Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Sinatra is a project

A couple of years back, I read a book written by Michael Feinstein called “The Gershwins and Me”. The Wall Street Journal had a review of it and it sounded interesting and so I learned about Feinstein, who I’d never heard of prior to that. Turns out that was a gap in my jazz and music knowledge that I finally filled. Now Mr. Feinstein is traveling the country with his “Sinatra Project”, which is basically a tribute concert to Frank Sinatra to celebrate his one hundredth birthday (December 12). So, to Nashville did Mrs. S and I go, to see Mr. Feinstein in person and enjoy an evening of Frank Sinatra hits.
Feinstein in Primary Colors: Yellow 
Mr. Feinstein is a fascinating performer. He’s very straightforward, almost like a club act, but there’s lot of audience interaction. He asks a lot of trivia questions and he explains a lot about the songs, the song writers, and the approaches that Frank took to some of the songs. For instance, I didn’t know that Frank Sinatra recorded 88 of Sammy Cahn’s songs. I also didn’t know that Sinatra didn’t professionally sing the song, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” because he didn’t think he could do the song justice. He said, he knew somebody who could, though, and told fellow Ratpacker Sammy Davis Jr. to record it. It went on to become his greatest hit. (Mr. Feinstein did a fine version of it as well.)
Feinstein in Primary Colors: Red 
For a few songs, Mr. Feinstein performed on the piano, doing a great boogie-woogie imitation a la Liberace, complete with voices and, shall we say, “Flamboyance”? And the Nashville symphony not only performed with their usual panache and sensibility, but they also broke out the horn and rhythm sections to do their best impression of a 17-piece jazz orchestra. And I’ll tell you what, those horn players can blow. It’s like they’ve got the symphony to pay the bills, but they’re really jazz musicians at heart.
Feinstein in Primary Colors: Blue 
My only complaint is that the Nashville Symphony needs to get their signals straight on whether photography is permitted or not and what sort of devices are acceptable or not. The usher in our (front and center, thank you very much) section said we could take pictures all we wanted, as long as we didn’t shoot video, record sound, or use flash. So of course, Mrs. S went hog wild taking pictures. Then as we’re going back to our seats after intermission, an usher in the upper section stopped her and asked her about her “professional” camera. We basically said, don’t be dumb lady, but between that, and the other usher, and the “Photography permitted while house lights are up” statement on the tickets, it’s all very confusing. And don’t get me started about the idiots with their phone flashing and shooting in the balconies above the stage.
Feinstein in Primary Colors (Variation): Sedensky in White Jack O'Lantern Motif
Still, it was a pleasure to see Mr. Feinstein in concert, to hear some of his fascinating stories, and to hear the immortal music made famous by Frank Sinatra. I’d come fly with Feinstein again, anytime.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Are you inspired?

It’s a simple question, but presented to someone who is aspiring to become something they are not, (jazz musician, sports star, Hollywood actor, etc.) asking if they are inspired is a question that is riddled with thorns of interpretation. Let me try to explain.
The set up: Yamaha C-7X, top removed (looks smaller that way)
Last night Mrs. S and I went down to Birmingham for the first time in well over a year to attend a concert and hear banjo player Bela Fleck perform a duet with pianist Chick Corea. It’s a wonderful combination of consummate performers, who we have seen perform together in Nashville. Besides a number of works that they have performed together, such as Bela’s Waltse for Abby, Mountain, and Children’s Song #6, they stretched out a little bit playing some pieces by French classical composers (Dutilleux), and Italian Baroque composers (Scarlatti). There was also a new Fleck composition that Chick said helped him with his “bluegrass piano chops”. It was all quite captivating, interesting, and revealing.

Toward the end of the performance. Two observations: Jazz musicians are lucky to not have to spend a lot on clothes. And it's hard to focus a camera while taking surreptitious photos from the second row.
A little more than halfway through the last set, I was thinking to myself, well, I guess this is where I’m supposed to make up my mind to work harder, set myself to the task, and draw some motivation, if not inspiration, from the concert in order to up my playing, learn more about jazz and piano playing, and become a better pianist. The thought sat there at the top my spinal cord, sort of looking for a gap to slip through to get to my consciousness, but my consciousness just went, you know, you’re 50-something, Chick’s 70-something, and even if you live that long, you’re never going to play like him, so, just put that thought away and enjoy the music.

Which I did.

After the concert, walking back to the car, Mrs. S and I were chatting and she goes, so, are you inspired. I just said, no, it’s too hard to be inspired knowing that Chick Corea was way beyond my current capabilities at my age, and that if I live to be 100, I’m never going to have anything more than a shadow of his musicality. So, no, I’m not really inspired. Would I like to play better? Sure. Do I realize the only way to play better is to study and practice? Yes. Am I probably going to play the piano two or three times longer today and tomorrow and next week than a typical Saturday, Sunday and work week? Yes, probably.

Here's a shot of the back of a guy's head. Oh, and me shaking Chick Corea's hand. (Did I look that pathetically desperate to touch a star? I guess I did.)
If one of the thorns of interpretation of the word “inspiration” is: doing things differently from before to try to get better than you are, then yes, I guess I am inspired. But my aspiration is not to be like Chick. It’s to be a better version of me.

I printed out a score of the Scarlatti piece they played last night. That’s real inspiration in my book. We’ll see how far it gets me.

At least I got to shake the hand of one of my heroes. And so, we move on.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tony Bennett's Latest

I worked hard on this review, hoping to be the first to post on Amazon. Of course, this morning, there were three other reviews, that were like, "Hey this is a good recording". So I may not be first, but you can judge if I'm best. Here's the review, in its entirety:

Shadows of Ella, hints of Evans, and all the things Tony Bennett is

Last fall, Tony Bennett released a fantastic vocal jazz record together with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lady Gaga said that she loved working with Tony Bennett, loved jazz, and that she planned to record “one jazz record a year, forever”. One year to the day later, Lady Gaga’s next jazz album is nowhere in sight. Instead, we have Tony Bennett, the octogenarian king of jazz, who basically reinvented the concept of the duet with his two duets albums, stretched that work with a pop diva, and now, much in the mold of his inimitable work with Bill Evans many years ago, we find him paired with one of today’s premier jazz pianists, Bill Charlap. And, as Tony has become one of the defining masters of the American songbook, he stays close to home by taking on a number of standards by Jerome Kern. The result is an eminently listenable, fascinating jazz record.
Understated, but classy cover
One big difference between this Bennett-Charlap recording and the Bennett-Evans recordings is that this time, they went ahead and used a full rhythm section on a number of the songs. With Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, the sound has more of a club atmosphere and less of the intimacy of the pure duets with Evans. Another difference is Bill calls in his life partner and fellow jazz pianist Renee Rosnes to do some fabulous piano duet work on four of the tunes. (As a jazz pianist, those tunes really stood out for me.) Throughout, the solos of Charlap tend to be more evenly constructed and hone closer to the original songs, especially so as each song is kept (for the most part) close to or under the classic three minutes twenty seconds time frame. The selection of songs is solid and includes all the “standard” standards: Yesterdays, All the Things You Are, The Song is You, and even I Won’t Dance, which Tony may have done simply because it was still fresh in his repertoire from last year’s Lady Gaga recording.

"Benedetto" is Tony's real name. Yes, this is his sketch. 
Tony sounds great, and the recording is very clean. (It was produced by Tony’s son, Dae Bennett and Bill Charlap, with another son, Danny Bennett, as executive producer.) Charlap is absolutely on top of his game here, carrying each tune along until it’s time to solo, cleverly breaking and shifting the solo while keeping the feel, then throwing it underhand back to Tony so Bennett can knock it out to the finish. It’s a formula that Tony has stuck with for five decades, and I personally am glad that he decided to not try and change it up. The CD booklet includes full liner notes and a nice background essay/exposition by WSJ columnist and jazz writer Will Friedwald. There are plenty of calm photos and a portrait of Jerome Kern to fill out the booklet.

One of the best albums to come out last year.
I don’t know how much longer Tony is going to be with us, but I hope it’s a long time and I hope he keeps singing, because treasures like this five star vocal jazz album are few and far between. Maybe he will do like Ella did with Norman Granz and work through some of the songbooks of some of the other great American composers. And if he keeps Charlap, his trio and Rosnes along for the ride, there will be lots more great music to come.

I’ll also keep my eyes open for that next Lady Gaga record, while I’m monitoring the airwaves.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sharing with other jazz musicians

Recently, after two years of music lessons with a private instructor, two years learning on my own, then two years with a different instructor, I found myself in a practice rut. Although my passion for making and listening to music felt no weaker, I was lacking motivation and drive. I stopped my lessons again and started looking for something to get me back on track. As my readers know, I delved into Practice-opedia, and that was very helpful in giving me new ideas and “tricks” to get back at the piano, but it didn’t actually help me to make any music. It was about then that Jim Robitaille, the author of a book called Sound Origins contacted me to offered to give me a copy of his book. He asked me to review it on Amazon, too, but there were no strings attached. I'm always happy when a fellow musician wants to share music or musings with me, and the timing couldn’t have been better, so of course, I agreed to read his book.
It's not a philosophy book, but it will make you think
Jim Robitaille is a noted musical scholar and accomplished musician. In addition to performing with a plethora of jazz musicians, he’s also a teacher and composer. In this book, however, he does not make any attempt to improve your chops or give you a pep talk. Instead, he covers, in a very personal way, what it means to make music. By that I do not mean he defends its value or tries to convince readers of the worth of the endeavor of making music. Sound Origins is more about thinking of music on a different level and incorporating that into one’s own musicianship. I think the best way of thinking about it is, it’s harnessing the forces and energy in the universe that make music, rather than beating a song out of a Steinway or Les Paul.

Indeed, a good example of this is Mr. Robitaille’s take the cross pollination of art forms. He discusses at some length, and again with many personal examples, how poetry, painting, conversation, even science fiction and random noise, can become driving influences in the creation and composition of music. There are lots of meaty explorations like that in this short book. If anything, I would say one of the weaknesses is that the author makes a brief suggestion and then leaves it at that, without delving much into what the expectations for a given thought activity (or whatever) might be and where it might lead. Part of this may be simply wanting to leave it to the reader’s imagination and motivation, part of it may be not wanting to limit the reader, but I think the author probably had more thoughts to share, and I think those would have made the book more interesting.

The electronic version of the book that I received had several examples of songs with the sheet music in the book. This did a lot to emphasize and illustrate some of the points the author made. This is an easy read, and although it is a short book, I believe any serious musician will take away something of value from this book. Especially if you find yourself where I did, wanting to make music but having “forgotten” how to even be musical, Sound Origins is a great place to start over from. 

I truly commend Mr. Robitaille on his insight and effort to put such difficult subject matter into words. And, I thank him for sharing his book with me and the readers of Late To Jazz.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Another curiously compelling jazz book

For years until his recent retirement, I enjoyed reading about the jazz scene that Nat Hentoff wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. I was not familiar with Nat Shapiro, a record producer with BMI and Columbia, until I came across this book. The two Nats produced this volume of quotes (I hesitate to say “wisdom”) of jazz musicians from back in the day, commenting on just about everything jazz: the music, audiences, venues, other musicians, narcotics, changing tastes, and everything in between. While I wouldn’t call it educational, it is an intriguing look into America’s quintessential art form.
I wonder what Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday thought about the subtitle of this book...
Although this is not any kind of an instruction manual or history book, it still provides a lot of information about jazz music and the people who make it. It does so without any of the conventions of a music history book, so there’s no roots of jazz, discographies, explanations of types of music, or anything like that. It just provides a glimpse of what some of the stars and lesser lights who made their living playing jazz music were thinking at the time they were making it. It’s actually quite fascinating reading. Some of the musicians are more candid than others, so it’s particularly interesting when several people comment about the same person or event. Then you can compare narratives and separate fact from hyperbole. That makes the reading a lot of fun. Ultimately, this book seems to feel fine with saying, jazz musicians are entitled to their opinions, and, here’s some of them. It’s not bad entertainment.

Some might question the value or purpose of this book, but I think it serves well to represent what jazz was once upon a time. It’s easy reading, too, since it is broken up into such loose sections and consists only of quotes from musicians. It’s valuable for getting a feel of what jazz was about, but it also presents aspects of jazz from angles that many people never think to consider. (Especially valuable are the comments by the musicians about other musicians. Fascinating.)

This isn’t my favorite book ever about jazz, but I enjoyed it and I feel like I learned a few things. My next book review, however, will be much different. (Hint: It’s almost a philosophy book, about, yep. Jazz.)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Moving on

I’ve been in a reading frenzy of late, as opposed to a practice frenzy or a write-in-my-blog frenzy (as readers may have noticed). That’s mainly because I’ve been in an incredible, invincible, indecipherable, undefeatable practice rut for the last two months. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the tendinitis in my elbows. Maybe it’s the distraction of yard work. It’s something, but the bottom line is, I just haven’t been practicing the piano like I’m capable of. I felt so sorry for my instructor, after torturing him for two months, I decided to stop lessons for a while. Instead, I picked up a book to hopefully get me out of my practice rut.

I bought Practice-opedia after reading comments by the author in an article in the Wall Street Journal about how to keep kids progressing with their music lessons during the summer. Everything he said made sense, and I thought that a 376 page books of practice strategies and ideas would be the ticket out of the rut. Unfortunately, all it served to do is to make the ocean of practice I’m swimming around in, wider and chopper. It’s hardly a good thing.

Practice makes perfect, making this the perfect book. Maybe.

Of course, some ideas in the book are worth pursuing, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a new perspective. But some of the ideas are just aimed too specifically at children learners who shuffle from lesson to lesson, and I think what I really need is something that helps with the big picture. I need a practice book for a musician, not for someone who might ot might not become a musician.

So, I’m reading, I’m studying, I’m practicing (a little), and I’m trying. I’m moving on, on my own. We’ll see how this goes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Almost finished with another book, so...

I'm getting close to finishing a book about jazz called "Hear me Talkin' to Ya", so I figured I'd better post my review of another jazz book that I finished almost two months ago:

In my early days of learning about the jazz songbook, I was quite clueless about more than a few things. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure when I realized “Nica”, “Pannonica”, and the numerous mentions and variants thereof, referred to one specific person. And of course, I also had no idea why so many musicians dedicated songs to the same woman.

There are better, and many worse, shots that could have been on the cover of this book.
This book was high on my jazz reading list for the longest time, before I connected those dots, and while I expected “Three Wishes” by Pannonica de Koenigswarter, late of the Rothschild family, to answer some of those questions, that’s not really what this book is about. This book is a compilation of Polaroid photos of jazz musicians Pannonica took performing (or smoking, or sleeping, or joking around, or lounging) around her house and the clubs of New York City. For the text, she asked (approximately) 300 jazz musicians what they would ask for if they had three wishes. For the most part, the answers are predictable and mundane, with money, health, success, musical ability, loving family, world peace, and racial equality being the notable top vote getters. Occasionally, one or another musician will flash a bit of insight, promise, or self-deprecation that comes completely unexpected (Miles Davis, for instance, had only one wish: To be white!), but for me, the wishes were secondary to the photos and the overall collection of musicians’ comments. Not all the pictures are really publication worthy, but that they even exist makes them valuable and interesting.
Important? Interesting? Historic? Book-worthy? Uhhh...maybe.
For such a thorough documentarian, I found it unusual that some of the subjects of her photos could not be identified. It makes me a little curious about how Pannonica could be so far above board and yet so inscrutable. I guess that is a little bit of what makes the book interesting: the mystery of motive surrounding this gadfly to and patroness of jazz musicians. Anyway, the book does contain enough profundities and behind the scenes looks at a long vanished era of jazz history, that the average reader with an interest in jazz will come away somehow feeling privileged to have been provided a glimpse into the life of some jazz musicians, or at least, happy to have somehow sneaked a glance behind a door that was always kept closed during the early years of jazz.

I highly doubt Pannonica had a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish in compiling this book, but there is no denying that she accomplished something with a lot of compelling qualities. Is this book a must read for jazz fans and historians? Probably not. Does it entertain while illuminating a few dark corners of jazz in the middle of the 20th century? Most definitely.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Always something

Ignoring my piano and any attempt at practicing or improving my playing, I succeeded (if that is the correct word) at finishing the refurbishing of my 1970’s Silvertone guitar into the one and only “Chitlins Con Carne” guitar.

Chinese pre-everything fret wires, top, with the old fret wires, bottom, and the new strings, right.
I did decide to coat the guitar with polyacrylic. Even at that, the music notes still pulled away from the edges in a couple of places. I just cut away the offending portions. In the 90-degree heat, 90-percent humidity, this was also no small task, but I turned on my powerful fan and just kept the airflow going. In a short time, we were ready to install fret wire.

Fret wires installed without breaking my neck...or the guitar's.
Here, I have to applaud Chinese industry and my savvy Amazon shopping ability. To get pre-radiused, pre-cut fitted fret wire individually packed by size in a handy plastic envelope, was nothing short of genius on both sides of the Pacific. I thought they would install very easily, but even the thin coating of polyacrylic prevented the fret wire insertion. I scraped them out again and manage to bang in the fret wires without breaking the neck, even though it was already loose.
The Chitlins Con Carne guitar, complete!
And so, I started stringing the guitar. The very first string I put on, which was the thick one, buzzed against the fret wires. I dealt with the problem by shimming the string holder. Still, when I tuned up the strings, it pulled the string holder over the shim and off the surface of the guitar. I have no good way to solve the problem.
Goddammit! Now what?
I showed my handiwork to Mrs. S and I showed her the problem. She just said. “It looks great and you’re not going to play it. Just leave it.” I intend to do what she suggests. Therefore, the guitar is finished.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Pretty fancy for a Silvertone

Once I got the “Chitlins Con Carne” music applied, the only thing between me and a finished decorative guitar was time. I already had purchased strings and polished most of the parts that I took off the guitar. I bought a complete set of pre-radiused fret wires. I had rounded a couple of mother-of-pearl dots by hand. I even had my stain for the neck picked out. So, remembering the rule of “Google it first, then give it a try”, I was ready to install the mother-of pearl on the fret board. 

Or so I thought.

When I googled the installation of the mother-of-pearl, the video I watched showed a clever way to find the center line of each fret. Although it is quite obvious if you stop and think about it, not only does the width of each fret shrink as they march down the fret board, the neck itself tapers from wide to narrow from the body up. This means you can’t quite find the exact center just using an eyeball measurement and measuring across the neck. Fortunately the video showed a clever way to use a straightedge to apply lines to narrow down the degree of difficulty in finding the center of the target frets, and I soon had these all very neatly marked out on my guitar’s neck.

THAT is a straight line!
Next came opening the holes. I had some idea of using a punch and just pounding the holes open then chiseling them out with my Dremel tool, but I was a little confounded about how I’d smack a punch into the guitar neck without snapping it. I thought about foam pads and dumb luck, until the video came to the rescue again. The answer was: a Forstner drill bit. Unfortunately, not only was I fresh out of Forstner bits, I didn’t even know what one was. A little research, and I had my answer. Home Depot five miles from home had a set (even though I only needed one) for $20. Mrs. S needed some stuff for the yard, so the next day we made a hardware run and I picked up my bits and Mrs. S picked up her pieces.

Pretty straightforward (get it?).
With my centers clearly marked, opening the holes was a breeze, especially since I still had all my painter’s tape applied from when I painted the guitar. I had to work on the dots to get them closer to the right size, but once I got them close, they were easily installed. I stained the guitar neck before applying the dots.

Stain is on.
I didn’t have a big issue getting the dots in, but because they are hand-rounded and the holes were uneven depths, once I had the dots glued in place, they required some sanding down. Of course, I re-taped around the dots while sanding, but I still managed to scratch the neck in a few places. I decided to use some stain touch up for hardwood floor repairs, but this turned out to be a lot darker than my first stain. No problem. I rubbed down the whole neck with the touch up, and ended up with a nicer, warmer finish that accents the guitar without taking away from the motif. Sometimes things just work out. The dots and neck look absolutely great. (To be honest, the dots are not completely flat with the fret board, but this isn’t going to get much playing and given how good they look, Mrs. S encouraged me not to mess with them anymore, and so, I won’t.)

Compared to the whitewash sprayed dots, the mother-of-pearl truly adds some class.
This weekend I will be experimenting with acrylic and polyurethane coatings, fret installation, hardware installation, and stringing. I believe I can finish this weekend, even though everything I have ever believed about refurbishing this guitar, just like my square grand piano, has generally not come true. We shall see.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A plan comes together

The working title of this entry was: Hard things made easy
Original plan given to Mrs. S to do a mock up illustration. She said, "I'm not sure what you mean." 
The guitar project has been languishing of late, due to not being able to determine how I could apply a musical note motif to the front without spending inordinate amounts of time, money, energy, or a combination thereof.  Mrs. S finally steered me to a sign company that does appliques and stickers and such, and I negotiated with them about what I wanted done. After several times back and forth with email, the owner of the shop informed me that I would have to do a clear vinyl sticker, because she just didn’t think it was possible to do all those fine musical note cutouts in the vinyl. I agreed and told them to go ahead and prep the sticker. A day later, they told me to bring in my “axe” for the installation. (I told them it is hardly an “axe”; more of a “bauble”.

The sketch I made for Mrs. S to show her what I meant. She said, "Why don't you just work from that?"
Of course, when I get to the print shop, neither of the people I’d been dealing with was there. This turned out to be a good thing, because the guy who was there looked at the guitar then asked what I was trying to accomplish. As we were talking about the project, he goes, “Why don’t you do a cut vinyl instead of a sticker.” I said, because your boss doesn’t think it’s possible. He says, sure it is. I say, if you can do it, then let’s do it. So he went back into the corner and printed out my two bars of “Chitlins Con Carne” in black cut vinyl. He let me play with it, and I got it to where I figured I wanted it, and he proceeded to apply it.

Music application completed. Ready for more stuff.
About then the owner comes in, and of course, she knows who I am and what we are doing. She’s watching the guy applying the cut vinyl and goes, “Yeah, it’s good you’re doing a sticker. That’d be impossible with cut vinyl.” I say, it is cut vinyl. She says, no it’s not. I say, sure it is, and the guy says, yep. He pulled off the backing paper and voila! Music in the first degree. The owner goes, Wow, I would never have been able to do that. I say, I lucked out then. The guy did a little Exacto knife cutting around the edges, and we were finished. I’m going to do my damnedest to finish the thing this weekend. A little more paint, install the mother of pearl and frets, string it up, then up on the wall. I think I can do it in two days, if things go smoothly

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cuba calling

Sometimes, I am easily influenced. The Chitlins Con Carne guitar is a good example. I didn't really have a good reason to buy a guitar, other than there was one that was available cheap, I have a vague unstated hobby of collecting musical instruments, and I thought I could turn it into a nice decoration for the music room. So I became a guitar owner.

My latest idea due to being easily influenced came on in a similar, surreptitious fashion, yet quickly became a lucid, 100% feasible notion, all in less than a week.

Which is why I’m pretty sure I will be traveling to Cuba before the year is out. Let me explain.

Mrs. S and I have been talking about a trip, almost continually since we got back from New Orleans in December. We've been talking for years about going someplace we've never been, and Costa Rica has been our front runner, but we always get sidetracked: What about Guatemala? Or Argentina? Or Brazil? Or Panama, Puerto Rico, Peru, Chile, Dominican Republic, etc. Part of the problem is, even though we've each been to over 50 countries, there are too many places we haven’t been. We just can’t decide. And last Saturday, as I’m reading the Wall Street Journal, there’s a long article about traveling to Cuba.
The first Latin-tinged CD I ever owned, and still one of my favorites.
Now Mrs. S, being Japanese, can go to Cuba anytime she wants. As a green card holder, she might not be welcomed back very warmly, but, if she came back, say, through Canada, I doubt they would give her a hard time. As for me, an American, I need to have a cultural purpose to travel to Cuba. Just being a tourist isn't enough to get you in and out. In fact, the WSJ article detailed some of the work of Horns for Havana is doing, and I started to get a notion of donating musical equipment so I can make the trip.

A couple of days later, the WSJ had an article about Arturo O’Farrill and it got my blood flowing for Cuba again. So I went back and read the article about Cuba again. And then I did the math. (It’s not cheap.) And I still want to go.

So, I’m going to try to go to Cuba, with me, my wife, and a bunch of clarinets and reeds and valves and whatnot. Maybe, I can make it happen. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Wrong way, right way, two days

To be honest, deciding to buy a guitar was not a good idea. Deciding to buy a guitar to become an art project was a horrible idea. Deciding that the art project would be okay if I just used a little spray paint was downright stupid.

Ready to paint. Note the piece of tape at the top of the neck covering the Silvertone logo.
Yet here I am.

My vision for the guitar from the very start was more or less clear. And already, even though it isn’t finished, I’m quite proud of the way the paint job turned out. As a matter of fact, my very first attempt at my image came out damn near perfect.

Getting ready for that sunburst effect to turn blue. Note the tape covering the model number at the top center.
The problem was paint drips. Laying the guitar on the floor and painting over it worked, it just wasn’t clean. I decided it had to be redone, which meant I had to sand it down again and, I had to figure out a way to keep from having drips on it. In my sleep, I came up with the idea of hanging the guitar up to limit the paint drips. It would also allow me to paint both sides of the guitar, and the edges, and the neck all at once. That was the ticket. In this humidity (it’s rained every day for a week here in north Alabama), I don’t know how long the guitar will continue to be sticky, but it’s painted, hanging in the garage and looking good.
Second time around. The burst is bursting and, no drips.
Next thing is to add the music to the front. Then I have to stain the neck and decide if I’m going to insert mother of pearl or not. Then, I’ll probably have to coat it with something so you can actually handle it. Then I have to remount the hardware. Then restring it.

First time around. Nailed it. 
Jeez. I wish I’d never seen the thing. I sure hope I can love my attention sucking child when it is all over.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Don’t Fret

After a two day trip to Mexico Thursday and Friday to attend a sixty seven minute meeting, which was made much more of a bad idea by getting in a cab with a driver who not only spoke zero English, but also knew next to nothing about the roads of the city where the meeting was being held (Celaya), I was ready to relax this weekend. And what better way to relax than by restoring a musical instrument?
Looking better (?) already.
The instrument was already apart, so today I just made up my mind to work on the finish: I sanded the hell out of the thing. I’m keeping the “Silvertone” logo and the model number on the top of the neck, but everything else is going to be painted over. I patched holes, repaired a split, and sanded, sanded, sanded. Then I went to work on the fret board.

Sanded sunburst. This was definitely done as a "real" guitar.
In the DIY industry, they have a mantra of “measure twice, cut once”. Well, I declare that the mantra of the musical instrument restorer is “Google it first, then give it a try”. My fatal mistake here was trying to sand the fret board with the fret wires still in place. I did an adequate job of it with my Dremel, carefully working between the wires and taking the paint and scuff marks off, but it didn't look right. I did that because I couldn't figure out how to remove the fret wires. After botching it, though, I realized the only way to fix my mistake would be to sand the neck sans wires.

Fret free sanding sans frets ahead.
And of course, Google has videos and wikihows, and fifty different shades of websites for “how to remove fret wires”, and when I went back to it, the fret wires came right out. I could have saved myself about a half hour and made a much easier job of things if I had just Googled first. Naturally, I bent the hell out of a few of the wires when I took them out, too, plus I don’t like the gold color for the motif I have in mind. I've already ordered a set of pre-radiused wires from China. They should be here in 20 days.That will give me plenty of time to sand some more, restore the wood, and paint my motif, which will be based on some guitarist’s song. I’m thinking of calling my guitar “Kenny” and putting “Chitlins Con Carne” (note the hint of Mexico) as the music that will adorn the paint job. We’ll see.

Anyway, the frets are gone, I’m none the worse for wear and the guitar restoration continues. No need to fret, at all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Now what?

This past week, the Mrs. S and I participated in an estate auction. There was a nice authentic German doll that she wanted, and there was an Ibanez mandolin in the mix as well. The lot next to the mandolin was an unloved-looking Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar. When I went and looked at everything, the doll looked okay, the guitar looked kind of junk, and the mandolin looked great. We decided to see where the values went before we bid.

That doesn't look that bad for $46, does it?
Without telling you the story of the decidedly unexciting auction, we won the mandolin, the doll, and the guitar, all for what seemed good prices. The doll is porcelain and mohair but has a crack on its face. Still, it is cute and the cotton dress is in good shape. It is secure on a metal stand. Not bad for $6. Likewise the mandolin was bought for nearly $400 new, came in a case, and was virtually new, as the previous owner didn't know how to play it. (Neither do I, but so what?) The Silvertone guitar was beat, so I decided to take it apart to clean it up.

The color is gone, and, yuck!
Well, the more I looked at it, the more I realized, this guitar is just not worth saving. Even after washing with warm water and Dawn and scrubbing everything with a toothbrush (I know), the color is all faded, the wood is cracked and the paint job is a mess. It could be cleaned up and made spiffy again, but after the square grand piano turned into a bar project, I’m thinking I’m going to jump right to the artistic project and make the guitar playable, but make it something special, not an old Silvertone.

Parts are all there, so I can make it playable again.
I've already started looking for ideas. Suffice to say, it involves a lot of spray paint, glitter, and jazz imagery. I even have some mother of pearl from the piano that I can put into the fret board.

Even after a scrub down with dish liquid and warm water (it's my guitar, so too bad if you don't like my cleaning methods), it doesn't look all that ... jazzy.

Yeah. I've got myself into something. Stay tuned. (Heh-heh. Stay “tuned”. I think I've got my new catch phrase.)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The History of Jazz: History lesson, listening guide, and music manual

It took me a damn long time to read this book, the first of Ted Gioia’s many books about jazz and music that I have bothered to push through myself. The author is a very demanding writer, too, with an extensive vocabulary, exceptionally sharp insights, and an eye for linkages and foreshadowing that few other authors and observers of jazz would be able to duplicate (although I will keep trying). I sort of hated this book because it is so dense. It has narrow margins top and bottom, left and right, and few breaks and headings between long, compactly organized chapters, so that even when you think to yourself, oh, just three more pages, you find yourself reading for another fifteen minutes. Jazz doesn't strike most people as a subject that deserves this scholarly thoroughness given by Mr. Gioia, but after working through this book, I was amazed that I hadn't ran across such a book before this.
This is a damn good book
The book really has a three pronged approach. Of course, it is a history book. As such it follows the chronology of its subject matter faithfully, but what the author excels at is giving a taste of where the present or past will lead, as well as why and how it will get there. Then, when you reach the new material, the new artists, the new performers and the new types of jazz, you have a very real understanding of what happened, what had to happen, and who made it happen. I've often thought that a timeline showing the various artists’ relationships to one another – who played with who, when, and for how long – would be one of the most constructive tools to understanding jazz (I even went so far as to begin constructing my own), and Mr. Gioia’s book comes quite close to being a literal (if not visual) timeline very much along those lines. But it doesn't stop there.

This book also is – almost even more than a history book – a listening guide. Of course, and you can’t understand any history of music without knowing the players, the songs, the albums, the performances, the venues, not to mention the life and culture of the times, to gain a full understanding of the music, but the author also throws in minutiae like the producers and the hall owners, hangers on, and other jazz satellites. Mr. Gioia excels in this regards and gives the reader plenty of guidance on the recordings that will make the music, and its history, come to life. Thanks to the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, I have assembled a modicum of historic jazz recordings, so I appreciated the author’s guidance on what to listen to, given the historical context that he provides. He even provides a unique “Discography” as an appendix, which more concisely outlines the most historic recordings, and the book’s index provides enough insight and references to make it also workable as a “highlight guide”.

Even after covering the music in depth, Mr. Gioia doesn't forget the musicians. I can’t think of a single musician that he may have excluded or a major story that may have been edited out. And unlike other authors, he doesn't gloss over the seedier aspects of jazz and its culture. The good the bad and the ugly are covered with enough philosophical awareness to make the history real without overplaying the sordid aspects. After all, the history of jazz is full of racism, drug use, and burn-brightly-and-burn-out-quickly musicians, but those aren't
the things that define jazz to its practitioners and fans. This book is about understanding the music and the musicians, not just its history. Even as I was reaching the end of the book, no sooner would I think of an artist or contributor whose name I hadn't read in the book yet, than Mr. Gioia would eventually touch on them. Even on the second last page, I was thinking “well, still no mention of African jazz” than Mr. Gioia covered Abdullah Ibrahim and his work. Truly, this is as thorough a history of jazz, right up to modern times, that any reader could want.

As with so many other things I've covered in Late to Jazz, my only regret about this book is, my realization of it was a little late. It’s no fun to play “catch up”, but it’s less fun than missing out altogether. So I congratulate myself on reading this book, finally, almost as much as I congratulate Mr. GIoia on writing it. This is a great educational book, and an interesting, fun, insightful read.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

At least they didn't call it "Kind of Kind of Blue"

Until just a few months ago, I’d never heard of Mostly Other People Do The Killing. As of right now, still the only thing I know about them is they recorded an exact copy of Miles Davis’s album, Kind of Blue.

If you don’t know anything about Kind of Blue, Google it now and come back when you are finished.

The cover of one of the most iconic jazz recordings of all time. No exaggeration to say it changed not just jazz, not just music, but changed the way people thought about making and listening to music.
So, why would a band want to make a copy of an album, note-for-note, second-for-second? You can Google MOPDTK and Blue and come back, if you want, but I don’t think you will find the answer in any of the interviews and articles that have been written about this “controversial” and “audacious” musical work.
Similarly, hard not to mistake this cover for something else, either, although a friend from school did have something remarkably similar for his Facebook cover photo for a while.
Of course, this didn't stop me from buying, listening to, and weighing in on the album on Amazon. Here’s what I wrote: 
Compelling in so many ways 
After first reading about this remake of the great Miles Davis album in the Wall Street Journal, I was partly scared and partly excited to hear what MOPDTK could do with the music from the album. There were just so many questions I had. Would it be indistinguishable from the original? Would it be nothing at all like the original? Would I even be able to listen to it? And, most importantly, why in the heck would a band go through all that trouble to make a note-for-note copy of the greatest jazz album of all time? The mind boggled. 
Then, maybe a month later and still before I’d gotten around to purchasing the recording, there was another article in the Wall Street Journal, this time calling the recording “controversial” and “audacious”. Really? I mean, yes, I’m still confused by the intent and purpose and the artistic value of the project, but does that make it a “controversy”? There was nothing to do but buy the thing and sit down and listen to it.
And all I can say is, this is, no matter how you cut it, an amazing piece of music, an amazing work of musicianship, and I am utterly in awe of the people who conceived and executed this work. And I must also admit that I am struggling to put into words what I thought about the whole thing. It is, first and foremost, a faithful, note for note, second for second, copy of the original album. The playing is clear and precise, and the recording is faithful to the original, in depth, tone, and overall reproduction. It swings, but it swings in a predictable, previously pioneered way. The first few times listening to it, you hear everything you are expecting to hear, so it is very difficult to put your finger on what it is different. But there’s something else there, or rather, something else missing. The “presence” of Mile Davis and Bill Evans and John Coltrane is absent (if that’s even possible). What’s left? Just the music. And the music is as interesting and as attractive and as absorbing as it has always been. The back of my brain kept saying, it’s not real, but the front of my brain kept saying, damn I love this music! I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I suddenly felt like Miles and his band had somehow transcended time and space, but I felt like I owed a debt of gratitude to Moppa Elliott, Jon Irabagon, and the other band members for achieving what is, to me, a nearly impossible feat. As a student of music, I’ve more than a few times been required to transcribe a piece of music as part of my study, and I can think of no more odious and difficult task. That multiple members of a band would spend ten years or so transcribing in meticulous detail an entire album is, as I’ve said already, mind boggling. That they achieved it at all is stunning. That they achieved it with such clarity and accuracy and musicality is nothing short of a miracle.
Purists will doubt the intent and the result of this album, probably for ever. Arguments for and against the pretext are likely to continue. Miles fans may have their hackles raised and it is obvious that not all jazz fans will appreciate this work. Regrettably, I feel a lot of people just won’t “get it”. Personally, I don’t think there is anything to “get”. This is a tremendous work, a monumental musical achievement, and its very existence hails the value of the original, heightens the enjoyment of both versions, and makes the brain work overtime in its euphoria and enjoyment. It may not be the single most compelling musical work ever recorded, but it’s worth as many stars as anyone will let you give, which in Amazon’s case is 5.
There’s more to this story, but I need some time to think about it. I am going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hanging in NOLA – Making Friends – Part Trois

 One of the best things about traveling to New Orleans is that you don’t really need a plan to have fun in the city. Mrs. S and I had a vague clue to eat good, enjoy staying at a first class hotel right in the French Quarter, and catch some music if nothing else was going on. In between all that, we visited a voodoo shop, bought me a hat, bought her some clothes, bought some French artisan utensils at a French artisan utensil shop, got lost in the casino, and took pictures of the entire city. Still, just letting those things happen to us resulted in some unusual experiences.

About to get down.
Like on the way to the voodoo shop. There was a line down the block of about 150 people to get into Preservation Hall. Not really known for its big name performers, and it being our first night and us still unsure of what music we were going to hear while we were there, I decided to find out what was going on. I walked to the front of the line, smiled at the scared looking ticket seller organizer guy and said, “Quite a crowd. Who’s playing tonight?” The guy got a look of consternation on his face (for some reason) and tried to brighten up and be enthusiastic, though he obviously was hoping we’d go away. Then he forced a smile and answered me, and I don’t remember what he said, exactly, but if I paraphrase what he said, it would go like this, “Well, we've got Eddie Whatsisname, who’s a famous  some-kind-of-musician locally, and he’ll be joined by Johnny Notspecial, and A Bunch of Nobodies.” I frowned, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Never heard of any of ‘em,” and me and Mrs. S walked off. Of course, Mrs. S goes, “What did he say?” And I had to answer, well I’m not sure, but it sounded like Eddie Whatsisname, joined by Johnny Notspecial, and the A Bunch of Nobodies. Anyway, I’m not paying what they’re charging to stand in a crowded hall with a bunch of tourists to hear unfamous musicians slug out some tunes. We can do that anywhere. Mrs. S laughed at my assessment and we continued waltzing away from P. Hall.

Getting down.
On our last night, we were wandering around St. Louis Cathedral and out of nowhere, these three kids come up, lay down on the sidewalk and commence to stare up at the cathedral. I walked over and pretended to be looking at what they were looking at and the girl says, “No. You've got to lay down and look up from the ground.” So, I laid down next to her. She goes, “There, doesn't it feel like your feet are part of the church?” which, I had not thought about before she said that, but yes, they did. The tower made me feel vaguely dizzy. Also, I somehow ended up in the exact middle, directly below the clock in the clock tower, and I pointed this out. “Isn't it cool?” I said, yes, and so is my back on the cold stone, which make me wonder about what was spilled and who spit on this particular ground I’m lying on. She said, “Ah, don’t worry about that. Just look.” I pointed out this was not exactly my plan for how to spend the evening of my birthday, and since I was getting cold, I told them thanks and got up. The guy wished me happy birthday, and I wished them luck with their steeple viewing.
The view from down under the St. Louis Cathedral
It was a different sort of trip for us. I expect we shall do more trips like this in the future. This one was more fun than most.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hanging in NOLA – Travel Log – Part Deux

There’s never a shortage of live music in New Orleans, however, finding the kind of live music or the artist that inspires you is not always easy. Thankfully, Mrs. S’s forte is figuring out what’s going on, finding what we are interested in, and then telling me so we can work on the logistics together. One of our favorite places to go is Snug Harbor, but the lineup for the three night we were there was not that attractive. Making things more difficult was the fact that we had reservations at three swanky places over the three nights, so logistics was going to be more of a challenge in any event. But Mrs. S found that Jason and Ellis Marsalis were performing at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, just a stone’s throw from our hotel, and starting at 8PM on a night when we had a 5:30 dinner reservation just ten minutes or so down the road. She even put our name on the guest list and told them to keep something down front available for us.

Piano mediocrity meets piano greatness (again): Me and Ellis Marsalis
After a fantastic dinner at August, we made our way to the club, where to our dismay and trepidation, they were turning people away at the door. No worries. As two couples did their about face, I told the woman at the door that we were on the list, gave her our name, and she smiled brightly and said, “Right this way.” She showed us a cushy table with padded seats and generous area, but right in front of that was a tiny table barely large enough for two drinks and two chairs on either side. I asked if we could sit there and she said sure. And there we were again, in the best seats in the house: front row.

The view from behind our table: That's our table right in front of the piano there.
Turns out our table was also right next to the Messrs. Marsalis’ table, so I went ahead and shook the elder Marsalis’ hand and had our picture taken prior to the show. The show was a captivating program of Christmas music, with Jason on vibes and his father playing piano (obviously), though Jason of course got behind his trap set for their rousing version of Little Drummer Boy. I don’t know if it was part of the act or what, but every tune, Jason announced as if nobody in the place had heard Christmas music before. It was really kind of laughable to hear somebody , in a deadpan serious voice, go, “That was a tune called ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. Now, here’s ‘Away in a Manger’.” Thanks, Jason. What was amazing was Jason would grab their CD, look at the back, call out a tune and a key signature, and Ellis would kick it off and away they went. Again, not sure it was part of the act, or what. The show was somewhat disrupted by a table of four in the front on the other side of the stage, who were yelling, laughing, and carrying on, and who had no idea who the Marsalis’s were. I wanted to tell them to shut up, but I figured if Jason wasn't bothered by them, neither would I be.

Drummer vibraphonist meets pianist vibraphonist (someday): Jason Marsalis and me.
The night ended paying $20 for a $10 CD so we could get it signed and have some more photos taken with the Marsalises, so it ended up being a night worth remembering in a lot of different ways. Hopefully Mrs. S can keep her concert going radar up and running during future trips to the Big Easy.