Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of last year, start of the next

We often think of this time of year as the end of one period and the start of another, even though it's an artificial distinction. Like so many folks I tend to mull over what's gone on the last twelve months of my life, weigh the upsides and the downsides, and start thinking about what steps I might take in the coming year to improve the odds. Yes, folks, it's New Year's Resolution time!

So, aside from personal stuff, what am I going to resolve here on this last day of 2008?
  • continue the directed guitar practice I've been engaged in since October or so
  • find opportunities to perform more regularly and to get paid for it sometimes, maybe, even, already...
  • write some more music
  • record more music
  • learn to sing a bit
There, that should keep me busy!

Happy new year...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Playing solo

A few years back I got it into my head that I should pursue solo jazz guitar playing... just to the level of being able to play background music for parties, restaurants, gallery openings, that kind of thing, and maybe make a little coin without having to have a band and all the trappings that brings. So I spent some time learning how to make up simple arrangements of suitable tunes, and worked on being able to play bass lines and chords and melody more-or-less simultaneously. A few years ago I recorded a couple of these and put them up on my website.

After I developed a bit of a repertoire, I played a handful of gigs like that. (I did not try very hard to find gigs, so of course there were only a handful.)

Mixed in during this time period was a related effort to work on being a decent accompanist in a duo, with singers or other instrumentalists, while also taking some classes at the JazzSchool in Berkeley and the Community School of Music and Art in Mountain View.

Time passed, it was late 2006 and I started getting antsy to plug a solidbody guitar in to something with a bit of a roar and play Albert King licks again, so I started directing my energies in that direction and dimmed my focus on solo and duet playing.

So anyway, we had a potluck at my place of work (a.k.a. the day job that musicians are always advised not to quit) yesterday, so I offered to play some music. I have four arrangements of Christmas carols more or less under my belt at the moment, so I figured I'd do those and maybe a couple of other simple chord-and-melody arrangements I've been playing forever.

I then proceeded to play about as poorly as I ever have. Flubbing notes, completely forgetting what comes next, stuff like that – just horrible. And it wasn't just the first number – each song was another exercise in mental excruciation.

Made me stop and think – what is so great about playing solo? For me the attraction was always something like this:
  • no band practice to arrange, schedule, coordinate
  • no splitting of the proceeds
  • it's really cool to be able to play in this style
But each time I've played solo, there is always the unalterable fact:
  • if you make mistakes, you are naked – there is nothing to hide them behind.
In a band if you flub something you can usually cover it up without too much trouble. But alone, a nice fat mistake is just so glaringly obvious, hanging there in the air like a big sonic turd for all to audially whiff... whew...

Falling down all over in the safe environment of a party was embarrassing.

But I'm glad I did it. I haven't played solo in front of people for over a year and a half and have not kept up with it at all, really, so I shouldn't be at all surprised it was able to sink to such a level.

If I really want to pursue this kind of playing, I should just knuckle down and make sure I practice that type of playing more, and then get out there and do it more.

And also accept that there are always going to be mistakes and learn not to care that much about it... because if I worry about it, it just makes it worse when the inevitable happens. Mistakes that I clench over just beget more mistakes and lead to severe emotional distress.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas is hurtling headlong upon us

'Tis the season to be overwhelmed. Every year I swear I'm going to start my Christmas preparations in September next year but instead it seems that I start even later. Having relatives back east, which typically involves having to get a package in the mail by -- well, by, like, now -- adds extra pressure.

Anyway I thought I'd take a brief moment here before my wife Victoria spirits me off to Hillsdale Mall to rave about a new Christmas CD, Jingle All the Way, by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. It's just brimming with utter genius, both the playing and the arrangements. The centerpiece is a 5-and-a-half minute medley that centers on "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" but includes six other tunes threaded in and around each other in the most brilliant, inspired way. And there are three songs (I think it was three) featuring Tuvan throat singers (the Alash Ensemble), one a duet with one of them plus Béla. It's just brilliant. (Now, I know Tuvan throat singers are going to sound funny to the average American -- they sound a bit like Popeye humming in the shower might -- but seriously, give it a chance, it's amazing stuff.) Other guests on the CD include Edgar Meyer on double bass and Andy Statman on clarinet. The last cut is a "solo" rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River" on which Béla plays the banjo and piano simultaneously.

These guys are just amazing -- so brilliant, so gifted, so much fun... this just might be a Christmas album I'll be playing year round for the foreseeable future.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Late autumn update

I've been hitting the local blues jams again. Lots of fun. Playing is of course the reason I go there, but listening to some of the folks that show up is usually a blast as well. Last week Mark Hummel appeared with Steve Freund at the Little Fox Theater. Last night Garth Webber sat in with Stan Erhart's band at the Old Princeton Landing.

Last week someone taped most of one of the numbers I played on, and so you can get to see and hear me play a solo on YouTube:

I was looking forward to seeing Robben Ford next month at the Great American Music Hall but the shows have been canceled. Next show coming down the pike is the Five Peace Band – Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta (with Brian Blade filling in when Vinne goes back to work for Jeff Beck in February).

Speaking of Jeff Beck, his recently-released live CD, Performing This Week… Live At Ronnie Scott’s, came out in November. A DVD recorded during the same five nights last November was previewed on the BBC and is supposedly being released in February 2009. From the looks of it, it's going to be a fantastic DVD. The BBC ones were on YouTube but they seem to have been removed.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Last gasp of summer

Haven't been to a single music show since February... but I'm getting back on track again and hope to soon be back on the blues jam scene and performing solo, duo, and otherwise.

On the guitar playing front, I've been working hard on my alternating picking, trying to get more precise and improve my articulation. Also been getting more and more comfortable with diminished and altered dominant sounds and hopefully they'll start surfacing in my playing soon. Learning lots of lines and always learning to play them in at least two fingerings/sets of strings, facilitating finding notes and intervals in multiple places along the neck. All somewhat dry and academic but I can feel my fluidity gradually improving. Working with some books: Robben Ford's Blues and Beyond, Pat Martino's Linear Expressions... also a CD-ROM set from Larry Carlton, 335 Blues.

Listening-wise, I've found several things that Wayne Krantz did in years past: a Jay Anderson CD, Next Exit, from 1992; Victor Bailey's Low Blow, from 1999; and Jasper van't Hof's Blue Corner from 1993. Great guitar playing... I was also impressed with John McLaughlin's latest, Floating Point.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Clapton and Winwood at Madison Square Garden

Wow, thirteen months and change since I last blogged... seems a bit silly to bother but let's give it one more college try, now that my somewhat derailed life is back on the track...

I can still barely believe I allowed myself to say "sure, get me a ticket" to a friend that actually was insane enough to fly from California to NY just to to go see the Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood reunion concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in late February. As it turned out, it was the week of my mother's 90th birthday (you go, girl!) and I was going to fly back to NY that week anyway...

So there I found myself, inside that cavernous arena on a chilly Monday evening in February. I was more than half expecting to be at least halfway disappointed, but as it turned out the show was as good as it could be – the band was terrific, the principals were clearly enjoying it and in excellent form, they played a satisfactorily long time (a bit under two and a half hours), and even the sound was good inside that huge hockey barn.

They opened with the thundering riff of "Had To Cry Today," from the Blind Faith album, and then Winwood's magnificent voice came in with the first line of the song, and from there it was smiles and grins for the rest of the night. Throughout the night they played most of the rest of the Blind Faith material ("Can't Find My Way Home," "Well Alright," "Presence of the Lord," "Sleeping In the Ground"), a couple of Traffic songs, a couple of Derek and the Dominos songs, several songs from each of their solo careers, and a real surprise or two (notably the Buddy Miles tune, "Them Changes," and the Hendrix classic, "Voodoo Child"). Of particular note to me was how well their voices sounded together (when they were in Blind Faith Winwood did all the vocals), especially on the Dominos tune "Tell the Truth."

Anyway, if you're interested, this site has the set list, a bunch of photos, and reviews from attendees.