Category: Music

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radio, TV, Books, Music

By , March 1, 2017 3:24 pm

Hi all!

Lots to catch up on here.  I got the chance to do a few local music and radio shows last month with some of my favorite musicians in town:

Tim Kennedy band on KNKX:  Tim has gotten pretty regular mention on this site for good reason, he has been a significant positive influence on me since I started playing music professionally.  In addition, I’ve listened to 88.5 since I was a boy, sometimes recording jazz overnight onto cassette tapes, so this show had an added personal importance.

Polyrhythmics on Artzone with Nancy Guppy:  I performed on Artzone with Theoretics several years ago, but never put up the footage.  Artzone is a program that’s really valuable to Seattle arts and culture, in my opinion.  I first started playing closer attention to it when there was a really endearing segment with Nancy and Bill Frisell

In addition, Theoretics were chosen to a part of Playback, the Seattle Public Library’s program that promotes and supports local music and artists.  There are a lot of great bands involved, so check it out!

All of these organizations, as well as ones I’ve talked about in the past like Seattle Art Museum and KEXP, are doing really essential work in nurturing local music.  I’m thankful to be working with them occasionally and, in turn, want to support them as best as I can!

I finished the My Life with Earth Wind and Fire, the autobiography of Maurice White, and found it to be beautiful; White was a passionate musician with a vision, and the trajectory of his life made for a moving story.  

I’m now reading Straight Life: the autobiography of Art Pepper.  I would venture to say it is much darker than White’s autobiography, and there are many tragic parts of Pepper’s life that the book covers, but it is just as moving.  The things that were done to Pepper and the things he did to himself and others are hard to read about at times, and the book has changed the way I look at the musicians and music of the 50’s and 60’s.

That’s it for now, hopefully more to come soon!

James Booker, Stones Throw Records, Muscle Shoals

By , October 21, 2016 12:41 am

Hi everyone!

I recently went through a good run of music-related documentaries that I would highly recommend:

booker

Bayou Maharaja – This doc is about James Booker, a New Orleans pianist and entertainer that was active primarily in the 70’s. Although he made several European tours and played with many of the era’s great musicians, Booker stayed in NOLA for the most part, which is part of why he is still unknown to many people. I first heard about him when I visited New Orleans with Polyrhythmics the first time in 2014, and it’s a shame not only that I had not become familiar with him sooner, but also that he is still so underappreciated. Completely unique, extremely talented, and fascinating in every way.  Check out the movie!

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Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton – Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton tells the story of Stones Throw Records, the LA label started by DJ Peanut Butter Wolf and responsible for supporting music by Madlib, MF Doom, J Dilla, and others.  In addition to those artists, I have Stones Throw to thank for turning me on to a few other artists that became important to me for one reason or another, like the Stepkids, Mayer Hawthorne, and James Pants.  What interested me the most when watching this movie was how organic the process was in creating the musical scene around the record label; Wolf would actively pursue the music that he thought was cool, regardless of how the bands and musicians related to each other.  In this way, there are some Stones Throw albums that, when put next to each other, would seem like they don’t belong on the same record label, and yet at the same time there is something in the sounds of all their records that makes it sound like Stones Throw.  Wolf created a sound and a scene by not worrying about style or genre or whether it made sense.

rick-hall

Muscle Shoals – Similarly, I enjoyed how Muscle Shoals recounted the creation of the style and sound that would come to represent early music by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Duane Allman.  The Muscle Shoals Sound would become famous, and its origin is nothing more than 4 studio musicians and a recording engineer from a small part of Northwestern Alabama making music that sounded good to them.  The story of Muscle Shoals, from humble beginnings to more modern music industry struggles and everything in between, was truly inspiring to me.

 

I hope you’re encouraged to watch these films after reading this.  You won’t regret it!

 

Art

 

 

Updates/Podcasts

By , July 13, 2016 1:37 pm

Hi all,

I cleaned a bit of the Links page, adding websites for Ben Bloom, Westsound Recording, and Blue Mallard Studios, who I thank for the killer sounds on the most recent Polys 45.

I also deleted old links and updated the link to Ethan Iverson’s blog, which I have rediscovered recently and am once again impressed and thankful for his insight on both musical and non-musical topics. His recent post about Albert Ayler (https://ethaniverson.com/2016/07/13/albert-ayler-at-80/) is thought-provoking in a great way.

A few new photos are up in the 2016 gallery, and the calendar is updated through most of September, with trips to Colorado and Virginia on the horizon.

Another rediscovery has been the general podcast arena; when I was commuting to an office for work 5 days a week I had a sizable list of podcasts to listen to, but since then I haven’t really been keeping up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I think I’ve been filling that listening time in other productive ways. But I started browsing around again and found a couple things.

JazzStories is a podcast put out by Jazz at Lincoln Center, and it consists of 10-15 minute excerpts of interviews with jazz musicians both past and present. The fact that it is both older musicians and younger ones is important, because the differences in their perceptions is one of the things that makes the podcast so interesting. In all, it conveys the stories that I enjoy hearing so much; anecdotes and personal accounts of life from the people that I have listened to on record and, in some cases, idolized for years now.

City Soul is a radio show on KBCS 91.3 on Friday nights, but I rarely am able to hear it live, so I’m happy to get a chance to listen in podcast form. It’s a show I would listen to regularly about 5 years ago, and I found a lot of good music moving between jazz, electronica, and hip hop that I never would have discovered otherwise. I’m excited to get back on listening to it and see what DJs J-Justice and Atlee show me next.

That’s all for now; thanks for reading!

Art

Jaco

By , June 2, 2016 1:56 pm

 

JacoPastorius

I recently had the opportunity to watch Jaco, a 2015 documentary about Jaco Pastorius, and I cannot recommend it enough.

I remember the summer after I graduated high school I was working at my dad’s law firm, like I always did in the summers, and one of my coworkers, a bass player, introduced me to Jaco.  I was listening to a lot of jazz and was a snob, so the fact that I hadn’t heard the name before made me immediately skeptical.  I was impressed and liked the music upon first impression, but it wasn’t a revelation.  Over the following months though, Jaco’s world, 1970’s jazz and funk, started to open up for me, and there’s still a lot of music from that time that I am fascinated with, as well music from that time I haven’t discovered yet.

And Jaco really is at the center of that stuff for me.  What the film did was add so many other aspects of his persona that I loved learning about.  Some of these include the role that Florida and the Florida music scene played in his life, stories and video footage of he and his family together, and the wide variety of genres and styles he liked and moved between (something that I talk about and think about often, as you may know if you’ve read the blog before).  All of these things and several others parts of the movie had a strong effect on me, and, thanks to a weekend off and a patient girlfriend, I watched parts of the movie, as well as the extra interviews and clips, over and over again.

To this day I listen to Weather Report pretty regularly, and I remember listening to Jaco’s Word of Mouth album constantly for at least a year while I was in college, but watching the documentary Jaco reinvigorated my interest and  love of Jaco’s music and the music being made during his time to a higher level than it’s been in a while.  It also got me into Joni Mitchell’s work with Jaco, which I’m deep into now, but that will have to wait for another post!

Perhaps most importantly, I felt that the movie is a very poignant story about who the guy was as a person, and that might be the part that stays with me the longest.

Anyway, check it out if you get the chance!

 

 

 

Possibilities

By , May 11, 2016 3:31 pm

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The Polyrhythmics tour to New Orleans and the Southeast, from Kentucky (or, as some call it, Kenpucky,) to Florida to North Carolina and beyond went relatively smoothly, with many new areas visited from both the band perspective and a personal perspective.  I enjoyed the cultures and people in the South so very much, and loved having the opportunity  to play music there; once again I felt a real appreciation for professional musicians and bands in the cities to which we traveled.

Even before this tour I had a few long drives, so I checked out a book on tape:  Possibilities, an autobiography by Herbie Hancock.  I really liked it!  Herbie goes into detail about how certain musical projects and bands came about, and what the dynamic was like in those groups, as well as how his musical philosophy changed (or stayed the same) throughout his long career.  Definitely some interesting perspectives from a guy that has been TCB’ing (Taking Care of Business) for quite a while.

I would also recommend, to other aspiring professional musicians in particular, this interview with drummer and producer Jojo Mayer that Adam Gross recommended to me.  There were a few observations from Mayer there about where you work and play music versus where you live, the decisions you make regarding your life as a professional musician, and what the music business means to him.  Good stuff.

I think each time I return home after 2 or more weeks away I engage in the same self-reflection, but once again it’s really hitting me that music is my professional future, both teaching and playing.  For a while after college it was in the background of my professional life; something I was doing intermittently when I wasn’t busy working.  Then, even when it was in the forefront, I assumed that someday I would have to push it back again.  I think I’m getting closer to eliminating that assumption, which feels really good.

 

 

 

 

More Focused Listening

By , March 23, 2016 5:03 pm

When David Bowie passed away, I was motivated to listen to more of his music, as I had really only heard his big hits previously.  As I have occasionally done with other artists in the past, I decided to start with his early albums and move through them chronologically (I wrote about this approach previously here).  Listening to his albums this way definitely taught me some things about the development of songwriting, exploring different sounds and textures in pop music, and how pop music can be inventive and unique.  I really missed the boat in not listening to his music earlier.

With an upcoming special event that Ben Bloom and the rest of the Polyrhythmics will be putting together in New Orleans for JazzFest, I moved on to do the same focused listening with the discographies of Fela Kuti and the Grateful Dead.  I knew a fair amount of Fela’s music, but almost none of the Dead’s music, and once again both experiences were significantly enlightening.  What struck me in listening to the Grateful Dead was how interesting the actual composed material was; it seems to me that they are largely known for the improvisational nature of their performances, but I enjoyed the written material just as much.

Fela’s music is, in its own way, a perfect example of the approach that I frequently talk about achieving:  a unique synthesis of all of his influences into an individual sound.  Throughout his discography you hear how he incorporated West African Highlife, Jazz, and Soul in the style James Brown in a way that allows them all to work together.  The political nature of his music and how fearless he was in declaring his views is also an important part of who he was, and how the music sounded.

Polyrhythmics have never claimed to be an Afrobeat band, or tried to accurately and faithfully execute Afrobeat music as Fela and others played it, but the influence is definitely there, and it would be irresponsible to ignore or downplay that.  I’ve thought a lot recently about my responsibility as a musician to not only acknowledge influences but to bring them to the front of conversation when talking to listeners or students about my playing, especially if they are not familiar with those earlier bands and musicians.  I haven’t done a great job with that, and hope to do better.

Art

 

 

 

Updates

By , February 16, 2016 1:39 am

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Thanks for another awesome photo, Chris Davis!

 

Hi all,

It may be a little late for a New Year’s post, but here are some things happening for me now and things I’m looking forward to this year.

The Unsinkable Heavies continue to play every 3rd Wednesday at the Seamonster, and we have had a few opportunities to get out and play some more around town as well.  The band has really come into a particular vibe and sound that I think separates it from other similar groups.  That kind of clarity is important with the Heavies since we all play in the Polyrhythmics as well, but I think the two are distinct and different musical experiences.

Both Polyrhythmics and Theoretics are keeping busy, working on new material while still trying to push outward and share our music.

Because Theoretics (at least in its current form) is a little newer, one of my goals for the band is to get some real momentum with both live shows and new music.  Over the last couple of months I’ve talked with more and more people that like what we do, which is really encouraging, and, as with the Heavies, our musical style is becoming more and more solidified.

With Polyrhythmics, I’m looking forward to working on more new material and continuing down the path that we largely started on last year.  I’ve started to participate a bit more in the creative process with the band, and I’m excited about what comes out of it.

Lastly, teaching is going well, and in addition to giving private lessons I feel really lucky to be able to work with Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra’s Jazz Scholars program, where I can help give musical inspiration and motivation to kids who may not have the same support that I did when I was their age.  Check out their page here for more information!

 

Art

 

 

 

Library Music Finds

By , December 31, 2015 5:05 pm

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I’m going through another heavy library-listening phase, checking out CDs by the armful!  Here are some things I’ve been checking  out:

Grant Green, Idle Moments – The more I listen to Grant Green, the more I like his playing, specifically the thematic way in which he improvises.  Although it is sometimes repetitive, I think that repetition is really intentional and makes his solos more melodic, and his language is strong.  This record also has Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson on it too, so there is an interesting meeting of approaches.

Billy Childs, Map to the Treasure:  Reimagining Laura Nyro – I had never listened to Nyro’s music before, so I don’t know how different Childs made these songs with the arrangements, but the arrangements are really moving and well done.  This album has has Becca Stevens on a few tracks, which led me to her album Perfect Animal, another cool record with unique sounds and really great vocal work from her.

Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1969 – I have to be ready for some pretty intense free/noise improvisation to listen to this era of Miles, but, as I like to say sometimes, the music and the band is undeniable.  Chick Corea, Jack Dejohnette, Miles, Wayne Shorter, and Dave Holland; this is the band before the Bitches Brew bands but after In a Silent Way, so you can kind of hear a transition happening.  It also came with a concert DVD, so it was fun to get a chance to actually watch these guys play.

Roland Kirk, We Free Kings – I think Kirk is pretty underrated, or at least pigeon-holed for playing multiple woodwinds at once, which is really cool and sounds great, but he also was really inventive and unique on singular horns too, working in and building on the bebop language, and I think he was very creative in terms of fusing bebop, blues, and free jazz together.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls – Also very intense music, but for me this record was inspiring in how unique Mahanthappa’s approach is to alto saxophone; you can hear the influences and the individuality together, and it’s clear he’s worked on his approach in a clear way.

Sergio Mendes, Herp Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – This was a pleasant surprise for me; I had just recently watched the documentary The Wrecking Crew, which talks a little bit about Alpert’s work in the ’60’s and 70’s, and when I saw this album I had to check it out, not just for Alpert’s name but also because I had Medes’ name as well but never listened.  Super strong mood and vibe throughout, with funky beats and cool tunes!

Anyway, that’s just a taste, I’m still going through a lot of things that I just found by sifting through the jazz sections of the cds at Seattle Public Libraries, and I can’t recommend it enough.  Even if jazz isn’t your thing, there are albums to be found in the other sections as well.

-Art

 

 

 

 

Listening

By , September 16, 2015 4:05 pm

I’ve been able to put in some significant practice time recently, which has felt great!  Here’s what I’ve been working on:

This was a track I heard in the Polyrhythmics van; Ben had recently came upon a Grant Green boxed set, and although it’s off of a Lou Donaldson album, Green’s solo really intrigued me and got me into the practice phase I’m in now that is mostly focused on learning vocabulary.

For the last couple of years, my playing has revolved around approaches and concepts, using scales or intervals to improvise and write music. This is different to me than using vocabulary, actual melodic phrases and specific musical “sentences”. I believe I moved away from that because it is easier to fall into cliche and predictability, but coming back to it I find my ideas to be more concrete, and I’m not as concerned about being predictable; every phrase I play, whether it’s coming from another musician or not, still goes through my brain, and is therefore different than it was before.

A couple more I’m working on now:

Clifford Brown’s solo. They way he weaves phrases together is incredible.

Gene Ammons’ solo. This has one been fun because I haven’t transcribed very many solos for tenor saxophone, and it gives me a chance to work on a different style of playing than I am used to.

Hopefully, this practice trend will continue. I’m really excited by its effect on my musical focus and motivation!

– Art

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