Monday, December 23, 2013

The kind of cool touches that I like

So, a few (?) years back, the actress Molly Ringwald releases a jazz vocal CD. No really, here it is:

Molly's pretty hot with her hair swept back like that. The black gloves are nice, too.
It didn't win any prizes, but it got noticed by just enough people who understand these things that it made its way into my consciousness. I bought it with a bunch of Christmas CD's and finally got around to listening to it the other day. It's pretty damn good. Ms. Ringwald's voice is terrific, and I'm guessing she must have studied with someone, because her singing is precise, elegant, and pleasant.

What I like about the CD is, in the one defining movie of her career, The Breakfast Club, the feature song is Don't You (Forget About Me), and she does a jazz version of it, quite slow. It's worth the price of admission.

Compilation that includes the original song
Now all I have to do is see if I can find Ms. Ringwald performing and have her sign my shoulder so I can have it tattooed into my skin. (Not! Brooke Shields, maybe. Not Molly Ringwald, though, I might could be persuaded.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Two methodologies to create memories of Paul McCartney in concert

Win two different lotteries and fly 6,000 miles, or, spend a lot of money, go to the concert on your birthday, and parley your name and nationality into a one of a kind tattoo.

Although Paul McCartney has only released one “top to bottom” jazz album, many Beatles hits have become jazz standards. One of the ensembles I played in even featured a very “French café” sounding version of Michele. Which has nothing to do with why I went to see him at the Tokyo Dome two weeks ago.

The view in the dome, thirty minutes to show time, approximately one quarter mile from the stage.
A happy confluence of events: Mrs. S and I scheduled a trip to Japan around the time that Paul was going to be in Japan. This was not as easy as it sounds, because the air tickets were freebies that were won in a drawing at a Japanese cultural event, and needless to say, airlines don’t mind giving away free tickets, but they are loathe to actually allow you use them, never mind pick a particular date. Nonetheless, she managed.

Same view, two minutes to show time.
Then, her sister entered the lottery to be allowed to purchase tickets to one of the Paul McCartney concerts at the Tokyo Dome, and was selected to be a purchaser. She picked up four tickets in the best section she could, which although we were quite far from the stage, we at least had a clear and unobstructed view.

Somewhere in there is a former Beatle, Wings leader, and knight of the realm.
The concert was great. 71-year old guy sang 39 songs for two hours and forty five minutes non-stop. Not bad at all. I've got another concert memory, and I saw a genuine legend of rock and pop music perform live. No complaints there. It’s almost makes me Paul-crazy.

Speaking of which, let me share a story.

One of Mrs. S’s friends is a big Paul McCartney fan. She paid a couple thousand bucks to be in the front row all three nights Paul played in Tokyo. Anyway, she knows another girl who became a big fan of Paul’s. When she was 24, that girl traveled to Montreal and since she had purchased a VIP package, she attended the sound check. At the sound check, she held up a big sign saying, “I traveled all the way from Japan and today is my birthday!” or some such, and sure enough, Paul called her up on stage. As soon as she got on stage, she bared her left shoulder and asked him to autograph it for her. Paul was a bit embarrassed, but signed anyway. After he signed, he asked her what her name was. She told him: “Yoko.” Paul said, “Ah, I've heard that name before.”

The next day, the girl went to a tattoo shop and had the signature tattooed in place. So wherever you are, Yoko-san, send me a picture of your tattoo. My readers and I want to see it! 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

‘Nother Night in Nashville

A week ago Friday, Mrs. S and I made the trip to Nashville for a break from the home renovations (kind of) to see Chris Botti. We changed it up this time and ended up behind the stage, which takes a lot of walking to get to. You definitely get a different perspective up there behind the stage.

I wish I could just eat my dinner instead of photographing every plate that comes to the table. (@Etch Restaurant)
It was great to hear Chris, Billy Kilson, and a great band with a great pianist (more in a minute) and while I do enjoy the tunes, which he’s been playing in more or less this exact format for more or less ten years now, 300 days a year (according to him), I did feel things were getting just a little on the stale side. Then he changed it up.

What I could see from my seat.
He brought out Sy Smith, who I certainly didn't expect to see but who I was excited to see. She’s a tremendous singer. Just tremendous. The show was enjoyable, make no mistake about it, but I’m hoping Chris puts together a different set soon and brings back Mark Whitfield on guitar. That would be awesome.
A blurry shot of me with bassist Richie Goods
After the show we hung around and got pictures with Chris and some of his band members, plus a bunch of autographs on a bunch of CD’s and DVD’s. I got to talk with Geoffrey Keezer for a little bit. Now, I’d never heard of this guy until that night, but I’ll tell you right now: I’m going to keep my eyes open for this guy. He’s amazing. During his solo on Flamenco Sketches, I managed to catch a little bit of Waltz for Debby, and then, Fascinating Rhythm. Of course, I asked him how he managed to work those two songs, one in a different time signature, into his solo, and he gave a typical genius pianist’s answer: “I don’t know. And, you’ll probably never hear me do that ever again.” Yep, amazing.

Me and Mr. Keezer. Goodness, this guy's a fantastic pianist.
The next day was back to the renovation, picking up some IKEA furniture at an IKEA agent outside of Nashville. We even made time to stop at the Steinway Gallery and see a bunch of pianos I’m not going to buy. (The Yamaha C3 they had was excellent. I’d’ve bought it if it was 25% cheaper than the price quoted me. Sigh.)

The shot before this one included Mrs. S. I made Chris smile when she got confused and I said, "Beat it!"
Back home, it was back to the renovations, listening and thinking about jazz, and getting slowly closer to my own piano. That’s it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

First room renovation finished: Composer’s Study

About one month ago, the installation of our hardwood floors was completed. Although the room where the grand piano will go (the Dining Room turned Music Room) was not one of those having flooring installed, it was one of those that was commandeered for storing junk while the floors were installed in the other rooms. It was during this time, with the digital piano on the new wool rug in the Music Room, that I discovered the rug was shedding, severely. So severely in fact, that Mrs. S and I made a decision that we did not want to put the grand piano on that rug. This more or less forced us to paint my study to match that rug (the same color scheme as the Music Room), and that was finally completed three weekends ago.

The view through the doorway from the hallway, into the room and out the window.
After painting, the space looked great but there was one glaring deficiency: my “desk”. We decided there was no sense in putting an old bashed up IKEA table in that room. A proper desk was needed for a proper work space. The table went to the curb. (It was gone in twenty minutes.)

The view from the left corner back toward the work space, drink at the ready.
Unfortunately, the desk that I liked (and that Mrs. S had picked out) which had been on sale was back to its regular price of about double its sale price. I was bemoaning my hesitance over Sunday breakfast and the Sudoku puzzle, when Mrs. S noticed the same desk was back on sale … for $20 less than before. We ordered one online (taking advantage of an additional $10 online coupon) and I went and picked it up that morning. After finishing up the painting, I also painted the backs of the bookcases with the last of the paint (saving another can for touch up and future projects) and installed those. I moved the rug in and started building my desk. Two days later, the desk and hutch were finished and I moved my piano into the room. My Composer’s Study, which is also my practice room (for now), was finished - or so we thought - and I was ready to brag about it on this blog. 

The composer's work space. Drink at the right, piano at the left and hooked to the computer, conveniently located right in the middle.
Along the way and before that entry, we had an issue with the media storage we bought. After staining it a light green to match Mrs. S's study, she decided she didn't like it. Since we had leftover paint, I painted it the same color as my room. We painted the trim two different colors, finally settling on white. That piece was installed in the Composer's Study, which was a more logical location for it anyway. We had to have extra shelves made, but once we did, and once we painted and installed them, and then piled a ton of CD's on them, the first room in the renovation was complete. (That is, if you don’t count the master bedroom, which had actual flooring installed but which did not get any other modifications, other than minor cosmetic and decorating details.)

We have a few CD's in our collection.
I can’t tell you how relieved we are to have one room finished. We continue to throw out books and junk to leave us a little space on the bookshelves to be creative and decorative. We are being pretty relentless about getting rid of marginal stuff. The effect on the house and our living space is noticeable. All the better to prepare for the ultimate goal of installing a grand piano.

And so we inch closer and closer, as we further come to grips with our changing (changed?) values and future desires.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Change of plans, again

Just like my attempted square grand piano renovation, our house renovation that is being undertaken in the interest of providing us a conducive space for placing a baby grand piano and using it to make music is fraught with too many steps in the opposite direction. With the square grand refurb, most of the time the problem lie with the piano itself and not with the restorer (me). With the house renovation, most of the “setbacks” are due to myself and Mrs. S, mostly because as we are pushing ahead with the projects, we are also coming to grips with our aging sensibilities and changes in taste. Of course, sometimes, the house (or the things in it) is the culprit, just as with the piano.
Roosevelt contemplates becoming a "curio", during phase two of "how would this look over there?" furniture move.
The latest problem, the rug we selected for the music room, is a case in point. It’s a nice rug. It wasn't cheap. It’s 100% wool, “hand-tufted” (whatever that means), and is a perfect color scheme for a music room. So much so, we painted the music room (our converted dining room) to match it. Imagine my dismay then when I realized that the rug is shedding uncontrollably, enough so that when I sit down at my digital piano placed at one end of the room, I can notice little tiny black wool hairs accumulating on the keys. That’s fine as far as my six year old, couple-a-hundred digital piano goes. It’s not viable for when I get my grand. We did, however, paint the room to compliment the rug.

The Music Room, essentially finished ... until we decided it wasn't.
What to do?

Well, we've decided to move the rug to my study. That means painting yet another room that we had not planned on painting. It also means we have to find another rug to match the music room paint color (because we sure as hell aren't painting that room again). Fortunately, the rug that was originally our “dining room” rug more or less fits that color scheme, so we can actually get away with putting it back in place. The grand piano will make permanent impressions in it once it is put down, and we were trying to avoid that, but then I thought, Why? What’s the point of having stuff if you can’t enjoy it? And besides, ten or twenty years from now, are we going to even care? (Again, coming to grips with aging sensibilities here.)

The Composer's Study, pre-paint job and furniture re-install.
That means, however, we have to find a nice living room rug. No small task that, as it is no small room. In the meantime, chores continue to get knocked out, but new ones keep piling on. Knocked out: Painting the music room. Added on: Painting the study. Knocked out, painting the study. Added on: painting the small study. Knocked out, painting the small study closet. Added on: moving the book cases. Knocked out: moving the book cases. Added on: moving the CD rack. Knocked out: moving the CD rack. Added on: installing bookcases in the study closet, including removing the closet doors and fascia. Knocked out, removing doors and fascia. Added on: installing bookcases in that closet.

You get the idea.

And, we are tossing so much stuff, our recycling and garbage guys are probably plotting something for us by now. If they saw the quantity of stuff we have lined up for donation, they wouldn't complain about the garbage (especially since most of the donation stuff is books, i.e. heavy).

When my square grand piano renovation went too far south on me, I gave up and turned it into a more than serviceable decorative bar, which I still consider as a success.  

I declare this as the booziest piano in the world.
With all the changes of plans in this current project, although I know I’ll still be left with a house and (probably) a grand piano, just like the square grand project, I don’t know what’s in store for me along the way. We’ll just have to keep pressing on and see where it gets me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why I'm not practicing (or blogging) much

Because our house has been turned upside down to install hardwood floors in the last four rooms covered in crappy carpet.

Tyler takes one last look at the carpet.
This is all part of the process to buy a piano, too (believe it or not). After we turned our dining room in a music room, Mrs. S wanted to paint her study. And since we were putting in flooring in the master bedroom, might as well go all the way. Which meant emptying four rooms into two. I could hardly get to my piano, much less play it while all the painting, furniture rearranging, junk dumping, and everything else was going on. (The list of everything we did is too long to even think about, much less write.)

This is about half the wood. And, there wasn't enough to finish the job!
I thought, however, that during the install, I might be able to play the piano a little bit, since I would take off work for two whole days. And, even though I've only ever been around one flooring install (upstairs in our current home), I knew there was no quiet way to install flooring. What I didn't realize is exactly how loud five guys, a power saw, an air compressor, a hammer driven nail gun, a bunch of regular hammers, and nine hundred square feet of hardwood flooring can be. And, how, as the project progresses, the echoes throughout the home build and build as there are less and less soft surfaces to absorb the sound. In short, the installation is downright deafening. Then there are the “contingency” sounds of the install, like the door constantly being opening and closed as they go outside to cut the boards to size. And they had to move that outside, because when they cut a board sideways and caused it to smoke, they set off the smoke alarm. No wonder I can’t practice the piano.

Look, ma! No carpet!
The floors, however, look great. The music room, which looked great for one day after we finished it and moved a bunch of furniture into it, looks like a garage sale gone awry, as it still holds the bulk of three rooms worth of stuff so that the flooring could be installed.

The chaos of the "music room". (The piano bench is just visible at the left.)
This weekend, we have slowly begun to reclaim our house. The guest bedroom has been cleaned and dusted, including the bed linens. Some books have been put back on various shelves. Furniture was rearranged in the living room. Clothes have mostly been put back in the closets.

Mrs. S's study, newly painted, oldly carpeted
I still have a couple of pictures to put up and out of the way, and a deer head as well.We need to buy some more area rugs to absorb some of the sound. And although it isn't much of a space, there is a path leading to my piano, so I might play some today if Mrs. S isn't making too much noise moving stuff around.

Mrs. S's study, flooring and rug in place, desk about to be.
And that's why I'm not practicing (or blogging) much.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Now comes the boring part

This is a brief story of what happens when you skip establishing the proper foundation right at the beginning.

Having learned to play the organ when I was young, I never had any formal piano instruction until I began taking lessons six years ago. At the time, because I was an adult, and not very savvy about these things, I basically told my instructor, I don’t care how I play, I just want to sound good. Recognizing that he was half my age and he had to do what I said if he wanted me to pay him, he diligently taught me what I thought I wanted to learn. If I asked about technique and skill improvement, he helped me, but he never force fed me what I didn't want to eat. Not so my new instructor.

He said, before I really said much of anything about why I wanted to take lessons this time around, “Really, in order to play better, you have to improve your technique.” I knew what this meant, but demurely asked a one word question: “Scales?”

“Scales,” came the one word answer.

So, I’m playing scales. In the interest of getting the fingering down and not stultifying my brain too much right at the start, I’m doing contrary motion two-handed scales. That way, the same fingers are always doing the same thing at the same time, hopefully programming my muscles to hit the correct keys at the correct time. It’s not refreshing, but it is somewhat invigorating to be tackling these rote sort of tasks at long last. So this week’s project is contrary and parallel scales in C, G, D, A, and E. I’ll probably go ahead and push on to at least B so that by next week, I’ll be halfway finished. Honestly, I don’t know if I can get there by next Tuesday, but we’ll see.

Kids, learn your scales now and don’t cry. You’ll thank me later.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sprucing up for a piano purchase

With the imminent purchase of a baby grand piano, we've been trying to figure out where to put all the furniture that is going to be displaced by it. As we've done so, we've made the realization that our house needs major overhauling in the process. The other realization that Mrs. S and I have both made is that our values have changed and as far as furniture and knickknacks go, we have a lot of stuff that we were once attached to which now we don’t care about so much. Along with everything else, we are noticing how neglected our house is and how much stuff needs attention. Rather than torture ourselves, we've decided to spend the money and get fixed what needs fixing. Here’s where we are.

Our big plan is to get rid of all the carpeting in the house. We are going to do that by replacing the worn, torn, cat-puked and pissed on carpeting in the last four carpeted rooms we have with hardwood in all four rooms. We’ll therefore have to buy some rugs to put down on the floors so we don’t end up living in a damn echo chamber and also to give the rooms a little warmer feeling. (We have in fact already purchased one hand-woven wool rug and a pad for under the piano.) The cost for having the flooring done will be substantial, but not unmanageable, and it will leave us with much more livable conditions. It’s a big first step that takes a long time to start, but we have already received two quotes, so we’re getting close.

I replaced two non-working blinds in my study with off-the-shelf faux woods blinds from Lowes. The room looks 100% better. We also ordered custom made blinds for the future music room. That will replace two broken blinds and displace one working blind that we will move to Mrs. S’s study, where we will dispose of the one that is broken in her room. Nice.

Tyler meditating behind the sun room curtains.
We looked around our sun room yesterday and were thinking about the furniture when we suddenly just decided to throw it out. I hauled a glider, three chairs, and all the necessary cushions, plus one for a chaise (long gone) to the curb. Within five minutes, we had somebody packing them into their Pontiac Vibe. After the furniture was gone, Mrs. S took the vacuum to the sun room and we moved our new cat condo into it, and wallowed in the extra space that we got from doing that.

Roosevelt posing on the cat condo.
Our kitchen sink backed up around the disposal and leaked water all over the rugs we had set there, so we took those out to dry them and are looking to replace them.

We gave away our fish tank, along with the fish and everything that goes with it, to a guy where I work. He even agreed to take the extra one we have up in our attic. Less time feeding fish and cleaning the tank, more time playing the piano.

Stuff for donation: two pieces of exercise gear, a printer, a scanner, some T-shirts, my Nintendo Wii, bunch of Mrs. S’s clothes. Like that.

I’m also going to throw out my old computer.

I threw out eight cans of old paint. I have about eight more that I need to get rid of. I need to clean out the garage in general while I’m at it, especially where the mice got into the birdseed. What a mess.

And, I start back to piano lessons on Tuesday with a different instructor. We’ll see how that goes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A piano search update

Although I haven’t written about it in while, the piano search has actually been going quite well. I've started to find more pianos that are priced better and that are in decent shape, although I haven’t quite found the exact thing I’m looking for. I looked at a beautiful used C7. It was played by a woman who passed away and her husband is trying to sell it. It is actually only 30 minutes from our house, so we went to see it shortly after I found it. It’s in beautiful shape on the outside, with hardly a scratch or mark on it, with the exception of inside the fall board, which was badly scratched from the woman’s nails. The only other cosmetic defect was the sostenuto pedal was a different shade of brass from the other two pedals. I wasn't sure if that was a question of usage or something else, and I also wasn't sure if it was something that could be corrected. That made it just like the fall board in that respect, as I’m not sure that could be buffed or polished back to normalcy. I checked the tuning on the piano with my Korg electronic tuner and found the piano was perfectly in tune. Perfectly. In fact, it was more in tune than any of the other pianos I have looked at so far. There were two things that were amazing about this. One was that the piano had not been professionally tuned in three years, and the other was that the piano was thirty five years old. 
A 35-year old C7, nice as can be. Could still be mine, as far as I know.
In all honesty, at the price the guy was asking and given the overall condition of the piano, if it had been only 20 years old, I would already own the sucker. So, age is the first problem. The second problem is size. At 7’4”, it will have to be placed in our living room, which means our house will basically be taken over by that piano. Mrs. S says she wouldn't mind, but she hasn't heard me play Piano Exercises for Dummies for an hour and a half on a booming piano in the middle of our living room yet. I think by the second of third week of that, she might change her opinion.
The GC1 in a sea of pianos. 5 year warranty, 100% trade up value, no fussing with piano movers...yep, it's looking quite attractive...
For comparison sake, we looked at some new and near new pianos at the local shop, our second visit there (almost a year to the day after the first, too, I might add). There was a very young, very clean divorce sale C1 for sale, but it was a little pricey and not quite what I was hoping for. If that one had been a C3, I might already own it, but I think it was overpriced and unexciting for a C1. I did like an Indonesian built Yamaha that I looked at, until I found out it was Indonesian. Then I played a Japan built GC1 that I quite liked. We would have the option to trade up at full purchase price if I got that one and at 5’3”, it would be much more easily accommodated in our house and furniture layout plans. We are leaning in the direction of buying that piano, once we get our master bedroom arranged and our dining room painted and arranged for turning into a music room. We also need to buy a rug to put under the piano, which will also affect our painting scheme. Lots of considerations, but good that we are getting some direction if not entirely getting closer to an actual purchase.

I've also been fine tuning (get it?) my practice routine for the arrival of the piano, so that I might actually get good enough to play the damn thing when it gets here. I’ll write about that soon.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Edgar Meyer Redux

About a year and a half ago, Mrs. S and I had the privilege to see and hear Edgar Meyer as he performed his third concerto, a piece he was commissioned to write for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. At that time, I bemoaned the fact that his talent as both a musician and a composer was sorely under appreciated by the Alabama patronage. So when we decided to go see Mr. Meyer again in tandem with Joshua Bell in Nashville, I was, maybe not worried, but I was skeptical and doubtful of what kind of reception he would get. Fortunately, Messrs. Bell and Meyer’s performance was a bit more dynamic than Mr. Meyer’s solo work on his concerto, the orchestra was complete and well-rehearsed, and the piece itself was exciting, enthralling, and altogether amazing.
Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell, hard at "work"
Of course, the dynamics of a piece written for solo violin and double bass are what make it so amazing. I mean, as somebody who has arranged a piece for a 17-piece jazz band, I understand a little better than most the difficulty of making dissonant, dissimilar instruments sound good when playing together. I can only imagine, however, the difficulty of getting the highest and lowest instruments of the same family to blend as well as Mr. Meyer and Mr. Bell made them do. Mr. Meyer also managed to hit a bunch of notes right at the low end of the bass neck, much higher sounding than you would ever think you could get out of a bass. It was a fantastic performance of a highly original and interesting piece.

Hard to miss a big guy in suspenders and bow tie, but most people did
They did not announce any autograph session with Bell and Meyer, so Mrs. S and I went about our normal intermission routine of stretching our legs to and from the restrooms. While I was waiting for Mrs. S, I noticed a guy in suspenders who looked suspiciously like Edgar Meyer run past the top of the stairs with a bottle of water and up the stairs into the foyer. I followed him and found that it was indeed Mr. Meyer and Mr. Bell was already seated with him at a table with a long line of autograph seekers already queued. I went downstairs and retrieved Mrs. S and we went to join the autograph seekers. We succeeded in getting a few good autographs and a few mediocre snapshots (what you see around here).

Mrs. S adds to her pile of Joshua Bell photos. (You could tell he does this a lot more than Edgar does.)
The performance after Meyer and Bell was some long Mahler symphony that was not completely depressing. The first violinist had to finish the performance with just three strings, as he broke the E-string just before the start of the final flourish. After the clapping and “bravos” I caught his eye and I said, “Next time, maybe you should just start with three.” He laughed a little bit and said, “Yeah, maybe it is just in the way.” After that we went back to the foyer to mingle with some of the orchestra members. I talked to the first viola about his ear plug. (I’m interested in things that not everybody notices or cares about.)

And, one of three CD's we now have with both their signatures.
Not sure why I didn't write about this concert earlier, as it was the start of our bourbon country mini-vacation (May 31), but like my blog, better late than never.

Coming soon: The piano search update.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jean-Yves plays jazz, he just “Don’t think much about it!”

So last week, I wrote about Yakov Kasman, a pianist who I heard play for the Huntsville Chamber Music Guild and who, at his educational event, forthrightly told me that he doesn't play jazz. This week Mrs. S and I took a drive through rainy 40-degree weather to visit Nashville, enjoy a scrumptious dinner at Merchants Restaurant and see another classical pianist perform with the symphony orchestra, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. He performed a modern classic called Piano Concerto No. 3 “The Mysteries of Light” by James MacMillan.
This is what Merchants looks like if you eat as early as we do.
Let me be succinct and clear about what I heard. This is supposed to be some kind of theologically inspired piece about “mysteries”, but what I heard was a fantastically abstract and intricate piece that simply blew me away. There was one “movement” where Thibaudet had to play two completely different lines, in what sounded like completely different meter, that overlapped and threaded their way around each other, and I swear to God, my brain was fried trying to make sense of it. I just don’t see how you can get two hands to play such completely different lines using one brain. In fact, I would say those would have been immensely challenging  lines for two pianists to play accurately. I just never heard anything like it.

This is what Merchants looks like if you drink as much as I do.
Thibaudet, was a true master, but the orchestra was also in top form. A lot of the piece revolves around a certain amount of confusion and cacophony in the sound. There are lots of bells and chimes and while they seem to be echoing the lines coming from the piano, they didn't always match, which was obviously part of the design. Thibaudet was playing a Steinway (very cool when it rose out of the stage), and compared to the Yamaha CF6 we heard DaniloPerez play with Wayne Shorter three weeks ago, it had a duller, more uniform high-end, which I felt was exactly suited to this bit of music. In fact, I’ll go so far to say that the resonant low end, the deep, commanding middle register, and the tinkly, baby-spoon clang of the high-end on the Steinway particularly lent itself to the piece. I think the CF6’s clarity and icicle like sharpness would have broken up the MacMillan piece too much.
This is what Merchants looks like if you think too much about photo captions.
At intermission, we got some CD’s signed and spent a few minutes getting photos and chatting up Jean-Yves, who was immensely personable, smiling, and pleasant. After taking pictures with me across the counter, when Mrs. S asked for one more, he brought her around the counter with him. Just a real nice guy, class act, and superb pianist.
I can't even make my hands move separately when I'm not playing...
I was going to ask him if he plays jazz, but I’m glad I didn't  Turns out he has two “jazz” recordings out, so we went ahead and Amazoned (online purchased) them. I did ask him how he got his hands to play those two contiguous yet conflicting lines so nicely, concluding with, “I don’t see how anyone can do it.” He said simply, “I don’t think much about it.” There was a definite glimmer in his eye. Probably a tear from thinking about how many hours he sat on a piano bench to learn those lines. I don’t know. It scares me, so I don’t think much about it either.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet and me.
The question I’m asking myself is, if it is possible that I was more impressed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet because he does play jazz, keeping in mind that I didn’t know he played jazz when I first heard him last night? The answer is, I think, almost certainly. Maybe it’s jazz, maybe it’s something else, but there's a different quality and dimension to Thibaudet's playing. Regardless, I promise you: You’ll never hear that MacMillan piece performed any better anywhere else, than it was last night with the Nashville Symphony and Jean-Yves Thibuadet.
Dude sure gets a lot closer to the ladies, no?
Yakov don’t play jazz. Jean-Yves don’t think much about it.

I do (play jazz), and, I do (think much about it), but maybe I will (play jazz) and I won’t (think much about it) from now on. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Yakov “Don’t play jazz!”

As a sort of concession to Mrs. S and because I had some other chores that required my presence at home, I decided to take the day off last Friday and see if I couldn't get some stuff done, and then end the day at a chamber music concert featuring the pianist Yakov Kasman. We saw Kasman with the Huntsville Symphony some years back and got a CD signed by him, and since Mrs. S spent the whole year going to chamber music concerts by herself, except when it was Joshua Bell, I agreed to accompany her. I had been fence sitting, but then we learned that Kasman was going to have an “educational event”, and after the valuable master class we had with Gary Burton, I decided that was worth making Kasman’s lecture and concert part of my free day.

At the educational event, Yakov talked about how he developed his affinity for Alabama and ended up artist in residence at UAB. He didn't talk much about pianos or technique or anything like that, instead dragging his daughter on stage to play some of the four-handed pieces that were going to be featured at that night’s concert. It was a bit of a letdown.

Yakov's signature on our Moussorgsky CD. Or did Mrs. S drop the Sharpie on it? I'm not sure.
Finally, after the music history lesson, he agreed to take questions. It was a lot of the usual: how much do you practice (“a lot”), how many pianos do you have (“three”), and (from Mrs. S) what kind of pianos do you have (“a Steinway, a Yamaha, and a Kawai”), blah, blah, blah. Since his daughter had mentioned that he starts playing as soon as he wakes up and doesn't stop practicing until he goes to bed, I thought I had a question that was intelligent and the most probing of the bunch: Do you play just classical music or do you play other things? Turned out to be not so probing: “Just classic.” He seemed to suggest that was a stupid thing to ask. His tone and facial expression were all “OF COURSE a classical pianist only plays classical music, nincompoop!” Since I had the floor and his attention, I pushed ahead, but I made the fatal mistake of leading the interrogation by suggesting what he could play. I asked: “You don’t play jazz or something to break it up?” He smiled a plastic smile like a politician talking about a master’s degree from the Cayman Islands or the mysterious disappearance of his last two female interns, and then Professor Kasman crisply pronounced, “No, I don’t play...jazz!”

The word "jazz" rang out in hissing, sardonic tones. You could substitute just about any word for jazz and it couldn't have sounded more incredulous: jazz, hip-hop, badminton, trash can lids, marimbas, Parcheesi,  Texas hold'em, no, NO, I don't play those!!!!

I could comment here about not being able to grow musically or a missing dimension to one’s playing by stifling oneself in one genre of music, but what do I know? Kasman won the silver medal at a Van Cliburn competition, and I’m struggling with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in a broken intervallic mode. He performed in front of a thousand people on Friday night, as did his17-year old daughter and his 12 (10? 8?) -year old daughter. I'm lucky if Mrs. S pauses for twenty seconds as she wanders through the dining room while I'm pounding on my forlorn Yamaha digital.

No. Yakov don’t play jazz.

I do. And that's good enough for me. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My Miles Davis “bucket list” gets Shorter, literally

I've kind of developed this fascination with Miles Davis and a while back, I set my mind to trying to see as many of the living and performing musicians who played with Miles Davis as humanly possible. So many of the greats died so young and so long ago ( I won’t even try to list them). That makes the ones that are still around that much more “valuable” to the current jazz lexicon.

The set up
Certainly, meeting and greeting Herbie Hancock was one of the highlights, and seeing Sonny Rollins fairly limp around on stage while honking his sax brings home the point of how little time is left to see these stars while they are still performing. McCoy Tyner was another one who could barely get on stage, but once he did, performed wonderfully. Chick Corea, on the other hand, still has plenty of energy and musicality left in him, which leads to diverse shows ranging from vibraphone and string accompaniment, to a duet with a banjo. Some other “Miles’ musicians” jazzing around that I have yet to see: Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and John Scofield, among others.
Wayne Shorter's axes in front of the CF6. Check out the harp's reflection in the lid. Wow, I'll take it!
The most recent I’m now able to check off the list is Wayne Shorter, who performed some new pieces (I think) from his latest album with a killer quartet consisting of Danilo Perez on piano, Joe Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. The quartet was really together but the star of the show, for both Mrs. S and I was Perez, who was playing an awesome Yamaha CF6. I've never heard a brighter, more dynamic piano than that one, and at intermission, I asked the stage manager (or whoever he was, the guy moving Wayne Shorter’s stuff around) what it was, and he kept turning his head so I couldn't hear him, but I did hear him when he said they couldn't get a CFX. That's why I assume the piano was a CF6, the next model down. Whatever. If I ever get a spare $100K, I’ll probably pick one up.

This is the guy who almost told me what kind of piano Danilo was playing
After intermission, the orchestra came on and joined the quartet to play some Shorter arrangements of tunes he wrote for quartet and orchestra, and Esperanza Spalding also came out to sing Gaia and played bass and sang on Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair. I enjoyed the concert fairly well, despite the fact that I would have preferred to hear some of Shorter’s bop and post-bop songs in a more intimate style. I was fairly impressed by Esperanza, too, whose voice has clarity and a soft vibrato that I favor over the more lavish voices of other jazz singers of late. (Carmen McRae comes to mind.)

Ready for the show...
Really the only disappointing thing was the rude Nashville audience. I’ve really been noticing of late that people just don’t appreciate the performing arts the way they should. After about the second song of the second half, there became a steady stream of people leaving the hall. When Esperanza came on, despite her presence making everything a lot more interesting, more and more people got up and walked out. The ones who I wished would walk out, like the couple in front of us (husband drunk and sleepy, wife just sleepy, and the two of them fighting over a bottle of water – don’t ask), kept nodding off and snipping at each other for doing so. They'd've done everyone a favor if they had left.

Still, Wayne Shorter is probably the most prolific living jazz composer, and with the exception of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (maybe), possibly the foremost jazz composer of all time. The chance to see him live and in concert was truly worth the effort and expense. If I ever get a chance to see him in quartet format again, I will definitely do that.

Didn't even know there was a French single malt, until I drank this one. Sweet! 
Dinner by the way was at Etch, right by the symphony hall. Despite a brief allergic reaction to the Japanese short ribs (something in the oil, maybe?), Mrs. S and I still enjoyed a lovely meal, topped by a glass of single malt whiskey from France. Did that beat all? Yes it did. Nashville, we love you. Now please move 50 miles closer so we don’t have to.

And no night would be complete without some eerie coincidence: The same couple that sat one table over from us at the restaurant sat one table over from us at the concert, too. Hundreds of restaurants in the city, dozens of tables at the restaurant, dozens of tables and hundreds of seats at the concert hall, and they we are. Right next to each other at the same time at two completely separate events. I tell you, the Universe aligns for me, sometimes for a reason, sometimes for none, but at times, it's really weird being me.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why you shouldn't suck in your musical performance: the audience matters

Recently, one of my Facebook friends, who also happens to be a childhood schoolmate and accomplished musician, commented on Facebook lamenting how hard it was for him to find a band to join. This came hard on the heels of him having to give up forming his own band, due to what I’ll call “lack of interest in being dedicated” from the musicians he recruited. The gist of Nooj’s comment was, making music or anything with artistic value requires a certain level of commitment, and it’s hard to find people who want to make that commitment. Then a mutual Facebook friend, Pat, who is an accomplished musician himself and also a childhood schoolmate of Nooj and I, chimed in against musicians who dismiss bad performances in favor of “just having fun”. Pat and Nooj’s argument is, on the face of it, quite simple: There’s nothing fun about sucking and the value of music (the TRUE value) lies in the commitment that leads to a good performance. (And I’ll go so far as to say, the definition of a good performance is, a performance the audience appreciates.)

A rendering of the St. Mel's church, where Nooj, Pat, and I spent many hours while growing up.
I couldn't agree more, and I wanted to add my two cents, but Facebook isn’t my favorite forum in the whole world for making cohesive arguments. So I dragged the topic here, to my blog. Here’s what I've found in my (extremely limited) jazz performance experience. (Keep in mind, this is all from playing in big bands and ensembles at a local university, where 90% of every band I was in was about half my age. It’s an important aspect of the argument I’m about to make.)

I hate making mistakes in a performance. Hate them. That’s why musicians practice: to avoid mistakes. The jazz idiom, however, is all about creating something on the spot. It’s not going to be right 100% of the time. It’s not supposed to be. Miles Davis said, “There are no wrong notes.” In fact, there are plenty of wrong notes. It’s easy enough to send your audience home by playing wrong notes. But in jazz, you shouldn't be surprised if after sending one audience home, another audience stumbles in to hear you play. That’s one thing.

The other is, as an older musician with more worldly experience but often less musical experience and talent than my younger peers in the band, I bring a unique perspective to my performance. I don’t get embarrassed if I make a mistake. I’m not happy about it, but I just keep playing. Most of the audience doesn't notice anyway. Younger musicians sometimes tend to try too hard. Mistakes fluster them, and I've actually seen bad performances stop good musicians entirely, “forcing” them to quit and blaming their study workload as they put down their instrument. I tried to impart to these musicians that we are up there, in front of people, doing something that the majority can’t do, and we ought to enjoy the experience, regardless of the type of performance we put out on any given day. Ultimately, the audience is what makes the musical experience what it is. There is nothing like performing in front of living, breathing people. And in an age when you can download videos and music at a moment’s notice on a whim, the live experience becomes ever more valuable and important. My friend Pat asked, “What’s fun about sucking?” Well, of course the answer is, “Nothing much.” My problem is, I’m just not very good. Nobody’s ever going to pay significant money to hear me play anything, anywhere. Just the same, I’m committed to making music. I know I suck, but, I try to always have fun, even when I’m by myself. (Maybe that’s why I don’t get any better.) Do I enjoy good performances better than bad ones? You bet I do. But I recognize that not every performance is going to be my best, but I can still (sorry Pat) have fun. I have to, because like I said, I pretty much suck all the time.

So basically, what I’m trying to say is, commitment is necessary, talent and ability, maybe not so much. What’s probably the most frustrating is somebody with talent and ability who doesn't make the most of it, especially for middle of the road musicians like me who are counting on them to cover for me a little, and especially when the talented musician is 19 years old and doesn't understand or appreciate what he’s missing if he or she gives up music for the wrong reason. If you are committed to making the musical experience of you, your band, and the audience the best it can be, bad notes are forgivable and you can mistakes all day long. I’m still going to ask you why you didn't practice a little longer the week before the gig, but we’ll all be better off for the experience than if we’d passed on it altogether.

And if Pat and Nooj ever want to play some jazz (Pat is punk/grunge, Nooj is rock) with me, I’ll hold up my end if they just don’t ask too much. I know we’d have fun, no matter what.

Yep. No way that was going to be a Facebook comment.