New Year New Music

Here it is, mid-January already. I feel like I missed out on the worst of the post-holiday cold and darkness this year. It’s been a pretty mild winter this year and I’ve spent alot of time indoors, working from home waiting for my foot to get better. Now I’m on the mend and feeling pretty well rested, and the days are beginning to get longer again. Of course there’s still alot of wintertime ahead, but it’s time to start getting going with new projects for the new year.

Both the software I’m writing for my day job and the Global Jukebox are now in beta/big-fix mode, counting down to the inevitable release date. So lots and lots of coding, fixing testing, repeat.

Lizzy had been getting her college acceptance letters and some scholarships. She got into every place she’s applied so far. Meanwhile Michelle has been getting acceptances for high schools and some scholarships as well. So things are good on that front and we have some choices ahead.

The new origami book is coming along. I have 12 or so diagrams done, and I’ve been working with the graphics guy on the patterned paper. The balance of the models are in the offing. Working with the publisher now on page layout and book format issues.

I had some projects I wanted to do over the break in the home improvement sphere that I had to push off. Also it looks like I won’t be skiing this winter. Ah well.

But the main point of this post is to update y’all on the music situation. Music has been coming along too, although at different rates of effectiveness on different fronts.

I’ve had my new tenor sax for a year now and I’m digging it more than ever. Also I’ve had the new piano for almost two months and I’m getting used to playing it, building strength in my fingers. I had it tuned and it sounds killer. Turns out the piano tuner is also and origami fan and we folded some paper airplanes together.

The Left Hook is still keepin’ on. We had a strong run in the early to mid fall, but we didn’t rehearse that much from November thru the end of the year because our singer was working for a political campaign. We did learn a few new songs in the time, mainly funky 80’s stuff.

The challenge remains to find more and better gigs. That was our main goal for 2016 but we we ended up playing the same old bars. Ah well gigs like that are still a good time. Part of the problem is there’s not that much demand, and the same half dozen bar bands are constantly rotating around the best place. Still, now we’re back at it, trying to crack into that circuit and casting a wider net, making a new round of inquiries and dropping off demo tapes, making a fresh list of venues . Onward and upward even if it takes a little more persistence to get up and go the distance.

My recording project, the third Buzzy Tonic album remains unfinished as well. I’m midway thru tracking the last song, City. I’d hoped to work on it over Xmas break but that was among the things I had to push off. Hopefully finish it before the end of the winter.

On the other hand I made great progress with my jazz demos, and that whole thing has taken on a life of its own. I’ve brought seven or eight tunes to the group, five of which are keepers, and I have one more in the offing. I encouraged the other guys in the group to bring in songs as well, and Gary Guitar has started writing too. He says I inspired him, which is great and fun and flattering to hear. So far he’s brought in two songs, both very good and different than mine. It’s good to have another voice and a good spread of styles and moods.

The guys in the band all like learning originals, and like the particular set of tunes, so now the main monkey business is to make a record. This is the Saturday group BTW, the Haven Street Quintet. It’s shaping up to be nine or so originals and probably one standard. Maybe Giant Steps since we have our own arrangement of that.

Now I’m looking into recording studios. The idea is to go in a do the whole thing live, like we did with Event Horizon back in the day, or like pretty much all classic jazz records. So I’m looking for a good live room with a grand piano and a nice sounding mixing board with warm preamps. Once we get the basic tracks down I can bring it into ProTools and Jay the bassist and I can mix and master it, although we’ll need an engineer to run the recording session.

So far though the local studios I’ve seen (via their web sites) seem more geared up for doing overdubs and electronic music production. This is useless to me since I already have a few good mics and an endlessly looptastic effects-o-rama ProTools rig in my basement. To me a real studio implies a real live room. Of course I’m just at the beginning of the research phase so you never know what’ll turn up. I’m toying with the idea of doing it in my living room as a backup plan, since I have an nice piano and a big, acoustically pleasant space.

Lots of Music

It’s the holiday season. We’ve started getting Christmas cards, and we had our first snowfall last night. Got our own cards and we have to sit down and fill them out one night this week. We got the tree up and all the decorations this last weekend, and I got a chance to listen to some of the Bill Evans records I recently bought. The new piano is in the spot where there tree used to go, so the tree is in the spot where the old piano was. Looks very nice.

It’s been quite a week for music. First off, the LEFT HOOK got together last week for a rehearsal for the first time in ages. Our singer was working on the staff of a local state senator who was running for reelection (he won!) and then some other stuff including Thanksgiving so we only had one rehearsal in November. Now we’re back together and learning a bunch of new songs including some fun 80’s power pop numbers that came together quite nicely. This week when we get together the topic will be looking for new gigs.

Sunday Lizzy and Michelle sang Lessons and Carols with their singing group at the local Episcopalian church. Last year I was totally blown away by the level of the music. This year they were just as good, but it wasn’t a shock and surprise. Brilliant church choir (of which Lizzy is a member), backed up by the children’s chorus (of which Michelle is a member), a brass ensemble, timpani (particularly amazing) and pipe organ, all with custom arrangements by their Kapellmeister Phillip Stopford, performed in a cavernous stone hall with marvelous reverb.

A couple days later was the Christmas concert at Lizzy’s high school, and Lizzy was performing in the chorus. They were good, at a typical high school level, but after the Lessons and Carols it sort of paled by comparison. One thing I do like is that the music director is German, so they always have alot of the German composers – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Hayden that sort of thing.

But the highlight of the week was seeing Chick Corea at the Blue Note. For those of you who don’t know the Blue Note is New York City’s answer to the Tralfamadore Cafe. For his 75th birthday Chick has taken up residency there, performing for two months with a different band each week. I went with Jeannie and my origami friend Marc, who is also an avid fusion guitarist. Since it was the late show we spent the evening wandering around the village. Bruught back memories of when I used to work in the neighborhood.

The night we saw him it was with guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Lenny White and bassist Victor Wooton. Chick was playing piano, Fender Rhodes and Moog synthesizer and the material was half Return to Forever and half Mahavishnu Orchestra, with a Miles and a Monk song thrown in for good measure. Needless to say the show was amazing. And we had great seats – I was literally sitting right next to Chick. I could’ve played the high notes on this synthesizer. Funny enough last time I saw Chick at the Blue Note, about twenty years ago, I had the exact same seat, although that time it was just piano trio, no other keyboards, and an upright bass.

Saturday we had jazz, and for a number of reasons, it’s been the first time the whole group has been together for a while. We’re working on getting together a bunch of originals to record an album in the new year. I’ve brought in six or songs that have all been very well received. I told everyone else to contribute on song if they can. Last session Gary came in with a new song, and it’s very good, a hard boppish number in the mode of Wes Montgomery. Fits right in and has something new to say.

Fresh Elixir Mixes

Before I forget, I did a series of new mixes on side one of my forever-in-progress album Elixr. They’re sounding much better. It kinda makes me wanna go back and remix my previous records; I’ve learned so much since I started doing this. Meanwhile the remaining four tracks are close, but they still need something in the arranging department.

The last song, City, is still in the tracking phase. I laid down a bass part a while back, but being a funk groove the bass is the lynchpin of the whole thing, and I wasn’t satisfied with the consistency of the phrasing. So I practiced for a while until I got a blister on my thumb. This prompted me to change my whole bass playing style from using alot of thumb on the lower strings to using mainly the index and middle finger. This in turn led to exploring a whole new range of dynamics and tone colors, so it took a little while to get it together before I could switch between the two modes of playing fluidly and it will. So now I’m ready to lay down another take but with the holidays coming up, the challenge is to find the time!

Anyway here are the remixed tracks. Enjoy!

Rocket to the Moon
Sea of Tranquility
Is It Safe?
Black Swan

Grand Designs

Getting used to the new piano and it’s, well, pretty profound really.

First of all it was epic watching three guys get it up the stairs. In this age of technology it’s still a matter of strength and balance. They ought to make it an Olympic event.

It took a couple of days for me to get used to it being in my living
room. Once we got the rest of the furniture and things that go on the furniture back in place it felt much better. The seating area is actually improved now. The couch and chairs are in an “L” with one end where the old piano used to be.

Of course this has triggered a cycle of rearranging everything. It started with getting some old kiddie videos off a shelf, and moved onto retiring some old origami and deploying some newer stuff. We have two more opportunities to rearrange the furniture coming up: once when the Christmas tree goes in and again when it goes out. But for now the piano is basically at the top of the stairs where the Christmas tree has gone in other years. Only problem is the shelf where I keep my sheet music is across the room. And I need a place to put my drink when I’m playing. (Obviously no drinks on the new piano. As a matter fact Thelonious Monk got banned for life from Birdland for putting his drink on their brand-new grand. So you know it’s pretty serious.)

As for playing – the first thing you notice is the sound is sooooo much nicer. So clear and pure. Every note has a voice and all the voices blend. The first day I didn’t play anything bluesy or jazzy or dissonant, just alot of triads and open chords. Next morning I spent a half hour just playing different voicings of D major, listening the sound interact with the room. Much better action dynamic range too, and different sounds at different dynamic levels and in different octaves all have their own character. Alot to explore in the upper and lower ends of the range. It’s gonna change my whole playing style.

Yesterday I did my first real practice. It felt like I had super speed. Some Keith Emerson passages I’ve been muddling thru for years just flew right out. But even while the action is faster the keys are heavier too. A few hour later typing on the computer it felt like I’ve been lifting weights with my fingers. Gonna take a while to get used to that.

Naturally the kids are totally infatuated. I gave them a lesson or two and now they’re playing Heart and Soul together, and each learning some different songs and patterns and things. Downloading chords from the internet and working the song out. I wonder how long that’ll last. It’d be nice to see them get somewhere.

I’m adding a few new songs to my repertoire, notably some standards starting with Body and Soul. Looking thru the sheet music took out of the old piano bench I found a hand-written exercise of ii-V-I’s on the cycle of fifths that I wrote out exactly 25 years ago. A time-travel gift from my past self. You can do a million things with this idea. So I’ve put it into my warmup.

Bananas for Pianos

I’ve been shopping for a new piano recently. My old piano is a Baldwin upright, built in the 1970’s. I got it in 2001 from a friend who is a professional pianist and upgraded to a grand for his home. I spent almost as much moving it two neighborhoods across Brooklyn as I did on the piano itself. A quality instrument, it still plays fine even though I’ve played it almost every day for many years. It has served me well.

I’ve wanted upgrade to a grand for a long time. I started by looking on craigslist a few months ago and realized there was a healthy market for used pianos, and it looked like there were some decent ones in my budget, but it would require some research and some patience. I looked again a few weeks ago but all the ones I was interested in were gone. So I started going to piano dealers to see how they compare. I figured the dealers would have some inventory and some selection, and their instruments would be rebuilt/refurbished, tuned up and in good shape, plus they’d also have warranties and be able to handle the delivery.

I spent alot of time the last few weeks playing different pianos and listening to their tone and dynamics and feeling their touch and response, as well as looking inside to see how they’re made, and doing alot of reading online about the history, quality and reputation of different brands. And I can tell you once you start listening and get in the zone, there’s alot of variation and you can start to discern what makes a really good piano.

I played a few rebuilt Steinways which were all really beautiful. It’s amazing, some of them were 100 years old and still hold their value. And they all have such great and consistent response and an unbeatable tone that’s well balanced between bright and mellow and mostly distinguished by a sea of lush and resonant overtones. It’s like the aural equivalent of a warm inner glow.

But unfortunately those were all beyond my budget, even the lower-priced ones. So I auditioned a number of other instruments. The one that struck my fancy was Kimball. Shiny black, very nice. It immediately seemed very warm and playable, with a big resonance and nice clear low end, being about six and a half feet long, which is a little longer than a typical baby grand. It has a great tone and response, almost rivaling a Steinway but for about a fifth of the price. It’s 25 or 30 years old but in basically new condition, having spent most of its lifetime not being played.

The better Kimballs are in line with Baldwins in terms of quality. They are regarded as well-built, sturdy workhorses but not a top-tier marque. Of course all piano companies have a long history and not all models or periods are equal, and there alot of Kimballs that are well worth staying away from. Apparently most American companies started manufacturing their pianos in China in the 80’s and 90’s and suffered from low quality in sound, workmanship and materials. It took them a while to really learn what they were doing, but newer pianos from China (almost all American brands except Steinway, which are still made in Queens NY, as well as some Japanese brands) are regarded as better built and generally a good value.

It turns out this particular Kimball is a real gem. It was built in Pawnee, Indiana at the time the Kimball owned the Bösendorfer company (world-class concert pianos from Austria, often regarded as the best in the world, superior even to Steinway) and shortly before they ended American production altogether, one of the last of its kind. It’s a so-called “Viennese Kimball” because its sound and feel are modeled on the venerable Bösendorfer concert grands and they took advantage of Bösendorfer engineering, craftsmanship and know-how in its design and construction. Plus it’s all top-flight materials: spruce soundboard, maple shell, black lacquer, ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony. Hopefully it’ll play great for many years.

The place I got it from is Ford Pianos in Peekskill NY. John Ford is a third-generation piano rebuilder and a really nice guy. First time I was there he showed me around his workshop and told me alot about piano materials and construction as well as the art of rebuilding. He gave me a good deal that included the moving and taking away my old piano as a trade-in. As an added bonus, since I’m a tall guy and my knees don’t quite fit under the keyboard, he’s making me a set of custom risers/casters to put under the feet and raise the instrument up an inch and a half. Very awesome! Turns out he’s also of Hungarian heritage, and his language skills are on the same level as mine, meaning his vocabulary is mainly centered around food.

Dem Tempos

I’ve had four gigs in three weeks. This last one was the LEFT HOOK at Victor’s in Hawthorne. It went well, definitely better than our gig a couple weeks ago. It was a good crowd too. A group of five younger dudes walked in around midnight, and we were sure they weren’t going to like our music, but they really dug it, particularly the Sam and Dave stuff.

One major change was an intense focus on tempos. We noticed that the songs have crept up over time, to the point where some of them were starting to lose their groove, and at the list gig few were counted off way to fast. So we went and listen the the original cut of every song we do and wrote down the tempo. Next rehearsal counted off each song to a metronome click and concentrated on not speeding up (or slowing down).

It was a total revelation! Everything was alot groovier and funkier, with more room for phrasing. It was like a whole new set. And it carried thru on the stand. One other thing we’re trying to do is string our songs together in groups of three or four within a set. So there was a bit of confusion sometime as to the countoff, but overall it worked. We’re gonna keep using the metronome until it becomes second nature, and that ought to raise or level of musicianship.

Now we’re back to pounding the pavement for some new gigs. Meanwhile we’re gonna learn a few 80’s tunes. So stay tuned.

Soprano Sax and Art Opening

I recently bought a new soprano sax. I’ve been looking for one for a long time. You can often get a good deal on a used instrument but you have to be willing to search and to wait.

The horn was from Roberto Winds, just about the last music store in the historic music district in midtown Manhattan. They’re a third-floor walkup and the space also has a bunch of practice rooms. Roberto himself makes beautiful high-end saxophones that are quite reasonably priced, at least compared to Selmers. But they’re still pretty pricey for your second or third horn. Fortunately they also do a brisk trade in used saxes, particularly old Mark VI’s, and they list part of their inventory on their web site.

I tried out about four horns and ended up getting a used intermediate model Yamaha, about ten years old but barely played. Lovely tone, intonation and balance. It’s a one-piece model without a separate neck. I also played one of Roberto’s horns as well as a pro-level Yamaha from the 1980’s. Both were better horns than the one I ended up getting, but were twice the price. For that extra money you get lots of amazing engraving on the bell, plus one level up terms of tone and intonation, that smooth silk-butter-cognac sound like my tenor has.

Ah well, the horn I got still very good, much better than my old soprano. While I was at it I got a new mouthpiece too, and Otto Link.

Only a few days later I got a chance to try it out. I had a gig at an art gallery in Hasting called The Square Peg. It was an opening for a painter named Jerzy Kubina who does these large, bold yet subtle, semi-abstract canvases. Great balance of color and tone, dark and light, very suggestive but not quite figurative, really amazing stuff. The band set up in front of a giant mural in this beautiful bright space, a perfect setting.

The band was my friend Charlie on guitar and Ed from the Ossining gig in July on drums, and this dude Joel on bass. We did a mixture of standards and Charlie’s originals. We were going to do one of my songs too, but we ran out of time. The band sounded really good, everyone’s playing was really on, and the crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative. The gallery owners were really nice people too. I hope to go back sometime.

LEFT HOOK Returns to Victors of Hawthorne

Fresh from our recent engagement at the Net, LEFT HOOK is back in playing form, and delivering some new funky soul material as well as all you’re favorites. Hope to see you there!

Music with a punch!
Westchester’s classic rock Funk & soul party band

Saturday October 22
8:30 PM
Victors Bar & Grill
500 Commerce St. Hawthorne

Rock and Jazz

Lots happening on the music front these days. My jazz group, the Haven Street Five, has been working on a bunch of my originals. We’re up to five or six of them now. The most recent, King’s Hex, is an uptempo waltz with voicings based on stacked fourths. The chart is four pages long, which is a break from my pattern of only doing songs that fit on a single sheet, and it’s a definite step up in terms of complexity. Still the guys in the band are really digging the material I’m bringing in and happy to put in the work to learn the tunes and make something out of them. In fact last rehearsal Gary suggested we record a CD of my originals and one or two covers.

I had planned on bringing up this idea in the new year when the Juke Box work is substantially done. We only have half an album’s worth of tunes right now. I have three more ready to go, but it takes a time to make demos and write out charts, and more time for the band to really learn the songs. I suggested everyone else in the band write one song each, and if you don’t have idea for a song just take a blues and write a new head. Gary came back and told me he tried that but ended up rewriting a Mile song.

I’ve also been doing some jazz jams with friend Charlie. Last Friday I sat in with his trio at a community center in Yonkers, a combination of his originals and some standards. They’re trying to get some kind of scene happening there, and although it wasn’t heavily attended, I think it has some potential. Charlie says he plays there once a month or so. Next Friday I’m playing with him at an art gallery in Hastings. This time we’re gonna go a rehearsal first, and I’m bringing a couple of my originals too. And the drummer is Ed B. from the bandshell gig I did with Lucas back in the summertime. Should be lots of fun.

I’ve been out seeing some of my friends bands lately too. A few weeks back I saw Sue and Fun Ghouls at a bar up in Mamaroneck. They’re a rock’n’roll bar band like the LEFT HOOK, but they’ve definitely leveled up since the last time I saw them, about a year ago, shortly after Sue and George joined the band on vocals and drums. Now they have a new bass player who also can sing high songs like Bon Jovi and the Outfield. Overall their sets have gotten much tighter, with basically wall-to-wall backbeat the whole time, one number into another, to really keep the crowd moving. Much improved vocal harmonies too.

Another night I saw my friend Jay playing bass backing up a vibes player at a local club Infusion. They’re looking to get some kind of jazz scene going there, so I’m hoping to get a gig with the Haven Street Five.

Saturday nite the LEFT HOOK played at Fisherman’s Net down in Pelham. It was a good show, especially considering we haven’t played for a few months. We had a good crowd and played our full third set since the people stuck around. Still, we’re trying to level up ourselves, get the beginnings and endings tighter, the tempos more consistent, and flow better from one song into the next. Trying to hook up songs into string of three or four to keep people dancing. Last go around we added a few funk/soul numbers like Vehicle and I Just Want to Celebrate. Next round of songs we learn are gonna be some 80’s pop-ish hit by band like INXS, the Fixx and the Cars.

One highlight of the show was, since it was Jeannie’s and my wedding anniversary, and she always likes to come to our gigs, the band learned Thank You by Led Zeppelin, and I sang it to her cuz it was our wedding song. She seemed pretty knocked out, and it went over quite well with the crowd too, especially considering we only rehearsed it once and never even got the whole way thru. Now we have a Zeppelin song in our bag, although probably not the one anyone would expect.

LEFT HOOK Returns to Fisherman’s Net

The rock band basically took the month of August off, but now we’re back and rehearsing again. We’re still running our master plan to break into bigger and better gigs, but meanwhile we’re always down to play the local neighborhood bar Fisherman’s Net in Pelham, which has become something of our home base. Someday all’y’all’ll say that’s where it all began. We’re playing there on October 8, and it should be a great show, fresh off our break and with lots of new material.

While we were at it, I made a new image for our poster. This was from out gig at Burke’s last spring, where our friend Nick showed up with his camera and took a bunch of great shots. Only problem was there wasn’t a single one with all five of us, so I had to stitch two together. Michael doesn’t like it so much cuz he’s not singing in this shot, but at least you can see our drummer Gus.