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


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.


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.)