Running on Empty

One thing about having an old car is that random things break down that you wouldn’t expect on an ordinary car. The fuel gauge has been broken on my Mustang for some time. When it originally went I thought it would be a huge pain to get it fixed, so I just let it go. I started keeping a notebook of how many miles I put on the car, calculating how long until I needed a fillup. But apparently this is not an accurate method of tracking fuel consumption. I ran out of gas on day a couple weekends ago when I thought I had over a quarter tank left.

Luckily it was easy and pretty quick to get it towed to my local garage. Then the real fun began. My mechanic said he’d fix it but I’d have to find the the part myself. Again it’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days. I think pretty much any part for a ’67 pony is available either as a refurb or and O.E.M. So I was able to order a new gas float unit. After the part arrived I had to wait a whole week to bring the car back to my mechanic cuz it was rainy every day. Finally last Friday I got the work done, quick and easy.

Nice to know how much fuel I have again. Hope to get a few more rides in before the winter comes.

Shoot the Moon

Another milestone for my upcoming book Origami from Space. Once all the graphics for the paper had been approved by all parties my publisher asked me to submit the photos. So I printed out all the graphics and folded all the models, taking extra care. Along side I have most of the models folded at exhibit quality with non-printed paper, mostly the kind Origami Shop calls “tissue foil” or “shiny”.

I have basically a homemade mini-studio setup for photography, which is how I did the cover for my last book. I set it up and got to work.

The major limitation was the lights. I used to have a pair of really bright white halogens, originally meant for industrial use like in a shop, and I’d put frosted lexan in front of the lamp to serve as a diffuser. Some time ago the switch on of the units burned out and I was down to one.

So I filled it in with some other lights I had around, but when the publisher got the pictures he said there were some harsh shadows and bright hot spots which they didn’t like. I kinda do like this look, as it brings out the texture and shape of the models, especially for the non-printed paper. But I think they’re after breakfast-cereal-television-commercial bright.

The other limitation of my setup is the depth of field was low in some shots, so things we’re as in-focus as the could be across the z-plane. Again something I thought was cool but they didn’t go for. I figured it was time to get a new lighting kit.

It’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days. I went with pretty much the cheapest one I could find that seemed decent. It contained three tripods and light setups with diffusers and a stand to shoot against for a little over $100. Back in the days of film it would have been thousands of dollars for something like that.

The tripods were aluminum and plastic, very lightweight but fine for indoor use. And the diffusers were just cloth and a bit of wire, like an umbrella. The big innovation was the lighting units themselves, which took for compact fluorescent bulbs each, equivalent to 150 watts from a regular bulb, for a total of 1800, but with a pure white light and giving off no heat. Amazing. The huge amount of light let me dial down the aperture and open up the depth of field on my camera. Light in photography is equivalent to silence in audio recording. The level determines the absolute noise floor and dynamic range you can get.

It took a while to put the whole thing together, but the shoot when smoothly enough and the publisher seemed satisfied. I imagine I’ll have to do some pick-up shots pretty soon. Then I had to find a place to store the kit so I could set up my new synthesizer. So we had to get rid of some old junk, which led to cleaning out the wizard closet and the garage. Projects beget more projects.

Now I’m in the process of putting together a gallery of some of the pics, but first I have to upgrade my photo processing software.

The One that Goes “Bweeee”

I can’t remember a September that’s been nicer weather since we left California. Been super busy with stuff. Back into a routine with work and band rehearsal, and Michelle is off to a good start in high school. Already the weeks are flying by.

I recently bought a new synthesizer. It’s a Moog Sub 37. This is a new modern analog synthesizer from the venerable Moog corporation, based on the design of one their classic models from back in the day. The main difference being that in addition to all the analog knob-twiddly goodness, it’s fitted with a digital control module that lets you save and recall presets and communicate with a computer via MIDI and USB. And supposedly it stays in tune better.

As far as the synth itself goes it has everything you’d hope for and expect. Great rich warm sound produced by two oscillators which be either stacked or parallelized into duophonic mode. And the sweepable filters, LFO, ASDR, portemento, modulation, all routable and configurable, and even a programmable arpeggiator for the lazy.

Shopping for it was a pretty cool experience. I had had my eye on this synth for a while but wanted to play it before I bought it, and none of my local music stores had it in stock. Then my friend Rich turned me on to a place called Three Wave Music out in New Jersey. They specialize in new and used keyboards. One the way out I got go over the new Tappen Zee Bridge, which looks incredibly futuristic.

The Three Wave Music showroom had everything going back to the beginning of time. Lots of old Moogs, Oberheims, Rolands, you name it. Taurus pedals, an original 808 drum machine, a Hammond B-3 with a pair of Leslies, a wall of Keytars, even a Theremin. Amazing. I bought a used Fender Rhodes way back in 1990 or so for $125. The ones they have there are a few thousand. And while I was there I was able to get something I never even imagined — a replacement for the little knob that holds the supports for the legs into the bottom of the cabinet. I’ve been using a bolt and a washer all these years!

The guys were really nice and synth was a couple hundred dollars less than I’d seen it anywhere else, so it was a worthwhile trip. I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to learn it and use it some future records. I played with it for a while at the store but haven’t even had a chance to plug it yet in at home. The main reason being that my studio was full of photography equipment. More on that next.

Life in the Keys of Songs

I recently wrote a song called Atonement Blues. It’s in the key of C, although it passes thru all 12 7th chords. It got me thinking about whether I favor different keys in my song writing. So I went and made a list of all the songs I’ve written and performed or put on a records.

It’s interesting because different keys have different sounds. To me the higher keys and the sharper ones tend to sound brighter and the lower ones, as well as the flatter ones, darker. When you’re in a given key your mind and hands tend to run in certain patterns, especially on sax. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, changing its key can alter the whole character dramatically.

It turns out I have a pretty good spread:

C: 3 Cm: 4 7
Db: Dbm: 2 2
D: 2 Dm: 2 4
Eb: Ebm: 1 1
E: Em: 2 2
F: 3 Fm: 1 4
Gb: 2 Gbm: 2
G: 2 Gm: 2
Ab: Abm:
A: 3 Am: 4 7
Bb: 1 Bbm: 1
B: 1 Bm: 1

It looks like I favor the keys of C and A (both Major and minor). C generally sounds neutral to me, while A is bright, although A minor sounds neutral too. There are some gaps in the low major keys and high minor keys.

C is the default key for writing on piano and a good jazz key. Of the seven songs I have in C and C minor, most are jazz numbers, or jazziod rock numbers, and only one, Touch the Ceiling, is a straight-ahead rocker. It was co-written with my drummer Mark who chose the key. Three of these are recently written numbers I’m doing in my jazz originals group.

I have two songs in Db minor. Both are kinda funky/jazz and both began in C minor or D minor and I shifted them a half-step. For a while I really got into writing on the piano in keys that use alot of black keys, after noticing that guys like Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen tend to do alot of that.

D is a pretty versatile key, low but bright, good for jazz or rock. I have four songs in D and D minor. All of them are strident and uptempo.

Eb minor is a fun and weird key, very dark. I have one song in that key, Ghost in the Machine. I don’t have anything in Eb major.

In my mind E is the default rock key. Interestingly, both of my songs in E-minor are non-jazz instrumentals that have a single chord and mostly are about exploring out time signatures.

F is another versatile key, higher but darker than C. Of the four songs I have in F, two are uptempo and two are ballads.

The two songs I have in Gb is actually in F#. F# is higher and brighter then E. Both are rather cosmic sounding. One, Angel or Alien, was and was written on the bass and is mostly a ballad with an uptempo middle section. The other, Seventh Sea, is a jazz ballad that spends alot of time in other keys and plays with the idea of shifting tone centers.

I have 2 songs in G but none in G minor. Both are are up and bright

I have no songs in Ab. Maybe I should try writing one.

I have seven songs in A and A minor. Most of the A minor ones were written a long time ago for Event Horizon. Of the ones in A major, Rocket to the Moon is one of the few songs I’ve written on guitar. Black Swan was written mainly on bass, and moves thru several keys, including a big part in E minor.

Bb sounds lower and darker than C to me. Great jazz key. The one song I have in Bb, Your Dancing Shoes, is a soul/funk/blues number that I’ve done both a rock and a jazz version of.

The only key that’s brighter than A is B. My only song in B, Heat Wave, is very uptempo and in 7/8. It modulates to G# minor for the verse.

Through with Buzz

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing last week of one of my musical heroes Walter Becker of Steely Dan. He was a big influence on my sound and by all accounts a great guy. I saw Steely Dan live three times, going back to their first tour in the 90’s and twice more at the Beacon in later years. Each show ranks up there with the all time best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve been taking time this week to work my way thru the Steely Dan songbook, concentrating on the more advanced stuff in the back half from the records The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho.

In my own musical world things are happening again after the summer hiatus. The LEFT HOOK is back in rehearsal. We did a bunch of Steely songs just to jam, including My Old School, a bit of Babylon Sisters and Hey Nineteen, as well as Kid Charlemagne and Rikki from our regular set.

We’ve been adding in new songs at about the rate of one a week before we went on break and are back at it. We’re up to twenty-five songs or so, almost enough to play a whole show. We’ve started adding some of my rock originals. Everyone in the group enjoys playing them, which is a good sign.

We’ve also been dusting off the whole list to get them back into working muscle memory and see how they sound as a quartet. Overall really sounding good, even things we haven’t played in six months or more. Only downside is because I’m singing alot more we had to drop a lot of the sax songs. I’ve gone from playing sax on about half the songs to about a quarter. So I’m looking for more sax songs that we can do with our setup. In the weeks ahead we’ll pick four or five songs to record to use as a new demo so we can get back to playing out.

In jazzland the originals project has broken off from the jam sessions to become its own thing. It was clear for some time that our old Mike wasn’t really into it, and everyone was getting pretty frustrated with the situation. We got a new drummer Dan, who fits right in and has the sound we’re looking for, as well as the technical precision, versatility and imagination, and a great guy to hang around with. He cites Bill Bruford and Tony Williams among his influences. So now we’re back at it, crafting our arrangements and the goal of making a record is back on.

I’ve brought in two new songs. One is actually an old song called Son of the Sun, that I used to do in Event Horizon. (I had a lot of songs from Event Horizon and I brought a few into this group, but most didn’t really work so I started writing new songs instead.) It’s mainly in 5/8 with the bridge in 7/8, so it wasn’t even worth attempting before. Of course with the new group I expect it’ll sound pretty different.

The other is an all-new song I’m calling Atonement Blues. It’s based on the idea of a tone row, which is something I’ve been playing with for a year or so since Michelle came home from school one day having learned about them and all excited. The idea of a tone row is to construct a melody using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale without repeating any until you’ve used all twelve. Technically this isn’t so hard, the real trick is coming up with something anyone would want to listen to!

In my case I applied the idea to a chord progression rather than a melody. It came about almost by accident. I was playing around with another songwriting idea, trying to make a blues/soul number that used only dominant seventh chords a la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I got a fair way along and noticed I had only repeated one chord, and I wanted the turnaround to reverse the harmonic motion, essentially wrapping around the cycle of fifths. A couple tritone subs and I was there. Here is the progression:

C7 | E7 | F7 | D7 |
G7 | B7 | F#7 | A7 |
Bb7 Eb7 | Ab7 Db7 | Cmaj7 | (Cmaj7) |

It turns out to be a great vehicle to solo on, reminescant of Giant Steps.

And Then There Were Three

Just got back from another road trip upstate, this time to drop Lizzy off at college. Major life milestone, hurray! The whole thing went pretty smoothly, and all of Lizzy’s planning paid off moving in. She’s off to a good start in the dorms, making friends and learning her way around. Jeannie and I went out with Larry and Jackie and Nick and Lisa after the move-in, so they finally got to meet. Amazingly, they both independently went down south to see the eclipse last week. Both said it was a fantastic experience but the drive home, eleven hours long, sucked. While we were up there we got a visit from my cousin Tom and his family, who were on their way home from New York City. On the way back we stopped by Martin’s. He and Kathleen just ran a 5K race. This is a pretty big deal for Kathleen, who just a year ago broke her leg pretty badly. Their kids are all into Greek mythology these days so we spent some time drawing mythical monsters. I came up with a beast that head seven heads, including those of a bear, antelope, Komodo dragon, giraffe, and two snakes and a chicken as tails!

Overall a relaxing trip and nice weather for driving. Now we’re home again and the house feels large.

Summer Fun Part Duex

Since I’ve been feeling better the last few weeks I’ve been trying to enjoy what’s left of the summer. Last weekend I took Michelle to the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island. This was the first airplane museum we’ve visited since our trip to Ohio. It’s a pretty cool place, featuring mainly locally built planes from the World War I era and the space race. Not as big as the Smithsonian or Wright-Patterson, but first rate. We met Mary and the cousins there and it was a good time. Michelle still really into seeing and learning about airplanes (and still wants to grow up to design airplanes and spaceships, or videogames).

By coincidence there was a videogame convention going there that day too. At first this seemed a little nerdy even for me, but it turned out to be a really fun bonus. There was a ton of classic videogames, vendors, even cosplay babes. Michelle was to see an original Atari condole and play the classic E.T. game. They had an amazing band, called Con-Soul, with a six piece horn section (two trumpets, two trombones, alto and bari sax), a synth mallet player, drums and fender bass. They played all video game music, with the format of doing a horn arrangement of the main themes and going into a funk/jazz jam. Very cool.

Then one night last week Mary’s came up and went with Jeannie and the girls to Rye Playland. I joined them after work mainly for a walk around the park.

I’ve been working really hard the last month or so to meet a deadline at work. Going back to work in the evenings and weekends, and all the while trying to focus on my health. It’s not easy keeping a huge amount of code in your mind and tends to take over your imagination a little bit. Kinda stressful but I try to be zen about it. Two days ago I finished and made probably the largest single commit since I’ve been writing software, at least 60 files in four different languages, into both the trunk and the release branch. So that’s a huge load off my mind and I can relax a little.

Last night I went to sit in with my friend Charlie’s band. It’s a happy hour gig at a little cafe right on the waterfront in downtown Yonkers where there’s a little park and everything. Great spot to watch the sun go down over river and sip your drink and listen to some jazz. We did some standards like Impressions, Footprints, There Will Never Be Another You, and All of Me. Felt great just to let go and be in the moment.

Longer Stranger Trippier

I was upstate last week on a visit to Buffalo with a dual purpose. One was to visit my parents and the other to drop of Lizzy for her college orientation. She’s going to UB, entering the business school. Jeannie and myself are UB alumni, along with lots of friends we haven’t seen in a while. It’s getting to the point where thirty years doesn’t seem like a long time ago. I’ve been re-connecting with quite a few people this year, mainly over facebook but in person this spring with my former college roommate Rich, and now on this trip with Danny, who just happened to be in town visiting his parents the same weekend as me.

Danny is literally my oldest friend. He grew up four houses down from the house I lived in until I was ten years old. He’s also one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. We were entering freshmen in the UB honors program together. Danny is responsible for Jeannie and I meeting. His roommate Todd went to Jeannie’s high school, and they had a party one night and Jeannie showed up and we got to talking. After college Danny moved to D.C. while I moved to New York and then California. So there was alot of catching up to do. Danny has has a very interesting career working for the State Department in the foreign service. He’s been all over the world: Egypt, Russia, Brazil, and most recently Afghanistan. I was pretty itinerant for a number of years, but I can’t imagine the level of commitment one must have for this lifestyle. Even now he’s loving learning languages and cultures, passionate about the mission, grateful to be able to do some good in the world. It’s good to know he’s doing well.

We also saw the movie Dunkirk when we were up there. It was very visual, not like a typical Chris Nolan movie. Almost like a tone poem of a war picture. It was also basically a single extended action sequence, like the opening of Saving Private Ryan drawn out to fill the whole movie.

There was a classic car show in my parents’ neighborhood. Over 400 cars they said. Lots of American muscle, Mustangs, GTOs, Cameroes from the 60’s and 70’s. Lots of rebuilt hot rods, and all kinds of more exotic stuff going back to the 30’s. There was a whole parking lot full of Corvettes. Apparently they have this show every year and it was begun by a guy at a local garage who specializes in fixing up classic cars. I wish I’ve know cuz I could’ve gotten his card and talked to him about restoring the Mustang.

Lastly we went to a party at Larry and Jackie’s for their son Joey’s high school graduation. He’ll be entering UB in the fall as well, living in the same dorm as Lizzy. Big wheel keeps on spinning around.

Now back to crazy busy situation at work.

The Unfinished Work of Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox

The paper of record, the New York Times, wrote another, pretty in-depth article, about my project The Global Jukebox:

We just pushed a big upgrade to correspond with this article, and as it points out, the jukebox is a work in progress. It started off as a short-term contract gig for me, but I’ve been involved for over a year now. We have another major upgrade slated for the fall, and beyond that, if we can get funding, the scope is open-ended.

Some Summer Fun

I had to cancel my trip to Europe at the last minute because of an injury and I’ve mostly been sitting around the house getting better. Apparently the Origami Creators Conference was a good time. The next interesting international origami conference for me is the BOS and 7OSME in Oxford in 2018, so Imma try to go to that, and maybe take Michelle with me.

Still I’ve been having a bit of fun and trying to make the most of summer so far. Of course I’ve been really busy with work too. Right at the end of June we went to see Sheryl Crow at the Beacon Theatre. Excellent show, great venue with it’s classic maximal art deco. Great sounding band, including several guitar players, and a pedal steel guitar, Rhodes and organ. Surprisingly Sheryl played bass on a lot of songs.

Last weekend we saw McCoy Tyner at Caramoor Art Center. That was really good too, but a very different kind of show. I can’t believe I’ve live in Westchester for years and never seen a show a Carmoor. It’s like a mini SPAC, full of gardens and an amphitheater under an awning. There were three piano players, the last of which as McCoy, all playing an eight foot Steinway, accompanied by a fantastic rhythm section. I’m amazed at how three different players can get such different sounds from the same piano, down to the sound of a single note.