Friday, June 22, 2012

We've Moved

Come one, come all to my new website/blog/clearinghouse for all musical activities,!

I've had a blast writing here at "Music and the Bubble," but as I begin my journey out of the Orange Bubble, I feel it's time to move out of my old digital digs as well.

On the new site, you can listen to my compositions, read my writings, and check out when I'm performing next. I'll even link to some favorite old "Music in the Bubble" posts.

Hope to catch you in the new place. Over and out.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Herbie Hancock is both the most lovable and the most inscrutable of Miles Davis’ still-active pianist-protégés. He’s less commercially cloying than Chick Corea, who hasn’t found a lucrative tribute band or reunion tour he didn’t like. He’s not an excruciating perfectionist like Keith Jarrett, who still yells at audience members for coughing. Hancock is quick to strike up a good rapport with the audience without making it seem that he likes to hear himself talk. You actually seem to know the guy. He’s not some guarded, frizzy-haired genius, or someone who hasn’t done anything new in fifteen years.
But once Hancock sits down to play, all bets are off. You really have no idea which Herbie you’re going to hear until he touches that first key. Hancock has traversed wide swaths of aesthetic ground throughout his five-decade career – from abstract, harmonically-complex acoustic jazz in the ‘60s, to electrified fusions of the ‘70s, to proto-Hip Hop, to recent pop crossovers, with dabblings in classical along the way – and everyone has a favorite period. During his solo performance at McCarter Theater a few Mondays ago, Hancock seemed hell-bent on both pleasing and pissing off everyone at some point, conforming to no one’s narrative but his own.
Since Hancock has been recently touring with a full quartet, this solo performance promised to showcase Hancock at his most elemental, stripped of rehearsed tendencies. This promise was met from the start when Hancock opened with an abstract exploration of harmony and color on his grand piano. He hit dense, rolling chords, using copious sustain pedal, letting the audience live in each sonority. There was an intense purity to this introduction, no stylistic hallmarks, just searching. Gradually, a recognizable melody slipped into the painting – that of “Footprints,” a tune by Hancock’s Miles Davis band mate Wayne Shorter. But even with this introduction of a sonic anchor, the explorations continued, unhampered. The piece became a more classical theme and variations, rather than a traditional jazz theme and jam. The melody was ever present, the harmonies, rhythms, and forms floating around it. Every so often, Hancock would hold a chord for extended moment and bring his left hand up to his chin, actively pondering where to go next. It was as if you were waiting on a musical precipice with him, not knowing what would happen once he made the jump.
After a similar exploration on his own classic tune “Dolphin Dance,” Hancock plugged himself in. Apparently missing his band, Hancock used an array of computers and synthesizers to conjure a virtual orchestra that played a moody, new-agey arrangement of Hancock’s composition “Sonrisa.” As the orchestra cycled through programmed riffs, Hancock added solo filigree on the piano. The piece developed into a concerto for improvising piano and orchestra, more interesting in concept than in execution.
What followed was for some a devolution, for others the highlight of the evening. Without waiting even a beat for the applause to fade, Hancock booted up a funky drum groove from his beat box, followed quickly by the instantly recognizable bass line of “Canteloupe Island,” a funk chestnut, since appropriated by many a television commercial. Backed by his band-in-a-box, Hancock slid from piano to synthesizer, letting his different personas take a unique solo. Then he picked up the much-maligned keytar, an instrument that most people believe died a timely death in 1989. As I tried to hold back laughter and listen beyond the oh-so-cheesy patch Hancock was using, I noticed that he takes this instrument very seriously. While his right hand flew around the keyboard’s upper range, his left hand stayed put on the neck, pushing buttons to bend and stretch the notes – lingua franca for horn players and guitarists, but impossible with the distinctly quantized notes of a piano. It was as if Hancock was challenging the audience members to drop their preconceptions of the instrument and its sounds and hear the inherent substance of each note. For a brief moment, we all got a glimpse into the reason for one of Hancock’s most maddening tendencies – to hide his immaculate touch behind a wall of electronics.
While Herbie Hancock may draw the ire of many a jazz traditionalist with this penchant for unnatural sounds (I’ll even admit that his patch of assorted grunts, “oh yeahs,” and “come ons” was a bit much), he’s no pop-savvy sellout. No matter the style, Hancock’s music is always about finding something new – a new sound, a new harmony, a new way of playing an old song. Just because a particular sound seems silly upon first hearing it doesn’t mean it’s not worth serious exploration. Hancock seems just find with remaining an enigma to listeners everywhere. He’ll just keep asserting his musical freedom, challenging us to throw off our own shackles of listening prejudices. As Hancock takes on his new role as UN Goodwill Ambassador, I can’t think of a more appropriate advocate for free musical expression, no matter the sound or style.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Let's Go Promming

NPR's been doing a series of stories about high school proms this week, including this little ditty from the All Songs Considered folks about alternate prom anthems.

This got me thinking about what songs I wish I had at my high school prom. So in flash of post-thesis (more on this big thing later) procrastination, I have compiled an ideal playlist of prom awesomeness, or at least idiosyncratic-ness.

If you are a Spotify user, you can listen to the whole playlist here. Or just check out the youtube links.

Anyways, here's the list with pithy commentary.

Gotta start strong, and some Sly Stone retrofitted with B3 organ, violin, and energy bursting at the seams fits the bill.

As per the rules for mixtapes set down by "High Fidelity," you gotta kick it up a notch on the 2nd track. This one's probably the catchiest punk anthem out there, with the right groove for those hilarious "Breakfast Club" dance moves.

To bring things back a bit, we spin this groovy neo-soul number, complete with sick horn battle. From my cover band experience, this baby keeps the bodies shaking, even at low temperatures.

Big voice? Deep grooves? Yes and yes. No brainer here.

Frere Monk - Duke Ellington
Yeah, we kick it old school around here. This one swings rul hard.

We also kick it international. Nigerian boogie, circa 1979. Teens are about the most unsubtle people on the planet, so why not put on a song with a most unsubtle lyric?

A pitch-perfect teen anthem, via Wes Anderson's pitch-perfect teen movie, Rushmore.

Little known fact: mandolins can groove as hard as booming kick drums. This one's a case in point.

Same thing goes for fiddle and cello. These were probably played at high school proms through 1900, so why not bring them back?

Love and Anger - Theo Bleckmann
Kate Bush's original is good too, but this one just has that organic bounce that so much dance music lacks. I don't care if the volume may be a little low. It just makes the groove experience warm and inviting, rather than cold and declarative (i.e. dance or else!)

Another one with a big voice and a deep groove. Plus epic harmonica!

I love it when DJ's spin it because it grooves harder than anything else they play. I hate it when bands cover it because they can't match the groove. So these cats just do it their own way and make it a super-jam. Perfect for keeping everyone moving for a good 10 minutes straight.

This is when the band/DJ fucks with the crowd a bit. Greasy half-time funk shuffle that then reveals itself to be in 9. Whoops.

The cheeky spurned love anthem with a hefty dose of soul. A great bit of ironic fun for this situation.

Over the top, just like stereotypical teenage behavior. Except this song does it in all the right ways.

Prismatica - Craig Taborn
We continue to venture in crazy electronic territory and begin the sonic overload. Also, the song gets 1000 bonus points for making the viola sound positively badass. Good job, Mat Maneri.

Again, I'm really into this whole "organic groove" thing. Vijay, Stephen Crumb, and Marcus Gilmore have that in spades. And here they keep it to 4/4 to allow even the most uncoordinated of young people to join the fun.

Sonic overload complete.

Coming to the end of the night, gotta pull out all the stops. Chris Daddy Dave brings the fat groove and Stokley adds soaring vocals. The lyrics are simple, but really capture the messiness of this whole time in life.

A little too depressing for a cathartic penultimate number? Not with the Bad Plus cover. Grooves in all the right ways, has these epic modulations, and orchestral chimes to boot. No better way to flush away one's high school life in song form.

And now we end the evening with the slow dance. Similar in bombastic poignance to the Smith's classic "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," (I'd rather die with you than live without you) but with a better tempo. Maybe it's all a bit excessive, but so is high school, and so especially are high school proms. The best possible ender.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Little Update

So I'm sitting in this very awkward, institutional-feeling cubicle at the San Francisco Airport while I write this.

What is this devotee of all things New York music doing on the west coast, you ask?

Actually, my journey is far from over. I'm about to board a flight for Sydney, Australia for a tour with the Princeton University Jazz Composers Collective.

It certainly has been a while since I wore my "musician writing about music" hat, rather than the "wannabe critic" hat. So instead of dropping all kinds of snark on others' music, I'm going to talk about my own music-making over these next 10 days.

Come back often for photos, funny anecdotes, and maybe some incisive analysis about cultural exchange in a wifi world.

Until then, I have a plane to catch.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Oscars and Musical Pillaging

The Academy Award nominees were announced today. Cue fanfare!

For the few of you that have been dedicate readers of "Music in the Bubble" over the past two years, you may remember that I used to do a bit of film reviewing (see here, here, here, and here). And like everyone, I am awards obsessed, even when I try to convince myself they don't mean anything, and always get it wrong (Crash? Over Brokeback? Really? REALLY?).

So I can't help from commenting on today's nominee announcement in some way. First, the category of what I'm excited about:

1. "Tree of Life" for best picture! And Terrence Malick for best director.

This was definitely my favorite movie of the year, but I'll admit it can be a difficult viewing experience without the proper mindset. It certainly has won its share of accolades (Palme d'Or at Cannes), but I didn't think it would be acknowledged by the more middle-brow Academy. If nominees reflect what Hollywood thinks of itself, then I feel "Tree of Life" reflects their highest artistic aspirations.

2. "The Muppets" get a nomination for best song.

Most people are talking about the fact that there are only two songs nominated (I think it's because they changed the rules so that only songs that actually appear in the film can be nominated, and only one from a particular film). But I'm just excited thinking about Brett McKenzie/Jason Segal/Walter the Muppet getting to do ridiculous things on big-time TV. I disagree over their choice of song though. I would put my money on the opening "Life's a Happy Song," the most joyously upbeat, earnest song I've heard all year.

3. "The Artist" did not get the most nominations (though it did get a lot).

Ok, so I have some problems with this movie. There are a lot of neat tricks throughout, it's well-shot and such, but it never really coalesced for me into an affecting, singular product. The story and characters felt somewhat overshadowed by all the gimmickry. It still may walk away with the top prize, but without all the technical award nominations, there's a good-sized segment of the Academy voting bloc (the technicians/cinematographers) that will likely not be voting for it. If I had to put money on anything, it would be "The Descendants," (as a makeup for "Sideways" and the rest of Payne's career), or "The Help" (the closest thing nominated to a successful, middlebrow drama). The techies will probably split between "Hugo" and "Tree of Life," leaving these actor-driven dramas at the top.

But anyway, my major complaint with the artist comes with its musical score (and its best score nomination of course, and it's win at the Golden Globes). This is my greatest concern going into the awards. Yes, I did just bury the lead again.

Ludovic Bource's score for "The Artist" has generated about as much controversy as a musical score can. A little over two weeks ago, actress Kim Novak, co-star of the Hitchcock film "Vertigo," saw the much-buzzed "Artist." Soon after, she bought out a full page ad in the trade magazine Variety lambasting the film for using music from Bernard Herrmann's famous "Vertigo" score. She called the usage a "rape," feeling that her body of work "...has been violated by the movie." Novak strongly objected to the film's re-appropriation of the music as a way to score a cheap "in" with the audience, eliciting emotions that were a product of "Vertigo" rather than the new film itself.

Bource was taken aback by this comment, and responded on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (and elsewhere, everyone asked him the same question) that the use of Herrmann's score was in tribute. Since "The Artist" is a love-letter to the art of making films, then it's only appropriate to reference famous bits of film history. Bernard Herrmann's widow Norma, then responded on BBC Radio 4, saying that although the producers of "The Artist" had never asked or even said that they were using Herrmann's cues, she said that he would have approved of their use in this context.

I agree with Novak that the use of Herrmann's "Veritgo" cues was improper, but only because of the fact that I agree with Herrmann's widow that pre-existing film music would have been acceptable to use as a send-up. When I saw "The Artist," I had known of the musical controversy, and paid close attention to when the Herrmann music popped up. I was expecting to have it jump out at me, provide a substantial musical change of pace, and be evident that this was in fact a musical reference. Instead, the famous "Vertigo" love theme blended imperceptibly into the rest of the score. The movie used a re-recorded version, giving it the same timbre as the Bource's new music cues. Bource's own musical aesthetic is that of a normal, contemporary film composer - it's subtle, and more about the general atmosphere than tunes or intricate counterpoint. It certainly is far removed from the overstatement of classic composers like Herrmann, Korngold, and others whose scores demanded the attention of the viewer, and became a character themselves.

Because Bource uses the "Vertigo" themes in this way, reorchestrating them rather than playing them in their original, grainy atmosphere, he isn't as much sending up Herrmann's work as much as plagiarizing it. By altering Herrmann's music to fit his particular aesthetic, Bource is admitting that he can't write a great tune like Herrmann's "Vertigo" love theme, and so must steal it and record it in a way that divorces the theme from its original sound-context. A true send-up makes it clear that one is referencing or lampooning a particular style. It has to be obvious, like "Back in the USSR" - the Beatles sending up the Beach Boys. In his interviews, Bource is trying to make it seem that his use of Herrmann's music is in loving tribute. Bource may actually feel that way, but the way he actually uses the "Vertigo" cues feels like a robbery rather than a tribute. It would be same as if James Horner said that the reason he steals themes from Copland, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich is that they are in tribute to their great work.

Like music critic Alex Ross said, it could be some complex meta-message about the borrowing of Art in a media-saturated world, or it could just be that Bource is a hack. A hack that's the odds-on favorite to win the biggest music award in Hollywood.

I'm not saying that I am against borrowing music for different movies. It's many times hugely effective. Kubrick was an expert (all that crazy Gyorgy Ligeti in 2001, all of Clockwork Orange), Wes Anderson is an expert (um, like everything), "Tree of Life" was made by its intense use of various classical themes. It can even be effective to recompose a theme into a new soundworld, what Bource tried to do in "The Artist." In my favorite film from last year - "The Social Network" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross decided to arrange Edvard Grieg's famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from the first Peer Gynt Suite in a weird, electronic way to accompany the big regata a little over halfway through the film.

This usage works because it plays on contradictions, like all good, clear references do. Reznor and Ross's score was eerie and ambient in the best way, and very un-classical. By appropriating a famous classical theme for the scene that symbolizes the Winkelvii's inability to be truly the best at anything, the score effectively satirizes the dying old world of aristocratic privilege they live in, a world being taken over by technology. Reznor and Ross were not trying to be Grieg, like Bource is trying to be Herrmann, but were using Grieg to make a specific point.

The ineffectiveness of Bource's appropriation of the music of "Vertigo" crystalizes for the me the problems of "The Artist" in general. "The Artist" is allegedly a tribute to the silent film era, but it doesn't embrace the sound world of silent films. Bource's score is an amalgam of Herrmann-ish and noir tropes. There aren't any notable mad-cap scenes with ridiculous percussion sound effects. The era that Bource seems to fetishize is not the silent era, but the Hollywood heyday of the '40s and '50s. In this way, "The Artist" feels like a tribute to a fictional past, an era that never actually existed. Having such nostalgia for a time that didn't actually occur is a very problematic idea - an idea central to the conservative and Tea Party mindset. While a film like "Singin' in the Rain" or a musical like "Follies" gets to the heart of bygone eras of entertainment through their embrace of contradiction and pastiche and clear references to famous films of that actual era, "The Artist" prefers to rewrite film history, and steal the good stuff to make it seem like a well-made movie.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Today Meets Yesterday on Latin Jazz Double Bill

It's well known that today meets yesterday in a museum, but a concert hall is also a nice place for intergenerational communication. Sometimes its just musicians in tuxedos and audience members communing with a dead white guy. But it's nicer when there's a sense of dialogue between musicians themselves, like an old master and an up-and-comer.

The McCarter Theater here at Princeton had just this kind of concert on Friday evening, pairing Cuban piano wunderkind Alfredo Rodriguez with his legendary countryman (and rare US visitor), pianist Chucho Valdés. While both performances were standouts on their own, putting them together helped highlight how the two take their Cuban musical heritage into new places.

Some assorted observations from the evening are below the jump.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Read (Music) is to Not Know?

Late yesterday evening, jazz critic Nate Chinen posted a rather innocuous tweet. He wrote, "Sometimes I think jazz musicians underestimate the appeal of a band performing without music stands."

Cue firestorm.

I'm not going to report on everyone who said what, just that it touched a lot of nerves across various musical communities. Drummer Matt Wilson chimed in with remembrances of Dewey Redman. Sara Kirkland Snider and Judd Greenstein spoke from experience in the world of alt-classical. And of course the prodigious tweeter-cum-trumpeter Nicholas Payton had to get in on the action this morning ("It ain't the tool, it's the fool using it," he said).

So I responded as well with the following tweet. "[I]s it that there's less tune-learning by ear now & jazz people refer to selves as composers not songwriters?"

Chinen responded by noting that this is definitely a factor, but then noting the impressiveness of working bands that play complex music without charts - Vijay Iyer's trio and the Bad Plus.

So now I will try to answer why this set off such a firestorm, what I really meant in my tweet, and what I think about Chinen's response.

What's the big deal?

Jazz people always love a negative opinion. The oft-repeated jazz is dead meme, Kurt Rosenwinkel's modern jazz sucks rant, Nicholas Payton's post-modern New Orleans-jazz as a word has no meaning thing. Stuff like that catches on. Chinen's tweet certainly has enough snark to catch on with jazz folk, and it gets an entire idea across within the 140 character limit, so all the easier to respond to.

But it can't just be the negativity thing. There were those classical people getting in on the threat too. The great thing about Chinen's tweet is that it gets at a fundamental issue of how to teach and learn music. If a small jazz group is reading music on the bandstand, it probably hasn't rehearsed the music much. The group hasn't had time to internalize it. Written music allows for quicker uptake of more music, but the problem is that there is so much more to a piece of music than what is on the page. Chinen seemed to be speaking to an apparent epidemic in jazz where bands use seemingly use gigs as rehearsal time (even affects the best of us, like Ravi Coltrane) and aren't putting forth a strong, fully-baked product.

Which leads me to my tweet

I remember hearing guitarist Mark Stewart of the Bang On a Can All Stars (and Paul Simon's music director) talk about rehearsing a piece for the group by Ornette Coleman. Stewart said that Coleman said something to effect of, "We've had notation for hundreds of years and all it does is give us more problems." Coleman has a point in that notation as we know it isn't the best way of communicating many kinds of musical gestures. Transcribing jazz solos (especially Coleman's) can many times be an exercise in futility because everything that makes the solo great - the particular character of the rhythmic feel, the pitch bends, the tone quality of particular notes - are impossible to completely encapsulate on paper.

When one is truly "reading" a piece of music, one's focus is devoted to playing the correct notes at the correct time, and maybe getting the correct articulations and dynamics too, if the notes and rhythms aren't too hard. Any of the "music" that actually comes out is the result of the pre-programmed instincts physically encoded into the muscle memory of the player. The performer doesn't really have time to think about musical character and inflection. Seeing a group of musicians read music they're not particularly familiar with in front of an audience is like seeing a show where all the actors carry their scripts around. The latter happens, but it's definitely not standard operating procedure.

If a musician learns a particular piece of music aurally, he or she has to learn the notes and rhythms in small chunks (based on the whole 7 +/- 2 bits of information that one can hold in short term memory at a given time), but doesn't just learn the notes and rhythms in abstract. The musician learns the qualities of each note, and how they're supposed to go from one note to the next in the phrase. By the time the musician finishes learning the piece, they have already gotten inside it, internalized all of the nuances.

However, this process is time consuming and so usually only works for short pieces, i.e. songs and tunes. Which finally brings me to the point of my tweet. (Prepare for un-backed sweeping statement). Until the mid-1960s or so, jazz was primarily a tune-based idiom. Jazz bands would play versions of pop tunes of the day, having learned them from ubiquitous radio-play or what not. When jazz musicians would write their own tunes, they would be based on pop forms (sometimes explicitly, stringing a new melody on a popular tune's chord progression) or traditional forms like the blues. (Digression: big bands needed notation to coordinate many instrumentalists, but that leads to another part of the argument). When beboppers came together for a jam session, there was never a need for charts. The players just picked out tunes they all knew.

Most jazz musicians have gotten away from this mindset. Young players trying to "get with the tradition" play songbook standards out of fake book and lose all the nuance that makes a tune good. The impulse to art-ify the jazz led most musicians to write more and more complex charts with shifting meters and through-composed solo sections. There's a shift from an aural, vernacular idiom to a written, art-oriented one (America's classical music anyone?).

It's no surprise then that jazz people refer to themselves as composers rather than songwriters. To me, I feel that a lot of post-bop falls for a fetish of complexity that only a few musicians (David Binney as the prime exception that proves the rule) can pull off. My guess is that Chinen was at a gig with one of these kinds of bands when he unloaded his tweet.

There are still a few jazz musicians that work in a no-notation, tune-oriented environment. Lee Konitz comes to mind, with his pick an arbitrary standard and hope the band catches on game. Then there's Bill Frisell and his trio, who have a unique shared vocabulary of tunes across generations and genres. And then there's the whole folk/traditional/fiddle circuit where written charts would be even more out of place. It makes sense then that a lot of the bands I've been getting into lately that seem less reliant on charts come from this folk-ish sense of tune (Jeremy Udden's Plainville, Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem).

Chinen's Response and Complexity Without Charts

I definitely agree with Chinen in terms of the impressiveness of groups like the Bad Plus and Vijay Iyer trio that can pull off tricky pieces with hardly a piece of paper music in sight. That's true with groups that play highly-complex classical music too. It's nuts seeing So Percussion rock John Cage's epic Third Construction completely memorized. And then there's Steve Reich's original group that read pieces like Music for 18 Musicians off little cheat sheets that hardly got in the way of anything.

When I perform any solo percussion piece, I always have to do it without music, just from a practical standpoint - I have to watch where my sticks are flying in order to hit the right marimba bar, or the right part of drum. Having to memorize pieces also helps me really internalize all aspects of the complex music. Having a written chart to read from may help the learning process at first, but by the time I memorize it, it's in the same performance state it would be if I learned it aurally bit by bit.

In this regard, I don't feel that the Bad Plus and Vijay Iyer playing without charts is any more special than a folk group playing a series of traditional tunes they learned by ear. The concept of "tunes" being "simple" is definitely blown up by this album by Crooked Still's Brittany Haas and composer-fiddler-laptop maven Dan Trueman (Go to track 5 for prime example). It's certainly possible to learn a lot of Vijay's and the Bad Plus's music in this way (I've done it with "Prehensile Dream" on piano). And Vijay's complexities are rhythmic rather than form or harmony-based. If Norwegian Fiddlers can learn the uneven springar meter (see the last track "Hangdog" below) by ear, it's possible to learn Vijay's crazy rhythms that way as well.

In the end, I feel performing without written music and music stands is the result of knowing music in a deep, subconscious, programmed-into-the-muscles way. One can get to this deep knowledge by learning music aurally and capturing the entire essence of each short phrase, or by memorizing a written work over a long period of time, and gradually adding more and more nuance through practice. In a performance context, it becomes more than just showing the audience you know the music so deeply, it takes on a sense of performance art. Without worrying about the mechanics of reading music, the players have the opportunity to actually look at each other and interact, move more freely and expressively, and translate the essence of the music in a more unadulterated way. It takes on a more ritualistic bent, and a greater sense of humanity. Watching someone read is boring. Watching someone speak well is fascinating. (Maybe they can make musical teleprompters?)

I'm now led back to the first part of my entry - why this tweet set off such a firestorm. Based on the amount of word vomit here, Chinen's tweet touches on huge issues that are very central to what makes a piece of music good - the what (the notes) or the how (the character). Pretty impressive for something less than 140 characters long.

Either way, I do think we can all agree on that if you're going to get up in front of an audience to play music, you better know that music damn well, music stand or no music stand.