singer take the lead on one of his compositions while he sleepwalks (instead of moon walks) through the comps and a canned solo, everyone would still be appreciative and crazy, but instead, he’s out there with a freaking keytar, jumping around like a four-year old with a squirt gun on the first day of summer as he bangs away on “Actual Proof” or “Chameleon”. What’s going on?

I’ll tell you what: Herbie Hancock is going on. And on, and on, and on. No wonder his latest album involves musicians of eleven different nationalities singing in seven different countries recorded in four different studios. When you’ve done as much music as Herbie, that’s the only way you can get to something new and fresh. Stunning.

Honestly, the concert made me dizzy and I don’t think it was from the drive and the stifling 95-degree heat. Herbie did mostly new stuff from his Imagine Project recording, which I have a hard time classifying as jazz but which I enjoy immensely. I was especially psyched when he and his two man band and one woman singer did my favorite track from the work, Tamatant Tilay/Exodus. Everything else he played, he played as funky as possible, spending probably 40% of his stage time on his Roland keytar. His piano, a Fazioli concert grand, didn’t sound real. His playing sounded fresh, whimsical, and inspirational. Somehow. The supporting band members were solid musically and just, everything was great. Words escape me.

Our signed copy of "The Imagine Project"
The meet and greet session started  frightfully stiff. Only one guy seemed truly comfortable talking with Herbie, and they started talking about, like, Herbie’s third album, released the year after I was born. It was sort of electric just hearing Herbie say the name, "Miles Davis".  Anyway, to get things moving,  the coordinator jumped in and made everyone get their pictures out of the way so Herbie wouldn’t spend the whole night standing around with our lot. When I went up to meet him, I had him sign our copy of his latest, The Imagine Project, and we took two photos before Mrs. S joined in. Then he spent the rest of the time chatting her up. Later, when Herbie was done with the photos, he wandered over to the fruit tray, where Mrs. S and I were, so we talked a little bit more and Mrs. S had him sign our copy of “Maiden Voyage”. (I like his signature. He writes so you can actually read his name. See above and below.) I literally had a whole stack to be signed, but we were being reserved since we were told right out of the gate that he wouldn’t be doing that.

Our signed copy of "Maiden Voyage"
After he’d had a few pieces of fruit, he looked around for something to say and do, but the coordinators gave him the go ahead, so he waved, and was gone. He’s a very nice, personable, agreeable gentleman. He’s small, but his hands are firm and supple. His smile is bright and his eyes even brighter. He doesn’t move fast and his hair is thinning, but he’s genuine, real, meticulous, and true to his songs when it comes to his music. I think top to bottom, meeting Herbie Hancock was one of the most satisfying and valuable experiences I’ve had in my short four year jazz career. I may have been late to jazz, but I’m catching up fast.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Days 88 and 89 – Saturday and Sunday, May 28 and 29 – Looks like a piano!

Goals: Finish with the leather on the hammers and install the keys

Music: Shelley Manne and His Men’s “Complete Live at the Blackhawk” (all four discs).

With the keys inserted back in the piano, it again looks like a piano and the temptation to chop it into a desk or a bar is reduced. As has been the case throughout this project, however, the piano continues to beset me with “good news, bad news” scenarios:

-Good news: I successfully manufactured a replacement hammer from scrap hammers purchased online. Bad news: I wasn’t actually missing a hammer. The space on the hammer assembly is for something else. (Wish I knew what.) At least that explained why I ended up one piece of leather short when I was adding leather to the hammers.

-Good news: I successfully rebuilt the pivot arm end of a broken hammer. Bad news: The difference in shape and size is just enough that the wippen didn’t pick it up and project the hammer correctly. Hard to believe when you look at the photo – we’re talking a fraction of a millimeter difference! (I ended up shimming the whole assembly to make it work; it still joined the ranks of dead keys after the first go around.)
Top is the replacement, bottom is an original. Yeah, they're different, but...

-Good news: I finished putting the leather on all the hammers. Bad news: Even with careful and thorough trimming, the tiny size differential makes many of the keys stick, both against each other and against parts of the piano when the keys are reinserted.
Hammers all covered in leather and ready to go.
The pile of leather chunks that took be two days to trim from the heads - and they still don't work right.

-Good news: I was able to insert the keys and a number of them actually hit on the strings they were supposed to and made a passable sound. Bad news: After playing once through the keyboard, any number of keys went dead, or took some jiggling to get playing again, or didn’t sound at all in the first place.

-Good news: The rough tuning of the piano means I have actually gotten a reasonable facsimile of harmonic sound from the strings. Bad news: Not realizing that some of the “single” bass strings were actually “double” bass strings, I’ve got the piano tuned to play more notes than there are keys.

Good news: At the lower end of the keyboard, all the keys work. Bad news: The ones that are supposed to be hitting double strings are only hitting one string. (Maybe it doesn’t matter if I tune them or not.

Memorial Day will be filled with tuning work and key adjustment. I’m even going to have to get my piano repair manual out and see what my options are with the wippens that aren’t triggering the keys right after I just fixed them. (I mean, of course I made sure all the keys were working before I reinserted them, but I didn’t think so many would go dead right out of the gate!)

One more: Good news: The soft pedal actually moves the damper assembly into position and deadens the hammer strike on the strings. Bad news: It doesn’t go back on its own. More adjustment! 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Days 86 and 87 – Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22 – Devil in the Details

Goals: Put the leather on the hammers, install the keyboard assembly after checking that everything works

Music: Humphrey Lyttelton’s “The Parlophones” (all four discs); Bud Powell’s “The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume Three”; Buddy Rich’s “The Best of Buddy Rich”; Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite”.

Delicate, boring work. Boring and delicate. That’s all that separates me from a completely refurbished antique square grand piano: boredom and delicacy.

All I did on Saturday was cut the leather strips for the hammers and glue them to the hammerheads. That’s “all”. As I recounted in my last entry, I did not want to do this in stages because I was afraid of mixing the lengths. And, because I was using contact cement, I wanted them to be done all in one fell swoop. I was a little non-committal about whether I should put glue on the entire head and strip or just glue the ends with the body of the strip stretched over the hammerhead. I opted to leave the middle glue-less to give me some land to handle the strips with. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as I will relate in a moment.

One I got to cutting and placing the strips, I noticed they were all just about the right width, but most of them were too long (not sure why). Some I cut, some I used the extra surface for stronger adhesion. This, too, turned out to be fortuitous. Anyway, it took about four hours, but I managed to glue all the strips to the hammerheads.

On Sunday, I reviewed my work and naturally, all the strips were jamming into each other, causing all the keys to stick, pull multiple hammers, and not return to the down position properly. I expected this, and was sure they’d have to be cut. Here’s where not gluing the entire strip to the hammerhead paid off: I could trim the leather strip without having to trim a fat portion of the felt head. Nearly all them went smoothly. Some I could get just with the small pointy cosmetic scissors, but the majority required being held with tweezers while cutting with a razor. Due to placement issues, some I ended up cutting close to only about an eighth of their original width. That’s where the extra land for adhesion came in handy (for those strips that had it). Unfortunately, with my poor eyesight and inexperience, some of the strips I cut right through, releasing one end of the hammer. I used super glue to reattach these, not wanting to fuss with the contact cement any further. At the end of the session on Sunday, I was about twenty keys from the end, but that’s actually much closer to the end of this stage, because the high keys, which sit almost directly perpendicular to the strings and parallel to each other will not need any trimming. (Hooray!)

I have at least two wippens that will need adjusting before I can install the keys. Then, the sound of hammer hitting string and generating music will again emanate from my piano, almost one year to the day since the last note was heard from it.

I bought some clear acrylic resin that I’m planning to use to fix up the mother of pearl inlaid board. If I can get that to look pretty decent and the piano to play, I will have 99% succeeded in the refurbishing of this piano.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Days 84 and 85 – Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15 –!

Goals: Finish the piano

Music: Gerry Mulligan’s “Original Quartet with Chet Baker” (both discs); Bennie Moten’s “Band Box Shuffle” (both discs); Paul Motian’s “The Sound of Love”, Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron’s “Complete Blue Note Recordings” (both discs).

With jazz improvisation class finally over, I have nothing but time for working on the piano. And after my trip to Memphis where I saw Francis Scott Key’s square grand piano and the non-functional shape it was in, I’ve been feeling a little inspired to get my piano back into operation. So I set to work.

Needless to say, there’s nothing left but a lot of little jobs, most everything cosmetic. I just take each job as I think of it and in whatever order necessary to complete the work properly. I obviously needed to get the key and hammer assembly back in, which meant repairing the one broken hammer and fabricating the missing one. Using spare parts that I bought on e-bay, I started with repairing the one broken hammer. It just needed a new pivot head (I’m calling it – I don’t know what it’s called). Not knowing how much of the shank goes into the pivot head, I decided to split the old one to see for sure. Here’s what that looked like: 
Bottom shows pivot head in mount assembly. Those pieces are the old pivot head. Uppermost is the original hammer and shank.

After that, it was an easy enough job to remove one of the old pivot heads from the spare parts, drill and scrape out the old shank bits, and sand and shorten the actual shank to fit into the hole. Wood glue and a little eyeball measuring next to the other hammers, and it was ready to install:
Repaired hammer ready for installation.

Manufacturing the replacement hammer for the one that was missing was a bit trickier and time consuming. Because the hammer has to fit between a bunch of other hammers, it needed to be sized correctly, but all of the parts I got off the internet were for the larger hammers at the other end of keyboard. I thought about sliding all of the hammers down one, but I was worried doing so might create fit issues down the line, especially with the felt pads that catch on the wippens. I didn’t want to deal with that , so I decided to see if it was possible to use my Dremel tool to whittle down the size of the felt on one of the big replacement part hammers to make a small felt head hammer. 
What I started with (left), and what I hoped to finish with, approximately (right)

I found that it was an easy enough process with the only drawback being that it generated a lot of dust, and so I set to manufacturing a replacement hammer, doing most of the felt trimming outside. That was a two day process due to the amount of sanding needed and also having to glue the felt, using contact cement to hold it and super glue to harden it. When all was said and done, I had my replacement hammer:
Left: What I started with; Middle: What I ended with; Right: What I was trying to get to

It fit adequately in the spot that had been missing a hammer for almost forever. (I could tell by the wear on the felt underneath the hammer housings.)
Here you can see how light the felt is where I removed the hammer, but how dark where the missing hammer was. That hammer was missing for a long time, telling me this piano has probably been unplayable - and unplayed - for 50 or more years.

I reattached the wippen stoppers and hammer assembly to the keyboard frame, holding the wippens in place with string when I fitted the hammers back in place. Upon releasing the string, I found all the keys and hammers in working order. (Thank God!) I wanted to slide the keys in to see and hear them hit the strings and hear what it sounded like, but I still had to put some leather over the worn surface of the hammers. What’s next is next, so I set to it.

I marked up the thicker portion of the lamb leather that I will be using to cover the hammer heads with, having measured and calculated that some time ago. 

The leather, ready to be cut (pencil for scale)
I didn’t start cutting up the individual strips, though, because I’m going to cut and glue and cut and glue those individually so that I don’t have to mark them up or anything. I’m not really sure which would be more tedious, cutting all then gluing, or cutting and then gluing as I go, and although I think splitting the jobs would be faster, cutting and gluing in tandem should be easier and make it easier to avoid mistakes.

So, without having enough time to tackle the leather gluing job, including the fact that the outside temperature was too low to open the windows, I moved to some other minor finishing jobs. So finally, I cut a few pieces of felt and threaded them through the strings, working from photos of the original state of the piano (always an inspiration).

I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do about the missing damper arm. Hopefully I’ll get lucky one of these days and come across some damper arms on the internet. Until then, I’m going to have one low, long-ringing F note.

When I finish the piano, that is.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eight hours driving, forty minutes of violin music, and a brief tour of Memphis Tennessee

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with Mrs. S’s passion for the playing and boyish good looks of the world class violinist, Joshua Bell. And in the past, I had told her that any time he came within a reasonable driving distance, I would be willing to escort her to any concert of his. (He’s good enough that even I, a jazz musician, enjoy and appreciate his superb playing. He’s remarkable.) Several months ago, she unilaterally decided that four hours one way was within “reasonable driving distance” (okay, she did ask me) and so it was that last Thursday we traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to hear the Memphis symphony and Mr. Bell play.

The drive was actually quite easy except for the part in and around Memphis. As we followed the printed directions from the internet, we came off the highway right in front of the Marriott where we were staying. I said, “There it is,” but Mrs. S said, “No, that’s not it.” So we drove around looking for the hotel we just passed but eventually found our way back there, no problem.

Since we were really in town just for the JB concert, we didn’t really do much sightseeing. We did take a walk down Main Street and Beale Street:

A mediocre shot of me in the "French Quarter" of Memphis
And we saw Francis Scott Key’s square grand piano on the mezzanine of the Peabody hotel:

Sorry, FSK, but my square grand will soon be playable, and yours won't!
It has some very nice mother-of-pearl inlay inside on the top and very elaborate carving on the front, back and sides, but the wood finish needs redoing and the inside was in complete disrepair. (Not surprisingly, as seems to be the case with these older square grands, the damper pads and arms were all in pieces. That piano would definitely take some serious work to restore to functionality again.)

We ate a light dinner at the hotel, together with a number of other people who, it turned out, would also be at the concert later that evening. The MSO was a smallish but very efficient orchestra, doing a nice Schubert piece and a Beethoven symphony under the confident and enthusiastic baton of conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. After intermission, Josh came out and lit up the place with Tchaikovsky, and for an encore, Yankee Doodle. He signed autographs (3 CD’s) and took a couple pics with Mrs. S. 

Getting to be very familiar with this shot...
When I noted that Memphis is a lot farther from Huntsville than Birmingham was, he thanked us for our long drive. He then kind of remembered us, but not really. (He gets around, you know.) We also negotiated with a symphony rep for the JB banner hanging in the foyer.

We visited the Memphis Zoo and the Brooks Museum the next day so that it really wasn’t eight hours of driving for forty minutes of music. It was a nice trip to Memphis and another great Joshua Bell concert. Sure beats working.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

No piano and no piano

I find myself all of a sudden briskly stomping through the month of May, no closer on the completion of my antique piano refurbishing project due to having spent the last three weeks mastering my transcribed solo and three songs that I’m not very good at playing, along with a host of melodic minor scales and modes, all for jazz improv class. And this is not to make light of what is a devastatingly serious topic, but the tornadoes that ripped through Alabama last week left us without power for four days, which not only made it impossible for me to practice (digital piano only), but ended up wiping out my last two classes in any event. It left me with a piano not yet refurbished and some performance ready pieces that have gone as stale as the ground meat in our freezer prior to power being restored. No piano, and, no piano.

At least with class over, I can get back to devoting some time to the refurbishing job, and would have over the weekend if it wasn’t so dark in the house. If I can finish it this month, it will get done in one year, start to finish.

And, not to overemphasize the point, but if you’ve never seen the destructive force of a tornado up close, either during the storm or after, count yourself lucky and offer a prayer to your deity of choice that you never do. The raw power of nature is as terrifying as it is humbling and is better marveled at from a distance. Trust me on this one.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Top ten reasons why I haven’t worked on my antique piano in two weeks

10) My “consultant” will be visiting me on April 16th and I want him to be able to see the inside and all the work I’ve done. (Kind of a BS excuse, which is why it’s #10.)
9) I finished the strings and I’m taking a break between milestones.
8) I’ve been too busy listening to “Milestones” by Miles Davis. (Actually, “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” by The Modern Jazz Quartet, see #1, below.)
7) It’s hard work.
6) I’ve been taking advantage of the weather and working outside a lot.
5) I’ve got to finish schoolwork before the piano. (Again, see #1, below.)
4) No, it really is hard work.
3) Anyway, I’m almost done. Kind of.
2) Tomorrow is another day.
1) I finished the transcription of the piano solo from “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” by The Modern Jazz Quartet. My last day of class is May 2, and between then and now, I not only had to do the transcription, but I’ve got to learn a bunch more scales and I’ve got to be able to fashion my way through the melody and a one chorus solo for at least five different songs. That takes practice, not an antique piano. So the number one reason I haven’t been working on my piano is because I’ve been working on my music and my class work. The most excellent part: I finished the solo transcription in one weekend of heavy (10+ hours) of work. But it’s finished, so now, I just need to practice, and I’ve promised myself to turn off the TV during the week and turn on the piano instead. (I’ve already turned off Facebook and kept it off for over a month now.) We’ll get the piano finished pretty soon, don’t you worry.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Days 82 and 83 – Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and 27 – Strings are strung

Goals: Finish the strings

Music: Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged”; Lars Gullin’s “Danny’s Dream".

I decided it was high time I quit making excuses and started making some progress on the piano. I was helped by the fact that I largely didn’t feel like practicing the piano this weekend (as much as I do need that). So on Saturday, I completed the rough tuning of the piano, tuning everything down a half tone, so middle A on the piano sounds like G#. My tuner is actually pretty handy, but as I got higher into the upper register, it became less and less reliable. By the time I reached the last few notes, I was tuning by ear alone, but as I got the tones to where I thought I was close, I was able to use the tuner to check them and they all were fine. At the lower end of the double strings, there were about a half dozen pins that needed shimming, including one that I had used a sandpaper shim on. Although I’ve gotten quite skilled at that, it took a little more time than I would have liked, due to having to replace two strings, one that was too short to begin with and one that was kind of short and broke off at the end. Again, due to having gained some skill and plenty of practice in this area, it didn’t take me long to do.

On Sunday, there was nothing left but the 33 wound bass strings, all singles. Not being in the mood to fuss and knowing that when I did the reaming I started at this end and wasn’t tired so the holes were probably all over-reamed, I went straight to the oversized pins. Even at that, I had to shim quite a few, say one of every three, so towards the end, I just went with putting a shim in automatically without bothering to check fit.

Because all these strings were custom made, I took my time handling the actual strings. I made sure every one had plenty of wire to wind on the pins, I started the pins up high to allow me to wind them well, and I made sure every one was seated properly before winding. I only had one or two give me fits, mostly towards the end when my eyes were getting tired and I couldn’t tell if the coils were seating correctly or not. But in about three hours, I had completely attached and tuned the 33 single bass string strings. The strings are now complete: 

The big advantage of finishing this part of the project is it allows me to clean up a good bit. I can put away all the boxes of pins (3 of them), the sandpaper and metal shims, the aluminum bushings (never used) the coils of wire, plus all the tools that go with this part of the project – hammer, pin driver, pin turner, tin snips, stamp tongs (for inserting shims), calipers (for measuring strings and pins), and tuning wrench and tuner (which I’ll need again later). I can now also throw out all the old strings and put into storage my string size chart, marking flags and all the miscellaneous stuff that accumulated during this phase of the project. I’m sure I won’t know what to do with all the space.

Next up is the hammer assembly and the damper arms. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about the missing damper arm, but as I do have replacement hammers for the broken and missing ones, I guess that’s where I’ll start. Although I have a lot of little jobs left, I’m thinking I’ll be able to steamroll through them. I very well may be catching my second wind for the fourth or fifth time. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Day 81 – Sunday, March 13 – Not sure where to go

Goals: Shim loose pins and continue rough tuning piano

Music: None

Thinking I was going to rough tune the piano down a half tone, I started at middle A and was shooting for G#. The first string I was able to tune down, no problem. The second one was at F# and the pin was too loose to tune it higher than that. I was neither mentally nor physically willing to wrestle with the tuning pins, having worked outside most of the morning including running one mile in my Five Finger shoes, so I decided to just stick to tuning what I could. Rather than go up and find all my hard work undone by loose pins, I decided to work down and just stick with finding what was tunable and what was not and tuning as much as possible. Long story short, almost all the pins on the short side of the piano will have to be redone. Ten minutes and I was done. There was nothing left but hard work. And I left it.

Listening to Chris Botti in Boston while cooking dinner and sipping rum made me feel better. His version of Miles Davis’s Flamenco Sketches is stunning, with the Boston Pops swinging hard and some guy doing a guitar solo that is nothing short of mesmerizing. That’s the kind of music that makes people want to make their own music, not work on pianos.