Category: Listening

King Curtis

By , June 13, 2018 11:36 pm

A little yakety sax for your Thursday!

One of my grandmothers had a bunch of old records that she would let me look through, and one of them was a Boots Randolph album.  Randolph was famous for the record entitled “Yakety Sax”, the title tune of which became the Benny Hill theme song and was used in many other tv commercials and themes, but I only remember listening to Randolph’s version of “Moon River”, which I would play on my grandma’s record player over and over.

Much, much later I would discover one of Randolph’s contemporaries and the soloist that influenced his “Yakety Sax” composition:  King Curtis.  Although I didn’t know his name when I was younger, I had in fact heard Curtis’ playing already; he was Aretha Franklin’s bandleader for years and was a mainstay session musician for Atlantic Records.

I didn’t know anything about King Curtis until college.  Thanks to Professor Larry Starr’s class on mid-20th century Popular Music, I listened to Curtis’ solos on recordings by the Coasters.  “Yakety Yak” was the first one I heard, and the first time I really thought about that type of playing as a unique and specialized style of playing the saxophone.  Since then I’ve heard it referenced in various ways:  “Texas Tenor”, “Ballads and Blues Tenor”, or just “Rhythm & Blues Saxophone” (although each of these labels encompass a LOT more of their own characteristics).  I’ve even heard “yakety sax” as a term for this style!

Since then, I’ve listened to a bit more of King Curtis, especially his album Live at the Fillmore West, but there’s a lot more out there.  Here’s a transcription of Curtis’ solo on “Yakety Yak” to give you a taste:

 

Stuck on the Inside

By , June 8, 2018 9:55 am

Recently, Grant (drummer for Polyrhythmics) told me that he has been discovering new music primarily from his non-musician friends, rather than other musicians, and that got me thinking about my similar experiences.

I would think, logically, that the best resources for music that would be new to me would be my musical and professional peers; music is their career, and listening to it an important part of their continuing education.  And yet, I can think of significant chunks of my music collection and musical memory that came from my friends and family that do not, in fact, play music, professionally or otherwise.

Why is this the case?  I don’t want to speak for Grant or anyone else, but I think I have a few hangups that contribute to the trend.  One of the reasons my musical tastes were so narrow for so long (they still are, but I’m getting better), is because it can be difficult not to view my listening in terms of my own music, so whenever I put anything on there would be that small voice somewhere asking me “how does this song improve my playing?” or “how does this song apply to the music I write and play?”

The correct response to that voice is “I don’t know, but if I like it and it makes me feel good then it is helping somehow, whether I can detect it or not.”  But it can be hard for me to remember that, and taking that analytical mindset instead will immediately reduce the variety of sounds I listen to.

On the other side of this dilemma, Jessica and I were talking about a recent interview with John Mayer where he described having almost the opposite problem, wanting to play all the different kinds of music that he likes and listens to, and then having to kind of make a distinction between the music he listens to AND makes, and the music that he JUST listens to.  There were many many different parts to the interview, and this was one small piece (as Jessie would readily point out), but it was one that stuck with me.

Another reason non-musician friends turn me on to so much more new music, I think, is that they often don’t think about whether the music will be something I like, or whether it’s in line with the styles I usually listen to.  They just really like it and want to share it with me. 

When I would recommend something to another musician, there used to be a lot of self-consciousness and insecurity (again, not as much nowadays, but still a little).  I wanted to know for sure it was something they were going to like, and be in line with their tastes.  I think that’s a complete non-issue for friends that don’t play music professionally.

To be fair, it’s probably a non-issue for most professional musicians too; I can only speak about my own problems!

Regardless, I am thankful for all of the new music and musical discoveries I have been able to make through all the beautiful people in my life, and I look forward to continuing to expand my musical palette and grow!

 

 

 

Short Transcription

By , May 30, 2018 11:15 pm

Hi all!

I have one more David Fathead Newman transcription to post, very short but really great and possibly one of Newman’s most iconic solo breaks:  his solo introduction to Ray Charles’ “The Right Time”.

I plan on diving into any interviews I can find with Newman after this; I tried to find any relevant biographies or an autobiography with no luck, but it looks like there are some other resources I can explore.  I hope to learn more about Newman and put a blog post together in the future!

Here’s the transcription:

 

Transcription

By , May 18, 2018 11:53 pm

Hey all,

I’ve already posted this on my other social media platforms, but here is a bit of a sequel to my previous transcription post, another David Fathead Newman solo off of the Genius of Ray Charles album, from the tune “Deed I Do”:

Once again, you can check out a little description if you click on the youtube link, but in general it has been really informative and inspiring to get into how freely Newman plays with rhythm.  Also, this solo really gives you a sense of how wonderful Newman’s tone was, especially the beginning of the solo in which he restates the vocal melody (you really should listen to the actual recording for that, though.  I’m just a vague imitation!)

 

 

 

 

Ghost Note Tour

By , May 10, 2018 11:12 am

Last month I spent 17 days on the road with Polyrhythmics, having played 13 shows, and on 11 of those shows we shared the stage with the band Ghost Note.  Although the road is always thought-provoking and eventful (in addition to a lot of work), it’s the sharing of the stage that’s prompting this post.

Ghost Note is co-led by Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight, both musicians I first heard when they were performing with the band Snarky Puppy.  They are the center of the group, are both immensely talented, and draw equally talented musicians to that center, surrounding themselves with people that match their level of musicianship and passion for creative music.

The tour began with Nate on percussion, Sput on drums, MonoNeon on bass, Vaughn Henry on keyboards, Jonathan Mones on Alto sax, and Sylvester Onyejiaka on Tenor sax.  Halfway through the tour, Sylvester and Vaughn left, and the band added Domi on keyboards, Peter Knudsen on guitar, and A.J. Brown on bass (for 2 of the gigs).  All from different parts of the country, all immensely talented.  It was incredible.

I could write a whole other blog post on Ghost Note’s music itself – fun, melodic music with room for a lot of complex rhythm and interplay, as well as specific spaces for improvisation and solos.  But as fascinated as I was with the music, I was equally fascinated with the personal dynamic of the group and how it stays together, works together, and plays together.  I didn’t ask Sput or Nate very many specific questions related to this, but in conversations with them and the other band members I started to get a picture of it.  Here a couple of observations:

 

-These guys WORK.  Like all the time.  Whether it’s recording parts for someone from their house, DJ’ing radio shows, travelling for gigs, or making videos and music through their social media platforms, everyone involved in Ghost Note works on music-related projects in a wiiiiide variety of forms.  And it’s not limited by geography; they’re involved in collaborations with people across the country.

-Even while they travel and connect with people away from home, they’re connected with the scene where they live.  Following them on social media, I can see what everyone is doing locally, whether it’s Portland, Miami, Dallas, or New York, among other places (yes, there were members of Ghost Note currently living in each of those places!)  And although I’m sure all of the Ghost Note members have occasional issues similar to what I’ve just begun to deal with – in terms of striking a healthy balance between in-town/out-of-town and work/friends and family – it was motivating to talk to and be around musicians that were so professional in terms of networking and personal promotion.

-They were all really warm and supportive!  They’ve played with some of the greatest and most famous musicians in the world, and there were no egos, just people focused on playing music at the highest level they can, and enjoying it at all times.  And that was the case no matter how big or small the venue was; they always brought it and played with full intensity.  This is another thought that seems obvious when it’s written down, because everyone says that great musicians do that, but it’s different when you see it in action.  I can think of a few very specific situations on this tour where Ghost Note could have played differently or dealt with things in another way, and I watched them put huge amounts of time and energy into the show, their fans, and the venue and staff.

 

I have a lot of other thoughts swirling in my head after this tour and Polyrhythmics’ recent run to New Orleans, but I will end here with these initial thoughts about the Ghost Note run.  If you’re so inclined, check out their recent album, Swagism, and stay tuned for more from me!

 

 

 

 

Transcription

By , May 4, 2018 9:48 am

 

Hi all!

I think a lot of you have already seen me post this clip elsewhere, but I thought I would put it up here as well.

I would like to get more in the habit of posting video of what I’m playing/working on; just short informal bits, nothing too intense.  This is the first in that effort, so tell me what you think!  

If you’re interested, click the youtube link on the video and read the description for my quick thoughts on this solo and why I’m interested in it at the moment!

Art

Austin Impressions

By , February 9, 2018 5:54 pm

For my next post, I had planned on asking John Speice, a prolific and very active musician on the scene in Austin, Texas, to do an interview.  

Several of the projects Speice is involved in, including Brownout, Grupo Fantasma, Ocote Soul Sounds, and Money Chicha, have been essential music in the Polyrhythmics van for a while now, and John was also on hand to sit in on and talk after our late night performance at High Sierra Music Festival last summer.

In addition, Adrian Quesada, one of the main creative engines behind Brownout, Grupo Fantasma, and Ocote Soul Sounds, was in Seattle in November working with the modern opera Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance at On the Boards theater, and Polyrhythmics horns had the opportunity to do some small recording for him while he was here.  Clearly these guys have a lot going on! 

Most recently, we played in Austin with another project John is involved in, Kalu and the Electric Joint, and between hearing him talk about past touring bands and scenes and seeing the reaction of the crowd to his presence in the Electric Joint, I felt like he could add something to the musings I’ve had here about the musical circles and scenes in Seattle and how the dynamic here compares to that in other cities.

However, as I was preparing to ask for the interview, John posted a link to an interview he had done here:  

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-akmgh-86440a#.WnSMXPIbSU4.facebook

The interview was for a podcast called “How did I Get Here?”, and it ended up having everything I wanted John to talk about!  I highly recommend checking it out, although I believe you have to download the Podbean app to do it.  The app is free, so it’s still relatively easy to get to and to hear.

Here are a few parts of the interview that really resonated with me:

By connecting the dots between the various bands and musicians he’s played with between his time in Denton and Austin, Speice paints detailed pictures of a couple of different musical circles. Throughout these sections, he just matter-of-factly describes what he was trying to do musically, and how meeting one person led to meeting another, and how playing one gig led to playing with this band, etc. As I’m typing this, it seems really obvious – that this is how a musician works – but it’s not always that easy, sustainable, or direct. The difference in hearing Speice talk about it is that you can tell he would always do what it takes to make life work, so to speak, and that he has a certain determination about playing music that is really inspiring.

In one memory, John describes auditioning for an established Austin band close to when he moved to town, and being passed up for another drummer that had a more technical/”chops”-based focus, and the negative impact that experience had on him. He found out later that that drummer was also dropped later on, because he didn’t have the sound and/or feel that the band wanted. All schadenfreude aside, there was some affirmation in hearing that news; he felt that it meant that even though there are many technically amazing drummers out there, the specific style and feel that he has is just as valuable. There are several places in the interview where he describes moving from playing and listening to music based on technical virtuosity to longer-form groove-based music, and his thoughts on that were really deep to me.

Near the end of the interview, Speice talks about his family, and what it has meant to be with his wife over the years and for her to be supportive and encouraging of what he calls a “compulsion” to be a musician. This also resonated with me; as the musical aspects of my life continue to grow and spread in different directions, I am increasingly aware of and thankful for the patience and support of my girlfriend, my family, and my friends. The compulsion to play music as a career can narrow your vision at times, and it’s important to recognize that to keep from isolating yourself too much, something that I am working on.

There were many more parts in this interview that are worth sharing, but I don’t have the room here. Check out the link to the podcast, if you are so inclined, and definitely check out John’s projects:

brownoutmusic.com

grupofantasma.com

https://ocotesoulsounds.bandcamp.com

www.moneychicha.com

www.goldendawnarkestra.com

www.kaluandtheelectricjoint.com

 

 

 

 

´╗┐Talking with Colton Thomas

By , January 26, 2018 12:59 am

Colton and Booker T, July 2017

I first met Colton Thomas in Roseburg, Oregon last 4th of July.  Polyrhythmics had the amazing opportunity to open for Booker T at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, and Colton, who lives in the area, was there for the show.  Colton does A&R work for Transistor Sound, a record label and recording studio in the Bay Area, and has known Monophonics frontman and Transistor Sound main man Kelly Finnigan for some time.  I also found out he has traded music choices online with True Loves and DLO3 guitarist and fellow classic Soul/R&B fanatic Jabrille Williams, and has maintained contact with a huge number of Soul and R&B greats over the years.

Colton and the Monophonics, July 2012

I became Facebook friends with Colton a little while later, and it was then I realized the depth of his passion for Sweet Soul, Group Harmony, and other Soul and R&B styles.  He collects 45 rpm records as well as classic press photos, and I began to notice his posts relating to both, from groups like the Four Tops, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Spinners, and so many more, often underrated or undiscovered. 

Colton is a dedicated collector, to be sure, but I was fascinated by how much further it goes; in the sections beneath his posts I would see comments from family members and friends of the posted musicians, and sometimes the musicians themselves would write in on his posts!  It became clear that Colton knows many of these legendary singers and artists and their families as friends at this point, and he is actively invested in getting their music out there today.  I decided to try to interview Colton for the blog, and he was excited to do it.  As expected, I learned a tremendous amount about the groups and sub-genres associated with classic Soul and R&B! 

The Dontells, an example of Sweet Soul

Colton was interested in music from a very young age; he remembered bringing a cassette tape of himself singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to Show and Tell in kindergarten.  Another formative experience was his 13th birthday, in 2003, when his parents got him tickets to see James Brown in Jacksonville, Oregon.  He said it was incredible, and remembers Brown unexpectedly using a Korg keyboard, sometimes playing it backwards!

Through his family’s antique store, which is still going strong today, he had his first experiences with recordings.  He told me he remembers the first record he ever got:  The Four Tops – Second Album (“that’s a great record”).  From there his love for Soul and Vocal Harmony music took off.

After hearing about some of his early experiences getting into this music, I was able to get to one of the aspects of Colton’s interest that fascinated me the most.  I asked him how he started getting into contact with so many amazing elder musicians, and he told me it really started with Myspace.

Colton started a Myspace page called Soul Legends, where he could write about the records and artists he loved, and soon he was reaching out and finding the Myspace pages belonging to the singers and musicians he admired.  By 2009, Colton was conducting interviews, the first of which was Tony Drake, who sang “Let’s Play House”(originally released in 1969).  An interview with Larry Cunningham of The Floaters (listen to “Float On” from 1977 here) soon followed.  He was able to do these interviews through Blog Talk Radio, a site that allows you to create your own radio show.  Colton’s show was called Soul FM, and he continued to interview more and more artists in this way from 2009 on.  At the time of the interview with Larry Cunningham, Colton was 17 years old.  SEVENTEEN!!

I just can’t imagine seeking out the music, connecting with these luminaries and legends, and starting your own interview-based radio show at 17; I thought that was remarkable.  

The Soul FM show allowed for fans and musicians to call in and talk to Colton or whoever he was interviewing, which then led to more connections across the country for him to share in his musical loves, and it could be unexpected who might end up calling:  When Colton was interviewing Little Anthony of Little Anthony and the Imperials, he saw a call come up, but did not want to interrupt Anthony, as he was in the middle of a story, so he didn’t pick up the call.  Afterward, he got a Facebook message from R&B musician Jimmy Castor saying it was he who was calling in.  Castor passed on a while after that, and Colton said that not taking that call is “one of [his] biggest regrets to this day.” 

Colton with Jerry Lawson

A particularly fun memory Colton recounted to me was from 2013, when he traveled to Mesa, Arizona to see family.  Because Scottsdale was near by, and because he had kept in contact with Jerry Lawson – of The Persuasions –, Colton and Lawson arranged for Lawson to pick him up to hang out (“I don’t know what kind of car it was but it was a really cool car,” Colton said).  They ended up grabbing some ice cream, and, at the end of the night, going to a karaoke bar, called the Grapevine, together!  Colton ended up picking a Persuasions song out of the karaoke book for Lawson to sing, and Colton got into the act too, singing the Spinners.

Autographed note from Weldon McDougal

There were others who were surprised to find out a white teenager in Southern Oregon was running such an extensive online tribute to classic Soul and R&B.  One of the fellow music afficionados Colton met through his Soul Legends Myspace page was T.L. Harris, who told Colton that he thought Soul Legends was run by “an 80-year-old black man from Detroit”.  When Harris saw a photo of Colton, at 16 years old, with Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, he said it blew his mind!  He reached out to Colton online and introduced him to Weldon McDougal 

Weldon McDougal was a prolific singer, songwriter, and producer (he sang some of the background vocals on “Yes I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason) who worked at Philadelphia International Records as well as Motown Records.  He became good friends with Colton, and had many stories, including some from his childhood.

McDougal told of living in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.  He remembers that Hawkins had a coffin that he used as part of his stage performance, but he would leave it outside on his front porch in Philadelphia, and as a child McDougal and his friends would dare each other to go on the porch and get inside in the coffin.  I believe Colton said that McDougal told him they very nearly got caught once, and Hawkins scared them off!

Another memorable story McDougal told Colton and Harris involved legendary bassist James Jamerson.  While McDougal was at Motown, the 1973 documentary Save the Children was being filmed, and Marvin Gaye and his band (of which Jamerson was a part) were featured in the film.  McDougal remembered coming to the hotel to pick Jamerson up to take him to the venue and discovering that Jamerson had drunkenly trashed his room and was getting grief from hotel staff.  As the story goes, on the way out of the hotel, Jamerson hopped over the hotel clerk’s desk and karate-chopped the clerk, letting out a loud “Hi-YAH motherf****rs!!”

Colton with Kelly Finnegan

After meeting Kelly and the Monophonics in July of 2012, Colton kept in touch, and in January of 2017 he signed a contract to become involved with A&R for Transistor Sound, a record label that advocates for unheard, unreleased, and underappreciated Soul music.  To a certain extent, the label is perfect for Colton; it provides a very real vehicle for him to bring the music and musicmakers he loves to more public notice, and he can continue to work towards giving them and their families the recognition they deserve.  The Dontells, pictured at the beginning of this post, is the 1st reissue Colton has helped put out through Transistor Sound, largely with the help of the late Bob Abrahamian, who was a generous collector and Soul music aficionado from Chicago that Colton originally met on an online forum called Soulful Detroit and really looked up to.  You can read a tribute to Bob here.

Implicit in some of our conversations, I think, was how many black groups and artists making music in the 50’s and 60’s were taken advantage of, and not given their fair public and financial recognition.  I believe Colton mentioned that Weldon had some stories about how important it was to watch your money and be careful what you sign.  That adds another spin on Colton’s mission to find underappreciated recordings for reissue.

In addition, Colton himself sings, and there may be a Colton Thomas release at some point down the road!

Colton credits social media for allowing him to make the connections he’s made over the years.  Those Soul legends that he initially found on Myspace became friends and mentors that he regularly calls on the phone to talk to and hear stories from.  The way he put it, without social media he never would have had the opportunity to hang out with groups like Smokey Robinson (Colton interviewed bass player Gary Foote on his Blogtalk show, who then set up a backstage meeting between Colton and Smokey in 2011) or the Temptations (Colton met veteran road manager Billy Bannister at a performance, who then introduced him to Otis Williams, last original member of the Temptations, backstage at another performance). 

I didn’t have the heart to ask too deeply about the number of singers and groups Colton has befriended that have passed on, but it was definitely on my mind during parts of the interview.  It’s hard for me not to feel a sense of urgency in Colton’s mission, as so many Soul legends have gone in recent years, and it has to be hard for him to say goodbye to more and more of his heroes as time goes on, but there is no doubt in my mind that they all are very proud of and thankful for Colton’s unending passion for their lives and their music.

Some other vocalists Colton has connected with over the years:  Barrett Strong, the Masqueraders, Flying Stars of Brooklyn, and Brothers by Choice

Here are a few more photos Colton shared with me:

 

With Jerry Lawson

With Terry Cole of Colemine Records

With Lee Fields

With Kelly Finnegan

 

 

 

 

 

    

Updates/Listening to the London Scene

By , September 11, 2017 1:26 pm

Hi all!

It’s been an eventful Summer:

–  Polyrhythmics played across the region, including the Eclipse Festival and the High Sierra Music Festival, where I had the opportunity to share the stage with both Skerik (who I talked with on the blog here) and Karl Denson, a musical highlight for me.  We added the finishing touches to the next album, set to release 9/20, and are asking fans, friends, and family to preorder it at http://www.pledgemusic.com/polyrhythmics .  Check it out!  There are other fun gifts and thank yous for supporting on that site as well.

–  Theoretics performed at Capitol Hill Block Party and are working on a new EP.  We’re continuing to move in a different direction from previous sounds, and I am really excited to continue.  To me, the music fuses a more composed, layered approach with a creative and spontaneous treatment of sounds and textures, and it’s changing how I think about writing and playing music, in a good way.  I hope to share it with you all soon!

–  I moved to a slightly different part of town with my girlfriend, a little more out of the way but still connected to what I need personally and musically.  With how busy things have been it has been difficult to really get settled (3 months later and we still have pictures to hang and boxes to unpack!), but all things in time.  Honestly, it has been nice to feel as though I’m getting away a bit when I come home; it has been easier for me to focus on what needs to get done.

 

In other news, I’ve been more and more interested in what seems to be a particular circle of creative musicians based in London, and it’s been fun to listen to their similarities and differences in sound based on that common geography.

I had heard the Heliocentrics from Adam, our drummer in Theoretics, quite a while ago, but recently, after they released a new full length album, I went back and got back into them.  In addition, they began popping up in my social media feed more.  Here is their drummer and producer, Malcom Catto, giving a tour of his recording studio (just click).  There also was a Gilles Peterson podcast on which Catto and bassist Jake Ferguson talked about some of their jazz influences, as well as influences outside of that genre like Ennio Morricone and Can.  Unfortunately, it looks like that podcast is not available anymore.

Listening to Gilles Peterson’s playlists after that was really informative because of their stylistic range; although genres like Electronica, Jazz, and Hip Hop are more fluid in America than they were 10 years ago, in my opinion, it seems they are still more fluid in Britain.

At the same time that I was listening to the materials above, I started listening to and following saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings.  As it turned out, Hutchings had worked with Heliocentrics in the past, but predominately plays with his own group Shabaka and the Ancestors, which sounds significantly different from Heliocentrics, in a good way.  Again, through social media I saw more and more from him – clips of interviews, concert footage (Hutchings posted a great clip of an Ancestors show where Kamasi Washington sat in, really beautiful), etc.  Also, check out his account of playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra:  A Meditation on my Experience with the Sun Ra Arkestra

A fourth element of this London scene I listened to was Yussef Kamaal, a duo collaboration with another unique take on creative London music.  Although the duo is no longer considered together, Kamaal Williams, aka Henry Wu, is quite active on my feed, and I’m interested to see what he does next.  And, as before, even with major differences in their musical approach, sound, and style, there is a common thread – Yussef Kamaal’s album Black Focus was engineered by none other than Malcom Catto of the Heliocentrics.

Anyway, I recommend checking out any of the artists mentioned above.  It has been enlightening and interesting listening to them over the last couple of months!

 

Art

 

 

 

Lesson/Interview with Skerik

By , June 19, 2017 12:14 am

I’m listening back to a recording of 2 hours I spent talking with Skerik, one of the saxophonists playing today that I really look up to and find inspiring for a multitude of reasons.

Skerik is an example of a musician that, to me, has developed a truly individual style while at the same playing in a way that shows a reverence for all musical approaches, both past and present (and future too, for that matter), and when I hear that in another musician I always think the same thing:  “where is this person coming from?”

That question was really the motivation to ask him for a lesson.  I know you can never really fully answer a question like that, but in the process of talking to him for an afternoon I really learned a lot about his feelings on music, performance, and being a musician in general.  

I’ve written and rewritten this post many times, trying to accurately describe and articulate as many details as possible while still being brief and easy to read, but we covered so much ground I am finding it impossible.  

In the end, I’ve just decided to write about a few of the common threads and larger points that I’ve drawn from the recording, so I hope the intent still comes through.

TIME

The importance of Time in its various facets manifested itself at several points in the conversation.  The first was when Skerik was describing some of his experiences in London after moving there early in his professional career thanks to the encouragement of Leif Totusek, who introduced him to Soukous musicians and South African musicians.  Skerik described playing singular ideas or songs for hours and hours with these musicians without stopping.  Recalling one specific memory, he remembered working on a specific tune with South African musician Bheki Mseleku until he was dead tired, going to sleep, and then waking up to find Mseleku still playing through the same song.  This commitment to “putting in the time”, in his view, is how musicians develop into those superhuman examples, the musicians that can play in a style with complete conviction and authenticity.  

Those stories of London kind of bled into second-hand stories he related about rehearsal rules and procedures in bands like those of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; infamously strict, meticulous, and LONG, working on music for months at a time before it is ever played live or recorded.  Again, time, and commitment, plays a large part in creating music that becomes iconic and, to a certain extent, timeless.

This isn’t to say music must be created this way.  Skerik also talked a bit about friends and musicians who have the ability to create that kind of musical excellence with less preparation, and used session and sideman musicians from New York or LA as examples.  These are players who have the skill set “to thrive in those conditions”, as he said, and he spoke of those musicians with an equal amount of admiration and reverence.

REVERENCE

Which brings me to the next thread.  As we talked about past musical giants, talented contemporaries, and musical mentors, and then beyond music to car mechanics and builders and tradesmen of all kinds, I realized that Skerik has a serious respect and love for humans that work on a craft and can perform that craft on a high level, beyond what I think an average person has.  He uses terminology like “shaman”, “sage”, and even “Yoda” for these people, by whom he is amazed in their ability to fix things, both literally (as in cars or musical instruments or houses) and figuratively (musicians and artists).

I’ll save the stories he had about non-musical trades for another time (but ask me about it when you see me if you think of it, they’re hilarious) and focus on how he talks about the musical “shamans” that came up in conversation.  Again, I can’t go into too much detail, because there are just too many names and too much stuff, but I can say that a lot of the names Skerik mentioned when talking about his musical development are the same names that would I would bring up if I were talking about mine – the larger-than-life jazz giants that changed the music, as well as the jazz musicians that we agree were underrated or passed over.  But Skerik’s reverence extends further; whereas, to a certain extent, my musical gods existed in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and mostly came from jazz, Skerik upholds all of those and then some – across musical styles and across many more years, and he speaks of all of them with wide-eyed astonishment, shaking his head and throwing his hands up when trying to describe how mind-blowing they were or still are to this day.

That reverent tone took me a little by surprise, I guess because when I had seen Skerik play, I always felt like he was playful, tongue-in-cheek, and subversive, not this “serious” musician type.  This assumption and judgement was all wrong, but for a variety of reasons, as I would find out.

SERIOUS” MUSIC

Skerik recounted a story of a time when he was young and living with a girlfriend in France about how people view music.  The girlfriend’s father listened to and enjoyed jazz and many other different styles of music, as well as played accordion and sang.  In one particular conversation the father used the phrase “serious music” to describe classical music.  The father was a good person and someone Skerik liked and respected, and he meant no ill will by using the phrase, but Skerik remembers how it raised his hackles immediately.  “I was like ‘how is this other music not serious?'”, he said.  It wasn’t clear if this was in reference to another specific genre of music, but it doesn’t have to be for the anecdote to make a clear point:  no style or category of music is more “serious” than another if the musicians involved are dedicated to doing it at a high level.

On a similar note, we talked about jazz musicians like Eddie Harris and Clifford Jordan that, while continuing to innovate and explore new ideas musically, maintained connections to other styles.  Harris could go from the most technically virtuosic saxophone playing to singing blues songs in his sets, as well as writing horn parts for Earth Wind & Fire, and there are stories of Jordan and other musicians he played with routinely going out and hanging at blues clubs in town when they weren’t on the road, sitting in or singing a tune themselves.

We talked about how musical categories can be damaging, and touched on the power that Wynton Marsalis’ comments in the 80′ and 90’s had, both for good and for bad.  For a well-known musician like Marsalis, who Skerik was inspired by and loved and respects, to tell everyone in attendance at the Paramount (where Skerik remembers seeing him), for example, to go buy a Thelonious Monk record the following day, and at the same time make public comments that directly affected the livelihood of artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is both powerful and dangerous.  “How can someone do so much damage and so much good?”  Skerik said, lamenting this behavior that very well could have kept a lot of exciting and new and different music from a larger and deserving audience – “all that music is completely relevant, and we lost a whole generation of people…being able to enjoy all this crazy free [music]” –  while at the same time opening up other important musical doors to that same audience.   (Skerik  said the articles that are specifically referenced and linked to in this essay and interview by Ethan Iverson provide excellent information regarding this topic.  I’ve mentioned Iverson before here.)

PERFORMANCE

I mentioned my impressions of Skerik in performance earlier, and he got into that a little bit too.  It came in the context of music as a communal experience, something to be shared with the audience.  That general concept is something I had already thought about quite a bit, and talked about with others, but I really enjoyed Skerik’s take on several aspects.

About the exchange between performer and listener:  “We need their energy, we need their attention, so that we can use that listening power, it’s so reciprocal…that energy is unstoppable.”

About process:  “Include them, let them be a part of the process, the circle, and ultimately the result.  That’s something that’s important to me, process and result, how they’re different.”

About actions in the moment:  “Sometimes I get into this mode of, if the music is playful, if it has some element of playfulness, or if some of the musicians have a sense of humor, I’ll be goofy or something on stage, not to trivialize the music, but to keep people engaged with the music…and sometimes that can help during a solo, helps me create space during a solo, if I can be dramatic or….do something unusual – it’s not planned, I’m not doing it for being unusual’s sake.”

The last quotation I will include, which I think is fitting, came after a few stories Skerik had about making a solo an “event”.  He was talking about saxophonists Steve Potts and Mark Turner, in two different stories, creating beautiful and meaningful spaces with their playing:

 

 

“Of course we need all these intellectual tools and all these things…but at the end of the day the vehicle to deliver those things is a sense of expression, of expressiveness.”

 

 

I am very thankful to Skerik for taking the time to talk, and thank YOU for reading!  

If you can, please check out the Joe Allard pedagogy at http://www.joeallard.org/pedagogy.html , and Skerik’s website at http://skerikmusic.com

-Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

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