Saturday, February 15, 2014

Take your brain back thirty years

Here’s an updated review of a book I skimmed through a few years back and have since revisited and read cover-to-cover in the last month.

Although The 101 Best Jazz Albums is getting quite long in tooth, I still found it to be one of the most useful and interesting looks at jazz records, possibly second only to Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. (Or maybe third after Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of jazz, although that, too, is getting quite dated and as an "encyclopedia", is not a "sit down and read" type of book.) Still, as a study of jazz and jazz recordings, 101 Best has a lot of value and impact, in part because it was written so long ago, before CD’s and way before MP3’s, iTunes, and the digital music era. So, when Mr. Lyons says something like, “This was a great recording that, sadly, (some record company) has decided to take out of its catalog”, the reader can discount such comments and although one maybe can’t assume it’s available somewhere, you can still fire up Google and maybe track down a vinyl, or even digital, copy. So, if you’re using this book as a buying guide, it becomes a little tricky, but if you’re using this just to learn about the history of jazz through records, this book is unparalleled.

The author breaks the book down chronologically, but as most historians and jazz fans will know, dividing up jazz chronologically leads to easy divisions of the kind of jazz being talked about. So, in Mr. Lyons’s telling you end up with (roughly) Pre-1920: Ragtime, Dixieland; 1920’s: swing; 1930’s: big band, dance; 1940’s: swing to be-bop; 1950’s: bop and post-bop; 1960’s: modal; 1970’s: fusion; later than that: free jazz. Again, roughly. In addition to the 101 albums cited in the book, Mr. Lyons makes mention of many other albums that were recorded, either as precursors to the ones mentioned in the text, or as follow ups. He is careful, also, to provide some reflection and analysis on the impact the recordings had on the artists’ careers and their overall outlook on jazz. There are black and white graphics of the albums that are called out, and there’s a section of black and white photos of some of the more famous musicians during their more “impactful” sessions. (Serious jazz fans will have seen most of these photos before.) Sometimes the author allows himself to get a little subjective, and there were a few (just a few) times where he made what I thought were rather personal statements and comments that really had no place in discussion of the recording or were just plain wrong. But everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and this is Mr. Lyons’ book, so I’m willing to look past that and move on to the next discussion. (Plus it was fun to read what the author thought about, for example, Miles Davis’ hiatus and what sort of music Miles might break into in the twilight of his career – before he died, of course.)

I like this book for how it ties the history of jazz to the recordings that were made over the years, and I like how it weaves together the recordings, players, studios and producers to give an overall tapestry of the business of jazz recordings from its inception to the modern day (in the late 1970’s, mind you). It provides lots of ideas and suggestions for adding to one’s jazz music collection, and for fans of specific genres of jazz, it provides a lot of ideas for introduction of, study of, and listening to genres with which the reader might not be so familiar. For whatever reason you choose to read this book, it’s a clear and open window to some interesting jazz history, so even in its dotage, I give it five stars. (If this were my Amazon review...)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Another broken piano story: Part 2

After the disassembling: The reassembling, the re-disassembling, the repair, and the re-reassembling.

The would-be piano technician, hard at work. Note how the camo pants make my legs blend into the area rug. (Fun side note: Everyone who lives in Alabama is required to have at least one pair of camouflage pants. Just letting you know in case you want to live here one day.)
The worst part about this whole piano repair project was the screws. The would-be piano technician is required to remove 82 screws to get inside the piano: four to remove the stand, six to remove the stand brace, and 72 (!) to remove the top of the piano from the bottom. Because I’m taking lessons, and I like to play the piano, and I don’t really have anything else to do with my evenings, and because my piano actually had functioning keys and sounds without the broken MIDI/sustain pedal board, after removing the broken parts, but before the replacement parts arrived, I reassembled my piano. So when the replacement part came, I also got the distinct pleasure (?) of re-disassembling my piano. 82 screws out again.

Not good.
82 screws loose. You can count them if you like.
Thankfully, with three of the four fastening points for the broken board still intact, I figured super glue should be more than enough to reattach the fourth fastening point. It was. Then all I had to do was figure out how the board connects, make sure it was connected, screw it down to the frame, then put back those 82 goddamn screws.

Where the board goes. Note the three holes at the top, the three posts (with silver screws) still good and the one missing post, and most of all, note the mangled white plastic connector on the left side of the board at right. That's going to be the make-or-break of this repair project.
It turns out, that the connector end of the board just inserts into the connector on the mother board, just as you would expect. You just slide down the plastic cover, make sure the wires are straight, and insert the end. It went in smoothly and fit snugly. I then put the broken bit of the plastic connector in and pushed it down so it secured the wires to the contacts. It worked like a charm. At least, it seemed to be everything it needed to be, but I wouldn't know for sure until I plugged it in and tried it out. I put a little electrical tape around the connector, just to hold it a little better.

The DJack board, installed. I hope this works.
Then, back in with the 82 screws.

I plugged in the piano, plugged in the sustain pedal, turned on the piano, stepped on the pedal and hit a C-Major-7 chord with both hands. I lifted my hands and, ... voila! The sustained sound of a full all-white-key jazz chord continued to fill the room. I successfully repaired my digital piano, by myself, without a service manual.


I’m not sure how to test MIDI connectivity, however, as I had only ever gotten to the point of playing my keyboard from the computer and during other operations, I wouldn't know if I was doing something wrong, the cable was doing something wrong, or the replaced board was not connected correctly. (I almost typed “corrected connectly”, which I think aptly indicates my level of trepidation.) Still, if the sustain pedal works – and it does – then that must mean the board is connected correctly. And if the board is connected correctly, there’s no reason why MIDI shouldn't work. And, if MIDI doesn't work, well, at least I've got a usable piano (although I’ll have to get something additional to compose with on my computer).

I’m practically a piano technician, but now, I can actually practice on a fully functional piano, so that’s what I’m off to do.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Another broken piano story

About a week ago, on the day after my normal Tuesday lesson, I was working on some Bach two-part inventions, and it wasn't going well. I could feel myself getting depressed, then frustrated. I decided to switch to some Oscar Peterson etudes, as they were less strenuous and could keep my attention better. For whatever reason, however, I was unable to play them either. Even with the easier pieces, it was like I had never seen them before. To quell my growing frustration but to keep sitting at and practicing the piano, I decided to just work scales and arpeggios, but even such simple exercises proved to be unmanageable. Nothing was going right. I kept taking deep breaths and starting over, but for whatever reason, I couldn't play more than a few notes before my fingers turned to cabbage and wilted haphazardly all over the keyboard.  I thought maybe a break would help, and to expel some energy, without thinking much about it, I just stood up as quickly as I could. Normally, my piano bench would slide backward on my chair mat, but this time, one leg caught in front of the mat, forcing the front of my thighs to hit my piano. Before I even knew exactly what was happening, my piano was toppling over right before my eyes. It crashed down on top of the light and music stand, right into the floor.

Not good.

The inside of a Yamaha P-70 digital piano
I recomposed myself and stood my piano back up. Everything looked okay and the keys still played. There wasn't even any noticeable damage to the light (a floor standing model), or the music stand (poly-carbonate attached to the piano). I looked at the back of the piano and noticed that the sustain pedal was still plugged in but seemed to be hanging loose. I pulled it out of the jack and watched the jack slip down into the piano. The two MIDI connectors right next to it were still connected, but they were loosely hanging too, and I could tell I wasn't going to be able to plug the pedal jack back in. I figured I would have to stabilize the jack from inside the piano, meaning I’d have to open it up, meaning I’d have to separate the outside parts of the piano from the inside parts of the piano, so, I pulled the MIDI plugs. The card and connectors dropped completely out of sight.

Not good.

The next morning, I set about disassembling the piano. Usually, on an electronic device like this, there are a set number of screws that hold the frame to the insides, with the remainder of the screws holding things to the frame. Not on a Yamaha digital piano, though. Every screw is holding the frame against the piano guts. I removed them all and was finally able to open the piano. I immediately spotted the jack board, still connected but floating free. Underneath it, some plastic bits that obviously held it in place were broken. I’d have to come up with a way to stabilize it. I wanted to see if connecting the sustain pedal made it actually work again, but when I moved the jack board, I noticed a corner of it had chipped off. I fished around and found the corner and it had little bits of metal and circuitry on it. It was obvious that the two MIDI connectors and sustain pedal jack, all located so close to each other, had jammed into the jack board when the floor forced them up inside the piano. It was that force that caused the board to shear and crack, separating it from the piano and frame and damaging the circuitry.

Definitely not good.

The results of my piano falling over: a shattered DJack board and a broken mounting post (far left)
So, obviously, that board would have to be replaced. I attempted to remove it and only succeeded in chipping bits of the connector with my needle nose pliers. I pulled on the connector cord itself and extracted it, finally, though I’m still not sure if I extracted it from the connector, the connector solder, or the board itself. (We’ll find out when we connect the replacement part.) Upon further examination, there were lots of little broken pieces, so I took them all out and placed them in a bag for safekeeping. I won’t go into details of ordering the part from Yamaha. Suffice to say, they’re used to dealing with dealers and not random guys who are unafraid of opening their seven year old digital piano because they lived through a square grand piano conversion. I managed to get the part ordered and on the way – with free shipping no less – even with the surly, impatient, “sigh, my life sucks” SOB phone operator.

Not bad.
The replacement part, fresh out of the bubble wrap 

The lingering question is: Can I really fix my piano just by replacing a $77 jack board or will I have to fork over $1K for a decent replacement piano prior to obtaining my grand? We’ll soon find out.