Friday, October 08, 2010

Music books

I've read a couple of music-related books over the past couple of months.
First I read Bill Bruford: The Autobiography by the excellent and erudite master drummer and former member of Yes, King Crimson, UK, and his own bands Bruford and Earthworks. It was a delightful survey of his life as a musician.
Next up was Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra, by Walter Kolosky. A bit raggedy in presentation, looking somewhat like a ineptly-done desktop publishing job by someone not very good with their tools, but a very enjoyable book. I loved this band as much as the book's author obviously does and so I was probably destined to like the book, and I did.
This week I started working through Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, by Paul Tingen.
All of these books inspired me to re-listen to the music I was reading about. I listen to it fairly often anyway, but it's interesting to listen to it with some new perspective brought about by the discussions in the books.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The return of the Golden Gate Blues Society Wednesday blues jams at the Club Fox in Redwood City

More good news came in last week. The weekly blues jams at the Club Fox (formerly the Little Fox) in Redwood City will be back on line starting Wednesday, November 17. The jam went dark about ten months ago, and it's wonderful that it's coming back... it's a great jam in a great space with an enthusiastic audience, and it's been much missed.

The first jam will be hosted by Daniel Castro Band...

Friday, September 10, 2010

The return of the Sunday night OPL jam session

Just a short note to mention that the weekly Sunday night "pro" blues jam at the Old Princeton Landing returns this coming Sunday evening, September 12.

The OPL changed hands at the end of July and was closed for about a month for renovation.

Here's hoping that the jam resumes and continues as successfully under the new regime as it has under the old one for nearly a decade...

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Lenny White at Yoshi's Oakland

My son David has started playing the drums this summer. My other son Ian had been playing for a while a couple of years ago. So when I read that Lenny White's new jazz-rock band featuring guitarist Jimmy Herring were going to be performing at Yoshi's in Oakland, I asked them if they wanted to go see one of the all-time great drummers, and they were agreeable.

The band was billed as Lenny White and Anomaly, which is the title of White's newest CD.

So I came home a bit early that afternoon (Wednesday, August 25) so that we could get across the bay in time to get some good seats and grab a bite to eat before the show.

As things were we didn't have to worry about seats, as the place was sadly only about 1/4-1/3 full. I was surprised that it wasn't better attended, but maybe I shouldn't be.

The music was pretty squarely in a electric guitar-soaked, technically adept, Return To Forever jazz-rock mode. I love this kind of stuff when it's played well, and this group played it well. At the base of it was Lenny White's drums driving it all along with power, finesse, and earthiness. Lenny is one of those ageless people that looks pretty much the same today in his early sixties as he did when I saw him with Return To Forever in his late twenties. The bassist, Richie Goods, locked in tight with Lenny. On keyboards was the very impressive Vince Evans.

On top of this were two electric guitarists. Jimmy Herring was the big draw for me - I've known of him for years through hearing him with Project Z and Jazz Is Dead, guesting on one of Derek Trucks' early albums, Out Of the Madness, and last year's Lifeboat, his solo debut.

The other guitarist was new to me - Tom Guarna - but I was very impressed. He can play this kind of stuff about as well as anyone I've heard.

It struck me as a bit odd that the band would feature two guitarists with such similar sounds and styles, but it worked.

Herring and McKellen-separated at birth?
Lenny White was amusing in some of moments of talking to the audience. He introduced Jimmy Herring and said he'd known of him for a while and had been pleasantly surprised by how good he was as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. He teased Tom Guarna about having a Masters from Julliard. After his first drum solo, a rather sparse, subtle and low-volume performance on his kit over a simple repeating pattern from the band, he said "Now that's an anomaly -a quiet drum solo."

My sons thought it was a cool show. It went over better than when I took them here one Sunday afternoon many years ago when they were pretty small to see Bill Frisell.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Larry Carlton Trio at Yoshi's San Francisco

On a cool summer night (Friday, July 31st), I took in the Larry Carlton Trio at Yoshi's in San Francisco. Sitting with a couple of my guitar buddies in fantastic seats, we watched the legendary Mr. 335 play his namesake guitar in the company of his bass player son Travis Carlton and drummer... dammit, can't remember his name! and I can't find him listed on either Carlton's site or Yoshi's. Maybe someone that reads this can remind me, or maybe I can dig it up in my email sent messages folder...

This was actually the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing Larry Carlton live. He was a big influence back in the day when he played so tastefully on those Crusaders records and so many others. His guitar parts on Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" are legendary and universally lauded (Rolling Stone labeled his solo one of the three greatest in rock history). But ever since he began a solo career, he seemed to put out rather dull records - glossy, heavily produced, with little vim and vigor - a progenitor of the sort of music that's come to be known as (excuse me as I try to control my facial expression here) smooth jazz. After buying his first couple of LPs, I kind of stopped paying attention to him.

But as his recent duo CD and DVD with Robben Ford aptly demonstrated, he is as ever a masterful musician. The Yoshi's show bore this out in spades. His touch on the fretboard and the finesse of his right hand are phenomenal. By turns delicate, sassy, growling, tender, always soulful, he stated melodies, improvised solos, and brushed harmonies when his son Travis took solos. As icing on the cake, his tone was also just about perfect, just gorgeous. Me and the gents at my table were all smiles the entire performance.

Aside from his musical gifts, Larry is also an open, affable, warm, humorous and eminently likable performer. One amusing exchange took place where he mentioned that someone had emailed his manager and insisted that he mention his anniversary from the stage. First pretending to be dismissive and a trifle annoyed by the request, he then proceeded to ask the man to stand in the audience, and said he would play "Happy Anniversary" (which is the same song as "Happy Birthday") for him and his wife and that he could choose the key. The man called out "B minor." With an amused raising of eyebrows and a few comments about how strange it was to ask for it in a minor key, he said "whatever" and proceeded to play a harmonized and minorized version of the tune, stressing every point where what was normally a major third or a major seventh was now flatted, and making an amused stinky face. The audience was howling.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Local jam sessions

Some news about some of the local jams, none of it particularly good, but not all totally grim either:
  • The Old Princeton Landing over on the coast just north of Half Moon Bay is now under new ownership. It will be closed for several weeks as the new owners spruce it up. Word is that Stan Erhart's Sunday night jam session will resume soon... hopefully that will turn out to be the case.
  • The Little Fox in Redwood City, now called the Club Fox, has reopened officially for a one-off show the evening prior to the Redwood City PAL Blues Festival, but whether or not the Wednesday night blues jam is going to be reinstated, and when, has yet to be announced.
  • The jazz jam at Angelica's Bistro in Redwood City that I mentioned below was killed off after a mere two weeks, and restarted under new direction. I have not been back yet, so no word on whether it's worthwhile or not...
  • Finally, to end this somewhat dreary litany of not-so-great news, I'll end on a positive note - the Wednesday night jazz jam at the Milan Pizza Restaurant in Mountain View has really been going strong, with a healthy crowd, an excellent house trio, and some good players sitting in - hats off to Marty Honda for pulling it off.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Brief July update

Once again I'm killing a few minutes before heading over to the jazz jam at the Milan Pizza Restaurant in Mountain View. I've continued to go almost every week since it started, and it's been kicking my ass, but it's been good for me despite the pain.

The band SNUG has a gig coming up, this Friday evening in Redwood City. I'm looking forward to it.

I've been enjoying Bill Bruford's autobiography the last week or so. He's quite a good writer and it's a thoughtful look at the music business from his personal experiences within it for the last 40-odd years.

Looking forward to seeing Larry Carlton's trio at Yoshi's San Francisco next week...

That's all for the moment, gotta run.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


As I write this I'm anticipating heading out from the office around 6:30pm and heading over to the Milan Pizza Restaurant in Mountain View to participate in a new jazz jam session that's been going on there now every Wednesday night for the last month. I went last week and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The house band has some great players, and lots of folks showed up and played - there was a sax player and his brother on flute, two trumpeters, a trombonist, a pianist, and a couple of bass players and drummers. The horn players typically come up one by one and each call two tunes before making way for the next player. Rhythm section players get to play more. In my case I was treated like a horn, so I called my two tunes, played the heads, and soloed.

Now, to be honest, I'm still a bit out of my depth trying to play jazz. While I've been fluttering around the edges of it for decades, and been a heavy fan and listener since my teens, to this day I have not gotten past the fooling-around stage. But oh-so-gradually I'm getting better at it, which is somewhat gratifying, though the pace is glacial. And really the only way I'm going to keep improving and approaching being able to execute what I hear in my head is to keep at it, as often as possible. The blues jams I've been frequenting are great fun, and lots of times the music is entirely gratifying, but I really feel the need to push out of my comfort zone and be able to do this jazz guitar thing with some style and grace and gravity.

As I wrote about not too long ago, a good part of this is what I do with my practice time, especially since as a working slob with a family, I have so little of it. I'm pleased to say that for the last four or five weeks I have made a concerted effort to play with backing tracks as frequently as I can manage, and it's starting to feel like it's beginning to register an effect. I still have not done any regular transcribing, but... all in good time. Whereas back there in January I gave myself a D+, I think I've definitely moved up to C+, or maybe even B-.

To help keep the momentum up, I'm thinking seriously of taking three or four of the workshops that are offered from time to time at the wonderful JazzSchool in Berkeley. For example, on Sunday Anton Schwartz is doing one of his Playing the Heck Out Of... series of workshops, each of which focuses for a couple of hours on one commonly-played iconic tune. This one is on "Autumn Leaves." Later in the summer are Playing the Heck Out of "It Could Happen to You" and Playing the Heck Out of "So What" and "Impressions." There are also a couple of workshops from guitarist John Stowell coming up. Mimi Fox is also doing a week-long jazz guitar intensive that goes from 9am to 4:30pm every day for a week in August.

Maybe taking some of those workshops will inspire me to take another class or two at the school, as I did back in the early aughts. What a great resource, and the faculty is great. Too bad it's all the way across the bay and north... hard to do week in and week out. 

Two recent CDs

I've gotten the two CDs I mentioned in my last entry, To the One by John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension and Renegade Creation from Robben Ford, Michael Landau, Jimmy Haslip and Gary Novak.

The McLaughlin one is pretty good. I found it not quite as terrific as his last release, 2008's Floating Point, but better than 2006's Industrial Zen. This one features his latest touring band, which consists of McLaughlin, keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bassist Etienne M'bappe, and drummer Mark Mondesir. The playing overall is top-notch. McLaughlin's playing has a lot of explosiveness. I especially enjoyed the contributions of Husband, who I know of originally as the drummer in Allan Holdsworth's I.O.U. band from the late 70's.

The Renegade Creation CD I found somewhat disappointing. Fine, exemplary (and beautifully recorded) guitar work from both Ford and Landau, and the band locks together well, but the songs just seem a little bit perfunctory. One in particular of Robben's is so cringe-worthy lyrically that I can't listen to it. After seeing them perform at Yoshi's in the winter, I expected a lot more from this project.

Meanwhile two more new disks arrived just yesterday, both from bassist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Richard Bona, one of my favorite musicians - his new release, Ten Shades of Blues, and the live Bona Makes You Sweat from 2008. I'll write about these later after I've had a chance to listen through a few times. For now suffice it to say I broke into a broad grin several times while listening to these the first time, and I'm once again dismayed that he is not more widely known...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring update

Spring is not only here, it's 1/3rd gone already... jeepers.

Not much to report, alas. There have been some great recent concerts that I've missed, alas, notably Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny's Orchestrion project, John Scofield, and Jeff Beck. There's been a few new recordings, including the new Jeff Beck one, Emotion & Commotion. On the near horizon (and on pre-order) are new releases by John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension and Robben Ford's latest project Renegade Creation, the band formerly know as Trial By Fire, about whose performance at Yoshi's I wrote about previously.

The band SNUG has a new bass player, Mark Cvitkovich, and we are getting him up to speed with the repertoire. I've been doing my usual jamming thing, more often some weeks than others. To fill the void left by the defunct Golden Gate Blues Society jam, I've finally gone out and visited a few of the other jams I've been thinking about trying for a while. I've been trying to play some more jazz too before I start devolving too much.

My trusty old Gibson L6-S is back in action finally. The jack had gotten rather loose and caused an intermittent connection, which rendered it mostly unusable until repaired.  

Friday, January 29, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

It sure is hard to move forward with this guitar playing thing. I practice quite a lot for a guy with very little time on his hands, yet I seem to move ahead so slowly, it's like I'm a glacier or something.

The thing is, I don't practice very well...

There are two pretty simple things that I just don't do enough of, which I'm pretty certain could really help me improve more than anything else besides just putting in the hours - transcribing, and playing along with backing tracks.

For many many years I have heard from a million people that one of the best ways to learn to play blues and jazz is to transcribe the solos I particularly like. Becoming facile with scales gets the notes under your fingertips and helps the execution, but there's little in that to help the musicality of what gets executed. Transcribing lets you see how someone you admire has put together the building blocks to arrive at something exemplary, and learn from it. The goal is not to play just like, say, Wes Montgomery, but to explore the things about Wes that made your ears perk up and take notice.

Yet have I done it? Hardly at all. I just bought a software tool called, oddly enough, Transcribe, which is a fantastic thing - it allows you to mark off parts of a piece of music, slow down the playback without changing the pitch, and play it in a loop if you want. So much easier than the old days when you had to pick up the tone arm on the record player to repeat a phrase or section, or use the fast forward and rewind buttons - and if you wanted to slow it down, the pitch also dropped. I have started working on my first project, transcribing Pat Martino's solo from "Later," a straight-ahead blues from a Willis Jackson recording called Bar Wars. I've gotten through the first chorus and the first couple of bars of the second... in about four weeks. OK, I'm not going to beat myself up yet about how long it's taking, at least I'm doing it.

And backing tracks. There are thousands of well-recorded tracks available from folks like Music Minus One, Jamey Aebersold, Hal Leonard , and many more, which cover practically any style you can imagine. These have been available for many years, first on LP, then cassette, and then CD. It's also become easy to create your own arrangements using a computer and MIDI - these have the wonderful advantage of allowing you to alter the key and tempo at will.

I've had a computer-based MIDI setup since the mid nineties, and I have a dozen or more Aebersold recordings and similar things.

Yet do I practice playing over tracks? Nowhere near as often as I could. I seem to spend way more time practicing things in isolation, without so much as a metronome ticking away, than I do playing over backing tracks.

Amongst my new year's resolutions is to shift the balance of my practice time - more time transcribing, and more time playing with chords, bass lines, and drums providing a reasonably realistic emulation of a infinitely patient band. After the first month, I'd give myself maybe a D+ so far.

I'm writing this as a form of arguing to myself about doing better with it. Sure, conditions are not wonderful, but I can do way better.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trial By Fire at Yoshi's, Thursday, January 14, 2010

Trial By Fire is the name of the ensemble consisting of Robben Ford and Michael Landau on guitar and vocals, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Gary Novak on drums. I saw the early show at Yoshi's on the first of their four-night stint.
The guys came out of the gate seemingly a bit out of synch; Landau's first solo seemed like he was fighting to squeeze notes out his guitar and wasn't quite feeling the music (the first tune was Robben's "Just Like It Is" from Tiger Walk), while Robben seemed way under-represented in the mix. It picked up from there, however, and they locked in well. Both Robben and Mike Landau sang, but neither was in very good voice. And the new songs were OK but none of them really stood out to me.
Aside from those minor quibbles, there was lots of really great playing by both Robben and Landau; both were in excellent form (giving Mike some slack on the opening tune). In addition to the several new numbers from the upcoming CD, they played another song from Tiger Walk, "Oasis," and also did "Spoonful" and the Jimmy Reed medley that appeared on Soul On Ten last summer.
Robben played the sunburst 335 and the Tele about equally. There was a Les Paul there too but he never touched it. Landau played the same Stratocaster for the entire show.
Haslip and Novak were both great and contributed solos in "Oasis" and "Spoonful."
Looking forward to the CD (to be released in March, according to Robben.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

HoBoLeMa: some reviews

Just a quick posting to collect a few links to reviews of the current HoBoLeMa tour:

Friday, January 08, 2010

Pat Martino at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, Fri. 11/6/2009

Sorry to be out of sequence here, writing about the Holdsworth et. al. show this week before getting caught up with an earlier show.

Pat Martino has been one of my favorite guitar players since I first heard him on an Eric Kloss album in the early seventies. I immediately went out and got his own Live! album and then pretty much everything else he ever recorded. There are lots of jazz guitar players but something about Pat's feel has always hit me right at the core. His personal story is quite fascinating too; google him to find out about that, and if you're interested try to find the documentary film Martino Unstrung if you can.

The concert was part of the Fall San Francisco Jazz Festival program, a show named "Hammond B-3 organ summit" -- Pat's quartet included the fantastic organist Tony Monaco, and the opening act was another great Hammond player, Larry Goldings, and his trio.

Both groups were basically in the classic Hammond organ trio format - guitar, drums, and the Hammond player doing double duty pumping out bass lines as well as chords, melodies, and solos. (Never mind that Pat's group was a quartet with the inclusion of tenor sax player Eric Alexander.)

Golding's group was great, but suffered from a poor job on the sound man's part - the bass was almost inaudible, which my concert-going partner Dave Workman described as cutting off his -- errr, emasculating Golding's performance. The trio included guitarist Peter Bernstein and the fantastic drummer Bill Stewart.

Martino's group didn't have this problem - Tony Monaco's bass lines were clear, swinging, and had -- errrr, were virile. Drummer Jason Brown was the only player I had not heard of before, and he was excellent. They played for around an hour or so, playing many of Pat's tunes and a smattering of other stuff. Both Monaco and Alexander are very strong soloists in their own right, and Pat was in terrific form. It was a joy and a gift to hear such a great combo playing so well together.

HoBoLeMa at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Wed. 1/6/2010

I left work early this Wednesday to pick up my pal John DeSilva and drive up and over the hill to Santa Cruz and take in the early show at the  Kuumbwa Jazz Center. We were there to see Allan Holdsworth (guitar), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick), Terry Bozzio (drums), and Pat Mastelotto (drums).

The first noteworthy thing was the sheer visual presence of Terry Bozzio's drum set. You can get a gander at it from some of the photos on Tony Levin's website. I joked that perhaps he might have a trapeze rigged up to allow him to rapidly get from one side to the other... It occupied about 90% of the floor area of the small stage, leaving little room for the other players. If the stage was only slightly smaller they would not have been able to play the venue.

We had excellent seats, almost dead center and about six rows back from the stage (the Kuumbwa seats about 200). Shortly after 7 the lights dimmed, the announcer introduced the show, and out came the musicians. Almost immediately Mastellotto began hitting some parts of his very non-standard kit (which includes lots of electronic percussives and miscellaneous odd objects), and Bozzio started playing some bells... Tony Levin stood up with his Ned Steinberger electric upright and started playing some long tones... and Holdsworth started to play some intriguing harmonies on his custom Bill DeLap guitar... and so it began.

For the next hour they kept playing, constantly shifting between sparse, a tempo sections into dense grooves of various kinds. Mastelotto seemed to be leading the way a lot, but the interplay was astonishing (he and Bozzio recorded a CD of improvised duets in 2000). Levin alternated between his electric upright bass and the Chapman Stick. He has played quite a lot with both Mastelotto (in King Crimson) and Bozzio (two CDs from the trio Bozzio Levin Stevens, with Steve Stevens on guitar, from 1997 and 2000), and the three of them seemed very comfortable with everything, clearly delighting in the sonic tapestry that was being woven.

Holdsworth seemed to be the odd man out at times. It seemed like he wasn't very sure about what to add. He also seemed to have a bunch of effects that he hadn't quite set up and tweaked to his satisfaction. Occasionally he would seem to forget about it and fall into following something Levin was doing with washes of his signature dense, close voicings (chords that very few human beings can play - he has monstrous hands that twist into seemingly impossible spidery stretches), or start playing bursts of fluid lines in his inimitable way (nobody plays like Holdsworth... his note choice is so unusual and cliche-free, and his speed and fluency so powerful and astonishing), but too often he seemed to be unsure about what he should do. It didn't help that his sound was a bit too low in the mix all night. His first "solo," if you can call it that, was almost lost in the surging of the drums and growl of Levin's bass or Stick. Things got a little better each time he played a burst of lines, but never really got into proper balance, in my opinion.

Finally the evolving improvised music came to an end, to thunderous applause. Bozzio emerged from the structure and introduced everyone (as if anyone present didn't know who was on the stage) and spoke briefly about how none of this music was prepared, and about how it they were presenting a one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated musical experience, and how much fun it was to play with this group (he introduced Mastelotto as "my favorite drummer," Levin as "my favorite bass player," and Holdsworth as "everyone's favorite guitar player").

It was amusing to watch them leave the stage as Levin and Holdsworth both had to thread their way through the narrow space between Bozzio's and Mastelotto's kits - Holdsworth had particular trouble since he was carrying his guitar.

After a minute or two of clapping, hooting and hollering, they returned and played another improvised piece that lasted about ten minutes or so, this one exhibiting a bit more of Holdsworth's talents - it seemed as if he established the direction for this one.

Fascinating stuff! Not everyone's cup of tea - and very, very hard to pull off for mere mortals - but these four are not mere mortals.

Their tour continues tonight through Sunday at Yoshi's in Oakland, and then down south for a couple of dates before they go their separate ways for a while, regrouping in April for a brief tour of Europe.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

It's a new year and a new decade

... and it's starting off with a bang in the concert-going department, with two shows in the next 8 days:
  • Allan Holdsworth (guitar), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick), Terry Bozzio (drums), and Pat Mastelotto (drums) at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz Wednesday, January 6. (Yup, you read right, two drummers.) I haven't seen Allan since he toured a couple of years ago with Alan Pasqua, Jimmy Haslip, and Chad Wackerman... the last time I saw Pat Maselotto was with King Crimson in 2003, I think... and I have not seen Terry Bozzio since he played with Jeff Beck in 1994 or so... and I have not seen Tony Levin since saw him with the mid-eighties version of King Crimson. I'm really curious what they will cook up for us... I suspect it will be highly improvisational.
  • Robben Ford (guitar) with Michael Landau (guitar), Jimmy Haslip (bass), and Gary Novak (drums) at Yoshi's in Oakland on Thursday, January 14. This will be the third time I've seen Robben since last February, each time in a different context.