Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tales from the mosh pit .......

I can only assume it was the warm summer's night that caused that mosh pit to be so sweaty. It wasn't a huge crowd, but one with enough intensity that I swear the man-made beach barge we were on started to rock .... and I don't mean figuratively. The headlining act had just started their opening number with everything I expected from my mental checklist:

Great drummer, check.
Guitarist armed with a Les Paul and a Marshall, check.
Slammin' bass player, check.
Two saxophonists that appear to be no older than 14, um OK.
and of course, the Trombonist ..... Trombonist ???

This my friends is what a show with Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews looks like. A musical gumbo of New Orleans funk, R&B, and some good old distortion. Like many NOLA artists, Shorty picked up an instrument at a very young age. He became a force on both trombone and trumpet, but settled on the larger piece of plumbing. Although his early years were spent on the streets playing the traditional jazz you would expect from a young trombonist, he didn't follow the usual career path. His 2010 release "Backatown" marks the creation of the aforementioned blend that is Shorty's sound. He has released 2 more albums since, 2011's "For True" and "Say That to Say This" just a few months ago. The man's resume also includes appearances as a guest artist with Lenny Kravitz, U2, and the Zac Brown Band.

If New York is my wife, then New Orleans would be my mistress, and Shorty is one of many reasons my fidelity is soiled. His music draws from his city's heritage and creates something familiar yet completely fresh. So enough of my babble and onto the music ..... I suggest a location where you can turn it up, perhaps to eleven.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

No, it's not like driving a train ..... tips for the conductor.

My first opportunity to conduct a recording session arrived like most opportunities, without warning. This was one of my first orchestrating gigs and the composer informed me he would conduct the session. On the car ride to the studio, he revealed that he may have consumed one too many Valium and perhaps I was the more lucid choice to conduct the 40 piece ensemble. Now, I wasn't particularly nervous about the reception of my orchestration, however this was a different situation. I had obviously spent some time with the minute long composition so I had a feel for it, but there was one catch. We were recording a slow and emotional piece without a click track, and the only visual hit point was about 54 seconds in. There were no punches or streamers (like mile markers so you know where you are) to guide me, so the success of my conducting debut came down to some luck. We ended up doing quite a few takes to nail it but the musicians were very supportive and spared me the New York jaded attitude. We got a great take with the correct timings and all was well. Afterwords a few of the players told me they really wanted to do a great job, simply because of my positive attitude towards the session. Treating musicians with respect goes a long way. I'm guessing they've had one too many Toscanini wannabes walk onto the podium and showcase what they were working on in therapy. Those players comments have stuck with me for over 20 years and have influenced how I run my sessions even now. I tend to keep the attitude light so humor is a mainstay, however I do take both myself and the music seriously. After all our goal is a great performance so I will break out the whip when needed, but respectfully.

Jocularity alone is not enough to lead a session successfully, so here are a few other tips that have served me well over hundreds of recording sessions:

1. Raise the height of every music stand before the players arrive: At first glance you may not see the wisdom in this practice. Often musicians are sight reading the music so ideally the conductor and the sheet music should both be in the line of sight of the instrumentalists. However the conductor podium tends to be much higher than floor level and music stands are always placed in their lowest position. So if you don't raise them everyone's face is buried in the stand and not looking your way.

2. Diplomacy: Someone in the 2nd Violin section is consistently out of tune on a particular note, and you know exactly who it is. I don't recommend calling that person out. I will spread the blame a little and say, "2nd Violins, we seem to have a disagreement about where that A is in bar 15".

3. Cracking the Whip: I've done many a 9:30 or 10 am sessions. This is a time period musicians are biologically opposed to. Take that, and add less than challenging music, and it's nap time. Keep an ear out for uninspired performances when recording fairly simple stuff. If you're working with first call players, it's not that unusual at an early hour of the day that boredom sets in. In this situation, I usually tell everyone to stop sleepwalking and give a little something to the performance.

4. Rehearsal skills: GET SOME!! I have been a spectator to a few sessions wherein just playing the whole piece over and over was considered rehearsing. If there is a specific passage that needs work, focus on that. "I'd like to hear trumpets from bar 16 to 20, the rhythm isn't tight in bar 19". I'll even repeat a single bar over and over, maybe start with a slower tempo and increase as we start to fix the errors.

5. Be clear and concise: You should have an idea of what you want from the performance before the sessions even starts. This way any questions can be dealt with quickly. Keep the answers short and to the point. Remember time is money so knowing what you want and communicating it well is important. There will always be things that may cause a session take longer than planned, you shouldn't be one of them. A Trombonist once told me "Man for your sessions, I can put the money in the meter and know I'll be out before the hour runs out".

Here's a great glimpse into a symphonic rehearsal with Leopold Stokowski, he's a pinch more serious than I would be.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The satirical music of Tom Lehrer

There would be no Weird Al Yankovic, Garfunkel and Oats, or South Park musical numbers without Tom Lehrer. Surprisingly most of you reading this have never heard of him. For my money he was the greatest musical satirist of the 20th century. At first glance, Tom Lehrer would seem an unlikely candidate for this mantle. His Harvard mathematics degrees, faculty position at MIT, or the stint at the NSA aren't normally found on the resumes of most comics. If you think about it, he's the perfect candidate. It takes a logical mind to see the hypocrisy, the ridiculousness, and all the humorous faults of the human condition. As if all these accomplishments weren't enough, Lehrer claims to have invented the "Jell-O shot" while in the Army. 

Few subjects were off limits for him. He tackled race in "National Brotherhood Week", religion in "Vatican Rag", nuclear proliferation in "Who's Next", and American militarism in "Send The Marines". He didn't always choose political subjects, some of his songs were just meant to be fun. "The Elements" is a Walter White periodic table lyric on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song". "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a dark comedic waltz. "The Masochism Tango" is an ode to S&M (yes kinky sex did exist in the 50's kids). In the quite clever "I Got it from Agnes", he sings about the "carnal flu" without ever mentioning any STD. When you take a step back and ponder what was culturally taboo at this time, his work is even more amazing. In many ways he was an Ivy league musical version of Lenny Bruce without the profanity. In the later era of his career he wrote some fantastic songs for PBS's The Electric Company including "L-Y" and "Silent E". If you were of that age in the 70's, you will be transported back in front of your old console TV while wearing your PJ's as soon as you hear them. 

Then like a song and dance Salinger, he completely disappeared as a musical entity. It appears he just got bored, wanted to focus on teaching mathematics and musical theater. He is still alive at age 85 and I imagine still making some lucky folks laugh. The rest of us will have to be content with the brilliant collection of work he has graced us with. 

Although most of his material is eligible for an AARP card, it still has teeth as a commentary on our society. Now I can't guarantee his material still offends, but I wouldn't blast this playlist in the office.

"You can't be satirical and not be offensive to somebody" ~ Tom Lehrer

Friday, September 20, 2013

Artist as muse

There are countless ways I foster my inspiration. One of my favorites is through other artists. Not just from the work, but from listening to their insights on what they create. Music is my religion and from time to time I like a good "fire and brimstone" sermon to flick the switch on a few dormant brain cells. This is not exclusive to artists I really love. Just because someone's work doesn't resonate with me doesn't mean a technique or viewpoint of theirs wouldn't be an asset in my own creations. I highly recommend scouring YouTube and the web at large for insights from all types of artists to expand your own creative horizons.

One artist I am a fan of is Daniel Lanios. He is one of the most talented producers music has seen in the last 35 years. During his career he has worked with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and created iconic recordings with both U2 and Peter Gabriel. He released many of his own albums and scored several films including the highly acclaimed Slingblade. I stumbled across this interview a few days ago and could not wait to share it. I hope you find it as rich a resource as I have. For those of you that aren't musicians, it's an interesting peek behind the curtain of creativity. Consider yourself forewarned though, there will be naked women involved in the interview.

What I found most striking about this interview is how many "Big Picture" career pointers he touched upon during the 40 minute conversation. Here are the points that struck me:

  • How to build a career: just work with as many people as possible 
  • Making connections: you have no idea who will introduce you to Brian Eno
  • Your studio is a laboratory: don't rely on past successes, move forward, experiment
  • Realize your weaknesses, educate yourself: you will create more when those holes are filled
  • Preparation: never walk into any situation blind if at all possible
  • Idea Orphanage: from beats, to hooks, to lyrics - a good home will come to those ideas
  • Strive for originality: for Lanios it's the reason he wakes up in the morning
  • Soundtrack music as a supportive element: a great way to learn musical restraint 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Chavela Vargas

For many of us the mere mention of Mexican music evokes some negative emotions. We're just trying to enjoy our sizzling fajitas and table-side guacamole in peace, yet an uninvited serenade of Mariachi gives us the heartburn we hoped to avoid. Thankfully Mexico has a rich musical catalog far beyond Mariachi. I would like to introduce you to whom I believe is the soul of Mexican music, singer Chavela Vargas.

The long life Vargas led reads like a great novel. She was born in Costa Rica in 1919, yet became the voice of Mexico. She often dressed as a man and smoked cigars. Traveled in artistic circles with the likes of artist Diego Rivera and singer Jose Jimenez. She claims to have had an affair with Rivera's wife, the great Frida Kahlo. She disappeared from performing in the late 70's due to her alcohol addiction, but then returned in the early 90's. She died at age 93 in 2012.

Much of her music focused on the Ranchera genre, which is a vocal accompanied by a guitar. Simple, but not simplistic. In the early years, her voice was smooth and sinful like a fine Bordeaux, but as life took it's toll it evolved into a bottom shelf Rusty Nail, (that's Scotch & Drambuie for you teetotalers). Her later work is incredibly haunting. When she sings a song at 88 she once performed at 30, it now carries all the baggage of an artists life. Even if you barely managed a C in your high school Spanish class, you'll understand the song's message. I chose to start and end the playlist with the tragic folk song La Llorona. Take note to the drastically different moods between the early and later performances.

So as Summer disappears I'll open a Corona, close my eyes, and let her music transport me to some small village in the Yucatan. I hope her music will transport you too.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who Dat ???

I can not think of a city with a greater connection between its people and its musical heritage than New Orleans, Louisiana. Now this may seem odd coming from a New York musician. It's true that every New Yorker is required by the city charter to believe this city is above all others, and I often subscribe to that megalomanic foundation. Sure our city can lay claim to a long list of musical milestones, however music is not an integral part of every New Yorker's life. You can go about your day as a dry cleaner, a chef, or a Wall Street weasel, and not be touched by music. This musical ignorance is impossible in New Orleans, it's everywhere. The love of music seems to be a New Orleanian birthright that's embraced by every generation. I wish we had such a phenomenon in NYC. Frankly I'm jealous. This, among many other qualities, make New Orleans my favorite city in America. I could try and paint you a detailed portrait of what this unconditional relationship with music looks like, but someone has already done a more masterful job than I ever could. That man is David Simon, and the instructional vehicle is Treme.

David Simon is best known for creating what many believe to be the greatest television series ever, The Wire. In 2010 David's New Orleans centric drama Treme premiered to critical acclaim. Although the focus of this series is to highlight the incredible challenges faced by the people of New Orleans after Katrina, it shines as equally an intense light on the city's rich musical culture. You will be introduced to much of the city's great talent from the present and the past, plus many great neighborhoods not listed in your Fodor's guide. So if you think of New Orleans as nothing more than the bare breasts and regurgitating frat boys on Bourbon Street, you are about to have your eyes opened very wide.

Sadly, the show will end its run with a 4th and final season this Fall. I highly recommend finding a good recipe for red beans and rice, grab some Abita beer, and lose an entire weekend with some serious binge viewing. Until then, here is an amuse-busche of the musical buffet that's in store for you.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Friend or Foe ???

Today's topic has nothing to do with music, but could have a greater impact on your career than your talent will. Your attitude towards those that hire you might not make your reputation, but it can ruin it. Here is a rather important concept to keep in mind ......

Your client is not the enemy.

As a composer for TV, film, or advertising, you will be creating music for people that may have a very difficult time articulating what they want. Uneducated suggestions may be offered. Perhaps extensive hand holding must be provided. Much of your time could be spent creating examples of what you believe won't work, simply to prove to everyone what doesn't work. If this process has you researching ways to torture your clients, that negativity will create a wedge between you both. "Why won't they just listen to me??? I toured with Bowie, man!!!" .... no one cares. You've been hired as a partner in this project, not a condescending expert. You want to be remembered as the knowledgeable guide that helped navigate the jungle, not as the overgrown vegetation they had to hack through.

This same principle applies if you are an orchestrator. Perhaps the composer has never worked with an orchestra and is beyond nervous. You want to explain the process, not be dismissive of suggestions, and put them at ease. Instrumentalists face the same challenges. Every horn player I have ever worked with has stories about the session with some clueless guy asking him to do the impossible. You can be the cause of their musical PTSD, or be the hero that contributed to some great music. The trash heap of promising careers is overflowing with bad attitudes. Those with great success have embraced this reality, and strive to make the experience as positive as possible.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cover to Cover

I have received some requests for another visit into the subject of cover songs. For this playlist I've selected examples in which the cover artist has imposed their sound onto the song in a significant way. If you find yourself fascinated by the world of covers and are thirsty for more, I recommend you check out the Coverville podcast. Coverville is the "go to" place if you want to immerse yourself in covers.

  1. Crazy - Violent Femmes: To be honest, I could listen to the Gnarls Barkley original over and over and never tire of it. I think it's a perfect song, both harmonically and melodically. Gordon Gano's vocals give it a whole new feeling of mental instability.
  2. I Will Survive - Cake: All Hipster irony aside, this rocks. I believe they are are being earnest about the subject matter. Who can't relate to a good break up song? 
  3. Personal Jesus - Johnny Cash: This could have been a list of 25 Cash covers since he has recorded so many great ones. Cash captures what I always imagined Depeche Mode wanted the song to be, a dust bowl folk song dripping with spirituality. 
  4. I Fought the Law - The Clash: This song was first recorded by The Crickets, and made popular by the Bobby Fuller Four. Neither performances feel as if they come from residents of our correctional facilities. The Clash's take on the other hand ...
  5. Nothing Compares 2 U - Sinead O'Connor: This is a cover ?? Why yes it is. It was written by Prince, (the shorthand in the title is a dead giveaway), for a band named The Family in 1985. If this version doesn't give you goosebumps, you may wanna check yourself for a pulse. 
  6. Higher Ground - RHCP: Out-funk Stevie Wonder ???  Well maybe not, but the Chili Pepper's do give this track an energy all their own. 
  7. Everytime - Glen Hansard: Hansard has an amazing ability to hypnotize the listener. I hear him sing and everything else disappears. I was blissfully unaware of the Britney Spears original, and I'd like to think I've scored a few points with you for revealing that fact. 
  8. The Passenger - Kid Loco: Hey, I couldn't sing a song in French so I'm not touching the "English as a second language" aspect of this. It doesn't replace Iggy, (no one can), but it has a charming groove for you to hitch a ride on.
  9. Superstar - Sonic Youth: You may know the Carpenters version, but that wasn't the original either. It was co-written by Leon Russell, a man you may have read about in some groundbreaking blogs such as this one. It has been recorded by many others, however none sound like Sonic Youth. 
  10. Hard to Handle - The Black Crowes: Is there an Otis Redding song that hasn't been covered ? This Memphis soul classic easily saunters into the realm of southern rock.
  11. The Candy Man - Cibo Matto: Sammy Davis Jr. might roll over in his grave if he heard this. Sometimes you can get away with keeping very few aspects of the original song. This version threw out most everything except the lyrics. I can't say they are being faithful to the song's original intention, but it's a wonderfully dark and mysterious track.
  12. Tained Love/Where Did our Love Go? - Soft Cell: Here's a 2 for 1 deal for ya! Tained Love  was originally a B-side by Gloria Jones that was listened to by no one. Where Did our Love Go? was a far more successful release by The Supremes. This synth pop medley is easily one of the better musical contributions from the 80's. 
  13. Proud Mary - Ike and Tina Turner: I discovered this while digging though my mother's collection of 45's at the age of 7. They took a middle of the road Creedence Clearwater Revival song and turned it into a soul classic. I found the studio recording to be lacking the energy of this Soul Train performance. The recording quality is less than stellar, but I hope the mental image of Don Cornelius dancing makes up for that. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Creative Process

I must confess I am not a regular NPR listener. Not because I have no interest in the content, I just don't have a good environment to really enjoy it. My impression was everyone listened to NPR on the car radio, or on their iPhone while trying to avoid the middle seat on the commuter train. I don't own a car and the commute from the couch to my chair in the studio is about 24 feet, not nearly enough time for All Songs Considered. Oddly enough I like to get my informational content from visual sources such as The Charlie Rose show, The Colbert Report, or South Park. Thankfully some of the really great stuff finds its way into my consciousness via surfing the Internet. I'd like share one such gem with you.

The creative process is a complicated one. It's a daunting task to create something when you are starting with a blank piece of paper, a lens without a subject, or the sound of silence. Early in your career you will come up with countless ideas and just as many reasons why every one of those ideas are shit. It won't end there. These thoughts will have a return engagement deep into your career when you stretch creatively and try new things. Perhaps you have been writing kick-ass poetry for years but that novel you just started is at a "Paris Hilton" reading level. Your Cello sonata is masterful but there isn't a hit of ecstasy large enough to make that dance remix palatable. I hope what you are about to hear will put all that self doubt where it belongs, into perspective. It certainly did for me.

So without further ado, wisdom from the host of NPR's This American Life, Ira Glass.

The wonderful animation was done by filmmaker and designer David Shiyang Liu

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

You really can stick your Elbow in your ear .....

I was first introduced to the English band Elbow in 2008 by a friend and I've been in love with the band ever since. They produce an intelligent and thoughtful brand of epic Alt-Rock, (I hate labels too but we need some point of reference). The music is rarely overproduced and unlike many rock artists these days, they make use of dynamics, (both loud and soft). The band is like a blue collar version of Radiohead, dirtier with a lot less "art school" baggage. The band's vocalist Guy Garvey has a beautifully gruff voice that sounds as if he's pouring out his feelings after one too many pints at the pub. Now I have a proclivity for singers that don't fit the traditional picture of what a vocalist should be, and he fits perfectly in that list of misfit voices. Garvey is also one of the few English singers I can think of whose Anglo accent is apparent when singing, (no, that fake Green Day stuff doesn't count). 

They have released 5 studio albums plus one compilation of B-sides and such. The most successful and my favorite by far is The Seldom Seen Kid, released in 2008. In 2009 they released a live performance of this album with the BBC Orchestra that is really outstanding. Rock artists with orchestras are a very mixed bag, sometimes wonderful, sometimes not. I encourage you take some time and get to know this inspiring group via the playlist below. The video is one of the more interesting integrations off the live album. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Faking It: Orchestration via Samples

Today's composers are often faced with budget constraints that make it impossible to have a large orchestra perform their score. Creating sample based versions instead is a reality for most writers. If you find yourself listening to what you have created, (or what you have paid someone to create) and are thinking "This just doesn't sound like an orchestra", I may have the reason for it. I believe a weak link for many composers is a lack of knowledge in writing and orchestrating for an orchestra. Of course we are all limited to the capability of any sample library. They can't do everything, however, they are extremely powerful and can create something very convincing. Think of it this way, it's very hard to successfully emulate a sound artificially if you don't have a real understanding of how that sound is created acoustically. I'm not implying there are rules, or a right way and a wrong way. I'm suggesting a deep understanding of the range and capabilities of instruments will result in a more convincing product. So, how do we improve?

Finding an orchestral piece that you really like, and purchasing the study score will go a long way in your education. Most of the major works are now in the public domain, so the scores are quite cheap (for example, The Rite of Spring at $9.95, is a steal). Once you have soaked in that score move on a different composer, or era. Keep in mind that the art of orchestration didn't really begin until the 1800's. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, etc, tend to be relatively simple examples of what those instruments are capable of, both in color and combination. From Beethoven, through the Romantic period, and into the 20th century there is a vast library of genius to get lost in.

Another must have is a good orchestration book. There are some great choices out there. If you really want to get knee-deep into it, I recommend The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler. It's pricey and you will need the CD-Rom companion set which doubles the price. A more affordable option that is geared towards a beginner would be The Technique of Orchestration by Kent Kennan. This package includes audio CD's with the hardcover for a bit more than the cost of the Adler textbook. If those excursions to Cochella or Bonnaroo have left your bank account balance looking like your shoe size, Rimski-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration is your answer. It's under $15 and covers ranges of instruments, the tonal shades within those ranges, and colors of instrument combinations. This is an art that will take some time to master, but in the process you will grow as a composer and as an orchestrator.

For those of you that haven't listened to a lot of orchestral music and lack favorites, here are some recommendations for you:

  • Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: Bartok - An isolated example of the string section and all it can do, plus the eerie use of percussion. Not public domain yet, so the score won't be found for $20, but it's worth every penny. 
  • Til Eulenspiegel, Zarathustraand Ein Heldenleben: Tone Poems by Strauss - Excellent examples of brass writing. All three pieces available in one book.  
  • Petrushka: Stravinsky - You can get familiar with the woodwind family with this score. I spent an entire semester in college studying just the woodwinds.
  • Pictures at an Exhibition: Mussorgsky - Originally composed for piano, later orchestrated by Ravel. The Eulenburg edition of the study score has both the orchestra and the original piano part together. It's fantastic to view it this way and see the choices Ravel makes.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

America's Only Original Art Form

As we approach the celebration of Independence Day, the nation will celebrate all that is truly American: General Motors, rampant Diabetes, Congressional gridlock.... Oddly, we won't spend much time celebrating the only true American art form, Jazz. Sure it's easy to ridicule Jazz... it can take itself too seriously, be way too intellectual or branch off into something akin to a sharp stick in the ear (I'm looking at you Kenny G). So for my part in rectifying this patriotic oversight, I would like to introduce you some great Jazz artists that aren't on the iTunes top Jazz downloads.

I started my journey to becoming a professional composer as a saxophonist, Tenor sax to be exact. I spent days upon days listening and studying the great players and grew to appreciate the wealth of talent that had come before me. For many that enjoy jazz on the edges, names like Coltrane, Rollins, Getz and Bird are quite familiar. I can tell you there have been some amazing saxophone talents over the years beyond those keystones of the art form. This list could be three times the size but I'm sticking to mostly classic Jazz artists that helped lay the foundation for the modern players of today.

On Tenor:

  • Johnny Griffin - Incredible technique, notes at the speed of light yet not sterile at all. 
  • Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis - I love the guttural nature of his tone, a soulful player that borders on early R&B. I desperately wanted to sound like him.
  • Hank Mobley - The roundest sweetest tone, like Tenor sax 1.0 
  • Jimmy Heath - "If you know Jimmy Heath, you know Be-Bop" ~ Dizzy Gillespie 
  • Joe Henderson - Saw him live my first year in college and I was hooked. 
  • James Moody - Multi-talented instrumentalist Tenor, Alto & Flute, everything he played had a smile on it. 

On Alto:

  • Sonny Stitt - one word .... Swingin'!!! The epitome of the swing groove. 
  • Art Pepper - Along with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan created the sound of West Coast Jazz.
  • Cannonball Adderly - He played on Miles "Kind Of Blue", I think that says it all. 
  • Jackie McLean - A bluesy version of Bird with a tone that cuts like a knife. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The great Leon Russell

Leon Russell helped shape the sound of rock and roll piano as we know it. As a LA session player in the early 60's, he played on many iconic songs for a boatload of artists such as The Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, The Crystals, Darlene Love and Frank Sinatra. He was the guy you wanted on your session. By the late 60's, he was writing arrangements for likes of The Stones and Glenn Campbell. He appeared at George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" and was the bandleader for Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour. Russell is also a great singer/songwriter releasing over 30 albums of his own. His credits are endless ... and look at this guy, what a BAD ASS !!! The Keith Richards of piano (minus the heroin addiction). Sadly once the 80's arrived, the sounds of popular music had drastically changed, and the demand for his talents had disappeared. Thankfully there would be an opportunity for us to be reminded of his genius.

In 2009 Elton John was at a point in his career where he didn't know what his next project should be. While listening to Leon's Greatest hits inspiration was born. Elton called Leon and asked if he wanted to make a record. Elton had known Leon back in the 70's and wanted the world to see what an influence Leon was to him and to all of rock and roll. Leon said sure and in 2010 they recorded the "The Union". It received critical acclaim upon release and for my money it's well deserved. Produced by the omnipresent T-Bone Burnett, it's a great blend of blues and rock. Some outstanding guest musicians on this too - Booker T, Marc Ribot, and Jim Keltner just to name a few. Most impressive though is how well Elton and Leon compliment each other while both playing on the same song. Pianos take up a lot of space sonically yet these two never seem to  step on each other's musical thoughts.

I love learning more about the process that goes into creating an album. Luckily Cameron Crowe made a documentary about "The Union" for HBO. It's very engaging, although there is a bit too much Elton and not enough Leon for my tastes. Elton has had more than enough time in the spotlight and it would have been nice to hear more from Leon about his life and work. Having said that, I do recommend checking it out. Sadly HBO seem to be holding this hostage. It's not on Netflix or iTunes so if you are an HBO subscriber you can see it via HBO GO, if not find a friend that is.

Here's a teaser for the film and few of my favorite Leon creations:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Amy Beach

If you have been a fan of Classical music for any length of time, it can be difficult to discover something new. For most people, even musicians, Amy Beach is not a recognizable name. Considering she was the first female American composer of any stature back in the late 1800's, one would think her name would have made the rounds by now. It's quite surprising since she was well respected in a male-dominated field during her life, yet history has somewhat forgotten her.

Beach was a child prodigy as a pianist, and later composed a piano concerto, a violin sonata, chamber music and many pieces for solo piano ... all with minimal formal education. I will admit I do not know her entire catalogue well, but for me the one that stands out is her "Symphony in E Minor", also known as "The Gaelic Symphony". It's a wonderful piece with a wide range of moods, from pastoral to very intense. Like Dvorak and Stravinsky, Beach draws on folk music for her themes, in this case music from Ireland. Although the themes are Irish, her music doesn't come across as a Lucky Charms commercial.  It has something of an American sound and feel to it. Beach not only excels as a composer, but also as an orchestrator.  The string and woodwind writing are of particular note. She creates beautiful color combinations both within those sections, and with some interplay between them.    

It is a bit of a time investment, about 40 minutes, but I hope you will take the time to explore this piece and perhaps some of her other works. This slice of American musical history would be a great accompaniment to your Sunday morning coffee.

I'm afraid Youtube did not have any good options for listening, but I have included a Spotify playlist for you. This recording is also available at Amazon but not itunes. For those of you looking for a study score, can find it here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Argument For Vinyl

I am not a hipster. I don't have facial hair from the 1890's, I won't tell you how I discovered "that" years before you did, and I don't insist on artisanal mayonnaise. I do however, listen to records .....

Like most of you I ditched the pops and crackles of vinyl for the siren song of digital convenience long ago. I embraced CD's, then MP3's, and then streaming channels. I was content with this choice for quite some time. I never really loved MP3's, but having every piece of music I owned at my fingertips was hard to say no to, and Spotify..... Christ !! There was always something missing though, and I realized that my musical soul may have been sold in a Faustian bargain. I had lost the connection to my music.

There was no grand design in finding my way back to this ancient technology. My turntable had always been around and I still had a few select LP's from my youth. They never garnered much attention but they were here waiting for me to see the light. For a few years now I had been picking up some Record Store Day releases but that was it, just a once a year event to support a small business and hang with music geeks. Then last year it kinda stuck, the light bulb went on, I really missed this ....

No you can't drag your records to the gym or spin 'em in the car, but you can sit your ass down, pour your favorite adult beverage, and listen to some music. I mean REALLY listen. Now I'm not suggesting you torch that hard drive like Hendrix at Monterey. You wanna download that infectious Ke$ha tune or Spotify some one hit wonder, go right ahead. What I do suggest, is for those albums that you have a real connection to, the ones that helped you though that break-up, or demand your best "air guitar", or the ones you just plain love, deserve more. They deserve a place on the shelf and your undivided attention. Control your ADD tendencies, hide the smartphone, and experience a collective musical work in it's intended order instead of the random shuffle we have become all too comfortable with. Ogle that artwork, read those liner notes, let yourself drift into the bliss of a great album. Sure those records will require some care and upkeep, but you will have something you can hold, collect, and admire.

Article after article will tell you vinyl sounds better, the bass is tighter, it's analog man ..... I'm not going there. What I will tell you, is when the stylus rides that groove, it feels like I'm in the same room with the music .... It's alive, as if Jack and Meg White set up in my living room to entertain me and I'm a part of it. So if you have a turntable and can remember where you stashed it, dust it off and give it a spin. You may well be surprised by what you hear and feel.

Once you drag out those old records you may realize your collection isn't in the best shape and you want to pick some stuff up. As far as recommendations go, all that classic rock, funk, and jazz will be a great listening experience. In the event you would like some more recent titles that really sound great on vinyl, here are a few of my favorites from the last few years.

  1. Blunderbuss ~ Jack White 
  2. Brothers ~ The Black Keys
  3. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga ~ Spoon 
  4. Bad as Me ~ Tom Waits 
  5. Lungs ~ Florence and the Machine
  6. ... Like Clockwork ~ Queens of the Stone Age 
  7. Trouble Will Find Me ~ The National

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Kids Are Alright !!!

What were you up to when you were in your teens ???  Whatever it was it's not as impressive as what you are about to hear. The Skins are a Brooklyn band on actor Adrian Grenier's label Wreckroom Records, (he's gotta do something with that Entourage money). The members range in age from 13 to 19 years old and sound as if they were the love child of your favorite classic rock station and a singer from Stax records circa 1963. It's a great combination of gritty Rock and Roll with an injection of soulful vocals. The whole group is quite impressive but singer Bayli Mckeithan really sings her ass off.

They released this single and a 3 song EP early 2012, but I'm pretty sure it slipped under your radar. If you like what you hear, pony up some dollars and get an MP3 copy for yourself. You can also check them out this Wednesday June 12th at Webster Hall opening up for The Heavy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


It takes a great deal of vision to re-imagine a song in a completely new way. Often it ends up feeling more like a joke than an truthful interpretation of the song's meaning. I've been guilty of this many times. The graveyard of my college creations include Hip Hop versions of Bon Jovi tunes and a mashup of sorts between the theme from Rawhide and Stravinsky's Petrushka. I kid you not.

In contrast, here is a serious rendition of Portishead's Sour Times by The Civil Wars. This is a complete and honest take on a haunting song. One could argue it's merely an "unplugged" rendition of a Trip Hop tune, but they have done so much more with it. Unlike the cimbalom laced, Bond-esque original, they do not emulate the wonderfully disinterested vocal performance. This is a deliberate and impassioned plea by Joy Williams and John Paul White, whose voices intertwine into a single entity with some beautiful phrasing. It transports you to a very different place. If you are unfamiliar with them, I would suggest taking the time to get to know their work. They have a knack for taking the essential elements from a song and running with them to a very impactful place. Their cover of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean is life changing.

This certainly doesn't replace the original in the way that Aretha Franklin replaces Otis Redding's Respect but they have created something that truly is their own. The Civil Wars have a new album on the horizon which I am very much looking forward to.


Welcome and thank you for visiting my little corner of the internet. If you're hoping for a place to find out where I went on vacation or how much I dislike Taylor Swift, you're going to be very disappointed. This blog is a vehicle to explore all that is great about making and listening to music. You won't see any scathing reviews or bitter ramblings ... (well, you probably won't). What you will see are the tricks and techniques I've learned over my career, plus a myriad of music that I find inspiring. I extend an invite to professionals, the aspiring and the folks that just love music.