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.