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The latest trio recording from Brad Mehldau, a double-disc album called Live at the Vanguard, is the pick this week for AOTW. Man, Mehldau is just flat out awesome. He has, in my opinion, the most innovative and unique approach to the piano of anyone born after 1970, and I never get tired of it.
I am feeling a little lazy right now, so you can go here for a thorough review of the record. But I will say this: Live at the Vanguard is the 2nd recording that Mehldau has done with his new drummer, Jeff Ballard, who replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005. I like Ballard, but I don’t think he fills Rossy’s shoes very well. To be fair, he probably wasn’t trying to – a true jazz musician is always going for their own thing – but I guess I just don’t like Ballard’s approach as much as Rossy’s.
Regardless, the record is DOMINATING. For instance, the opening track is a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” where Mehldau plays the melody in 4 over a polyrhythm that cycles every 12.5 beats (played by Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier)… and it only gets better. There’s also a 23-minute version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” Just go listen to it and see for yourself.
I am afraid of Free Jazz.
All intensely abstract art leaves me somewhat nervous. I mean, I really like it… it’s just something that I know I don’t fully understand, and you’re always scared of what you don’t understand, right?
So what is it about Free music that’s both frightening and attractive? Well, I’ve thought it through a little lately, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
1) Free Jazz is VERY DIFFICULT to do well. It’s not a coincidence that all the “real” Free artists were/are drawn to the music at later points in their careers. The music demands skill, depth, and maturity that only comes with years (and I don’t mean age, I mean experience).
2) Free Jazz is very easy to imitate. There are posers all over the place, playing “free jazz” at local coffee shops and clubs, and most of it is awful (in my opinion at least). This makes sense, being that the very nature of the music is such that you’re not supposed to ever tell someone what to play (or tell them that what they played was “wrong”)… instead they need to be “free” to play whatever the moment moves them to play. In addition, 99% of Free Jazz contains dissonance that is technically easy to simulate. We’re all familiar with the “my 6-year-old could do that” perspective on abstract art, and that sentiment exists because there’s a shred of truth to it.
3) It is VERY DIFFICULT to tell the difference between the real and the imitation. This is a logical outcome of point #2, and this is why I get a little scared. Free music is only easy to imitate because very few listeners can recognize the imitation when they see it. Therefore it’s also safe to say that the brilliance of players like Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor is probably often overlooked.
These coexisting factors leave me always feeling paranoid when I listen to Free music. I’ve gained some valuable insight from accomplished Free players in the Twin Cities area and from studying many of the great Free Jazz recordings, but I just don’t want to be the guy who misses something cool because I’m too busy focusing on an imitation. In the end, when I listen to Free music, I always return to a place where I just take in the sounds and skip the analysis altogether. Ironically, that’s one of the main points of Free Jazz.
For those who don’t know, the “less is more” principle revolves around the idea that if you do something too often, you cheapen it. This, in my experience with music, is true. And helpful. However, a common follow-up to this principle is that musicians shouldn’t play very many notes in general… that your playing should always be simple and spacious. In this logic, “busy” playing of any kind is discouraged – in the name of “less is more.” That conclusion is one that I disagree with.
To be sure, there are many environments where a drummer should be careful to not overplay. Most times a simple fill (and not a complex chops fest) is all you need – or a skeletal groove instead of a heavily syncopated one. However, I’ve noticed that POCKET is rarely considered in determining whether someone is playing too many notes, and in my experience that’s one of the most important factors. A busy fill where every note lands dead center in the pocket is normally not a problem for anyone, while a less crowded fill that rushes/drags is accused of being too busy.
SUMMARY: The “less is more” principle is a helpful reminder that you have to choose your moments, but it doesn’t need to be a unilateral prohibition on busy playing. Before you simplify the fill/groove that you’re playing, try landing your notes more in the pocket and see if that doesn’t make the difference in your sound.
AOTW for this week is a very mid-90’s sounding album (tone-wise), but the music is totally slamming. Bruce Hornsby’s 1995 release Hot House is a favorite in the Goold home, and for good reason. The music is a great combination of catchy grooves/melodies, with smart (even chopsy) playing.
Hot House covers a wide range of genre and style, and most of the tunes have extended jams and vamps that land each song at roughly 5 minutes or more. But the lengthy songs don’t get old or feel forced, and this is probably due to Hornsby’s history (he was a member of Jam pioneers The Grateful Dead as well as performing on countless other “Jam” records). Because of this, the record has a distinct Jam Band feel to it, but the music is much smarter than the typical Jam recording (i.e., it doesn’t have the aimless and meaningless quality of, let’s say, a String Cheese Incident record).
Another cool aspect of Hot House is the long list of guest musicians. Bela Fleck, Pat Metheny… even Jerry Garcia are all joining Hornsby on various tracks throughout the recording, and making their presences felt with killer performances.
Hornsby’s drummer on this record is John Molo, a staple Jam Band player most widely known as a member of The Other Ones (the band that most of the members of The Dead formed after Garcia died). Molo has a very solid feel, and plays on the simple side of what you would expect from a Jam Band drummer, but I love it. He seems to be totally comfortable in each of the many styles on the record… In fact, I think Hot House would probably be my top recommendation for any drummer looking to broaden their knowledge of how to play various feels. This album is also has tons of odd time signatures, and Molo keeps things solid in that department too.
My favorite track is the opener… Spider Fingers. Go listen to it and tell me it isn’t one of the coolest piano-driven songs you’ve ever heard. And, here’s a bonus video of Hornsby playing Spider Fingers, solo piano…
PS… Runner up for AOTW this week is Branford Marsalis’ Requiem. I was listening to it this morning and HOLY BUCKETS does it rule.
Episode 6 of the Risen Drums Video Lesson Series is here. Check it out…
A few months ago I played the first of a series of gigs I’ll be doing with my friend Ryan Plewacki (Ryan Paul and the Ardent). It’s a folk/alt-country sound, and the gigs are a ton of fun. However, an interesting thing happened at the first rehearsal.
I had to go straight to Ryan’s house from one of the colleges I teach at, and I didn’t have any Risen drums in my car so I had to grab a Premier birch kit I’ve had for many years and use that. It’s a killer sounding kit and it has a lot of sentimental value to me, so you can imagine my horror when I dropped the rack tom HARD on the Ryan’s driveway when I was loading into his garage for the rehearsal. I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but I was super worried that I had just ruined the 12″ tom. Sure enough, I pulled it out of the case and hit it and it sounded totally dead. The reso side hoop was bent real bad, and the reso head was stretched out and rippled. The rims mount was also bent, but fortunately the shell and lugs seemed fine.
I still needed to do the rehearsal, and I was still trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal. So I just took the bottom hoop off and placed the bottom head so the stretched part wasn’t on the same side as the bent section of the hoop. I carefully reset the head and tightened the tension rods (as evenly as I could on a bent hoop) and set the rest of the kit up. This is where it gets weird. I sat down at the kit and hit the rack tom… and it sounded the best it has EVER sounded. It was amazing… a clear, deep pitch with an incredible long and true sustain.
So now I don’t know what to think. Everything I have learned about how to make a tom sound good (like cutting the bearing edges evenly, making sure the drum is round, making sure the heads are tuned correctly)… all of it is out the window because my rack tom’s best day was when the entire bottom head situation was out of whack.
I don’t really know what the moral of this story is… it’s just really interesting.
This week’s installment is the absolute embodiment of the term “Power Pop”… an album called Redhead, by the prolific industry insider known as Bleu. Super hooky melodies, smart yet interesting production by John Fields, slamming grooves by various L.A. studio players, and tons of unexpected but pleasant twists and turns. This record is a winner.
Redhead, Bleu’s first major label recording, was released by Columbia in 2004. The opening track “Get Up” got a little radio play but didn’t really produce any momentum for the record. Bleu was also able to land the track “Somebody Else” on the Spiderman soundtrack, but that association was also unable to gain any significant notoriety for Redhead, and the album remains somewhat unknown. But seriously… it shouldn’t be. Bleu’s voice is a killer blend of control and passion, with a very pleasant pop tone. Picture what Rufus Wainwright would sound like if he really BROUGHT IT… energy-wise. The playing is great, the songs are even better, and the listener is left with a very clear picture of what a cohesive album is supposed to sound like – a rare thing in these days of EP’s and itunes singles. (If you feel like I’m getting a little out of hand in my praise of this recording, read this…)
The drumming on this record, similar to the Dogs Of Peace album that opened the AOTW series, is a great blend of interesting and emotional playing, with restrained and disciplined pop sensibility. The tracks are evenly divided between Dylan Hallacy and Dustin Hengst, with Jamie Vavra and William J. McAuley making single-track appearances. I’d never heard of any of these guys before buying Redhead, but they all sound GREAT. And then, a special appearance by the great Michael Bland for one song makes this a must-own record for any serious student of studio drumming. A high point on the record is Hengst’s treatment of the 7/4 signature in the record’s second track, “I Won’t Go to Hollywood.” He groups the measures in pairs and then doesn’t turn the groove around at the end of the first bar (so the snare hits the downbeat of bar 2, and the pattern proceeds through the 2nd measure with that “backwards” feel)… but somehow, despite the rule-breaking nature of that move, the groove sounds very cool and works really well within the tune.
Go listen to this record immediately. I’m not kidding… right now.
In order to get to my studio space at Northwestern College, you have to walk through the Visual Arts department. This morning, as I walked through the art space with my first student of the day, there was some blaring music coming from an art student’s boom box. It would be fair to describe the music as “artsy” (which is the kind of music that art students ALWAYS listen to it seems). Once we were past the art department and in my studio, my student commented to me that he thought the music from the other room was really weird. I thought the music was pretty cool, so I asked him what he meant by “weird.” He said that he didn’t really know… he just thought the music was “really different” and he didn’t like it. So, I proceeded to share something with him that I learned from my former teacher…
Everybody brings a subconscious “list” to their listening. This list contains the things that you’re looking for in music – the things that you expect the music to have if you’re going to like it. Normally, the items on someone’s list will be broad and far-reaching, like “good groove”… or maybe a little more specific like “lots of guitars.” The specificity of the list items might get out of hand though, and I’ve often heard people say things like “I only listen to stuff that has odd time signatures and lots of double bass.” Well, that’s fine I guess… except those people will normally go on to decide that if a given song doesn’t contain the things on their list, then that song “sucks” or “isn’t cool.”
It’s important to stop at this point and recognize that, in the example I just mentioned, the music in question has been written off simply because it doesn’t match up with the listener’s expectations. This is problematic, because it’s fair to ask if the artist who made the music was ever really aiming to hit the things on odd-time-double-bass-dude’s list. It’s not at all fair for odd-time-double-bass-dude to give a failing grade to a musician who was never intending to do anything that odd-time-double-bass-dude wanted to hear.
What I’m trying to say is this: the fundamental element in appreciating art is understanding what THE ARTIST was trying to say with a particular work. This means that it’s the artist’s “list” that matters, not yours. It’s very helpful, when encountering new music, to try and wipe your head clear of all your expectations for what you’re about to hear. Try and take the music on IT’S terms. Sometimes it’s helpful to do some homework in that regard – like looking up who the artist is, what genre the artist is known for, and what kind of influences they cite. But even if you can’t do any background work, you can at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt that they are probably not simply trying to cater to your needs as a listener. True musicians make music they want to make, not music that they think others want them to make.
What’s amazing about all this is that if you take the time to understand what the artist was aiming for when they created a particular work of art, you’ll probably like it more. Or at the very least you will appreciate it more, and you’ll be less likely to give it an automatic thumb’s down.
SUMMARY: It’s safe to assume that most musicians aren’t aiming for (or even aware of) the items on your subconscious “list” of expectations. So try to figure out what a musician is trying to do with their music BEFORE you decide if they’re succeeding, and you will probably learn a thing or two in the process. (PS… It’s also helpful to try and trim down your list as much as possible).
UPDATE: “Part 2” of The Subconscious List can be found here.
My buddy Keith just made a new video for his company. Anybody who has questions about Risen Drums, check this out…
Look closely and you’ll see the sparkle kit I’ve been using lately.