Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ellis Paul....naked

Tonight my buddy Murray and I went to see a musician named Ellis Paul at the Rubin Museum here in New York City, located just two blocks from my place.

The Rubin is an AMAZING space, devoted to art of Tibetan and Eastern cultures. The influence is heavily Buddhist. The museum is in the space formerly occupied by tres chic Barney's Department store, and is now several floors of beautifully displayed art. Also there's a lot of great stuff in the gift shop (maybe slightly cheesy, but I love this kind of stuff) and a really nice looking bar/cafe.

My relationship with Ellis Paul is a 6 degrees of separation kind, but I really have a lot of respect for his music, because my first introduction to it was very profound....

Here's the back-story: I have a buddy/colleague/collaborator who began his association with me as my guitar student, back in Richmond Va. in the 80's, named Damion Wolfe. Damion is an amazingly talented guy who was not then a prodigy, but has by now grown into a musician that has a depth that can't be acquired by easy means. We had been out of touch for many years, when one day his CD arrived, maybe 1997 or so, unsolicited in the mail. I felt a lot of trepidation when I put it in for the first time, remembering the friendly but struggling student from years before, but to my surprise, the CD blew me away.

That was the beginning of a new relationship with Damion in which we became colleagues, and it made it very satisfying, particularly knowing the part I played in his earlier years.

So our relationship progresses, and we come to a point where we are working on Damion's second CD, "Here, There and That Way", from 2001. The work was progressing nicely when September 11th 2001 occurred, and I naturally (living about a mile from ground zero) had a bit of trouble getting back into it. Of course we all remember it well, but it is notable that 14th street was the furthest downtown that you could go (I'm on 18th). There were heartbreaking posters on bus stops and store windows of people who were missing with handwritten pleas by family members to contact them, there were candlelight vigils every night in Union Square Park, which is two blocks below me and in my view from my window, and smoke was still billowing up from where the tower had stood. People were walking around in stunned silence weeping uncontrollably.

In this backdrop, I languished for days, not being able to find the strength to go back to work. Finally one day, I decided to force myself back to the studio. Well, Damion had given me a stack of CDs that had examples of the kind of sound he was looking for (He had changed from mild mannered student to ball buster in the intervening years...). I picked up one of the discs and read the post-it note on the case: "Track 11- nice vocal sound". I put it in the player, located track 11, and from a high sweet vocal (accompanied only by a solo guitar) came the following lyric:

"Tell the man who repairs the wings for angels,
That one has fallen among the mortals on Bleecker Street.
I lent a hand, but she looked up at the steeples,
as if to blame them for the pavement beneath her feet.

She said 'I don't really much like flying,
but the job requires trying,
the hard part's avoiding buildings and concrete.'

Spread the news: I saw an angel fly from Manhattan,
in front of paparazzi, in front of television crews
let the people choose, would a little faith come to harm them?
print the headlines up in the New York Daily News-
It was just another day, like any other, other day,
a Tuesday afternoon....."


I cried like a baby. For days I did nothing but listen to that one song- over and over and over. Even as I write this, I get a little choked up thinking about it.

That song was my first introduction to singer/songwriter Ellis Paul. It's called "Angel in Manhattan".

So when I heard Ellis was coming to New York to play at the Rubin Museum in the Naked Soul series I was quite excited to see him. Naked Soul is a series which takes place in the Museum's 137 seat theater, built almost entirely of Cherry wood, which is acoustically very live. The musicians use no amplification of any kind.

Ellis was solo, and he had 2 guitars and a nice (real) piano for the show. It was not incredibly well attended given the hall's capacity, but the folks who were there were obviously fans. Ellis is an amazing performer. He has an enticing way of sprinkling in good humor, interesting stories and easy banter which really makes the audience feel comfortable, and he himself has a great comfort level. For those who have not experienced it, it takes a lot of fortitude to actually stand in front of a group of people alone and sing, naturally, with no huge band or vocal effects to hide behind. Also, the emotions, the subjects of his songs are heartfelt, and presenting them is also an act of courage. It's quiet courage, not aggression, but it's courage nonetheless.

For the Naked soul series, the performers are asked to pick a piece of art from the space which is then projected on the wall behind them. They are supposed to tailor their song selections around that. Ellis had chosen a work called "Circle of Bliss", which were two figures in copulative bliss, accompanied by a lot of imagery. It depicts a sacred and tantric kind of sex.

He is also a song machine. Much to my chagrin, he didn't perform "Angel in Manhattan" (I assume because it didn't fit the mission), but he obviously had a plethora of material to choose from, since I knew a few of his songs (good ones) that he did not do. He also performed new stuff. In fact, in one spot he forgot the words, and it got a little scary for a second. Thank god Simon Cowell wasn't around to comment!

But it was a solid hour and a half of good material. There were moments of real transcendence. His voice is very high (a true gift in a male singer) and his intonation is impeccable....almost. There were a few long held notes that went flat as they sustained, but it wasn't too bad. It was a concern for me however. When I mentioned that to Murray (who has ears like a dog) he said "yeah, but only a couple of times". I agreed. Murray then said that he was sometimes bothered by the intonation of the guitar. On this I couldn't have cared less.

The thing I loved about the guitar is that he only played one piece in a standard tuning without a capo. There were a lot of alternate tunings, which I love. As a veteran guitarist, the sound of a different tuning gives me the feel of a different instrument, and so there's a variety there that is really great. Many of the tunings he used were real earthy, so that lent a sense of the primal to the songs -- really evocative. When you're retuning all the time, intonation will be challenging. Also he broke a string, which adds a difficulty. I never use new strings on a gig because they go out of tune quickly.

With his guitar playing, he has an almost orchestral approach, he emulates the sound of a rhythm section in his finger picking and there are percussive techniques used there. [As a side note, Damion has also incorporated this approach, and takes it to an amazing level.] Ellis' chords are filled with all sort of beautiful voicings and accessory tones, and he fills the melodic points of rest in with sweet little 'hooky' kinds of fills, hammer on/pull off stuff, sliding 4ths and other tasty things. It's really nice.

On the piano his approach is a little more one dimensional. I couldn't see his hands, but I could hear what's going on. Mostly it's octaves in the left hand and triads in the right. There were very few fills complementing his lovely singing.

How's this for a suggestion Ellis: in "Home" the chorus is C-F-am- C/G->G. How about adding a 'd' (the ninth) in the 1st C chord, a 'g' (also the 9th) to the F chord and/or the 'a' to the G chord? Those 9ths with no 7th would add the sense of yearning you are creating. That's what you'd do if it were on the guitar, I'll bet. Also, add a passing tone or two in the bass to make more of a part out of it. Lose the octaves, except maybe in the climaxes. Try to separate the hands a little to create more of the 'orchestral' effect you achieve on guitar. Add a fill or two in the right hand at a point of rest in the melody, or maybe a passing chord. A couple more curlycues here and there.

Also watch for the rhythmic spaces, if anything wait longer in that profound moment where there's a 4 beat silence. My piano teacher used to say about my solo piano playing "what are the drums doing?". When you play solo guitar, I know exactly "what the drums are doing" (if you get what I'm saying).

Now before someone says that I didn't enjoy it because of the last two paragraphs, I have to say that 43 years of music making leaves me with very strong ideas about the possibilities. Don't take that as more negative than it is. The piano is on balance an addition - another color. This guy delivers from the heart, and he does so with an amazing amount of talent and commitment and gentleness and warmth and humanity. This evening was one of the great evenings for me. Also, this is one of the first tickets I've paid for in 2008, and that says something, because I do see a lot of concerts.

Postscript: As the days went by after 9/11, I finally realized that Ellis probably had other songs on this album I would like, so one day, instead of starting with track 11, I went to the top and played the whole CD straight through. This is a live album, and so there is some talking on the tracks. I was surprised when I got to track 10 to find Ellis explains what the song 'Angel in Manhattan' is actually about, and turns out that the song is written with a transvestite in mind, who Ellis saw ride up on a bicycle one day to an outdoor cafe he was sitting at. The guy had a lyre I believe.

It's really about a guy living his life in a unique way. Which leads me to the next paragraph.

So, one day last May my next door neighbor, a beautiful man named Dan, passes away in a suicide, and I once again returned to the song "Angel in Manhattan". Regular readers of my blog will remember this episode. We had known each other for 23 years, and I was the last person to see him alive. He was also a guy living his life in a unique way.

Well, I worked up a cover of the song -- mostly just to get myself through the day. The cover is transposed down a little, and the guitar (again it's just guitar and voice) follows the emotional arc of the music a little more 'classically' than his does (which grooves a little more throughout). I built in stops, and moments of silence, stuff like that. I also end it in a more introspective way, as Ellis' ending is quasi triumphant.

I've never performed it for anyone, but I thought about doing it for Dan's family at the service. I couldn't ever get through it without tears...

I figure I'll probably do a recording at some point. It's daunting though, because although people give me good feedback on my singing, I'm really a guitarist/pianist who sings a little. Ellis is a SINGER. I had hoped to do a quick take and personally give it to Ellis to hear, but I didn't get the chance. Oh well...

There were a few too many folks lined up to say hi, and my conversation topics were all long ones...Does he remember Damion? How does he like Charlottesville? (he moved there, and I spent a lot of time there on day trips from military school - another story for another day). So I just bolted. Also I would've wanted to tell him what I've told you above. Oh well...

So thanks for the music Ellis, and a wonderful show, and that's from the heart...

On the Net:

Ellis on myspace
Buy an Ellis Paul record, or contribute to his new one.
Damion's page
Rubin Museum

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hubert Sumlin @ B.B.Kings Club....

My buddy Murray Weinstock invited me to join him and his pals for an evening of blues tonight at B.B King's Blues club located on 42nd street in NYC's Times Square.

Times Square is cool. Not as cool as when you could've gotten killed walking through it...but still cool.

I was along for the ride with a couple of his buddies from the old days.

The program was Hubert Sumlin and friends. Hubert Sumlin is known for playing with Howlin' Wolk, and James Cotton.

Sp. Guests

+ A special stage introduction by JANIE HENDRIX

* This show is dedicated to Mitch Mitchell (July 9 1947 – November 12 2008)

As mentioned above, Janie Hendrix, Jimi's sister was there to introduce the band. That was nice. She is somewhat pilloried in the fan community for Hendrix, because of Experience Hendrix' way of doing business. That said, I got a mostly earnest vibe from her.

She talked about how the then younger group of players, including people like Clapton and Hendrix, cited Hubert as a big influence. Also Mitch Mitchell, mentioned above, was Jimi Hendrix' drummer.

The performance itself was quite uneven to me. Here are a few impressions:

BRAD WHITFORD: Killer blues guitar player. Great tone, really overdriven, sort of a Stevie Ray Vaughn sound. He played with an impetuousness which really felt passionate. Best blues player on stage.

JIMMY VIVINO: There were a lot of players from the Conan show there, and Jimmy seemed as though he was leading the band. He spoke the most, gave the intro (other than Janie), said goodnight, sang, gave conducting cues, etc. Great playing. I wasn't totally in love with his tone for this style though.

JOHN SEBASTIAN: I had the pleasure to meet John for a moment before the show. This guy is one of the greats of the 60's and 70's. I wore the groove out on my copy of Woodstock on the cut where he sings "I'll paint rainbows, all over your blues". Murray played piano and sang background on the song "Welcome Back Kotter" for the show in the 70's.

He is a lovely, lovely human being. You get that from speaking 2 sentences with him. One of Murray's friends gave John a publicity shot which he said was an original that was of John's father from the early 60's. John's father played classical music on the harmonica, and I'm told played Carnegie hall.

Tonight John played the harmonica. Really couldn't hear him well. The sound person will be skewered later...

JAMES "The Worm" WORMWORTH : He's the drummer that sometimes sits in with the Conan band when Max is on tour. KILLER!! did I mention KILLER? He was - for me - the treat of the evening. He is really a great drummer. In this evening there would be eventually two drummers. He came out first, and the groove could not be denied, and then....

RICH PAGANO: The second drummer joined in. He seemed, uh, good. Taken together though, I wasn't enjoying it so much.

Let me say this emphatically...from a musical perspective (my own) two drummers playing the same pattern does not work -- it didn't work in the Allman Bros, it doesn't work here. Theoretically, maybe, if they played different things, to form a whole...but two drummers hitting the same 2 & 4 snare...forget it! The good news is that they seemed to be having fun.

BRIAN MITCHELL: Good player. I would have liked to have heard %90 less glissandos though. I been harping on that with Murray, who plays along nicely. Ooo...double pun!

MIKE MERRITT: The bass player from the Conan band. I like this guy. He played a bass guitar that was on a peg like a cello, except he stood up. Solid time, good sound (at least at the beginning) until the sound person started mucking things up. I think he should bring this thing to the Conan show. It could be a topic of conversation for sure...

DAVID JOHANSEN: Yeah I get it....He's a bad boy, he has that ruddy sort of raspy quality. When he strode on stage, I almost thought he was Mick Jagger making a surprise appearance. I can envision a great sound coming from him, but it was not to be this evening. I could put him in front of a nice U87 or 414 through a great preamp and get a nice rich sound, but coming through an SM 58, with this sound made my eardrums bottom out every time he sang a phrase.

The musical selections were the stalwarts of blues songs, Killin' Floor, Sitting on Top of the World, Voodoo Child, all that stuff. Endings were ragged, and it was obvious it was not a well oiled machine. All is forgiven though.

Later on in the evening there were a few more surprises. Some guy, a bluesman who I didn't know [note: Noah tells me in a comment it's Joe Louis Walker, Thanks Noah!] came out to ostensibly sing "Happy Birthday" to Hubert, but after he went on to front the best part of the evening, playing some of the best blues solos and singing his ass off. great work. Also, Brad Whitford's son came out to contribute a solo or two. His solos did not have much maturity, although his tone was good and he'll be someone to look out for. Showbiz families seem to be helpful in the endeavor of getting into show business.

Also Mark Pender, trumpet player from 'Late Night' was spotted on stage during the last tune. He didn't assert himself much, but in other situations he's incredible. There were probably 14 musicians total at the height of the stage's population.

Finally -- open letter to the Club Management of BBKing's -- the sound SUCKED. This is the second show there that I've seen where the sound was awful. My guess is that it's the same person, although I didn't check them out. Maybe it's club policy. Everything was incredibly loud except John Sebastian, who you couldn't hear, it was an orgy of midrange nastiness.

GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER. When I saw the Tubes with Simon there a year ago, I had to sit with my fingers in my ears all night.

Now look, I know mixing 4 guitars is troublesome. That's a midrange challenge to begin with. On the other hand, it's called 'sound reinforcement' for a reason. Let the band get their sound and then amplify it slightly, that's it. This is blues -- not AC/DC. There's a certain point where sound volume becomes counterproductive.

Through it all, Hubert flowed over the top, never quite soaring, but also handling himself quite nicely. He's 77 years old (this was a birthday celebration), and as he mentioned a few times from the stage, he wasn't feeling well. He was genuinely touched by the loving reception he got from his musical friends, and seemed to leave with a glow from his fans appreciation even if he didn't feel so well.

Good man, many happy returns Hubert!

At the end we all went over to the backstage area. Murray dissappeared into the room for minute, but his friends and I couldn't come. I always feel uncomfortable in those situations. There's a professionally unpleasant person, who's called the "bouncer", telling everyone to get away, and then there are your favorite musicians - who you have a lot of affection for - and who are looking at you like you're a serial killer because you're in this group of people they don't know, and that they don't possibly have time to meet.

Of course, I always feel like I belong in the backstage area, just no one knows it.

It's a lot like dating, some people got game...I'm just not one of them. Debilitating. I think of my friend Danny, who (in the 80's) got backstage at a Billy Joel concert by pretending to interview the drummer Liberty Devito. No press credentials, just by talking...

...and he actually conducted the 'interview'.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comp tickets!!!!!!!....

One of the great things about being a musician in NYC is the opportunity to go see great shows, sometimes for free...sort of takes the sting out of not buying clothes, taking vacations or having health insurance... :)

Seriously though, my colleagues are very generous, and this has been a good week for generosity!

On Saturday, I caught a matinee of a new musical called "Illyria" staged by the Prospect Players. It was presented in a small black box theater on West 26th street between 8th & 9th Aves. I'm always surprised by all these great little theaters tucked away in the buildings of this city. They're everywhere...

My friend Tom Piercy hooked me up. Tom and I go back all the way to college, which at this point is 30+ years(!). He was always one of the standout musicians where we went. He made an honest man out of himself by going on to a good graduate school (I didn't), and he has been in the NY scene ever since. He is amazingly talented.

Recently, we've had a chance to work together, both on my latest film score, where he played clarinets and bass clarinet, and also on a CD of his, which is for clarinet and classical guitar duets. He and his guitarist came in for a couple of marathon sessions a few months ago, and we're putting the finishing touches on that now. We also did a nice session for Michael Lydon a few months back, him on the clarinet and me behind the mixing board.

"Illyria" is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night". It was hilarious, and the music was outstanding.

Thanks Tom, I totally enjoyed the show!

Then Monday night, out to NJ, where my good buddy Murray Weinstock took me out to see Steely Dan for their 'Think Fast' tour. We had the whole 9 yards, amazing seats (worth $150 a pop) as well as VIP backstage access:

The band was comprised of 13 pieces. Murray knew several of them. They are as follows:

Tawatha Agee [Backing Vocals:'08]
Keith Carlock [Drums: 03-'08]
Jon Herington [Guitar: '00-'08]
Michael Leonhart [Trumpet, Keys: '00-'08]
Cindy Mizelle [Backing Vocals: '03-'08]
Jim Pugh [Trombone: '00-'08]
Roger Rosenberg [Baritone Saxophone: '06-'08]
Catherine Russell [B. Vocals: various dates '08]
Freddie Washington [Bass: '06-'08]
Walt Weiskopf [Saxophone: '03-'08]
Jeff Young [Keyboards, B. Vocals: '06-'08]

As well as those two other guys....

The show was tight! The familiar songs seemed to come again, and again, and again. You forget how much these guys have done. No "Reelin' in the Years" though. Still, the hits kept coming.

If there was a weak link to the show, it would've had to have been the room itself, which was a little too reflective. One of the techs from the theater asked about it, and I told him the room needs a rug or baffles. The room is I think comparable to Carnegie in size, but this show would've sounded amazing there. It's the room treatment. On the other hand, you can't drink beer in Carnegie, so I realize the rug idea is a nonstarter.

This also was probably not Becker's very best show of all eternity, but the guitarist next to him is so freakin' good that it's hard to keep up I'm sure.

Also, I'd like to implore Jon to give the telecaster a break, or EQ a little of the brightness out of it. It's cool on a record, but a little overpowering in person...I'm just sayin'...

I personally dislike telecasters, soundwise.

Finally, I felt a little like I was channeling Margaret Mead, watching the natives exhibit their mating habits and rituals in their natural habitat (Montclair NJ). It felt like going back to my childhood, when people actually had fun, instead of working all the time. It's not an age thing, it's a New York City vs. other places thing.

Dig the myspace self portrait of Murray and I:

...and Murray with the Front of House mixer, Night Bob, who was responsible for the nice accommodation:

Thanks Night Bob, and happy birthday!

At the end, we hung for a minute, but ended up headed back for the city pretty quickly. As a drunken women wandered over to us to make friends afterward, imploring us to go over to her place, I fantasized I could've stayed for the "festivities". Murray was my ride, and happily married, but a thought did pass through my mind, if not his. Oh, this place where people are out doing the party thing...

...and yet - this night - my inner Mead was not to be indulged...

The dogs of NYC were waiting...literally:

Thanks Murray, really great show!!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Murray Weinstock....

My good buddy of almost 15 years Murray Weinstock was in today for a quick session. I was just giving him some technical help. Seems one of his audio files in a DP session had become corrupt after a crash.

We worked it out. Success is always sweet.

Afterwards we went to lunch, and he told me about this video he did, which I have posted below. It's a lot of fun, and has a great piano solo by Murray.

"Takin' it back with Barack, Jack! (for swing voters)". It's a parody of a Louis Jordan song:

Hate to see the nation being run by a hack
Dig the situation that he dug in Iraq
Half the population wants to give him the sack
And now he's lookin' round for somebody else to attack
We need somebody great to get us back on the track

So we're takin' it back with Barack, Jack!

Choo Choo, Change to believe in
Woo woo, we can achieve it
Choo Choo, Change to believe in
Takin' it back with Barack, Jack!

Now that global warming is a matter of fact
The only real question is just how to react
The new administration needs the guts to enact
Drastic legislation, leave the planet intact
We can't be foolin' round with some Republican Mac

So we're takin' it back with Barack, Jack!

Choo Choo....

He only gets his money from your regular macs
Doesn't take a penny from some whackity PAC's
For bringin' folk together he's the man with the knack
And he'll supply the hope and inspiration we lack
Cause he's the best we got and did I ....mention he's black?

So we're takin' it back with Barack, Jack!

Harmonica, vocal, guitar, lyrics- Will Galison

Piano, vocal- Murray Weinstock

Drums- Wally "Gator" Watson

Bass (sound recording)- Paul Nowinsky

BG vocal (video)- Ilene Kristen

BG vocal (audio) Shije

Flugal Horn- Ryo Sasaki

Tenor Sax- Yaacov Mayman

vocals- Murray Weinstock, Shije Solid, Dean Franzen

Bass (video) Dean Franzen -

On the Net:

"Tales of the City", Murray's latest album

review at "On first look, this seems like a cute novelty record. Not so. This is actually a loving & genuinely remarkable valentine. Murray Weinstock, who has worked with the late, great psychedelic doo wop group Jake & The Family Jewels, not to mention John Sebastian, The Planetones, The Camaros, and Manhattan Transfer, has corralled a bevy of his friends (including Dr John, Phoebe Snow, John Sebastian, members of NRBQ, and many more) to join him in crafting a first class album of self-penned songs about dogs. The overall effect is akin to hearing The Johnny Otis Revue live at an animal shelter. It swings, it sniffs, it wins your heart effortlessly."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


New York City is a great place -- in my mind truly the greatest city in the world. One of the reasons that I moved here 25 years ago was for the incredible diversity of cultures and ethnicities, and also because I felt like the political and social environment was one that supported my core beliefs. It would be my joy to finish my life in this city I've come to love so much. I count myself lucky daily to be able to live in this booming metropolis. A savvy New Yorker once famously said "I'd rather be a lamppost on a New York City street than mayor of any other town."


...and tonight is one of those moments where I feel like I'm home.

Case in point: at about 11:30 PM last evening from Chicago, Barack Obama gave a stirring, poignant and beautiful speech accepting Sen. McCain's concession in the race for the presidency.

The scene in New York city tonight is filled with an excitement like I've never experienced here before. Sitting in my apartment, it sounds like I'm in the middle of a sports stadium. People are whooping and hollering, cars drive by with horns honking, there are fireworks, and the sounds of celebration are stronger than at any time this evening, even though now it's 1:47 am.

We're all in agreement here in Gotham.....time to celebrate!


I have great hopes for the future now, having lived through the Bush years. Finally, I see a leader that expresses similar values to my own. While I'm sure our previous president had a love for his country, he was, in my opinion, morally bankrupt, intellectually vacuous, and the people he surrounded himself with were beyond contemptible. It was a dysfunctional situation to an extent that was almost surreal.

It's a long nightmare we've lived through, and there is at least a hope that it is actually over, and that we can repair the damage done.

My only fear is seeing how closely our country is split. I think the republican party should have received 0 votes. The fact that they won almost %50 is inconceivable to me. We've still got a long way to go.

Tonight: happiness. Tomorrow, I only hope that there will begin a process in which more of our countrymen and women that will have some sort of epiphany. It's similar to getting women the right to vote, or demanding that all of our citizens be able to sit anywhere in the bus regardless of skin color. It's an opening of minds closed off by fear and intellectual inertia. We've got a lot of work to do.

Big work...

But sitting here tonight in my little piece of New York, I vicariously am reveling with my city...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Singer Todd Almond comes in.....

Todd Almond was in today for an awesome session. I'm working on a number of pieces for release, and I had him in for some backup vocals. Wonderful man, so easy to work with, incredibly talented, beautiful voice.

Happily, it took my mind off the election, which was just what the doctor ordered.

Watch for his CD with Ellen Mandel coming soon. (see the previous post for my thoughts on their wonderful work.) What I didn't expound upon enough in the previous post was the incredible voice he has, and how much he brought to that project.

I'll have Todd on speed dial from now on!...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

the first of all my dreams...

Multitalented composer Ellen Mandel joined me recently in the studio for the mastering of her gorgeous project, entitled "the first of all my dreams." The project is basically piano and voice, featuring tenor extraordinaire Todd Almond.

This is the second collection of songs for piano and voice from Ellen. The first was exclusively settings of the poet ee cummings. This one includes ee cumming texts, but also some Yeats, and some original Mandel text. On the instumentation side, she stretches out the piano/vocal thing this time out, to include some bass and also a guest vocal or two.

I have been working with her for almost 15 years, and I can say the music is some of her best. Very American sounding in spots, with beautiful introspective moments, as well as exuberance and subtlety. Perfect for its subject matter, tasty, nostalgic, full of sentiment and power, this music will definitely be on my playlist at home in the future. I don't say that about too much stuff that I work on.

The really good thing? She didn't make me turn it up to 11.....

On the net:

Ellen Mandel

Todd Almond

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Election...

...has got me so freaked that I haven't been blogging much. I'll leave it to you to try and figure out who I'm for, but all I have to say is what's with you other people? Seriously...

I'll get back in the swing of things soon!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Walt Elson in for mixing

My good buddy Walt Elson was in for a mixing session today, for his new piece "Let Me Luv U".

Some of you may remember Walt did a great job singing on my song "I Don't know Why", which appears in the movie "Strange Girls" which I recently finished the music score for. He did an amazing job with that. I'm still getting great comments that track.

Here he's in his element. He's doing his own song, which was recorded in his home Pro Tools set up. He brought it to me to do a final mix, and for some of my 'ear candy'. I think it was sounding great when we finished, and so did Walt. Big smiles all around. You have to work to get this man to smile!

Great hang too.

Here he is trying to take over:

Also featured on Walt's track was our friend Monk, who brought the rhymes.

Great session, I'm already looking forward to the next one!

On the Net:

Walt Elson ("Let Me Luv U" will play first)


Here to listen to Walt sing "I Don't Know Why"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Remembering Bob Bass (part 2)....

As I promised, I am posting part 2 of my experiences with the conductor Robert Bass, a great mentor of mine. Looking back, our relationship was not helped by my shyness and reticence. Even as I post this story, which on its surface seems exclusively to be about a conflict we had, the truth is the conflict was mostly inside me, and I'm remembering this with great fondness and warmth towards him -- and a large dose of amusement. He was, at least on a certain level, oblivious (and I don't mean that unkindly - it's almost 'cute'). In the the end the important part is what I learned, and that's a lot.

Bob did offer me some of the first opportunities I had -once I had come to New York - to do real work in this city. Today I relate an episode on which I now look back and laugh, but at the time I couldn't have been more upset.

It was 1991, and one evening Bob was downtown, doing some work in my studio. He was a little out of his element being an upper west side, classical musician guy. I don't remember exactly what it was we were working on, but at a certain point in the proceedings he started glancing around at all my equipment. In those days music studios were more distinguishable as such, because they had lots of 'music-looking' things. In other words, now I have a single keyboard and lots of computers, whereas in those days you typically had multiple keyboards, lots of tape machines, etc. It looked more 'music-y'.

So, Bob looks around the studio and says "we're getting ready to enter a contest, how would you like to write a piece of music for it?" I was very receptive and said I'd love to do it. It was to write and submit a version of a jingle for Diet Pepsi which was running on TV at that time featuring Ray Charles. The tag line was Ray saying "You've got the right one baby, Uh-huh". The submission would be a videotape, and the prize was $10,000.

Then he says excitedly, "and you can use all your toys!"....looking around at the various keyboards. His voice rises as he sweetens the offer: "We'll split the money with you."

Fair enough. I went to work quickly and came up with some music for the spot. Below is the shortened 15-second version in my own handwriting:

I decided to go a different way for the spot than techno or pop, and instead wrote a parody of a baroque 'classical' piece for chorus. Really it was a direct takeoff on a style prevalent in Handel's Messiah, an oratorio from 1742, known for the famous piece the "Hallelujah Chorus". This Diet Pepsi piece was supposed to be a little more like "For Unto Us a Child is Born", from the same work. You can check that out here on youtube. The humor was that I had the chorus sing an extended melisma on the word 'Uh-huh' (notice the way the sopranos sing the word 'born' starting at 32 seconds on the youtube clip - lots of notes on a single word, which is very typical of that historic period). It had a 1 bar introduction and then it was straight in. The urtext version was 30 seconds, total. If you can read music, you'll notice the version above isn't long enough to make a that big an impact on it's own, but if it were preceded by showings of the full spot, it invokes the memory of the Handel-like approach. I was thinking big!

Also (and I'm saying this because of the linked clip), I would have loved to have had an orchestra, but I knew I could only use piano, or something similar, as the budget for musicians was zero, so I wrote for choir and piano (or I would have preferred harpsichord). The only thing it had in common with the commercial in the music was the very first and very last bar in each version (that's a typical thing - think "At McDonald's", for example - it's called a musical logo). I knew syncing up to prerecorded sound would be a problem in this environment, so I didn't go there.

Looking back, I don't think Bob really thought of me as classically trained at that time, so he was expecting some sort of little pop ditty.

Anyway, I sent him the score. [In those days, not everyone was doing audio demos for all submissions like they do now, and we counted on our imaginations and training to be able to look at a score and make sense of it. Plus he was a conductor, so I assumed there'd be no problem]. One night the phone rings and Bob's on the other end:

"Hi, I got your piece," he says. "Is this all?"


"There's nothing else? No other instruments?" he offered...


Well, a little red flag went off in my head, but I didn't think too much of it.....

Finally the night of the videotaping, we arrived at Cami Hall, a space on 57th street across from Carnegie, and we started rehearsing for the taping. It was a nightmare. To begin with, he had the wrong approach completely, he was doing it too slow, heavy and ponderous. It might as well have been bad Wagner...terrible. It's supposed to be light and crisp. He must have had the quarter note at 60 BPM (beats per minute) instead of the 90 that is marked in the score, and everything was at least forte (loud) if not louder, not piano (soft) as marked.

I was stunned, aghast, a deer in the headlights. I was raising my hand wildly and trying to get his attention. It was not generally understood by the members of the chorus this was my work, and so I wasn't in the front of the room. Instead, I was all the way in the back, in a room full of 200 people. I couldn't get a response, although I'm sure he was aware of me gyrating in the back.

If it were now, I'd march up to the front of the room, and make my views known, as I have developed a backbone - but I didn't have the courage then. After unsuccessfully trying to get his attention, I sat there and watched this slow motion train wreck. He was completely rewriting it after a while. He had stuff being sung up an octave, he was adding notes, and having everyone sing everything (that's a typical Bob thing anyway).

At the end of the night I was FURIOUS. I just left without a word, and as the weeks went by, I thought about it, and thought about it, but I was just too scared of him to confront him directly. Finally I sent him a long letter, where I explained myself in detail, the musical approach, and my feelings about the outcome. I'm sure if I read the letter today, it would be equal parts humbling and hilarious. I cannot overstate how angry and hurt I was. After writing it, I put it in the mail to him. It was a feeling of satisfaction, and also of dread, since I knew I'd be hearing from him...

Another week goes by, and one night, about 11PM the phone rings, and it's Bob. I happened to be in the studio with someone recording so I couldn't have a long conversation.

"Hi Reed, it's Bob", came the voice.

Reed: "Hi Bob"

Bob after a silence: "I got your letter"

Reed: That's good, thanks for calling...listen Bob - I'm in the studio with someone right now, can we talk about this later?"

Bob: "sure that's fine...One thing before we go though..............we won...."

Yep, you read that right - we'd won the jingle contest. Frankly, I still can't believe it!

Later there were interviews, which I was invited to attend,there were some news reports in the local media and the money was collected by the Chorale. I never did get paid, and I never was mentioned as the composer.

...and Bob and I never spoke of it again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Good session today....

Today producer/composer Behn was in the studio. We did a mastering session for a new tune of his called "Shooting Starz", featuring vocalist Bliss. This will be available on itunes in the near future.

Behn has a great style. This one, like all his stuff has a lot of influences. There's a sort of Chinese vocal lick in there, 2 voices in'd know the sound upon hearing it. I liken his approach to a sculptor who goes out in the street to incorporate all sorts of found objects. In the art world they call it 'pastiche' (but pastiche more in the sense of combining elements, than of imitation). I've mastered a lot of his records, "Vibemachine"

and before that "World of Paper, City of Boom".

Love the titles!

I also love he look he gets on his face when he's listening really hard. At first you suspect you're screwing up, but turns out he's just focused...

Here we are in a myspace type self portrait after the session, this was the best picture I could get, with my shaky camera technique. I couldn't figure out how to use the timer feature in the heat of the moment:

Behn was cool though, he could have brought up that it wasn't good I didn't have my camera technique down (in my defense, it's a new camera), given that he was trusting me with all this technology used in mastering his tune.

He tells me he'll be back through to master the whole album with Bliss, so I guess I passed. I'm really looking forward to it!


Check out Behn's myspace profile and hear some tunes here


Thursday, September 11, 2008

remembering Bob Bass (part 1)...


For me it was the year that an important relationship in my life imploded, and as a result my world took a precipitous nosedive. I was on really shaky ground emotionally, in a way that I've only been a handful of times in my life.

The story of that woman is for another day, but I decided that I needed some structure and inspiration in my life. As always I turned to music for that. It was a very active year. I started playing in a funk rock band, and I was working really hard writing music for dance performances. Also, lots of studio work was occupying me, and I had a "day" job - actually the graveyard shift at a satellite TV station.

I was not planning on giving myself time to ruminate on my situation!

One day an advertisement in the Village Voice caught my eye for an audition with a chorus, called the Collegiate Chorale, which is a venerable, famous old chorus of about 200 members founded in the 1950's by the legendary Robert Shaw. The Chorale did concerts at Carnegie Hall, and Avery Fischer, among other venues. I wanted to return to classical music, and this was a great vehicle. The year's program was the New York Premiere of a Richard Strauss opera called "Freidenstag" (see the concert's CD release here), a couple of concerts of Beethoven's 9th, and I believe, Mendelssohn's "Elijah".

The music director was a man named Robert Bass. I had already heard about him - and the Chorale - from musicians who I knew in Richmond VA, and so I was awestruck to be entertaining the thought of working with a man who was - to me - famous. In those days, a conductor, who had been concertizing in Carnegie Hall was a full out celebrity to me, and he had a reputation which proceeded him.

So I set up an audition. It was for a time when I would be the last appointment of the day. I would be meeting the maestro and a cadre of others at an apartment on 72nd street. It's a new York thing to meet musicians in apartments, I guess real estate is the driving force in that. I was a little nervous as I anticipated this meeting, but I was far more preoccupied with the downward spiral that I was experiencing in my other life.

The day of the audition, I had a very difficult phone conversation with the aforementioned woman, who had fled New York City a couple of weeks earlier for the companionship of someone else, and I was catatonic. So I went to a bar. I slammed down 4 beers on an empty stomach in just shy of a couple of hours. If you know me, you can probably guess that I was pretty 'lit'.

Still, for some reason I went to the audition anyway, despite my obvious disadvantage.

When I got out of the subway, I couldn't find the building, so after some searching I called and said I was running late. Finally I did find it, and so I went up to the apartment.

I still laugh when I think of the scene: 45 minutes late to a meeting with a famously 'type a' conductor: I stepped off the elevator with long hair (halfway down my back -and which probably hadn't been combed in a week) - God knows about my hygiene - in ripped blue jeans falling down drunk...

To this day I can remember the look on his face -- he was NOT happy!

We went into this little room with a piano, and I proceeded to belt out "Is Not His Word Like A Fire?" (For the uninitiated, here's a real singer singing it) which is the tricky aria that Elijah sings in Mendelssohn's Elijah, and I also sight read a little excerpt they gave me from Paul Hindemith's "Elementary Training for Musicians" (which BTW ain't THAT elementary), and from what I remember it was a musically perfect audition. I think Bob was somewhat stunned by that part, given the visual. The Mendelssohn was delivered mostly accapella, since they had already let the pianist go home. Bob plucked out a couple of notes as I sang it. I remember him having a lot of trouble turning pages. I nailed it though. I had been practicing it for an audition with the city to apply as a public school teacher. That person told me at the time of that PS audition that I was the only %100 he had ever given in an audition, so I'd been practicing.

Still, thinking back to that look on Bob's face, I thought -- No Way!

Later, the next day, I got the call that I had been accepted into the Chorale. I couldn't believe it! Ultimately, I was privileged to sing in a great season. Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer...and I'll never forget the feeling a had in the last minute or two of the Friedenstag...400 or so people on stage, multiple chorus, full orchestra, famous soloists, and this moment at the big climax when a shiver went straight up my back. Being part of something that big, having that feeling, it was possibly the ultimate singular sensation I've ever experienced. I literally cannot describe with any words the magical feeling of the moment that was created there that evening for this good ole boy from Richmond VA, actually on stage at Carnegie Hall! Ultimately I spent 5 years in the Chorale, sharing the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Leontyne Price, Paul Plishka, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, Kathleen Battle, Robert Merrill, Samuel Ramey, Angela Bofill, Narada Michael Walden, Paul McCartney, James Conlon and a whole host of others. I have worked with the Chorale ever since, providing studio services, doing arrangements, remote recordings, mastering and such.

The time has sure flown.


Bob died a couple of weeks ago at age 55. He had been in poor health recently. He had a heart transplant in May 2007, and then a stem cell transplant in November of that year. He had been conducting since then, believe it or not, and actually the last performance I saw him lead was, in my estimation, by far the best I'd ever seen him do. He was always at his best when the chips were down.

That last performance was a bookend to what was for me a remarkable relationship which lasted 19 years, and a chance to feel in full force the thrill of seeing Bob doing what he did, and being at his best doing it. A very happy moment for me.

The other thing I want to say is that he was like a father to me - even though I was only 4 years younger than him - in a way I'd never experienced (my own dad died when I was eight). It followed a classic trajectory: At first I just worshipped him. I was always seeking his approval and trying to please him. Later, as I grew and matured, I started to see some chinks in his armor, and I also had some bones to pick with him. There was a rebellious phase. [Later, I'll do a blog on some of those experiences, some of which are entertaining in their own right.] Finally, there was a sense of peace, and I felt, in my own estimation, like more of a colleague. I was so looking forward to sending him a CD of my latest film score, which I thought he might like (He had heard some of my music, but in my perception had never really given me the thumbs up). Most of this was (and is) going on in my own head.

I think deep down he knew all this, but like a parent who never quite "gets" you, we never discussed it in detail. Not the "father" part. I worked closely with him, yet we never had dinner. I expressed frustration and anger when times were hard, and yet there was never the feeling of real reconciliation with those, only acknowledgment. I always felt he never forgot that first meeting, and in a sense never thought of me with abiding respect. I might be wrong about that. Maybe that's just who he was.

I will say that I always respected his courage. Of course he was courageous in his response to his illness, but also in the everyday, moment to moment things. I always wished I could be more like him in that way.

There was one time though, after a 5 year absence from choral singing, when I joined a select group of the Chorale for the opening of the MTV music awards, held in 1999 at the Metropolitan Opera House, where he came over to me and patted me on the back with pronounced and genuine affection. For that moment at least, I felt as though I was respected, or valued, or acknowledged. It felt like a triumph.

Regrets? Well, I really regret that I hadn't talked to him since he'd been ill. Somehow he seemed invincible, so it never occurred to me that he'd pass away. Still though, I try to analyze what that means -- I felt like I'd be intruding. Really though, it's nothing more than fear on my part. I shouldn't worry about 'disturbing' people, or that I'm somehow not valuable enough to be involved. if you are showing your concern, that's far more important than waking someone up from a nap or disturbing their dinner. That'll be appreciated. If it isn't, your mirror still looks a little better to you.

I'm vastly un-proud of that. No second chance here, but I hope to learn from this. I could use a little more of Bob's courage, in the daily things.

Fast forward to last week. I went to the memorial service, and after, I went out to a bar and sat once again alone (this time with glasses of wine). It seemed fitting to memorialize this loss similarly to that failed relationship of 19 years ago on the day of our first meeting. I was there to get a buzz. There was a difference though: this time I drank to Bob - a silent solitary toast. I sat there in the Upper West Side neighborhood about 4 blocks from that first meeting 19 years ago (almost to the day), as people walked by and the world kept on whirling and tried to imagine it without Bob in our lives.

Later, I went to his apartment to celebrate his life with some of his friends and his widow, and I had made a little progress, first in having fought my instinct to stay away. When I arrived I sought out his wife Juliana, and I shared the story of our first meeting. She enjoyed hearing a little about my affection for him, and about the story, but I sensed she didn't completely "get" the significance of his meaningfulness to me, and somehow that was OK. I mean, Imagine what she's going though,anyway.

I didn't share it with ultimate skillfulness, but I did share it. Another triumph. On we go...

So here's to Robert Bass. Conductor, Musician, Father, Fearless and feared leader. Thanks for letting me make music with you. I wish I could have done more somehow...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Technical stuff has got me down...

I won't go into the details (this blog's already getting boring enough), but I decided to do some computer/studio updating work, to try and improve performance. It has turned out to be a slippery slope...I've been at it for the last two days!

Just as an example, how'd you like to see this message on your screen:

"Re-enter iLokManager Exception Description
Application: iLokManager
Error: com.webobjects.eoaccess.EOObjectNotAvailableException: No com.paceap.businesslogic.server.License found with globalID: _EOIntegralKeyGlobalID[License (java.lang.Integer)5073116]
Stack trace:
File Line# Method Package
NA : Non applicable, JIT activated"


Thankfully I was smart enough to put it at an unbusy time when I could afford to do some tweaking...

My kingdom for an abacus!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Simon says....

...he hears the mix of "I Don't Know Why" as not being 'done'. He feels it doesn't sound like it's all in the same room.

Hmmm...I heard that for a second when I was listening in phones before I posted it, but I thought I was going crazy. Good ear Simon!

Now that I go back, I don't know how much I care. It does sound pretty great. I was listening and comparing to Isaac Hayes stuff from itunes (that's my model for this tune - and ya gotta revere the masters!), and I can hear Isaac puts more reverb in the higher instruments, so jangley guitars tend to be pretty wet, but he's more austere with say the drums. I think I'll try that.

Point taken.

The thing is, Simon said "the recording strikes me as being at a "demo" level, somehow". OUCH!!! He was never much for pulling a punch.

I DON'T DO DEMOS! Them's fightin' words where I come from!

Fortunately, I think we are talking about small increments at this point...

I know so much more about mixing orchestral music......

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How cool is this? ......

I am doing a recording of a short classical piece I wrote for a funeral of a friend last year, performed live at the service, called "Dona Nobis Pacem". This means "grant us peace" in Latin. It's a pretty little 2 1/2 minute piece for a cappella 5 part choir.

I'm doing it as overdubs, so each singer will come in and record separately. I started with sampling software called 'Symphonic Choirs', which has a program called 'Wordbuilder' that allows you to build a performance of a choir by adding each syllable to the text. The sample then responds with the appropriate note and vowel. I can't tell you how tedious the construction of this is, or how long it takes! I will say that with the right know-how (which I think I have), you can produce a choir that is quite convincing in an orchestral texture, and amazing but a little too synthetic sounding in an a cappella (no instruments) setting. Not good enough for a final though, in my opinion.

So I'm bringing in some singers to replace the symphonic choir samples.

The first singer, who sang three pieces for me last Thursday, had trouble staying with the track. Totally understandable - because it speeds up and slows down, like any good classical piece does. Of course, she's in another room so I can't really signal or conduct her. Plus even with visual communication, there's a lot to do in a recording session if you're behind the board. I dealt with the timing issues in editing...and it's fine...but then I came up with an idea.

I recorded myself with a video camera conducting the piece to the track that preexists (not the most up to date camera there, but it got the job done). Then I imported the video into my computer and synced it to the music, which I'm then going to send out to a regular TV. It'll be a little tricky because the firewire bus tends to get overloaded when sending video and audio, but I'll figure it out (maybe I'll figure out how to run the video from a 2nd computer and sync it to the 1st). That way the other singers will be able to follow my conducting, and see the tempo variations. The video like the music, is random access, meaning you can start from anywhere virtually instantaneously.

A conductor is so much better than a click, because you also see the space in between the beats. Also a lot of the stuff you say to a performer to get the music shaped correctly is expressed in the physical gestures, so you have to spend less time explaining things.

click to enlarge

Anyway, the screen capture above is the Digital Performer environment, which includes a still picture of the movie of me conducting. Also in the picture is the mixer controls and sound wave data for existing tracks.

Now there are two of me...I'll be able to run the controls while another one of me will do the conducting.

Is that amazing or what!!!???!!!

A productive day...

I had a good day today. I finished the audio of the master for the film "Strange Girls". This was the final final. I worked with the final output level (I've been having some trouble with the very last loud portion having enough impact). Short answer? I turned it up. Sounds easy right? Don't count on it.

That's because turning it up requires signal processing, so I put [go to sleep for the next sentence if you like] a Waves Ultramaximizer on the main output bus, and created a new bus on an aux track and routed the audio to that bus and then to the main output, where I rode the aux up a few db in that spot. I managed to do as little harm as possible...

Of course, I could have turned the other stuff down, but I'm way too much of a hero for that -- and we got a loudness war going on!

What does that mean? Well, every CD you pick up has to be louder than the last. It's all out war. That's because we who create music have forgotten that people have this knob on their stereos (or slider on their computers) that allows them to increase the volume to a level they find desirable. As an engineer, you can't argue against it, you just have to join the fray.

When I'm just mastering other people's stuff, I'm encouraged to turn it up way past the point of distortion, and they say "it sounds great!". I've lost my mojo to fight too, I used to give the long "loudness wars" sermon. Now I've shortened the sermon, and I just do what they want, cause that's what they're hearing in other music. You should have seen me back in those days -- I used to go into this whole thing about fractal geometry, and the three dimensional aspects of sound. It was so cute..

It always ended up as loud as possible in the end anyway...

This is the kind of stuff I obsess over. I have an exponentially harder time getting anything done I wrote myself because of this...well...perfectionism.

As for the material, I went with the all orchestral approach. I'm going to put the pop songs ('pop' is used here in the broadest possible sense, as differentiated from classical sounding orchestral music) I wrote on another release at a later time. They didn't fit as well as I would have liked and I would have had to turn them down (those loudness wars again).

...and I've got 60 minutes on this CD as it is...

I also completed the mix on the song "I Don't Know Why", which makes a very short appearance in the film. I wrote it for the film, but I decided to expand it a bit and recruit vocalist Walt Elson, who has a bit of a Isaac Hayes [much respect] vibe going on.

It's on my myspace page if you want to check it out. The lyrics are a little more vacuous than anything I'd write for personal expression, but that was part of the fun.

Again, I was obsessing over the mix. I just got it as good as I could and then sent an email to all the musicians asking them to send me their thoughts. First I listened on my big system. LOUD. It was awesome. Second, I moved it to my laptop and listened, very trebly. HMMM.

So I go back and back out a little of the high hat, which was the bothersome part. Then when I check that out in itunes, it still sounds a little ... I dunno...hyped

Then I remember, itunes defaults to a sound enhancer in it's preferences every time they update it. ENOUGH WITH THE SOUND ENHANCER. IT SUCKS APPLE!! I turn it off in the preferences. Luckily I haven't gone overboard with the high hat attenuation. I checked against some other stuff at the itunes store.

Then I listen on headphones, do the drums have enough of the plate reverb? Should I pan the backup singer Pamela back a little more to the middle? Is the Walt's 5th word in tune? I gotta go back...

Back to the studio, after a few more dives into the mix...well you get the idea, I'm driving myself crazy!?!

But all in all it was a good productive day, and I hope I'm finished with this mix...

I going to let let someone else tell me if I'm not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As I was walking home from the gig...

...I was thinking: "what a lucky dude I am!"

But I digress...

The gig (see below) was fun. VERY LOUD. My ears are still ringing. I wasn't too sure at times if I was even hearing myself, so I'd stop and listen to see what was missing. Happily there was generally a missing element at those times. At other times, you'd think, "am I playing that?" or you'd hear a sound and think: "what instrument could that possibly be?".

In a musical existence where I'm generally adding a dash of this or a pinch of that, this was a wild sex orgy for music (Yes, it's a mixed metaphor). I met the participants about an hour beforehand at the venue, and we did a minimal setup. We didn't play a note together until the event started. There was no attempt to discuss in detail what we would do. I walked around the stage as our contingent took out their wild toys, at least those that were preset. Some would make an appearance only after the music had started. Then the bandleader introduced us, we started playing, and two hours later it was all over after one of only a few decrescendi of the evening. Beginning to end - it was continuous with no break. We said our goodbyes and that was it. But it wasn't like an orchestra (where the music is written out), or even a band (where you know the songs), this was an all out free-for-all. The feeling was wildness.

I wish all my relationships were like this!

But seriously...

The evening was designed to bring together the world of film, poetry and music. At the start there was a screen in front of us, and films played. All the films were by emerging filmmakers, a few of whom were there in attendance. Then there was a poet, who from time to time, when inspired, would read poetry from her seat in the audience. You couldn't hear her that well either

From the start notes were flying everywhere.

Our percussionist [Ravish Momin] had a small kit: a tiny (by most standards) kick drum, a snare and a cymbal with a large ride and small splash on the same stand, and an assortment of percussion toys, some of which I saw, some I only heard. There were shakers, and hand drums and things.

The bass player [Tom Abbs] had an upright bass, but he also had a digeradoo mounted in between the body of the instrument and the strings, cattycornered to the fingerboard of the instrument, and on top he had a violin bolted to the bass in the upper left quadrant. He played a lot with the bow (meaning 'a lot' if you're thinking of jazz) but also a lot of pizzicato (fingerstyle). The program says he also would be on tuba, but I didn't see that one come out. This guy was coming up with all sorts of unexpected stuff. I really enjoyed his energy and adventurousness.

Our guitarist [Bruce Eisenbeil] was as adventurous in approach, if not in instrumentation. He just set up a standard Stratocaster and a Fender twin. He did have all sorts of pedals, some of which were quite old, with lots of those old school sliders for real time interaction. Occasionally I would l look over at him and he'd be holding a feedback note - channeling Jimi Hendrix - and adjusting his musical figure with his knobs on the pedal (one of which he had on a stool so he didn't have to lean over while adjusting).

I was just playing a piano, and I was the most conventional in the mix by a long shot (imagine that!). No gadgets, no uncommon instruments - just piano. Once I got into the swing of things I did strum the strings a bit -- I wish I had taken a guitar pick! Oh well.

[Josh Sinton] played Baritone sax and Bass Clarinet. He took out a bunch of metal bowls at the beginning, but I didn't ever see him use them for musical purposes. He was right next to me too. Perhaps they were for spiritual or ornamental purposes, I never did find out. At one point in the proceedings, he spilled some water and went to get a paper towel, but I wasn't sure if that had to do with the metal bowls or a drink.

Finally our leader [Dan Godston] played trumpet, and came out with a few different horns surprising me during the evening. He had the standard trumpet which he used with and without mutes (which as you may know, are often less about muting per se, and more about timbre change on a trumpet. A muted trumpet can be very loud played forte.) Also he had a piccolo (small) trumpet, and an instrument he called a "slumpet", which was a trumpet with a slide, similar to a trombone.

As the evening spun out, the films ended and the screen was rolled up and we just kept playing. I felt like the music got better at that point. As a film scorer, I'm used to adding just a little to reinforce the film, so the in your face feeling of the music re: the films was something I wasn't used to. None of the film's audio was used, so we were the only sound. Afterwards I was discussing it with one of the musicians, and he mentioned that he had assumed the personage of one of the characters in one of the films. Interesting thought. There are of course lot of ways to score a film. You can score the action, or the emotion. You can score the setting, you can score the mood of the setting or of a particular character. You can also comment on the action/setting/mood/character either directly or by writing against it (think of the "Adagio for Strings" in "Platoon"). You can decide to drive the action, or to comment on it - in it or above it, so to speak. While impractical in a conventional sense, the music we were making didn't go with my default approach, but it definitely opened up possibilities.

One funny thing was, I was so sure everyone was going to be impressed by my touch. It's kind of 'my thing' as a pianist, because I can really play amazingly softly, which is difficult -- but it didn't come up!

I was nervous - after all - in the beginning. As we were playing, when someone in the band would look at me, I had this feeling they were thinking "don't play that, we don't do that here..." Afterwards though, the band was generally complementary. I was holding down the rhythm a lot. Like the proverbial group sex experience (and proverbs are the only experience I've had with that) you'd focus on one person for a while and then move on to the next. I found I was most comfortable getting with the bass and drummer. Often when I played single melodic lines I couldn't be heard, even though I'd play them at double or triple octaves as loud as possible, so I moved into more percussive stuff, taking a chord voiced in a 'part writing' style (lush and jazzy, in the middle of the keyboard) and hammering away, wandering chromatically about. By later in the evening, I had decided to let Dan, Josh and Bruce go on their way - occasionally musically commenting on a rhythm they made - while mostly holding with drums and bass. Other times I would do very high arpeggios, figuring that would be a way to leap out of the texture, and commented or complemented that way, like a bird flying quickly through the scene and attracting attention though quick movement and high altitude. The piano had by far the highest range of any of the instruments, so I spent a lot of time above middle c.

It was a test of technique which I felt pretty good about. I did trills, and tremolandi figurations that lasted probably for 2 minutes or longer, which is pretty demanding, without feeling like I was going to pass out.

Unfortunately, while there are pictures of the event, I don't know who took them, so I decided to write here at length for posterity.

Many thanks to the awesome Rona Mark for hooking me up to this gig!

...and that brings us back to me walking down the street after the gig feeling lucky. What wild dream did I have that in the space of one week I could be recording vocalist Carol Woods, playing electric guitar over a soaring pop ballad, recording strings, working with singers on a composition I wrote for choir, mixing a funk tune I wrote, working on my world music project, and doing this free improvisation gig last night?

It's everything I could have ever wanted out of life. Lucky.

Everything except the sex thing...

Friday, August 15, 2008


...yeah, a little.

I have a gig with the following folks (click to enlarge) on Monday the 18th of August:

We don't know each other, have never met, and there will be no rehearsal -- we will not be seeing the films in advance, or hearing the poetry....just improvising based on what we're experiencing at the moment. This is the kind of thing that could be incredible...or not.

Even though I improvise, I'm a control freak, which is why I NEVER go dancing, but I have been in an actual dance performance as a "dancer". (Parenthetically, I also co-choreographed that piece with dancer Janet Gerson. This was in the 80's. "Rituals and Incantations", it was called. I came up with the title and concept, which I always liked. Musicians dancing, and and dancers making music.)

...but I digress......

Somehow, this kind of reminds me of that...the only difference is that we REHEARSED Rituals and Incantations...

Anyway, it's a great venue. It's a place called Cell which just opened. I suggested this place to the guy (Dan Godston) who is putting it together. I saw a really great Turkish performance there with Sevgi a couple of months ago.

I am practicing though, although I don't know how to practice for it....

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sessions for "In Your Heart"...

This week I've been doing great sessions for a song called "In Your Heart". The song is by Lyricist and overall renaissance man Christian Holder and composer Noa Ain who is also a wonderful visual artist, with arrangements by the superhuman Andy Brick.

We had some great performances this week:

Vocalist Carol Woods came in to do a take-no-prisoners killer vocal. What a pro -- ready to deliver and completely accommodating -- she was totally prepared and ready to go! She has actually recently appeared in my neighbor's movie "Across the Universe". I also understand she's appearing on Broadway in a revival of "Chicago". She came in during the day before the show.

Saxophonist "Sweet" Sue Terry came in for some sax work. Sue and I have known each other for about 13 years. It was a pleasure to work with her again. We just turned on the song, put her track in record and she proceeded to negotiate some sophisticated chord changes like some shaman, guru-like intuit -- no chart in front of her (!). She's a monster.

After the first three takes, we said "Sue, do you have the music?" and she said "no". (US) "Would you like to see it?".... (HER) Uh...I, guess, yeah that'd be cool"...


We also had some great background vocals, arranged on the spot by three great singers, whose names I barely caught as they flew through. One of the singers had worked here before on a previous project, but I didn't even recognize her until about 1/3 of the way through the session.

Also, there was a fairly copious amount of other friends and family coming through. It's starting to feel like the Hit Factory up in here!

I was honored to pluck the guitar a little.

Special shout to Andy to trusting me to do this with this gang!

Screen captures from the talkback video feed (video link between control room and booth) are here

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A new axe....

It's been years since I bought a new guitar! The last one I bought was a bass whose only owner was the great Jaco Pastorius when he was still alive, and he died in 1987. I still use that thing.

We used to follow Jaco around when we first came to NYC, and see him in various clubs. One night we even saw the Word of Mouth Big Band with Toots Theilemans on the harmonica and Paul McCandless among others! Jerry Jermont sat in for a lot of the gig on Bass. That was at the original Lone Star Cafe (now a deli). Jaco liked to party (not letting any secrets out) and he let his bass go so cheap (in order to fund the party) that I couldn't help but pick it up. Simon found it at Matt Umanov's.

Well, I got a new acoustic last week. It's an Ovation, which is the kind with the rounded back. I bought it sight unseen since I heard that they were closing some factories and were going to start making them overseas. Also it was severely discounted on closeout.

As you may know though, guitars are a very personal thing, so it was a gamble. Acoustics are even trickier. I never even owned an acoustic steel string till I was in college.

I remember about 30 years ago (college days - yes I am old) my good friend Tom Bolling was working at a guitar store in my old hometown of Richmond Va., and he called me one day about a steel string guitar in his shop and said, "come down here immediately and bring your checkbook, because I just found the guitar that's going to change your life" (I still remember the exact words). Up until then I had only owned electrics and classical (nylon string) guitars. I had stayed away from steel string acoustics.

I did as he said, and later that day I had my first steel string -- and it did change my life.

Of course that was a fellow guitarist, a good friend that still lives about 50 feet from me to this day (different city even), and he was talking about this one particular instrument he'd found and personally played. This is because he knew that for me, I need really great action. The sound on that guitar wasn't unbelievable, but it opened up a little over time. The action was killer though...these days the instrument has gone downhill, as the neck is becoming warped. It's really unplayable, and right now I'm using a loaner steel string (an archtop - also Tom's). I used the loaner on a "School House Rock" (Yes, it's coming back) session a couple of months ago (thanks Andy!), but I hate the sound of the recorded instrument (sorry T). It did make it on that recording though (at least I think, more on this later...).

Fast forward a little -- to about 10 years ago I went into Sam Ash guitars on 48th street and while browsing picked up a guitar that played so well and sounded so good that I put it down immediately, because I knew that in a couple of minutes I was going to fall in love with it, have to buy it, and spend 5 grand on it (or 10 grand by the time I amortized the credit card debt). I realized at that moment how far guitars had come in the years since I bought that 1st steel string guitar back in Richmond. The guitar from 30 years ago was as costly as non-collector guitars were in those days. But there were no 5 grand guitars that I remember.

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty good about about the new axe.

A few things actually caught me by surprise. For one, I love the sound of it unamplified! I was expecting - based on my discussions with Bob Mondok at Sweetwater - that I was not going to be overly enthusiastic. It's not really loud (I don't need really loud) but it has a nice rich well balanced sound. Given Ovation's reputation, I was expecting loud. It has rich low frequencies, good highs, no annoying midrange, just like I like in an acoustic. I got the balladeer model.

I'm not in love with the direct sound, but I haven't heard the acoustic guitar yet on which I really liked with the internal pickup, so I'm not surprised by that. It's thumpy (but that's the nature of the beast). I was willing to be pleasantly surprised given what I gathered from Bob. but it's OK. It may be great as supplemental to a miced sound, we'll see.

I recorded with it today, and we had to go direct because I couldn't leave the control room (I was playing guitar but didn't want to leave Andy to fend by himself, although he's totally up to it, and because it made sense to talk to the other people in the room for suggestions). The sound worked for what this project is (guitar sits in a richly populated pop/funk mix), but it won't make me give up good microphones.

I'm still excited to see how microphones work with it. When I get some time, or the right project, I'll blog about it. I have a feeling I'm going to like it with my U87.

The action is a little on the high side, I read in the owner's manual that the bridge has shims in there that can be taken out, so I'm going to try taking one out and seeing about that. In the old days, I would lighten up the strings, but I don't want to lose that richness of tone.

All in all a hit.

...and the built in tuner was a nice surprise I wasn't expecting!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Playing the Building...

So, Whit and I went down to the Maritime Building just off NYC's Battery Park City to see an exhibit curated by David Byrne of "Talking heads" fame.

It was very cool. Byrne had set up a keyboard controller from an old organ he adapted to this purpose. The sound generation device was the building, and there were 3 basic methods to produce sound:

1) the vibration of heavy motors located on the building's skylight (pictured above)

2) the percussive sound of clappers striking the metal columns of the building (pictured above)

3) the use of air blown across pipes which had holes cut into them (pictured above)

See the whole gallery of our antics here:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Strange Girls Screening and the old neighborhood...

Last night, I went to a screening of "Strange Girls", the film which I recently scored. It was at the Anthology Film Archives, which is a nice Indie type space occupying the entire building on the corner of 2nd St. and 2nd Ave ("the nexus of the universe"...or was that 1st & 1st?).

I don't know how they do it. In the past when the neighborhood was a funky, funky place it made sense. but it seems as though Trump would have swooped in by now to make luxury condos.

Let's hope it can endure the current real estate building boom. I think the boom will likely slow down soon.

In fact, I was amazed to see how much the neighborhood had changed. I walked past the old site of CBGB's OMFUG, and I was amazed by how hygenic it felt. I couldn't even really recognize the storefront, although I know it was the right block. We played there many a night back in the day, and the funky, dangerous, urban feel made you think you were so cool.

Check out this short video for a taste of the feel of the scene.

At that time, CB's was the only place around, except for the homeless people lying around on the street. Everything else was commercial and shuttered that time of night. Down the block,on 3rd ave. people were selling goods (most stolen) laid out on blankets, one after the next after the next, going on for blocks and blocks. I looked like the conservative one with my shoulder length hair. Everyone hanging around CB's looked like the lead guitarist for the Plasmatics...

Yet I felt right at home.

Now it feels like San Diego (no offense, really, I just didn't move there because I wanted funky instead). Truthfully - it's not bad right now, it's kind of in a sweet spot where culture collides, but look for it to jump the shark sometime in 2009.

Back to the matter at hand, it was really great to see the film. Of course, I'll never be able to see this film with any level of objectivity, but the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy it. I got good comments on the music. I felt a lot of it could be a little louder, but the good thing is I think the director agrees.

I think it gave me a little juice to move on. The music is good. What an undertaking though!

It even works OK in spite of the fact that the final mixes, though done, are not married with the movie yet, and still it was pretty good.

I also went to a bar afterward and talked to some new people for a while (who had been at the screening).

A ticket to the screening: a deal at $5
Price for 1 glass of wine: highway robbery at $9
Witnessing the end of an era: Priceless