Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lionel Loueke Trio at the Campbell Recital Hall, Stanford University, June 24th, 2012

On Sunday, June 24th, I went to see the Lionel Loueke Trio at the Stanford Jazz Festival.

Have you ever had the experience of missing out on an admirable musician for a while, not because you had not heard them or were unaware of them, but because for some reason you weren't really hearing them?

That's what happened to me with Lionel Loueke. I've known about him for a while. I read about him. I have the Herbie Hancock CDs that he appears on. He also plays on this CD from drummer George Mel that I have. A year or so ago I heard his Blue Note release Karibu, which I listened to once. I saw a couple of YouTube videos.

But, somehow I didn't quite get him at first.

Then earlier this year, when I went on my Gretchen Parlato binge, I discovered that  Loueke played, sang and wrote some material on her first CD, and played and sang on her second one too. Hearing him this time I thought, "hmmm, this guy's really pretty good. Maybe I should give him another chance." When I saw he was going to be at Stanford I figured, "Victoria likes that African stuff, she'll probably enjoy it," so I bought a pair of tickets.

Well, you can probably guess the rest. As you would imagine from someone that knocked the socks of Herbie Hancock* and Wayne Shorter, the guy is awesome. Poised, gracious, totally comfortable, gifted with an incredible harmonic sense ala Jim Hall or Wayne Krantz, and with those deep West African rhythms and interlocking lines infused in him from birth (he grew up in Benin), a dash of Brazilian flavor ala Baden Powell, and an advanced and modern jazz improv sensibility that is veers deftly into and out of the abstract, he's got something different than anyone else, and it is... just wow.

He has been mostly playing nylon-string electrics, but that Sunday night he had a beautiful Paul Reed Smith solidbody. He plays finger-style, sometimes very staccato, and in one solo piece he actually put a strip of paper between the string near the bridge and created a remarkable emulation of a kalimba. He uses effects, pretty subtle for the most part, some delay and some phasery stuff on some of the staccato to give it a little bit more of a snap.

He also sings, quite beautifully, and virtually the entire time he used a floor vocal processor, one of those TC Helicon boxes, I think, to generate harmonies. In addition to singing, he used his voice as a mouth percussion instrument, delivering clicks, hisses, exhalations and pops, as well as sometimes scatting along with his guitar improv.

On top of that he writes great stuff...

Sadly, they moved the show to the smaller theater next door to the Dinkelspiel because they couldn't sell enough tickets to fill the ~750-seat space. There were maybe 120 people present... amazing that a guy of his creds can come to a supposed major metropolitan area known (rightly or wrongly) as a savvy cultural center and not sell 750 tickets. Alas, you are all too aware if that kind of thing... sad, sad, sad... (Last year even Milton Nacscimento didn't sell out that space for two nights.)

From Loueke's bio on Wikipedia:

Loueke got his first professional job by accident, when a club manager heard him playing a guitar he had grabbed off the bandstand during a break and offered him work. He played African pop music, but discovered jazz when a friend returned from Paris with a copy of an album by jazz guitarist George Benson. This inspired Loueke to study jazz in Paris. He then won a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 2001, Loueke auditioned for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of Southern California. He was selected in a worldwide search by a panel of judges including jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter. He attended the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz until 2003.

* Herbie Hancock said, when recalling the moment he first heard Loueke's audition tape, "I flipped. I'd never heard any guitar player play anything close to what I was hearing from him. There was no territory that was forbidden, and he was fearless!"

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Guitar synthesizer

The newest thing I've added to my quiver is really two things: first, a Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer, and second, a compatible guitar to "drive" it with, the Godin Multiac ACS-SA Slim Nylon-string guitar. I've wanted to have a way of recording MIDI data from a guitar for many years, and now I finally do.

I'll talk about the guitar first. I'm really enjoying it. It's very comfortable and playable, with a comfortable neck. It differs from a standard classical nylon-string guitar in having a narrower neck and longer scale, so it's an easier adjustment for an old hack electric player like me. Its standard amplified sound is terrific. I now can add the sound of a nylon-string guitar to my recordings.

But of course the synth capabilities take it to a whole other universe. As a controller, I'm pretty impressed. I've read for years that guitar-to-MIDI systems are just too glitchy to be truly usable, but I find that the Roland has little trouble tracking what I play on the Godin. My technique is fairly clean, so I think I shouldn't have too much trouble adapting my playing when driving the synth.

The guitar plugs into the GR-55 using a special 13-pin cable, which carries the individual signals from each string as well as the standard audio signal from the pickup. The individual string signals undergo pitch-to-MIDI conversion and the MIDI data triggers the sounds on the synth, and can also be routed to external synths or a computer's MIDI interface for recording. There are two separate sound sources that can be triggered at the same time, so you can layer any of the sounds available and adjust their blend.

In addition, the GR-55 incorporates some of the modeling technology from Roland's VG-99. So in addition to the two synth tones you can trigger at the same time, you can also layer one of the modeled COSM tones (which include electric guitar sounds like a Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard, etc., electric bass guitar sounds like a Fender Precision bass, Jazz bass, Rickenbacker bass, etc., and finally acoustic sounds like steel-string guitar, nylon-string guitar, Coral electric sitar, conventional five-string banjo, and Dobro-type resonator guitar).

Finally, the synth tones can be routed through a battery of digital multieffects, and the COSM modeled tones can be routed through guitar amp models and guitar effects.

There's an expression pedal on the right side of the unit that can be set to control effect parameters, and a phrase looper so that you record up to 20 seconds of sound and have it repeat to provide a bed of sound to play over.

The "regular" sound of the Godin can also be blended with the two synth tones and a modeled tone, and you can adjust the volume of each independently from the Godin via a pair of slide switches. So, for example, in performance you could start playing some synth sounds, and comfortably segue into nylon-string guitar and back again.

I've really only begun to scratch the surface of the GR-55, and I look forward to lots of fun with it, and anticipating that it will up my interest level in both composing and recording.

Here's a small sample of some of the sounds on the GR-55...

Friday, June 22, 2012

Doh!

Last night I plugged my new Godin ACS SA Slim nylon-string guitar into my Roland Cube 30 amp and was a bit dismayed to find it sounding odd. At first I thought the guitar was buzzing as if all the strings had somehow gotten too close to the neck. OMG, did the heat wave warp the neck?

After a few minutes I realized it was the amp, though - it seemed to be distorting in a strange way. Over a short period it got worse, to the point where it started emitting a loud and obnoxious hum and I turned it off.

I thought, damn... I've had this amp for a little over 7 years, I guess maybe it could just up and die like that, but crap... wonder if it's worth repairing?

So this morning I figure I'd try it again. This time, no sound at all. Hmmm... so I plug it directly into the mixer of my little recording rig, and nothing...

Suddenly, consternation turns to elucidation - I turn the guitar over and there on the back I look at -- the battery door! Yup, it has an active pickup. I had totally forgotten about that. I have never owned a guitar like that before, so a dying battery was a brand-new experience for me.

So I swapped it out for a fresh battery and voila, everything sounds beautiful once again.

Sheeesh...

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Late spring miscellany

Just a few quick notes as summer approaches...

My drumming son David is home from college for the summer, and I'm hoping I can twist his arms into recording a few more tunes with me.  I'm in the process of updating and improving my recording capacity with a new audio/MIDI interface for the computer (an Echo Audio Layla 3G, replacing my hoary old and somewhat problematic M Audio Delta 66 and MIDISport 2x2) and a couple of additional microphones (a pair of Cascade M39 small diaphragm condensers and a Cascade V57 large diaphragm condenser), so I will actually be able to put more than three mics up around the drum kit this time.

I'll be writing more soon about a couple of other pieces of gear that I recently got - a Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizer, and a Godin ACS-SA Slim nylon-string guitar to drive it with. (I  plan to include a demo audio recording.)

There are a couple of shows coming up that I got tickets for and I'm very excited about:
  • On the first weekend of summer I'll be seeing one of my all-time favorites, guitarist Pat Martino, at Yoshi's San Francisco...
  • ... followed the very next day by the Lionel Louke Trio performing at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford University campus as part of the annual Stanford Jazz Festival.
  • On the first day of August I'm going to catch one of my new favorites, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, also at the Dinkelspiel at Stanford.
  • On the second Saturday in September I'm going to see one of my favorite musical groups, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. (This will be my first time seeing a show at this venue.)
  • On the first Sunday in October I'm going to see Wayne Krantz at Yoshi's in Oakland. (If I'm not mistaken Wayne hasn't played a show in town since I saw him in 1999, also at Yoshi's.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Line 6 POD HD

I sold some old equipment recently, and turned the money right back into new equipment... the first item being the latest from Line 6's line of guitar amp modeling devices, the POD HD. I have previously owned the POD 2.0 and the POD X3.
What is amp modeling, you ask? In the recording studio, guitar amps have traditionally been recorded by placing at least one mic in front of a speaker. At the end of the wire is an electronic signal that is sent into a mixing board, and eventually ends up on tape or hard disk. In a nutshell, what Line 6 did was to come up with methods for emulating this signal with digital processing. In effect, they took the recorded sound of guitars played through amps and analyzed the resulting signals, then in software found ways to take the signal off a guitar's output and end up with something as close as possible to the real reference sound.

It's not perfect, but it's remarkably good, and gives you the functional equivalent of a warehouse-full of amplifiers that you can simply dial up rather than have to haul them out and mic them - not to mention the cost of owning and maintaining them all.

The POD simply makes it wonderfully simple to get good guitar sounds recorded. The HD series has the latest iteration of Line 6's modeling technology and claims to be even more realistic than the earlier models.

How realistic? Well... I'd agree that the modeled amps don't sound as rich and complex as the real amps would recorded through a perfectly-placed mic in an excellent studio by talented recording engineers. But they are pretty darn close, at least to my admittedly forgiving ear. The convenience and capability they offer to a home recording enthusiast make them pretty much a no-brainer.

I'm looking forward to setting up a few personal patches and doing some recording with the new black bean (all the previous models have been red).

Line 6 website
Wikipedia article on Line 6

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones at the Regency Ballroom, San Francisco, March 8th

I was thrilled when I learned late last year that the original Bela Fleck & the Flecktones were going to be touring. I had never seen this wonderful band at all over the years, so before I could talk myself out of it I bought a pair of tickets for their scheduled local show, which was to be the day after my birthday in March at the Warfield in San Francisco.

As it turned out, there was a venue change, and so instead of Market Street, my wife and I were on Van Ness at the Regency Ballroom.

The band was terrific. All of them have a mastery of their instruments that is astonishing, and while showing off is definitely part of the game, it's secondary to the music itself, which is by turns beautiful, soulful, dazzling, intricate, delightful, humorous - sometimes all at once. They also clearly are having a ball playing together.

The latest Flecktones album, recorded last year with this lineup, is Rocket Science.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A revived gig dies again...

In January I wrote about the return of live jazz to Turtle Bay Seafood & Grill in Foster City. I'm sad to report that it is gone again, this time because the restaurant has gone out of business. C'est la vie. Sigh...

Leo Kottke at Yoshi's San Francisco, February 16th

I had a wonderful evening at Yoshi's in San Francisco enjoying one of my long-time favorite performers, Leo Kottke. Leo is a wonderful acoustic finger-style guitarist, composer, singer, and raconteur. On his uptempo pieces there's an interesting and very personal thing about his sense of rhythm and dynamics - there's a motion that borders on minor discontinuity that gives it an almost lurching quality, or something like a drunk person valiantly trying to prove they are not drunk as they walk. I'm not doing it justice, it almost sounds like I'm describing flawed technique, but it's not at all, it is wonderful to behold and sounds like nobody else does.

Between his songs he weaves commentary, telling stories and relating anecdotes that are often hilarious and exhibit a keen mind, and whenever I have seen him I always end up laughing out loud multiple times during the show. His words have the quality of being completely off the cuff, which they very well may be. This evening he talked quite a bit about his childhood fascination with the Dick Tracy comic strip; plotting with friends to "roll" the school janitor; the quirky songwriter Bob "Frizz" Fuller; and other disconnected and unrelated topics. You can get a bit of the flavor of his monologues in his occasional writings on the Notes page of his website and in some of the liner notes of his many recordings over the years.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing music

For the longest time I've thought of my musical identity as consisting of a bit of  "composer," but in all honesty I have done so little writing that I'm beginning to consider that I've been bullshitting myself.

I think it was around my second or third year of college that I first tried to write some music. This was while I was in the band Natch Beebee. I still have a few faded sheets of music paper from this time with a couple of melodies and chord progressions. One tune I remember writing on the tiny deck outside my college apartment in New Paltz, NY, around dusk one day in the early autumn, and feeling really thrilled about how good the tune felt to me and how readily it had been brought forth. Some months later, I remember writing one song with lyrics for the band and showing it to a couple of the guys. They were less than enthusiastic and we never did do it. I also remember being proud of a little two-bar-long segue that I came up with to tie two parts of a medley of Frank Zappa tunes together. I also started a song or two that were potentially going to be used in a theater piece that someone I met was working on, but that never went further than a couple of discussions.

Over the years after moving to California, I might have jotted down one or two ideas, but I don't remember much happening, until I started to get interested in the technology that started to become available in the eighties - specifically, "portastudios" (inexpensive multi-track cassette recorders) and sequencers, which gave you the capability to record musical information and play it back from a synthesizer or drum machine via MIDI. I met a kindred spirit in Kurt Kaupanger, and the two of us started to play around with the idea of doing a collaborative recording together. After a few years of working on this in short bursts of time, we came out with our self-produced cassette, on which I had contributed three original instrumental compositions (one of them, "Autumn Sunset," the tune I had written on that autumn day years earlier in New Paltz). It wasn't much, but I felt that there was something there, and in the years that followed I kept an active interest in trying to write and record, fiddling about whenever possible with my Yamaha cassette multitracker and my Alesis drum machine. After around 2000, my capabilities took a big step up when I started using Cakewalk Pro Audio recording software, which soon after morphed into SONAR, and ACID software, which allowed you to create music with loops, short, repeatable digital audio snippets.

But considering how much I could do now with the new toys, I did remarkably little. I had a brief spurt of creativity, creating a few short pieces of music, and taking a class in music for visual media for which I shot and scored a short video about my kids. What I was beginning to realize was that, with my day job and my young family, I simply could not do all the musical stuff that I wanted to do and get anywhere with it. I began to understand that if, for example, I focused on trying to improve my guitar playing, the little time I had would be spent on studying and practicing - which is exactly what I did starting around 2001 or so, for the next few years taking classes at the JazzSchool in Berkeley - and there would be no time for writing, nor for playing in a band. I did take one class at the JazzSchool on composing, which I found very helpful, and which brought forth a couple of new pieces, but then my focus shifted back to performing, which filled my time and left little time to work on writing.

So here it is, the winter of 2012, and on my website I claim that "I'm a jazz/blues/rock guitarist, and much-too-infrequent composer," and it's beginning to rankle me that I need to qualify the composer part like that. So, what to do?

Well, for one thing, I am going out and playing in local jams much less frequently now compared to the last two or three years, and I have few gigs and little to no rehearsals. So there's a little more time than might be available otherwise.

I've got a wonderfully rich environment in my computer with which I can perform wonders if I can just get some balls rolling and in play. Maybe now is the time. Maybe the planets and the stars will align, and new music will pour forth.


Thursday, February 02, 2012

ZT Lunchbox amp

The last couple of times I've played my archtop Cort guitar at one of these Turtle Bay jazz gigs, I've been really displeased with the sound I got plugged into my Reverend Hellhound amp. So this time I figured I would try the Lunchbox amp, which I've written about earlier. I was pleased to find that it sounded great and had just the right combination of warmth and clarity.

I've used this a few times now at some rehearsals for SNUG and while sitting in at Saloon in San Francisco with the Dave Workman Band and it's amazing how much sound this little demon puts out there. Finally, a truly portable amp that's suitable for more than just practice. Love this thing!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wayne Krantz

For years now guitar wizard Wayne Krantz has been one of my all-time favorite players. In my quest to try to hear everything he ever played on, I just came upon a used copy of a CD he did in 1989 while a member of the band Urban Earth featuring Harvie Swartz, titled Full Moon Dancer. If you read the review of it on the All Music website that I link to here, you'll see that they find it's a bit tepid, and I concur. Yet the players are all really good, and Krantz as usually really shines. Even at this point in his career when he was first making a splash, his playing had a special something that made him stand out amidst the pack of fusiony guitar slingers. The one track he wrote for this date, "Five Years," is easily the best one on the album.

So I'll take this chance to just quietly rave about Wayne Krantz.

I first came upon his name in the credits of former Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey's debut solo album, Bottom's Up, from 1989. I had listened to the opening track, "Kid Logic," and there was a guitar solo that made my ears perk up. Back then I couldn't yet go to the Internet and Google the name, but I filed it away in my brain and kept my antennae up for more from him.

Soon enough I found him on some releases from Leni Stern in the early nineties. Then, if I remember correctly, I read a brief review of his own CD,1995's 2 Drink Minimum, in some magazine, and was inspired to pick it up. To say my socks were knocked off is putting it mildly. A live trio recording from a performance at New York's 55 Bar, it is just chock-full of Wayne's amazing harmonic sense, incredible time, and dazzling single-line improvising. In the few things I'd heard earlier, he was an excellent player in the vein of a Mike Stern or maybe a Scott Henderson, but by the time of this live recording, he was totally in a world of his own. His playing is perhaps the most distinctive of all guitar players I've ever heard. His ideas are as fresh and cliche-free as possible.

Of course I had to go right out and get his earlier two CDs on Enja, Signals and Long To Be Loose.

In the late 90's and into the 21st century Krantz released on his own label a couple of albums that were edited-down fragments from hours and hours of live recordings made at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, NY: Greenwich Mean in 1999, Your Basic Live in 2003, and Your Basic Live '06 in (duh) 2006. He also played on several other people's projects, notably Chris Potter's Underground, Tal Wilkenfeld's Transformation, and several releases by David Binney.

In 2009 he finally released his first studio recording since the mid-nineties, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre, on the Abstract Logix label. It was one of my favorite records of the year.

A recent news item from the label says he will have a new CD titled Howie 61 to be released in April 2012. I can't wait! Here's a promotional video I just discovered this minute.

Some WK links:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Recording with SONAR X1

The recent recordings I made with my son David playing drums have finally gotten me into learning the new interface in my recording software, SONAR. The X1 version had very significant changes, most of which I am coming to believe are for the better, despite meaning that I've had to re-learn how to do certain tasks I thought I already knew.

The other thing about it is, I realize I have done very little recording of any note for most of the last decades, and I'm also learning about things that have been in the SONAR bag of tricks for a while and I somehow missed.

In particular, there is a way to record extra passes of audio into a single track. They are called layers, and provide a nice way of grouping multiple takes together and working with them to assemble a composite performance. (For those that don't know, a composite performance is simply editing down a series of two or more takes of a performance, picking the best parts of each track. Typically, for example, your first take will have a so-so first verse, and an excellent second verse and chorus, while the second take really nailed the first verse and the rest were a little off, etc. Rather than re-recording the entire performance over and over again until there's one ideal take that's as good as can be, often you edit the performances, keeping the best parts of each one.)

I'm currently working on recording an arrangement of Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart," and I've discovered this feature while trying to get as good as vocal performance as I can, and a good guitar solo.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Robben Ford at Yoshi's Oakland, Sunday, January 22, 2012

It was a wet, rainy weekend in the Bay Area, and spirits got even more dampened when the San Francisco 49ers lost the NFC championship. Maybe the big game explains why the 8 o'clock show at Yoshi's on Sunday was so criminally under-attended. The room wasn't even half full. But those in attendance enjoyed a smouldering set from Robben Ford and his band.

Ford was in fine form, if perhaps a tiny bit taciturn, as if he was mildly tired, or perhaps just a bit disappointed at the turnout. The repertoire for the evening included some of my favorites, like his version of Ray Charles' "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" (which appears in an acoustic version on his 1998 release The Authorized Bootleg),  "Cannonball Shuffle" (his instrumental tribute to Freddie King from 2003's Keep On Running), and "Good Thing" and "Strong Will to Live" from 1995's Handful of Blues. The band was exceptional - Greg Mathieson on Hammond B-3 organ and Fender Rhodes piano, Andy Hess on bass, and Toss Panos on drums. Hess and Panos locked in tight as a grooving and dynamic unit. Panos in particular is an excellent foil for Robben. 

He used a volume pedal beautifully in one solo, at the end of which Greg Mathieson stood up for a moment, gestured, and yelled, "ROBBEN FORD!!!" It was a nice moment.

A great show... I wish they had played a bit longer (they were done by about 9:30) but that's a minor quibble...

Aside for the guitar crowd: Ford was plugged into his famous Dumble amp into 2 x 12 cabinet. He stuck mostly with his old Telecaster; several other guitars were standing there waiting, but only one was used, a Gibson Firebird, for one song. His pedalboard contained a wah, a volume pedal, a Fulltone OCD distortion pedal, two TC Electronics Hall of Fame reverb pedals, a Line 6 DL4 delay pedal, and a tuner. Last time I saw him do his own thing (almost three years ago, one of the gigs recorded for Soul On Ten), he used the wah a lot; last night he didn't touch it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More recording

This past Saturday my son David and I convened in the family room again and proceeded to re-record the two numbers from the previous week, which had been somewhat spoiled by my careless bass part bleeding into the microphones. Over the week between I bought a very inexpensive headphone distribution box, so I hooked that to a stereo output from the mixer. I played bass direct into the board and so all that was in the 'phones was the bass part. I also added a third mic, so I had one on the bass drum, one on the left side of the kit and a little bit away, and one on the right side of the kit up close to the snare. This time I got very usable tracks from the session. On Sunday I overdubbed a "real" bass part for each song, and on one song added a rhythm guitar part and a quick stab at a second part with some lines. They are starting to sound really nice. I'm looking forward to finishing them up, hopefully before too much time passes.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A dead gig comes back to life

Early last year I mentioned in a post here the demise of a somewhat regular gig. I was never privy to what actually happened, but my understanding was there was a restaurant manager who had instigated the gig, and there was some sort of shakeup at the place which resulted in his departure. Since the live music nights were his doing, they ceased with his exit.

Now it seems that the management has changed (perhaps new owners?), and the departed manager has returned and has restarted the gigs. It sounds like it will be much the same as before: every Wednesday from 7-9 and every Friday from 7-10.

A pool of musicians rotates filling the seats. I had been averaging about one or two nights per month, so I expect that will continue, though it seems that perhaps the original pool of players has become a little bit depleted, so maybe I will play more often. I will be playing the first one this coming Friday, January 6th. Should be fun!

Happy New Year!

Well, it's 2012, and after a week and a half of being off, I am back at the day job...

I wish I could say I got a lot done musically in my off time, but that would be a lie. I did achieve my primary goal, which was to set up a few microphones and record my son David playing drums on at least a couple of numbers. David's been playing since last summer and is starting to get pretty good. I played a rough bass part along with him and the plan was to overdub a fuller bass part and some guitars after the fact. The bass bled more than I'd hoped into the drum mics, so I might not be able to do much with these tracks. Next time I'll play through the mixer and we can use headphones to hear the bass part and thus keep it out of the microphones - either that, or I'll just record the real bass part at the same time.

We still have another two weekends with David at home during winter break, so hopefully we'll get in another session and get some really usable tracks.