And If The Band You’re In Starts Playing Different Tunes

My new music project with Erik appears to be coming together nicely. We had our first “regular” rehearsal this weekend, now that school’s back in session and all. We got together a few times over the summer, but what with vacations and all it was only once a month for July and August, and once before in September. Still the sessions have been really productive and we have one set of material ready to play and another set on the way.

For me it’s been a rather intense personal journey just to get this far. I’d played in bands from 10th grade up to the time Lizzy was born, and over that time been in many of musical groups that did quite a broad variety of music. I mainly played saxophone, but also did a good bit of piano, synthesizers, vocals and even some guitar. I bought an upright piano when Lizzy was a baby with the idea of getting really good at jazz piano. Well I got pretty far but I’ll never be an Art Tatum. My focus on piano was stride, some modern jazz, Monk and Keith Emerson. I also did a good amount of rock and pop, but in general I’d get bored with that kind of song once I’d learned it. Plus its hard to find good songs that come across on piano. One of the reasons I took up guitar was to sing over it. Over time my piano playing got to be more and more instrumental, although important exception has been my songwriting.

It’s been a few years since I’ve played live in group, so it’s been a process getting up to speed again. The format is a duo to start with, with me on piano and Erik on guitar, and the two of us sharing the vocals. The intent of adding a rhythm section somewhere down the line. I’ve been going thru a lot of tunes on my own, getting them worked up to point where it’d be worth bringing them to the group. The material mainly classic rock, (formerly known just as rock), with a bit of prog and R&B thrown in. We both have broad and largely overlapping taste, and we both know tons of songs. And of course the blues is the root that everything from rock to jazz to R&B rests upon, so anything bluesy pretty much works.

We both love The Beatles and Steely Dan, and could put conceivably put together a night of entertainment with a set of each. But for now we’re limiting ourselves to two songs per group and working up a variety of material. In general we’re looking for songs we can perform with a strong, tight delivery as opposed to just jammin’. I’ve made it a rule to pick songs under five minutes. Of course, once you have the material down it opens the door to stretching out.

One important function of picking covers is to give the musicians and the audience a context in which to develop and hear the originals. I have tons original songs, three of which I’ve begun teaching Erik, and he’s showed me one of his so far. Getting a whole set of originals down is an important goal.

The process of working up all these covers has led to me getting systematic about what works for me in a live setting. I’d gotten used to layering things in the studio, and doing multiple takes. One reason I wanted start a band was to get back in the habit of performing songs all the way thru from start to finish, which is the way I used to write. Now I’ve started doing vocal warmups when I practice, and paying attention to where the notes I’m singing fall on the keyboard. Those two things have already made a big difference.

It took me years to develop right/left hand independence on piano. Now playing and singing live, I’m essentially doing three things at once. Since there’s no bass player, I’m holding down the bottom with my left hand. Even a fairly basic song is alot of work if you really want to nail it. Not all songs are in my vocal range or fit my style, even if I can play them, and not all songs can be sung and played at the same time.

And thru this I’ve changed my whole piano style the last few months. There’s been lots of rhythmic and melodic work in the left hand and a focus on rock-solid timing and groove, basically taking on the bass role. The right hand is seeing a return to simpler, often triadic harmonies after years of exploring out-there voicings and chords. I’m not abandoning what I was working on, just tempering it, bringing it back home a bit and integrating it into a broader style. My soloing has changed too. As a sax player who studied Charlie Parker and idolized John Coltrane, my approach to soloing has always incorporated the bebopish idea of slaloming thru the changes in a stream of 8th or 16th notes. Later, in the 90’s when I played in funk and R&B groups my approach became much more focused on rhythm and riffs. Now on piano, my soloing tends to be more melodic, and I don’t worry about speed. Rock and pop solos usually take you from point A to point B are only 8 or 16 bars.

This last rehearsal was a bit different. Erik invited his friend Joe to sit in on bass. Erik decided to play drums instead of guitar so there was a full rhythm section. The format was an ELP-esque power trio. I should mention that my sound is a Fender Rhodes, and I’ve been using my new digital stage piano which has been working out great. After I years of working with synthesizers and electronic music, I want to focus on playing rather than monkey with sound, and Rhodes fits my playing style and concept for the music. Anyway, with a rhythm section I was freed from holding down the bottom, although all the left hand work I did contributed to a strong and powerful groove. But I was suddenly responsible for all the chords and melody aspects too! It was good fun and worked really well. Of course Erik was still singing his parts. At this point I’m singing lead on most of the songs, although we have a few songs that have basically a dual lead vocal and some where I sing harmony.

One new song I brought in was the Rush classic Subdivisions. Not having practiced it before, neither of those guys could keep up with all the meter changes, but it was okay cuz I’d worked out a solo piano version, having prepared for no rhythm section. Erik has suggested we each do a few tunes solo so get a second set together faster, and this is one that should go in my solo bucket.

One highlight of the jam was “Cheap Sunglasses”, which we’d played before, and I was delighted to find works just fine with no guitar. When we got to the coda, Erik and Joe wanted to play out that groove for a while, so ended up taking a long and completely spontaneous solo, which started with some fairly in-the-zone blues riffs, then kinda evolved into more freestyle jazz, which in turn got pretty abstract, angular and dissonant and eventually morphed into a kinda prog space thing. This in turn led to a more rhythmically oriented funky thing, which brought me full circle back to the blues.

Watch this space as we start shaping up to play our fist gigs.

Livin’ on Spongecake

Yeah I’ve remained lazy about updating my blog. But I’ve been on vacation, enjoying time in the real world away from the screen. And then yesterday was the first day of school for the kids. How quickly the vibe changes from relaxing to demanding. So here’s a LIFO recap for all y’all.

The good news is the kids think the new school is great. Jeannie for some reason has was really uptight and upset about the whole thing.

And of course the return of the usual pressure from work. Put up a new release of or app today. Completed lots of refactoring to smooth the road forward. The boss always wants me to get more done in less time while making my code look more deeply thought out despite the time pressure.

Before that, on the weekend between our vacation and the return to the world of working for the man, I finally organized my studio and cleaned up the garage, so those jobs got crossed off my summer todo list before the start of fall. I took apart my old lawnmower and put the engine in storage, added to the collection of future robot parts.

Before that we got back from a road trip to Washington DC and Ocean City. It was a great time. In DC we visited John Montroll and he and I had some good origami time. He has some great new models, and I showed him my work-in-progress book, which he wants to help me get published. I’m up to sixteen models diagrammed and formatted for the print page.

We also went to a few of the Smithsonians. The museum of American History, where we saw Eddie Van Halen’s (heavily modified Strat) guitar, Bill Clinton’s (completely unmodified, not even a rubber band to stand in for a bad spring, Conn) saxophone, and Farrah Fawcett’s (I have no idea) orange swimsuit and Catwoman’s original Catwoman costume, among other attractions.

The National Museum of Natural History is much smaller than the NYC counterpart, but the exhibits are more focused and less run-down. Better lighting and signage mainly; the taxidermy and rocks are pretty much the same. There’s a major Hall of Skeletons that goes on and on, going from every order of mammals thru birds and down to reptiles. Plus all the usual taxodermy and minerals, and a bit of outer space, and a focus on Elephants. Couldn’t do the mall without visiting the Air and Space museum, with Wright and Curtis fliers, and spaceships that have been to the moon and back. At this point it feels like America’s former glory. Saw an awesome newsreel of Teddy Roosevelt flying a Wright Bros. plane

Also toured the Capital. It’s changed alot since we were kids and you could circumnavigate the place running up and down all the steps. Now all the step are guarded like Grand Central Station by Homeland Security cops with dour faces and machine guns. To take the tour you have to go in thru this new underground compound on the East side, and then after a movie you’re shuttled up thru some escalators to the Rotunda. The tour guide was friendly and knowledgeable, and there was alot to learn about the paintings and friezes in the rotunda. The painting of Balboa was unrealistic, since he was supposed to be 24 years old but had a beard like a 12th level Dwarven warrior.

We also saw the Canadian Embassy. We took the train in to DC to avoid parking hassles. When I visited D.C. as a kid my Dad parked at the Capital in the space reserved for our NY representative, uh, claiming he was representing New York. Well that’s no longer possible without suffering severe tire damage or worse.

The last three day of the trip were spent on the beach and in the hot tub and in the water park and at Asseteague National Seashore. The waves were pretty intense, which made for good body surfing and boogie boarding, but it took alot of energy just to get out past the breakers. You got pretty beat up or at least thrown around every time, so you could only stay in the ocean an hour or so. The rest of that stint was total relaxation, boardwalk, and yummy seafood dinners. Scallops and crabs. This has gotten to be a habit with us. 5th year in a row I think for Labor day. Just so awesome. The days go by too fast. You should consider joining us one year.

Before that, rewinding a week and a half now, was the hurricane. Lots and lots of wind and rain. Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel was broadcasting from NYC, which was enough to fill us with dread. Luckily in the end we were unharmed, although we lit out for our vacation a day and half late because we needed to ride the storm out and then clean up the yard and clear the street. We had been planning on going to colonial Williamsburg and Busch gardens, but ended up punting on all that b/c in VA they lost power and didn’t know when it would come back on.

The main storm was Saturday night, and I stayed up late listening to the wind howl, but we all went to bed not knowing the end of the story. Sunday morning it was pretty calm and we went for a walk down to the creek, which had overflowed its banks and flooded the adjacent street. Sunday afternoon we got heavy wind from the backside of the hurricane. It downed a tree across the street from us, the last of a stand that have fallen in storms the last five years or so. Luckily for us it fell away from our house. Unluckily for our neighbors across the street, it took out their power line and they didn’t get it back for five days.

In other news, Lou came home from the hospital the Friday before the storm. He’s basically okay and glad to be home, but there’s some major lifestyle adjustments, particularly around diet. He has to eat soft foods for a while, and ease his way back into normal food. Heaven knows when he’ll be able to have a drink. When the storm hit, their whole neighborhood lost power, but their house didn’t flood. Denis and Sylvia took KVAP for a few days and brought over ice and food daily, so Lou could get some rest and Mary could deal with the emergency. The power came back on sometime when we were away, and things are more-or-less back to normal now. KVAP started school today and Lou is home convalescing for a few more weeks at least. Luckily (for 21st century America) his health insurance covered everything and he can take as long as he needs to get back to work and his job will be there for him. Still the situation sounds pretty rough.

In other other news, my friend Olga from work had her house pretty much destroyed by the hurricane. She lives in central New Jersey, on a bit of county-ish land by a creek, kinda like Martin’s old place. A few years ago the dam upstream failed, and she has been involved in a lawsuit against her town, which declined to rebuild it. This last storm her whole house flooded on the lower floor, plus her cars were destroyed, and she was stranded in the top floor of her house for most of a week without power, until the flood receded. Bad situation. Not sure if her kids made it to the first day of school. Not clear when she’ll be back to work; she was out the whole week. So I’m basically picking up her work for now on top of my own.

Ah well such is life.