Saturday, March 30, 2013

Slight change of pace for jazz and piano fans

This is the kind of thing that happens to me when I’m not getting run over by unusual episodes of serendipity or attending awesome jazz concerts:  people send me music to review. A marketer in New York happened to read one of my Amazon reviews (yes, some people actually do read my reviews) about pianist Brad Mehldau, and he asked me to review a new recording by an artist he represents. It’s called “A Single Noon” by composer and pianist Gregg Kallor (rhymes with ‘valor’), and it’s due to be released on April 30. I’m always up for a new listening experience, so I was glad to accept the gratis CD in exchange for a review.
Looks like Gregg could spare a piano. Maybe if I ask nice...
Let me start by saying that, I assumed it would be a jazz work (especially with one of my favorite jazz pianists, Fred Hersch, assisting in the producer’s chair on this recording), but Mr. Kallor’s music (the recording is all original compositions in a suite format) tends more toward the classical side. The song titles are evocative of themes that you might expect could be either classical or jazz, like “Broken Sentences” and “Espresso Nirvana”, but Kallor takes the proposed themes a lot farther and deeper than the typical listener probably expects. They end up being far more dramatic and classical sounding, with movements and themes being presented within the songs themselves, but also propping up the “Homage to New York” theme of the entire work. I found some of the songs, “Straphanger’s Lurch” and “Giants” for example, are like mini-concerts themselves, with multiple movements, intertwining themes, tension building and resolution, all in neat, small packages.

As for the piano side, I honestly felt Mr. Kallor is about as technically brilliant as any modern pianist I've heard lately. While he’s nowhere near as bluesy as Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea, he does exhibit some of the fluid “moodiness” of Jarrett’s earlier solo work. Not surprisingly, the overall sound and temperament of the Kallor’s playing was very similar to Mehldau’s trio work (although I don’t think it compares well to his more recent work, even if it is less jazzy). Still, Kallor does easily demonstrate the same control of dynamics and timing that Mehldau is becoming more and more known for. Many of the songs as played by Kallor also have variations in tonality that require a certain sensibility and attention to overall effect that contemporary pianists do not always actively foster these days, but Kallor transitions easily from speedy-soft, to slow-soft, to slow-loud, to speedy loud, or whatever is required. I found his phrasing during these transitions to be slightly on the exotic side, not unlike Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Cuban influenced solo work. The sound of the work is crisp and clear, never muddied or vague, no doubt one of the big advantages of having a fellow pianist as producer.

A Single Noon is an interesting piece of music. Since I skew to jazz pretty much all the time, I must confess this classic-leaning recording wasn't exactly to my taste, but Mrs. S drags me to just enough classical concerts (usually with a “But there’s a piano” interjected in the argument) that I could appreciate and enjoy what I was listening to. The songs are original and interesting, and Kallor’s playing is stunning at times and always proficient, so when it comes time to post my review on Amazon, I’ll have no problem giving it four stars. Excellent stuff. I was definitely privileged to receive an advance copy, so thank you Andrew and Gregg wherever you are!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why I don't believe in coincidence

Like Neo said in The Matrix

“This can’t be just coincidence. It can’t be.”

So last night, I’m taking a break from booze and reading myself to sleep with The Oxford Companion to Jazz, an 850 page book I’m a little more than halfway through. The book is a collection of essays by jazz historians, educators, and writers, meant to provide an incisive overview of jazz, from its late 19th century beginning to when the book was compiled (2000). Last night, I made it to a chapter called “Jazz Singing Since the 1940’s”, written by Wall Street Journal contributor, Will Friedwald.

Now keep in mind, I could have been on any of eighty or so chapters, but I was on Friedwald’s last night. He talks about the influence of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Mel Torme, of course, but he also mentioned some other singers I’d vaguely, if ever, heard of. On page 476 he mentions (along with a number of other singers) Dick Haymes, and on page 477, Jimmie Lunceford (again, among others). I repeat, I’m vaguely aware of these names, but learning more about them while reading this book.

To bed and a restless night’s sober version of sleep.

The next morning, I’m driving to work. (Wait for it.) A song that I don’t like (yes, there are a few jazz tunes I don’t particularly care for) comes on the usual Sirius XM jazz channel that I listen to, so I go to my back up plan of listening to the 40’s on (channel) 4. There he is: Dick Haymes singing “You Make Me Feel So Young.”


And right after that. I kid you not: Jimmie Lunceford’s “Blues in the Night” (I think, I was a bit discombobulated at this point).

I’m just glad it wasn’t 55 degrees and my car hit 55,555 miles at the same time all that happened. I’d’ve rolled the car in a ditch and died on the spot.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Stars align, again

 I've come to the conclusion that I just can’t have too much Chick Corea in my life. With Mrs. S and I celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary last Friday, we made our way through iffy weather and traffic conditions to Nashville, to fight Eric Clapton’s fans for parking spaces, enjoy a good meal, and hear Bela Fleck and Chick Corea play together for the first time in something like four years. Parking ended up being $25, but we were right in front of the concert hall and outside, so we could make a (relatively) quick and clean getaway. Dinner was up the street at Prime 108 inside the Union Station Hotel. We couldn't get the tasting menu because of time constraints, but we had nice seafood (scallops for her, lobster ravioli for me) with a nice Chilean sauvignon blanc. And from there, to the concert.

Well, at least it not crowded.
We saw Bela Fleck last year with the Alabama Symphony and were sort of wondering what he could do together with Chick Corea. Having seen Chick with Gary Burton just two months ago, we were more than excited to see him again. (The Corea/Burton concert was one of my top three all time.) Turns out that Chick is an inspiration and influence on Bela from many years ago, and they actually did a recording together a couple of years back. Since most of the music was off that recording and I don’t own it, I was unfamiliar with most of the songs.

Two man set up. Of course, you can face a lid-less piano in any direction you want, so our strategy to get  left of center seats so we could see Chick's hands did NOT pay off.
Honestly, Bela is really, really good, and it was fascinating to watch him pull off the notes and riffs, and lead the piano riffs in call and answer fashion. Quite impressive and extremely melodic. What I did notice, however, is that Fleck lacks a bit of jazz sensibility about him. He’s not very bluesy sounding, and the parts that I recognized as solos seemed more taken out of bluegrass than blues. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, it just wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for. As a composer, however, I was really impressed. Fleck’s “Waltse for Abbey” turned out to be a show stealer, and it was no wonder Corea said “Waltse” was one of his favorites. It showed.

Joban Dna Nopia to you!
Still, Chick’s playing made it for me. I loved what he did with their co-written (I think) tune, “Joban Dna Nopia”, and he really jazzed up Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”. They did an older Fleck composition that was clever, called “Bicyclops”. (Chick: “What’s that mean?” Bela: “Same as Joban Dna Nopia.”) They closed with “Children’s Song #6” and “Spectacle”. Children’s song was a curious fantasy of a song, woven over a blues riff, with standard jazz progressions interlaying with rivulets of high note arpeggios and streams of cascading bass notes really booming out of the lid-less 9-foot Steinway. Spectacle was just nifty with the banjo sounding like a piano and the piano sounding like a banjo, and back and forth like that. It’s hard to explain.

Although I really feel it for two days afterward, driving to and from Nashville just for concerts does have its upside. Big name players like Bela and Chick don’t come around very often, so when they come around together, it’s worth making a special effort to see them and to secure those front row seats. Doesn’t make for a bad anniversary celebration, either.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cheap cell phones are the problem, Latin jazz is the solution

In my job, I have to deal with all sorts of people of varying levels of intelligence and capabilities. Now, don’t stop reading yet. I’m not going off on a rant about that. What I am going to rant about is the fact that some of those people are not only incapable, but they are inconsiderate, and, they don’t have the tools to do their job effectively. I’m talking about cheap ass cell phones and crappy “back of the cave” speaker phones.

Here’s how I look at it: If you've called me up, you obviously want to talk to me. You obviously have some important idea to communicate and relay to me. You should, therefore, want to convey it in the most thorough, most accurate, and best way possible. You should not, therefore, call me with a device that breaks up as easily as a North Korean rocket booster. Get your fat ass up out of whatever the hell chair you are sitting in, go to where there is a phone connected with an actual wire to an actual wall with a physical connection to the world. Then, and only then, call me.

If this is the phone you are using, NEVER, ever, for any reason, call me.
I’m prompted into this rant by one guy I've been dealing a lot with lately whose phone breaks up at the slightest provocation. If a car pulls up in our parking lot, or a bird flies by, or somebody opens their desk drawer, or a moth lands on the window, his cell phone signal breaks up. It’s absolutely infuriating. Not long ago, I had a two minute conversation with him that took, I swear, seven and a half minutes. The reason it didn't last longer than that is because I fought back. I got tired of having to say, “What?” or “I didn't catch that” or, “You’re breaking up”, so I started talking back to him imitating the exact pattern of words and spaces I was hearing. He soon got tired of me “breaking up” and he hung up and didn't call back for three days. A portion of that conversation went something like this:

Him: Did you   regulations because seven before last time?
Me: You’re  couldn't  if you  weren't  capacity.

Then I realized, it’s rhythmic. And then I realized, it’s damn near a straight clave, or at other times a bossa, or samba, or any of a number of other Latin rhythms. So now, when I have to deal with idiots, I try to anticipate what I’m going to have to say or explain, then I break it into Latin music patterns. Here’s clave:

Normal: Jim, I really like working with you, but your cell phone leaves something to be desired and I get too frustrated talking to you, so I’m going to hang up now.
Clave style: Jim I like with but your cell phone something be and I get too talking so I’m going to up now.
Jim hears: Jim I guh, like guh with guh but your cell phone guh something guh be guh and I get too guh talking guh so I’m going to guh up now.

When he says “What?”, I give him the other part: Really working you leaves to desired frustrated to you hang. (with appropriate pauses to get the proper rhythm).

Like I said, it’s been three days since I tried this out. Jim still hasn't called back. (He did send me one email, which I’m ignoring, and since he’s the type to ask, “Did you get my email?” , when he asks I will simply say, “No.”) I’m already rehearsing my bossa stutter for his next phone call.

Me, get angry and fed up? No, not as long as I have jazz.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why I still don’t own an acoustic piano, Part five

I have a robot that does the vacuuming for me and Mrs. S. His name is Vinnie. (He does the “dirty work”.) He’s manufactured by iRobot Corporation. He’s programmable. He rarely gets stuck, always covers every nook and cranny, and he works every day, if we want him to, without complaining. We bought Vinnie not because we are lazy. We bought Vinnie because we hate to vacuum.

One of Vinnie's brothers. He comes from a very large family.
Vacuuming is one of the few activities that I hate more than looking for a piano.

Looking for an acoustic piano is hard. You have to wade through the lies and half-truths of the people who are selling used pianos. You have to cast your net very wide just to find a piano you are interested in. You have to deal with Craigslist not forwarding your emails even though there’s no other contact information in the ad. If you do manage to actually talk to a piano owner, they don’t understand what is meant by “buyer’s market”. Sellers also expect you to fix their piano after you buy it. And pianos are expensive.

Before Vinnie, we used to wait to vacuum until the house was basically covered in cat hair. One more day of not vacuuming meant one more day you didn't have to vacuum before you died. The longer you stretched, the less vacuuming you had to do. But eventually, you couldn't stretch anymore and you got out the Dyson and you cleaned house.

Without an acoustic piano, I play a digital piano, a piano that I bought for $700 five years ago because I wasn't sure I wanted to play the piano and I didn't want to spend a lot of money for something I might be selling on Craigslist in a few months. Now, five years later, I’m stretching. I’m trying not to notice that I can’t play quick repeated notes on tunes like “Moment’s Notice” or “Falling in Love with Love”. I try to ignore the clunkity-clunk-clunk-clatter of the keys underneath the plastic housing drowning out the music when I play Gymnopedie 1ere. Then I realize the house is covered in cat hair, and  I can’t stretch anymore, and I go back to looking for an acoustic piano.

But it’s hard, and that’s why I still don’t own an acoustic piano. (End part five)