Saturday, August 23, 2008

MIA

Well, I guess my blog has gotten a little bit of notoriety among a select few, and when I don't write for a few days, they get a little cranky. Sorry about that- been kind of a busy week. I did a session yesterday where this blog actually came up in conversation. Apparently, my client had been reading it, and made mention of my "adapt and overcome" post of a few days ago. In bringing this up, it made me realize that I might need to clarify what I mean about being able to roll with the punches, musically.

Being that I am a bassist, I'm a big fan of Jaco Pastorius. It has little to do with his undeniable chops and facility, and has everything to do with his musicality. I've been playing bass longer than Jaco was alive, and while I can play a majority of what he played, I don't have his heart. I lack the personal experiences that drove him to do what he did the way he did it, so all I can really hope for is to try and interpret what he did through the filter of my own experiences. With that, I can lend my voice to the instrument, and maybe come up with some cool things along the way.

The way that this happens is for me to constantly strive for excellence. Again- excellence is not being able to play a million miles an hour and have all these unending riffs that I just cobble together for the sake of being able to play "well". Excellence is being able to hear things and have the facility to pull them off, no matter what the style of music is. Sometimes I hit the mark, and sometimes I don't- I think I hit somewhere in the neighborhood of about 55%, depending on the day. Also, being that everything I play, I play for God, it's doubly important that I put my best foot forward, all the time, every time. As I get older and wiser, I find that I have less and less time to put up with people who don't see it that way.

I don't expect that everyone who picks up a guitar to be Pat Metheny, or every keyboard player to be McCoy Tyner. I don't expect that everyone will have my overarching, somewhat obsessive need to push themselves- but I do expect that everyone will at least try. Nothing makes me more angry than the statement of "Well, they aren't a great player, but they have a great heart" with respect to giving them a pass on learning their instrument and being able to perform well.

A slight tangent- I've been party to the old "playing worship has nothing to do with performance" conversations. In a word, that sentiment is CRAP. You simply cannot have a musical experience without performance, period. And, that extends to playing worship music, as well as anything secular or any point in between. Everytime I hear someone make this hair-brained statement, I'm struck by the mediocrity that goes with it. It's like demanding excellence is an insult, and those of us who make the attempt at trying to excel are doing so with pride- I suppose that for some, that could be true- but I'd ask those that who really think that to see if they really know what goes on with those things that seem like worship vs. performance at all levels. Do you really think that bands like Mercy Me don't have the very best people running sound and lights, let alone play the instruments? Come on, folks- it's all the same thing.

It's the above statement and the lack of drive by some Christian musicians and church staff members I know that have put the state of "spritual music" where it is today. They're afraid. They're lazy. They don't have a clue. For centuries, the church has led the way in the arts- from Michelangelo to Degas and Bach to Handel, art began as a means to worship. J.S. Bach wrote in the footer of every page of every Brandenburg Concerto that the piece was to the glory of God Almighty. Michelangelo and Vermeer were hired as artists in residence for various large churches in Europe, and created pieces of art that are transcendant to this very day.

Somewhere, we've lost our way. I wish I knew why that was- I think a little of it comes from some folks penchant for overstating and misusing the "causing their brother to stumble" verse in Romans 14. "Stumble" isn't "offend" or "challenge"- it's an obstacle that one places in the way that causes another to fall into sin. God holds us accountable for our brother, and I submit that if all we do is place obstacles in our brother's way that forces him/her into a state of unwarranted and inescapable mediocrity, THAT is more of a stumbling block than if I can play well. Ever think of it that way?

So, what's the point of being able to play well? What's the point of having facility that allows you to twist and turn on a dime? It's simple- to inspire. That's it. That's all. I am truly blessed to know that I have inspired a few folks along the way in my mere musical meanderings, and in turn, I expect those that I inspire to do the same. If someone's desire to be better truly gets in the way of their walk with God, then that is a different thing altogether- and natural selection can and does take over and those people are eventually shown for what they are. In the meantime, I exhort you to listen to things with the idea of making them your own and exploring your heart to see what kind of voice you can add to the instrument that you express yourself with, be it a bass, a guitar, a paintbrush or a voice.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Weird Weather

Not much to add today- got a gig in Lake Stevens tomorrow; session after that. Sunday morning at church; a session in the afternoon and a gig Sunday night with Dustin Blatnik...... busy, busy, busy.

The big news- the weather in Seattle. Earlier this week, cool and rainy. Then, on Wednesday, it's 90; 92 yesterday; 94 tomorrow- and then- Sunday- it's supposed to be 80. By Wednesday next week, we're supposed to be in the mid 60's and raining again.

Hey- if you like climate changes, Seattle is the place for you. Don't like the weather- wait 20 minutes and it will change.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I'll buy that for a dollar

Nothing musical related this time, but terribly funny nonetheless.

If you're like me (and, by virtue of the fact that you're reading a blog, you probably are) you get inundated with spam. Personally, I take great comfort in the fact that so many people I don't even know have such a desire to help me with my sex life. Recently, however, I've been getting new spam that says it's from CNN Alerts or MSNBC Breaking News, and the headlines are just hilarious! Do people actually click those links? Is anyone really that stupid?

Here's a couple of the ones that have just cracked me up lately:

  • Madonna's Former Home Destroyed By Jesus
  • Switzerland To Be Devoured By Black Hole
  • Barack Obama Can Fly Through The Air Like That Guy On Heroes
  • 3 Die In Bus Accident In Antarctica
You have got to be kidding.........

Monday, August 11, 2008

Buckle Up

An interesting gig on Friday nite last. My band, "The Jazz Collective", has a regular thing at Alligator Soul in Everett (we're there next on 8/20) and a couple of weeks ago, someone who works at Arthur Murray Dance School in Everett came to the show and just fell in love with the band. (Small wonder- it's a fantastic band in spite of me) They talked to our sax player, Chuck, and asked him if we'd be interested in playing their summer party on 08/08/08. Chuck of course, upon finding out that it paid well of course said, "yes!" and then set about finding out what kind of music they wanted. They said, "the stuff we're hearing tonight would be great", so this should be easy, right?

Here's the background tho- my band doesn't do dance music. We're doing things like Weather Report, Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock and a bunch of original tunes, but unless you're into things like the Ethopian Dance Of The Anteater, you're gonna have some trouble. Chuck tells me who the venue is for, and I'm instantly thinking that this is gonna end up being a problem. Chuck says he'll handle it, and I know for a fact that he verified at least twice what our repetoire is gonna be.

We get to the gig, and we're approached by someone in management. Guess what- they want dance music so that they can......gasp....... dance. Latin stuff mainly, but they also want a bunch of swing numbers. Now, it's not that we can't, but we're only 5 dudes, so it'll be difficult to pull off the big band numbers.

Quickly, we retire to the Chinese restaraunt next door, and commence to pouring over our books. We end up pulling things like "A Train", "Desifinado", "All The Things You Are" and "Wave". We can make this work- after all, we're pros.

We slayed 'em, too. They were ecstatic and asked us back, which we will of course do.

Point is that we had to adjust and overcome. "Overcome and adapt" is how Clint Eastwood put it in that movie, "Heartbreak Ridge". There just isn't a quick way to be able to do that. It requires commitment and practice, and pledging oneself to furthering their art. How many times have you been on a gig and had to make a change? No, it isn't possible always, but you have to be willing. Sometimes it's following a singer that forgets the 4-bar interlude between the first chorus and the second verse, and sometimes it's just adapting feel. It requires ears to listen and a heart to bringing joy, the latter of which is something that a lot of musicians forget is the reason they do what they do. (Guilty as charged here, your Honor.)

Next time you're on a stage- be it a gig or at church or whatever- and a curve ball like that gets thrown and you don't make it, ask yourself why you couldn't, and ask it in such a way that you don't cast the blame outside of yourself. You should be able to do it.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ouch

Later evening gig than I would have liked last night and a really nifty migraine today, so no post- except that I did get my beloved '62 Precision copy back today after a long absence. Probably gonna play it tomorrow.........

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lift and Separate

I've now got two active projects in the studio right now, and it looks like I've got a third "short run" project of 3-4 tunes to put drums on for a new friend along with another EP/album for someone I've produced before twice, and now the distinct possibility of one of "those" projects coming up, too.

What's one of "those" projects, you ask?

As a session player/freelance producer, not all the projects you do are ones you're 1,000% wild about doing. Don't get me wrong- I'm really honored that anyone even still asks me to participate at this level (I'm overweight, balding and middle aged....) and I honestly make the attempt at offering the very best effort I have no matter how much investment I have in a project. It's just that "those" projects that make it all worthwhile.

For the last 6 months or so, I've been playing with a guitarist here in Seattle that just makes my head spin. I am truly blessed to know quite a few really good guitarists, and even more blessed to know a lot of really fine musicians, but this guy- there's something here that I haven't seen in a long, long time. Yeah, he can flat out play - imagine Robben Ford crossed with John Mayer and a little Hendrix and Clapton for spice - and he can sing - but it's more than that. This guy is
pretty young (28) and he has his head on.......gulp.....straight. No delusions of grandeur, and he wants to work to earn it, too. The group is a 3 piece power blues thing that basically came together after all 3 of us had done a few sessions together and thought "hey- why not?" -
after all, that's how Toto did it after playing with Boz Skaggs, right? (Boy, did that ever work.) We did a couple of rehearsal recordings at my place, and they turned out pretty good, but what was really interesting about them was the vibe of them- that was REALLY good. Now, he wants me to work on the new CD, and I can tell you right now- this thing is gonna SLAM.

So, why am I posting this? What's this got to do with the other pseudo-expository statements I've been making over the last 3 days? Well, I'll tell ya- the new guy is also a Christian. The tunes have a decidedly spiritual bent to them (think Los Lonely Boys meets John Mayer and Justin Timberlake groove) but the keys to what the new guy wants is ..... I can hardly believe it........ready? Here goes:
Simplicity and musical integrity.
Real guys writing real tunes and playing real instruments. Stuff that matters. And, before we record anything, he wants to work out roles, schedule, credits and pay and leave nothing to chance. How refreshing is that?

This is precisely what is missing from today's music, especially in the Christian arena. A work ethic and a vision of the bigger picture where the little things are concerned. Too often, the music business is about laziness and plagiarism; take a little from here and a little from there, and throw it through Alsihad and make it into something that lasts all of 10 minutes on the grand scheme of all things artistic. Everytime the industry foists these "artists" who know nothing outside of a barre chord and a couple dance steps on us, artistic quality and ability are diminished exponentially.

Maybe.....just maybe......if enough people stand up and say "enough", we could change the industry and compel a little quality. Or, are you too busy buying Paris Hilton's new album to care?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Context is Everything

OK, I'll admit that The Saga of WJ is a weird way to open a blog. Some may read this as a first post and think, "holy cow- does this guy have an axe to grind or what?" - not true. There is context to this, and perhaps it would be somewhat valuable to hear that.

The quality of the state of music today is kind of a hot button for me these days - why can't anyone write a song anymore? Other friends of mine point to the advent of bands like Nirvana for "dumbing it down" for all of us, but yet, bands like The Ramones were around much longer ago, and their songs are hardly difficult or heady. Being that the bulk of the recorded music that I do is "Christian" in nature (and I like it that way) there is a spate of Christian music that is just......what's the word I want........derivative. Pedestrian. Dreck.

Seems like today, someone who has knowledge over this process is viewed as a threat. What's worse is the fact that apparently, heart is all you need (and the prerequisite number of mentionings of "Jesus") and you're valid. Not so. Folks seem to forget that the only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary. The Bible tells us that players in the temple had to be schooled for years in order to participate, and now, hey- you want to play? You have a heart for worship? Good enough for us!!! Come on up! Your in! Audition? No way........we can't offend anyone....

So, even though I left WJ's employ some time ago, I guess I'm a little raw still. The bulk of my session work is the Christian version of "good enough" or has a sentiment that if I'm paid, it somehow flies in the face of all things ministries, and through all of that, people like WJ go on and actually find validity. And, who suffers? We do, as listeners.

I want to make a difference. I want to glorify God. I want to make sure that the things I do, I do in such a way that they express the tiniest amount of perfection I can hope to contrast against the absolute perfection that God offers us all freely through relationship with Jesus. To do less is to disservice. To settle accomplishes nothing, and sets the bar lower and lower until there's nothing of any validity to offer. To sublimate the actual task of learning a craft and then perfecting it in favor of "God put it on my heart" does nothing to build God or God's presence in anybody's life.

So, I ask you- why is that a wrong thing to think?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Saga of WJ

I need to be careful. Before I tell this story, I need to make you all understand that, while this story is mildly funny, there is a very serious undertone that is the old statement that "all things are possible, but not all things are profitable". And, I am changing names here to protect the innocent.

Way back in 2003, I was contacted by a guitarist friend, "LV", to play a recording session for an artist named "WJ". LV warns me that this will be one of the weirder sessions that I've ever done, and LV knows that in 25+ years of playing for hire, I've pretty much done it all, so this is a statement not to be taken lightly. The session will be done in a fairly well-known studio in Seattle- a studio not to be named here.

I arrive at the studio and meet up with LV, who introduces me to drummer/percussionist "BM" and to WJ (more on that in just a second). Now, BM and I have played on quite a few album projects over the years, but we've never actually met face-to-face - a quandry that a lot of session players find themselves in from time to time. BM and LV have been playing for WJ for a bit now, and they get me alone before the session starts and tell me, "Dude- we're gonna need help on this one. WJ is seriously not-in-the-know on process. There's no charts, and you can't ear it out." Both LV and BM are seasoned players, and they're demeanor suggests that this one is not gonna be fun.

I meet WJ. WJ is about 45-47 or so, blonde and - well, my personal radar goes off and says she's on something- like drugs. Like.....I don't want to guess, and I don't care. This pays. WJ informs me that about a year before this session, she was sitting in church, and God told her that she was supposed to record an album, even though she'd never written a song in her life. God also led her to LV, who had in turn gotten ahold of BM, and another bassist- but the other bassist couldn't handle her material. (I'm thinking- cool! What is it? 12-tone avant-garde? Acid Jazz?) Things are about to get a whole lot more interesting.

So, we get started with the engineer we'll call "ED". ED is knowledgeable, fast, and he owns the studio, so we're good to go. We're gonna track piano (WJ) with a scratch vocal (WJ) and LV on guitar (from another room) and BM on drums in the drum room. I'm playing mainly electric, but I'm in a gobo'd section of the performance room because I'm also playing acoustic upright on a couple of "jazz" numbers. And, we commence to running the first tune.......and we have a MAJOR problem.

WJ tunes aren't just terrible- they're almost psychotically bad. There's no charts, because there's no form. There's a tonal center, but the chords have absolutely no diatonic quality to them whatsoever- and, hey- I like King Crimson and Ornette Coleman, so I'm not really needing any of that- but this is WEIRD. The changes modulate over a completely random set of changes, with a "melody" that has no inflection and doesn't reflect any type of structure. And, even better, every time she "plays" it's different- VASTLY different. Whole phrases and "passages" just appear and then disappear. Not fun.....and charting anything is going to be a nightmare. So, I basically throw my hat in the ring to start writing scratch charts with extremely dumbed down extensions- C, F#m, Bb7, a bar of 6 with Fmin9 - and, yeah, that's what the changes actually look like. We spend a total of 8 hours on the first session, and knock out 6 "tunes" while racing outside in breaks to play basketball in the parking lot and comiserate with LV, BM and ED, while WJ and her other vocalist, "W" eat copious amounts of the food they've brought in. Now, understand here that WJ is unemployed and is using her life's savings to foment the creation of what BM referred to as "Porgy And Bess Meet Jesus", and this studio time ain't exactly cheap. Nor are the players. I'm making about $1K for each of these sessions.........and so is every player. You can just imagine the price of this thing.

Some high/low lights:

  1. Telling WJ to play with her left hand behind her back so that I can actually play a bass part that doesn't collide with the random psuedo-tonic changes.
  2. Trying to get my head around the improvised hand-bell choir solos in one of her "jazz" tunes. (No. I am not kidding.)
  3. Trying to explain key centers and motifs to the person who wrote the songs in the first place. (And why these things are necessary)
  4. Watching a white woman attempt to "rap" while I and the other players jam on a spur of the moment set of changes. (And, she's paying for the studio time to do this)
I did a total of 5 sessions for WJ, totalling somewhere near 25 tunes over a span of about a year or so. After the first session, LV disappeared and was replaced by my good friend, guitarist "BA"- who I told that he really should make sure that he somehow lets WJ know that he's spoken for, relationship wise- which he didn't do- and was promptly hit upon by WJ for dating purposes. (Not gonna go into the gory details of that one)

So, here's what I'm getting at- at the end of session 5, I had a phone and email conversation with WJ to talk to her about her songwriting. Now, normally, being that I am a musical whore, I don't get involved in trying to make someone "follow the rules" of songwriting - setups, hooks, motifs, form, changes, etc.- but these tunes were so bad that I just had to do something. I inquired about her influences, to which she replied with something like "God", and I told her that to be a good songwriter necessitates being a good listener first and foremost, and gave her a list of 3 records to listen to: Carole King's "Tapestries", James Taylor's 1993 live album and Joni Mitchell's "Hejira". I explained to her that if you listen to these things critically, you can't help but pick up the rules (and I forwarned her that Joni Michell was a tad heady) and her reply was something like this:

"God has told me to do this, and He didn't tell me to do it by the rules. If he laid it on my heart, it's right to do it this way."

At this point, I was faced with a rather nasty quandry. Do I continue to whore myself for the money (which was very good) or do I try to educate? Do I discourage this because it is a frivilous expenditure being made by a very nice woman who hasn't a clue or the means to support herself and risk incurring the "wrath of the God who told me to do this", or do I bolt? I honestly don't know what to do. My professionalism and integrity being paramount, it doesn't seem like there is any way out of this, and what's more, when I try to extricate myself because I'm busy with other projects, she elects to move the scheduling of sessions around my schedule. Looks like I'm in- and now, after session 5, she wants to switch studios to a very good friend of mine's studio- someone I do a LOT of work for - and I know full well that the well of funds is rapidly drying up and my friend is gonna lose his shirt on this deal. Finally, to top it off, I've told session player buddies about this project, and we're all making fun of her, and so is everyone around her- and she doesn't know it. I'm really left with only one thing to do, and that is to be brutally honest with her and tell her I can't go on with the project, no matter what the cost. Karma be damned- this isn't good.

So, I call her and I tell her that I won't be continuing on. And, I tell her that I don't think she should, either, because quite frankly, she has no ability or talent. Her songs are terrible, she can't sing, she is a horrible piano player, and I hate telling her this way, but I would be doing her a disservice by molly-coddling her any further. I don't want your money, and I really don't think that God is in this project. Simply and bluntly, heart does not equal ability, and it requires a lot of introspection and musical familiarity to be able to do something that is pleasing to God, and she is wasting her money. I will not be a part of this anymore, and I will wish her well, and there's no hard feelings. Please don't call me.

Probably needless to say, she didn't take it well, and she continued recording. She updated me on her progress, and told me that it seems like the new players she'd gotten don't "get her" like I did (not sure how to take that) but she was trudging on, because God wanted her to do this. Her friends kept telling her that her heart was all that mattered.

I truly believe that WJ's project(s) are a heightened microcosm of what is wrong with the church today where music and performance is concerned. We're commanded by God to always put our best foot forward for Him, and, hypocritically, the church suggests that as long as you claim God in some form in whatever it is that you do, that God is in it. I say that is BS at the core, and the testimony to that is this very story- and many, many others.

WJ now has a web site where she has proferred her rough mixes. They aren't good- in fact, they're just awful. There's nothing I or anyone can do about it, and I will not link to it from here. All I ask is that if you read this, you become aware and steeled against all things mediocre and try to make a difference in whatever sphere of influence you have.