Saturday, March 27, 2010

Listening to music in the age of digital abundance….

A recent tweet from @slainson, and an LA Times post from Steve Almond has me thinking about how we experience music in this age of digital abundance and endless entertainment choices. Music is everywhere today and largely functions as sonic wallpaper. The stuff is inescapable, whether you like it or not.

I often think about how music was consumed 100 or 200 years ago. The composition and production of classical music was highly specialized and funded by the church or nobility. Only the most elite aristocrats had the opportunity to hear it. It was fancy. It amazes me to realize that people would routinely get dressed up to sit in a room and listen to live performances of music they had never heard before! Keep in mind that the composers of the era (Beethoven for instance) were continually pushing the envelope and writing music people found challenging or disturbing. The premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ caused a riot. Contrast this with life today where you can’t even sit at a stoplight without being bombarded with some distorted sonic artifact. It’s everywhere and we have became anesthetized. As if that weren’t enough, music is continually competing for our attention with countless new forms of digital novelty and synoptic stimulation.

When I was growing up in late 1960’s Chicago, music was the cultural meeting place for an entire generation. There was no Internet, no video games, computers or video. Listening to music with rapt attention was the Big Thing. I remember a company that sold stereo equipment...the last item in their catalog was a roach clip! Music discovery for me involved running up to my room after dinner, putting on these clunky headphones and listening to “underground radio”. There was this DJ who called himself Scorpio and whispered into an echo chamber. His programming was personal, iconoclastic, and would make KCRW look formatted. I would take notes. I remember one night hearing Savoy Brown back to back with Freddie Hubbard ('Straight Life'). I was blown away. This was the first time I had really heard George Benson. I had no idea it was possible to do what he was doing on the guitar and the soul/funk polytonality of Weldon Irvine’s ‘Mr. Clean’ sent me on a musical quest.

I would sit in front of the stereo listening to LPs until the grooves wore out (despite my best efforts to keep them pristine with various exotic accessories). I studied the liner notes obsessively and when I heard something I liked I would track each of the sidemen, trying to find everything they had recorded. I was fascinated with musical family trees and communities. The LA country rock scene took me down a long and winding road and one exceptional musician could lead to a whole string of new discoveries. I moved through the musical channels of LA and New York to Nashville and back. Meanwhile I continued my education into jazz and contemporary classical music. I was learning songs and solos by rote and it wasn’t long before I started doing transcriptions. The convergence of artists like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Buck Owens, Captain Beefheart, The Flying Burrito Brothers, McCoy Tyner, The Beatles, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Bartok, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stravinsky, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Debussy, etc., etc., seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.

When I went to college in Boston I discovered the Harvard Coop record department and thought I had died and gone to heaven. They had these big Schwann catalogs on pedestals where it seemed as if you could look up anything in recorded history. The Coop had shelves of sequentially numbered record label catalogs, big and small. As I discovered new jazz and ethnic musicians I could look up everything they had recorded as leaders or sidemen and 9 times out of 10 find the treasure on these shelves.

I was working for Internet music pioneer Liquid Audio when everything shifted toward the Web. The company was founded and largely staffed by audio pros and musicians and was truly innovative, using the AAC codec (which sounded noticeably better then MP3 and would later be adopted by Apple) and developing a very flexible music player with a full array of metadata, including album credits, an unfortunate casualty of most current digital distribution schemes.  It was a very exciting time. It seemed as if the vast expanse of musical possibilities would soon be available to everyone with the click of a mouse.  Interestingly enough I was never really motivated to buy digital downloads because the audio quality was inferior to CDs which were in themselves an old technology at that point. I liked the idea of subscription services because they reminded me of my hours spent at the Coop. I could find anything I wanted and if the music stuck I would buy the CD.

Today we are exposed to new music through an exhausting number of channels including web sites, Internet radio, video games, television, film and advertising placement, retail sponsorship, and terrestrial radio. We listen on our phones & iPods, in our cars, and on our computers. I haven’t owned a traditional “stereo system” in years. The time I spend listening to music under ideal conditions with my complete attention has become increasingly rare. Of course I’m not the typical consumer. Being in the business you listen to (or play) so much music that peace and quiet is cherished. One of the barriers to focused listening is consolidating all of your music sources. Sonos has a great solution that integrates home theaters, digital music collections and streaming music services in one simple, multi-room user interface. I hope to see more growth in this area of consumer electronics.

Here’s my advice for those who love music and want to cut through the noise and bring back the full experience:

  • Make a special place to listen.
  • Get the best sound system together you can. You can pick up powered studio monitors that don’t sound half bad for as little as a few hundred bucks. Listen to the highest quality audio available to you.
  • Make a plan to discover music that’s new to you….Perhaps checking out a new artist or exploring a musical genre that is unfamiliar. Find your favorite music discovery channels and support them.
  • Set aside time just to listen with your full attention. 
  • Turn off your phone, log off Facebook, etc.
  • Give it up to the journey the music takes.
  • When you hear something that moves you, listen to it over, and over, again.
  • Find out everything you can about the musicians you like and follow their creative path to discover new artists.
  • Go out and find the music live.
  • Write about about the artists...spread the word!
  • Repeat….

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jensen-Macchia-Lockett-Briggs at The York 3-21-10

I played a very nice gig at The York in Highland Park Sunday night. The band consisted of yours truly on guitar, Frank Macchia on bass flute and tenor sax, Tommy Lockett on bass, and Frank Briggs on drums.

...a mix of standards and my originals...

Great players, friendly staff, and a good crowd at this hip, neighborhood bistro....

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Brandon Bernstein pays tribute to Jimmy Wyble...

Guitarist Brandon Bernstein pays tribute to the late, great, Jimmy Wyble in this beautiful version of Sammy Kanh's, I'll Be Seeing You.

Brandon has a new release coming out featuring himself, Aaron Shragge (trumpet), Matt Otto (tenor), Greg Leisz (pedal steel/dobro), Ryan McGillicuddy (bass),  & Jason Harnell (drums) playing the music of Tom Waits. Look for a full review here. Enjoy!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rizzo, Breadman, Oles - March 5, 2010 at The Blue Whale, Los Angeles

At The Blue Whale in downtown Los Angeles last Friday night I was reminded of the spirit of openness and musical invention I experienced as a music student in Boston. I was quite fortunate to stumble into  a very inspiring, wide open, musical community. Gary Burton’s groups included groundbreaking guitarists Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny and featured new composers like Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, and Michael Gibbs. The music was crossing boundaries, exploring approaches beyond the language of bebop and post-bebop traditions. Manfred Eicher’s ECM records was a rising force, bringing European classical harmony and a lush sonic palette to the mix, and ‘world music’ influences were making deep inroads into the American improvisational tradition. Some of the most influential guitarists in the last thirty years passed through Boston during this time; John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Mike Stern, and many others less well known. It was an exciting time when anything seemed possible.

Tom Rizzo (Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinsen) guitar, Scott Breadman (Jose Feliciano, Lindsey Buckingham, The Rippingtons) percussion, and Darek Oles (Brad Mehldau, Billy Higgins, Pat Metheny) upright bass, brought their unique, collective sound to this intimate venue. After warming up with their take on a couple of classic tunes (including a beautiful version of Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered”), they dug into their own material, primarily composed by Rizzo.

Rizzo is a seasoned writer and his strong compositions focused the band’s identity and sound. His guitar playing has a playful, uplifting feel. He is a modern, straight-ahead guitarist with fluid single note and chordal chops. His lines are melodic and he builds his solos well, developing thematic ideas and directing the energy of the band. I enjoyed his use of harmonics and at one point he played a comping figure that sounded like a Brazilian berimbau. It was great. Rizzo’s “straight into the amp” tone was warm and present. His sound sat perfectly in the room between the bass and percussion.

Darek Oles is a powerful, emotive bass player. His time feel and intonation were dead on, laying down a solid foundation for the trio’s explorations. His solos were melodic and passionate. Rizzo’s light touch and sensitive, conversational accompaniment was the perfect compliment.

Breadman has mastered a multitude of percussion styles from around the world. He seamlessly integrates a variety of techniques across his unique setup: congas, tablas, cymbals, hand percussion and various miscellaneous noise makers including a frying pan. He is very sensitive to dynamics and at one point laid down a solid fatback groove with only a shaker and a few accents...Right in the pocket...Breadman moves effortlessly across his array of instruments, following the ebb and flow of the music.

I saw this group several weeks ago and they sound more comfortable and adventurous with each gig. I look forward to hearing this band develop and grow...Perhaps extended compositions, grooves, free improvisation..Who knows? With musicians of this caliber anything can happen.

The Blue Whale is a great new music room in downtown LA. It’s comfortable, hip, and has an excellent bar...see Mitch for his special concoctions. The proprietor, Joon Lee is committed to showcasing the best musicians in LA. They are continually expanding their music nights. Check the online calendar and Facebook page for updates. The club is a little off the beaten path, on the top floor of a mall in Little Tokyo, off of East 1st between Grand and South San Pedro. Drop in for a drink and enjoy the great music...then tell your friends!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rizzo, Oles, Breadman at The Blue Whale

I'll be at The Blue Whale in downtown LA Friday March 5th (9 pm)...Tom Rizzo (guitar), Darek Oles (bass), and Scott Breadman (percussion). I hope to see you there...check back for my review!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

(Re)Defining Music as Business

The Internet has made music creation and distribution available to everyone, processes traditionally handled by record labels. The responsibility for managing marketing and music publishing now fall squarely on the artist. Because of the massive amount of material on the Internet it is very challenging to rise above the noise and distinguish yourself. While running a business is creative in it's own way, thinking of oneself as a brand is very uncomfortable for many creatives. Jacob Detering has written a good blog post about this subject.

(Re)Defining Music as Business

Another good read on this subject is Fans, Friends and Followers by Scott Kirsner. Scott interviews several artists working in a variety of mediums, who discuss the successes and challenges they have had as they figure out how to promote themselves and choose the right business partners.

Stay tuned to this blog for tools, strategies and success stories...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tongue and Groove LA - Feb 28, 2010

I caught up with Conrad Romo last night at his monthly spoken word and music event Tongue and Groove, one of the real gems of the LA spoken word scene. Conrad has been producing T & G for six years. Shows happen on the last Sunday of the month at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood from 6 to 7:30 pm. Conrad has his finger on the pulse of the LA literary scene and always puts together a great mix short fiction, personal essays, poetry, spoken word, and music.

Last nights show featured Brendan Constantine, (Letters To Guns), Antonia Crane (Tales of a Sexual Outlaw) Rob Roberge (Working Backwards From the Worst Moments of My Life), Patrick O'Neil, and the "cowpunk" band, Speedbuggy.

Conrad says:

"Brendan Constantine holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently poet in residence at Loyolla Marymount University Extension and the Windward School.
His work has appeared in numerous journals, most notably Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review and RUNES. His collection, Letters To Guns, was released in 2009 from Red Hen Press. He lives at Bela Lugosi's last address.

Antonia Crane is a freelance journalist, editor and sex worker from Humboldt County. She has been a sex educator and harm reduction counselor for at-risk youth and women in SF and LA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch, edits the on line journal, "The Citron Review" and is a contributing columnist for "The Rumpus." Excerpts from her forthcoming memoir "Tales of a Sexual Outlaw" have been published in the Black Clock Journal, Coachella Review and the Sylvan Echo. She can be spotted hanging upside-down in precarious positions from stripper poles in L.A. and New Orleans.

Rob Roberge is the author of the upcoming book of stories, WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT OF MY LIFE and the novels More Than They Could Chew and Drive. He teaches writing at the Antioch MFA in Creative Writing, UC-Riverside's Palm Desert MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. His stories have been featured in ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Other Voices and Alaska Quarterly Review, to name a few. He plays guitar and sings with several LA bands, including the punk pioneers, The Urinals. He also works with JAIL GUITAR DOORS, a program to bring music and therapy into prisons.

Patrick O'Neil is a former junkie/bank robber, turned writer/teacher. He received his MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. His first book of memoir is titled Opacity. His essays have appeared in Word Riot, SoMa Literary Review, Blood Orange Review, The Citron Review, Sunsets and Silencers, The Sylvan Echo, Nouveau Blank, and AUDEMUS. "

The readings were captivating. The general tone of the evening was a bit dark, but with compassion and humor. The four piece band (2 guitars, bass & drums) sounded great; an update on the classic Bakersfield country sound. It felt like they hit the stage straight out of the van after a twelve hour drive from their last gig. Strong songwriting, dynamic vocals from frontman Timbo, and solid support from the rhythm section.

Check out the T & G website and shoot Conrad an email to be added to his mailing list. To find out more about these artists dig into the links above.

Tongue and Groove is one of my favorite Hollywood hangs and always full of surprises. Maybe I'll see you there next month.