Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Truck fires and post-bop piano

Last Friday, Mrs. S and I headed to Birmingham one more time to see our last “popular music” concert of the year, called “Tao: The Art of the Drum”. We’d had our usual tough week, along with Mrs. S being in an accident (she’s fine, car’s not) and having to pay a towing fine when she went to lunch one day with the ladies. The thought was, a little watching of some smallish Japanese guys and girls beating the crap out of some big old drums would be good therapy. Although the previous week, we were lukewarm about this concert, by Friday evening, we were both looking forward to the show. We got in the car about one hour and forty five minutes before show time to make the hour and twenty minute (good conditions, hour and thirty average conditions) drive.

About twenty minutes from our house, traffic slowed to a crawl for an accident, but it was smallish and off to the side and after about two minutes, we were rolling full speed again. After about another twenty minutes, we came to another traffic jam. We could see police car lights maybe half a mile ahead of us, and not much else. Traffic was totally stopped. Neither lane was moving, not even creeping. As in “parked”. It also happened to be a part of the highway over a gorge, with the four lanes split into two, two-lane highways by a drainage ditch and a 25-foot high embankment. There was a cliff to the right. No going forward, left, right or back. So we stopped. And I shut off the engine, and we waited. After about 50 minutes, we finally started moving again. Eventually, we crawled past a truck that looked like it had burned out its load. There were two fire trucks on hand, too, so there’s was definitely a fire of some type. At that point, we were still close to an hour away from Birmingham, with about five minutes to go until the show started. We turned around and headed home at the next exit.

What does that have to do with anything jazz? Well, I was thinking about writing about the truck fire just the other day, but I wanted to have my Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra entry play lead fiddle on my blog just a little longer. Yesterday evening, however, as I looked around for inspiration to start writing the missed concert story, something caught my eye. Keep in mind, since I haven’t reclaimed the dining room by getting rid of my forlorn square grand piano, I have stuff strewn everywhere in my work room. Here’s what caught my eye:

Hello, little red book. What are you doing under there?
That fire truck red book on the bottom of the pile is a really good jazz piano book, one that I haven’t played out of in ages, Post-Bop Jazz Piano by the Hal Leonard Corporation. And as it peeked out at me, it gave me a really great idea: What would happen to my piano skills if I worked exclusively with this book, and maybe just a few tunes now and then, until I worked my way through the entire book? Would I get good? Would my jazz idioms impress instead of depress? Would I be able to play like Chick Corea? It’s an interesting proposition. I don’t think I’ve ever played through one piano instruction book exclusively before. I have worked all the exercises in Hanon, but that didn’t help nearly as much as I hoped. I know this book has good stuff in it. There might be some value in just playing “in the style” that the book purports to teach. It might even be enough to keep me working at it.

My brain immediately fought to quell this idea. You’ll work through the book, you’ll only get a little better, then you’ll be done with that book. Then what? But I already had the answer: I own two more books in that series, and there’s probably another dozen books in that series that I could own. It might be worth a shot. My piano instructor and I actually worked from this book a few times. And if I get good at working through books, there’s more and more of them to work through. Plus, I can gauge how long it take me to work through one of these things, then see if I can get any faster with the next ones. Anyway, how could I not get better working through an instructional book? Bottom line is, I haven’t had a clear idea of what or how to practice since I stopped studying at UAH. This is a method I’ve never tried before, so it might work. I mean, really, it’s not a bad idea.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hanging out with rock stars ... who happen to be jazz musicians

 (Lots of pictures in this one. Enjoy!)
Finished product: See below.
As I said yesterday, our time with Mr. Marsalis was brief. He had two handlers with him, and they kept things moving along and discouraged people from hanging too close to Mr. Marsalis. And that’s fine. When it was announced that everyone who was to get pictures taken had had them taken, it was time for him to go, but in the meantime, several members of the band had made their way into the room.

I grabbed my Ted Nash and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra CD and started looking for Ted. He was not there. I ended up next to drummer Ali Jackson and there was nobody talking to him at that moment. He had a big friendly smile and firm handshake, and he really looked genuinely glad to have someone to talk to. He signed my CD and we took a picture:

Ali, like any drummer, in a rhythm, so quick to sign my CD, we didn't get that shot, just this one. You can see how much fun I'm having, can't you?
Like any talented drummer, his energy was palpable. He practically broke my ribs when he slung his arm around me to take this picture. I told him I really liked his work with the quintet on the recording with Richard Galliano and he really lit up after that. “Oh, yeah. Thanks very much. That’s great. Thank you.” Just a very pleasant guy. I thanked him for the autograph, thanked him for coming down to Alabama and told him I looked forward to seeing him and the band again soon.

From there I made my way over to trombonist Chris Crenshaw. Funny (embarrassing) thing was, even though I knew who he was and I knew that Vincent Gardner was not on this trip (the very talented Andre Hayward subbing for him, unless there's been a personnel change I'm not aware of), I stuck out the CD and pen and said, “Can I have an autograph, Vincent?” And Chris, ever the gentleman, just grabbed the pen and CD, started signing, and said, “Sure. Sure. It’s Chris, actually.”

Chris, actually, signs my CD. I think I'm still blushing from my ID error.
 I realized my mistake and apologized. He just said, “It’s all good, man. It’s all good. Vince is a tall guy, too. We’re both tall.” That made me feel a little better. I complimented Chris on his singing (he's a wonderful vocalist) and thanked him, too, for playing in Alabama. He just said thanks. And yes, he's tall. 6'5" I'd say:

Don't worry. I can take him. I'll box him out for the rebound. (We mid-westerners know how to do that.)
Then, I found myself next to trumpeter Marcus Printup. Very cool guy. He asked my name and remembered it. He signed my CD: 

Marcus adds his signature. He's not getting my Conn trumpet. And, what the...? Left-handed! Just like his boss!
I told him how Herb Alpert always made me want to play trumpet, but I ended up at the piano instead. I even told him about my Conn 1941 trumpet and he said, “Oh, that’s a good one. Great instrument. Don’t ever sell that one, and if you do, sell it to me.” He had a couple of friends that kept distracting him, but I still got a decent picture with him. Did I mention he’s a very cool guy?

Marcus Printup and Eric. (Seriously, he's a cool guy.)
So, no Ted Nash (or Wynton Marsalis) signature, but I did have 20% of the band sign on the jacket, one from every section except the saxes. (See above.)

We briefly checked out the after party, which for us was free because we paid for the meet and greet. Good thing, too, because there was just this fairly decent band and drinks were not free (cash bar only), and we weren’t up for snacks and hanging out in the lobby, so we took this nondescript photo and then headed for home:
Sorry, don't know who they are, but they were good. Really, they were. Sirote Theatre is where we saw Bill Frisell.
 The ride home was pretty much like the ride down: wet, windy, and lit by lightning, but I’m not saying anything more about the weather, and that’s all I can say about meeting and greeting Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Not now, I’m in a meeting

The signed poster with ticket stubs from the Huntsville concert two years ago.

Over the last two years or so, since Mrs. S and I decided that we would indulge our passion for music, we’ve had a number of opportunities to meet various artists of varying degrees of celebrity. One thing all of these meetings have had in common, however, would be the element of surprise. You just never know what you are going to get. You don’t know how many people will be there, how long the star will talk to you (or if they even will), whether or not you can take pictures, whether or not you can ask for autographs, it’s all a big secret. In fact, some celebrities don’t even tell the staff on hand what they are willing to do and what is acceptable for the fans up until the last possible moment. In other words, it’s a guessing game for everybody but the star.

In this respect, Wynton Marsalis proved no different. We were told he would sign autographs, but he only signed two (one for me). We were told no pictures, but everybody (and I do mean everybody) kept taking pictures of him with their cameras and phones. We were told he would be at the after party, but he was not. We were told not to expect other band members, but a couple of the guys showed up. In other words, it was basically a semi-controlled free-for-all.

Where Wynton differed was, he spent a fair amount of time with each guest. He did what he said he would do, and he was a nice guy. Eventually, I will get a link to the official pictures of him taken with me and Mrs. S. In the meantime, here’s the best one of him signing my Huntsville concert poster:

I suppose I could have held the thing up for him to sign, and, whaddaya know?!? He's left-handed!
On the ride back, Mrs. S was bemoaning the fact that she had lugged seven Wynton Marsalis CD’s in her purse all night and we didn’t get Wynton to sign any of them. I said I was happy just to get the poster signed and to get a few band members’ signatures on one of the CD’s. She said, we should have taken more pictures, and we should have stayed with him, and we should have asked for more autographs. I said, offhandedly, yeah, but they told us we couldn’t. She said, you follow too many of the rules. (I thought that was funny.) Then she added, those rules don’t make sense, and it always turns out everybody else breaks them anyway, so we might as well do what we want. Why do you follow the rules?  I said, because rules are what keep societies in order and prevent random behavior from detracting from our way of life. (I thought that was funny, too.) And while I believe that, I also believe something else:

At my next meet and greet, I’m going to break a few rules.

Next: I’m with the band

Sunday, March 4, 2012

After the weather, came the storm (of jazz, that is)

First of all, in spite of the weather, the Jemison Concert Hall at Alys Stephens Center was as packed as I have ever seen it. Keep in mind, I’ve seen some big names in classical and jazz music, from Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, to Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, to Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny  and Al Jarreau. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra packed them in like nobody else.

They kept their stage set up very tight. I think this has to do with communication, because there is a lot of back and forth during the solos and there are lots of solis written into the music to give sections a chance to play some more while another performer is soloing. It takes some coordination to know when to play those solis, and you’ve also got to know what the soloist has in mind, so I think they sit close to make sure they are all on the same page, literally and figuratively. Here’s a look at the stage from the other side, including the piano bench platform that half the band stumbled over:

Look what's under the bench. Just low enough to not catch your eye, just high enough to catch a loafer.
Wynton told a couple of interesting stories during the performance, and he’s actually a pretty funny guy. He has a down-to-earth sense of humor that goes over well with audiences. Before they played Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues”, he told the story of how he used to judge jazz compositions with Horace. Most judges gave poor performances a 6, average performances a 7 or 8, and 9 or 10 to great performances. Horace would give out 1’s and 2’s. Wynton told him not to do that, but he kept right on. Now, whenever they have a competition to judge, the judge who gives out the lowest overall scores gets the “Horace Silver Award”.

I thought it was funny. I probably made a face a little brighter than this:

A pre-concert grin in front of a Steinway
They did the concert with an intermission. They played lots of standards arranged by band members and Wynton himself, and they played a couple of songs off of a train theme based suite that I’m not familiar with but will be by the time I finish writing about the concert and after concert meet and greet (probably two more entries after this one). There was no encore, which was not surprising but still disappointing. They did not play any of the songs they played two years ago when they visited Huntsville. Mrs. S liked the songs from two years ago better. I think I liked these better, but I still consider myself lucky to have heard some of Ted Nash’s songs when they were in Huntsville. (It’s also the CD I had signed by several band members.

Next: Meeting Wynton Marsalis.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Totally blown away ... then we got to the Wynton Marsalis concert!

I suppose at times, we all suffer from clouded judgment. Our irrational desires, seem, worth so much more than they really are. We momentarily stop, ... think, ... rationalize, ... stop again, only to let emotion and misperception override our best decision making capabilities. “Hey, you guys! Watch this!” we yell, and...

Into the brink.

Okay. Driving through a raging thunderstorm that earlier in the day gave birth to potentially fatal tornadoes (emphasis on the word “potentially”) may not exactly be the ultimate risk. After all, you’re in a car, designed by engineers for crissakes, who know their customers are idiots and will unnecessarily drive in rain and high winds for purposes that are probably not worth the risk. “Maybe we should let them hit the guardrail if they drive in a tornado?” says one. “Yeah, or...” But one of the engineers knows that a dead American purchases fewer cars than a live one. (He probably took a marketing course in junior college.) “Maybe we can put a computer on the wheels to control the brakes if they lose traction.” There is a moment of silence as the genius of the idea seeps into the other engineers’ brains. “But then they won’t skid out and hit a concrete barrier, and they’ll definitely never go over the median and into the path of an 18-wheeler. Where’s the fun in that?”

And you know that this conversation (or maybe a less macabre version of it) took place. You know your car can take you places, even in the worst conditions. So you weigh the chances of an engineer being smart enough to keep you alive against something you think is worth, risking, well, maybe just a little death, and you get in your car and drive 100 miles through a storm system.

Spoiler alert: Me, enjoying a glass of wine prior to the concert (I did not die on the drive down)
No. You’re not the smartest person on the planet. Because the guys that designed your car are all smarter than you (even if they do work for General Motors – hi, dad). But, you’re a good driver, and, you know your car will compensate for your (few) inadequacies. And besides, is it really all that windy? Didn’t you just change the blades on your windshield wipers? It’s going to be worth the effort, right?

My last rational thought, before I drove through a cracking thunderstorm for a hundred miles and almost two hours was: “If something is going to kill me in an untimely fashion in a horrible, sad way, it might as well be a car trip to a jazz concert by one of the pre-eminent big bands of our – or any – time. God, I’m sorry I didn’t practice the church music as much as I should have. I only realized five years ago I was meant to improvise. And please, don’t let the ABS fail me now.”

So me and Mrs. S successfully drove to Birmingham to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform live at the Alys Stephens Center on Friday, March 2, 2012 (a day that saw two tornadoes injure seven and damage 140 homes in Alabama). And, we met Wynton after the show at an exclusive meet and greet. So there’s lots to talk about besides the weather, and that’s all I’m going to say about the drive except: it was worth it.

The stage setting, before a bunch of musicians came in and messed it up.
Next: The Concert.