May Happenings

Spring continues in fits of rain and storms amidst a nice day here and there.  I’ve been trying to shake off a cold for the last week.  It feels strange having a cold when it’s eighty-five degrees outside.  Now it seems I’m finally mostly better.  I had a good workout today and hope to get back on my bike tomorrow, and get caught up on the yardwork over the next few days.

Still been doing stuff.  Last weekend Jeannie and I took a fun day to go into the city.  We started with a stroll thru Central Park, and it was a lovely day for it, sunny if a bit brisk and breezy.  The main attraction of the afternoon was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I haven’t been to since before the pandemic.  Spent most of our time in the Ancient Greek and Roman collections, as well as the Middle East and Asia, the modern wing, and of course the musical instruments and arms and armor galleries.  Afterwards we crossed thru the park again and had dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant, in part to celebrate Jeannie’s recent promotion at her job!

That evening we saw Kamasi Washington at the Beacon Theater.  He put on a great show.  His sound continues to evolve, now incorporating a DJ and some dancers into his large, sci-fi band.  It’s a great sound with two drummers, a standup bass with effects, piano and synth, trombone, vocalist, and Kamasi’s tenor sax over everything.  Lots of big extended-jam pieces with great rises in energy.  Lots of fun.

Then I was back in the city Thursday and Friday for an onsite for my job, with a bunch of people coming in from out of town including my friend Annmarie from Chicago and Sukhi from D.C..  Thursday night we all went out to dinner and afterwards ended up at the rooftop bar of the Harvard Club (my boss Ginny is an alum) until closing time.  Lots of fun, much more open and enjoyable than your typical work social function.  Sincerely good people.  Or maybe it’s just that since we all mainly work remote, it just feels like a special occasion when we get together.  In any event Friday I gave a demo of my current R&D project, which integrating the Data Rights Protocol into Permission Slip, our privacy app.  Been making good progress and this is a key milestone for wider adoption of the protocol among industry partners.

Friday Lizzy came home for a visit with her boyfriend Josh.  They came up from Philly, where they did a little trip see a ball game and some museums and the zoo.  Saturday her grandparents came up for a visit and we had the first barbecue of the season.  Again it was a bit chilly our, so I made a fire in our firepit, which was very nice. 

The mixing of the Spacecats record is nearly complete, and I must say it sounds quite good.  Gavin came by for a mixing session a couple weeks ago, so I got the benefits of his ears and skills.  Now I’m basically up to final mastering.  The next step is to come up with an album cover, and then I can get CD’s made and get it place on the streaming services.  The band wants to try and do a group picture, but unfortunately some of our our out of town the next few weeks, so it may be a while before we can get that together.  Ah well, I can work on an illustration and  rest of the text and graphics in the meantime.

Spacecats – The Recording Session

I’ve been pretty busy the last month or so, but it’s finally time to tell you about the new album my band Spacecats is making.  It’s far enough along now that you can listen to some rough mixes:

We recording the whole thing, ten songs, in a single day back in March.  The project grew out of a desire to have some samples of our music to use to try and get gigs.  We had been taping our rehearsals, but using just a portable audio recorder with a built-in stereo mic to capture the live sound of the room.  It sounded pretty good, but nothing like a professional record.  The inability to separate the instruments or control their tone and dynamics was limiting.

Our friend Gavin, who sets up our rehearsal space, heard us talking about this, and mentioned that he is trained as an audio engineer and we could use our rehearsal space as a recording studio.  A plan was hatched.

Meanwhile, we’d all be writing songs, and at some point last fall our drummer Rick started bring in more and more material.  Soon we realized we probably had enough songs for a full-length album of original material, if we focused on getting the songs tight.  This took a little time, because once we started, there was alot of work on the details of the arrangements.  Also, the guys in the band kept bringing in new tunes that upped the overall level of the project, so we added them in and dropped some others.  In particular Rick brought in a song that was replete with meter changes following a really interesting but complex pattern.  My kind of weird.

We had originally thought we might be ready to record right after then new year.  But between wanting to get the material tight, people in the group having to take a week off at various times, and the availability of the studio, we couldn’t book a date until mid-March.

Although the rehearsal space, the big room downstairs at Lagond, is not a professional studio in the sense that it lacks a control room, we like it because it’s big and has good acoustics, and most of all it has a really nice grand piano.  It also has a mixer and PA for doing live events, which can be hooked up to a computer easily enough.  The studio also has a deep bench of high-quality microphones.  So we really had everything we need.

Gavin came in early that morning to set everything up.  We decided to do it like a traditional jazz record, everything live in the studio.  The instruments were close-mic’d but not completely isolated, which meant limited options for overdubs later because there’s be some bleed-thru.  So what you hear is the real thing!

The setup was: six mics on the drum (kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom, and left and right overheads for the cymbals and hihat); two mics in the piano for left and right, plus a third just outside for ambiance; direct inject plus a mic on the amp for the bass; and two different mics on the sax, one a large diaphragm condenser and the other a ribbon mic, to capture different tones.  That’s thirteen channels total.  

The session went smoothly.  Everyone was relaxed and playing well, and Gavin was able to capture a good sound without difficulty. Once we got set up and soundchecked, we started running down the set list.  The goal was to get two complete takes of each song.  Sometimes we had a false start or broke down in the middle, so we ended up with some partial takes, or even three complete takes sometimes.  After five songs in about three hours we were getting tired so we took a break for lunch.  We front-loaded the more difficult songs, so after lunch we jammed thru the rest in about two hours.  All in all it couldn’t have gone better.

I brought the tracks home and imported them into protools, and set up a project for each song.  I put each instrument on its own bus since we had multiple channels for all of them, then did a basic setup with some light compression, EQ, reverb and dynamic compression on the master out.

The next step was to go thru and listen closely to everything and decide which takes to use, in some cases editing together the song from several different takes.  Also in this phase I tightened up the timing where it was needed, and pasted over the occasional clam.  I must say overall the group has a really good sense of time and the tempos were very consistent between takes and within a song.  For one song, I dropped in a minute-and-a-half sax solo from another take and did not have to adjust the time at all.  I discovered we sometimes to a slight ritard at the end of someone’s solo or anther turning point in the tune for dramatic effect.

Now I’m at the point where I’m listening again for the mix, to try and get that as good as can be.  In particular I’m paying attention to how the bass sits in the mix, and how to make it present but not to overbearing. 

Here’s the list of songs in the order we recorded them, which is probably not the order they’ll appear on the record.

Kamala – written by Rick our drummer, features a 4-against-6 latin groove that breaks into swing in the bridge, and a thru-composed structure with a break after the piano solo that I call the Zappa section.  I play soprano sax on this one (and tenor on most of the others).

There’s Snow Tomorrow – written by Josh our piano player, a light mid-tempo number in a minor key, with a sort of wistful feel.  When we were coming up with the arrangement, I thought it would be cool to have the sax in a supporting role and the piano mainly carry the melody, since Josh has such a great feel for it and we don’t have any other tunes that do that.

Los Gatos del Cosmos – one of mine.  An uptempo samba in the Hungarian minor mode.  Starts with an atmospheric section inspired by the Police, which reprises in the middle as the foundation for a drum feature section.  Lots of fun to play, lots of dynamic ups and downs.

Paris on the Hudson – written by Rick, this is the one that features lots of shifting time signatures, and a tricky melody and chord progression to match.  I guess you’d call it a swing feel, sometimes waltzing, sometimes in four, sometimes in double time.

Lift Off – another by me, this is an uptempo swing number inspired by John Coltrane’s Countdown, and features a tricky 2-5-lift-inside-a-2-5 as the main motivic idea for both the harmony and the melody.  Also has a drum solo.

Lance’s Guitar – a power ballad by Rick with a beautiful melody and a striking chord progression. 

Pour Me a Fifth – another light mid-tempo number by Josh, this one is 3/4 time and has a minor-key chord progression that moves around the cycle of 5ths alot, and a melody that reinforces that idea.  Ken’s bass playing gets really abstract and melodic on this.  I play soprano.

Autumn Eyes – a ballad of mine, very open and atmospheric sounding.  Features a bass solo.  I play soprano. We later did the one and only overdub on this song, some piano comping behind the bass solo. It’s amazing how well my synthesizer piano patch matched the sound of the grand piano from the studio.

Dr. Pluto – a funk jam, my composition.  We had a few funk and R&B kind of numbers we were rehearsing (indeed our tagline was Jazz and Funk, or maybe it was Jank and Fuzz), but this was the only one that made into the set for the session.  I wrote it with the bass having the melody line, and the sax doing a response.  The title comes from a cool-looking sparkly bass Ken brought to rehearsal once. It said Di Pinto on the headstock, but from a distance I misread it.  Josh plays electric piano on this one.

At a Laundromat in Pamplona – Josh’s composition, basically a samba jam.  This is one of our looser songs, with the whole middle section being just two chords.  Toward the end I do this rising thing that Ken calls the Kamasi section.  Josh plays electric piano on this one too.  A perfect way to end the set.

The Analog Kid

More summer, more busy these days.  The weather has been beautiful.  One night last weekend we built a fire in our fire pit and hung out on the patio and considered what song we might use to break Vecna’s curse.  Last summer I made a playlist of 80 favorite 80’s songs, and now I’m thinking of making a new playlist of 77 favorite 70’s songs for this summer.

I edited up some highlight form the the Spacecats gig.  I’m going to update my web site soon to feature of few of the best ones, but for now, you can see the whole set here:

I got out for a bike ride five days last week.  I mostly go around our neighborhood, which is kinda hilly and some streets have alot of cars. Sometimes to a local place called Nature Study Woods, which is mountain biking trails, and not particularly well maintained.  The steep parts tend to be washed out and stony, and the low spots muddy.  Also I tend to go on fairly short rides – a half hour to an hour, and usually go as fast as possible.  

All in all Jeannie doesn’t enjoy this style of riding, but we wanted to start doing some biking together.

So on Sunday Jeannie took our bikes out to Jones Beach and biked along the scenic Ocean Parkway Coastal Greenway.  It’s a great bike path, smooth and flat, that runs the length of the island, out from the main beach, through as series of smaller beaches, saltwater wildlife refuges, and the occasional marina, restaurant or bar.  We went out a little over seven miles then turned around, for a total of fifteen miles or so.  On the way back there was a pretty consistent headwind, but it was a very doable and fun ride.   We had a lunch of ice cream and clam strips, then went out to the beach, but it was too cold for swimming.  The water was unusually calm and there were lots of seashells.  Also tons of giant container ships out at see, queued up to get into New York harbor, like I’ve never seen before.  There’s usually maybe two or three, but this time there was over a dozen.

I also got the mustang on the road over the weekend, and continued with the yardwork.  This time is was doing the edging on the driveway and front walk.  Still to go is the walk around the back of the house, and the patio.  It seems everything has grown in quite alot this spring, and needs an extra level of cutting back.  Also I’ve never seen so many bunny rabbits and chipmunks in our neighborhood, nor heard so many songbirds.

Lastly, I’m continuing with doing origami and preparing for the convention, which starts this Friday.  My two dodecahedron star balls are nearly complete, but it’s taking some work to finish them.  They’re single-sheet polyhedra, a very advance form of origami, and closing off and locking the bottom where the edges come together is a nontrivial design challenge.  I’ve also been experimenting with a new design called the Space Cat, a variation on my Sophie the Cat, with a midcentury modern look and proportions.  Hopefully will get there and have a few new pieces for my exhibit.

Meanwhile, I’m teaching a couple classes, and agreed to pre-record them for people who are attending the convention remotely.  This process grew out of last year’s online-only convention, in which all classes were taught live as Zoom calls.  This year we’re recording Zoom sessions, with a camera pointing down at the work as it’s being folded.  I kind of view this a run-thru, a rehearsal for the real class, and good opportunity to make sure I know the model and can teach it.  My first class, Sophie the Cat, went off without a hitch, totally great.  For my second class my Five-Banded Armadillo, I somehow skipped a stepped and messed of the proportions of the bands, which are created by pleating.  I realized my mistake after I did the collapse and it was too late to undo, so I had to just roll with it and adjust the proportions as I finished the model. All in all it still turned out in the end, and I’m sure to get it right in the actual class.

I Hear a Rhapsody

Well, Spacecats had our first gig Saturday night, at the Alternative Medicine Brewing Company in Mount Vernon.  It went really well.  The band sounded great.  The crowd dug us, and the owner wants to have us back, and is talking about putting together a regular jazz night.

The room itself is pretty big, although half of it, behind the band, is where they brew the beer, and the other half, out in front is the bar.  So the acoustics were good, with a large, boomy reverb.  The bar provided a PA, which was very nice and saved us alot of trouble hauling and setting up our own.

We did a combination of jazz and funk, standards, originals, and interpretations of rock and pop songs.  I was definitely happy with my playing, and the sound of the group, and everything musically. We really came together as a band, focused and leveled up the last few weeks.

We played two sets of just about an hour each.  Here’s the set list.

  1. Buzzy Blue (Szinger)           
  2. All the Things You Are
  3. Mister Magic
  4. Heavy Skies (Szinger)    
  5. I Hear a Rhapsody
  6. Walking on the Moon
  7. Pour Me a Fifth (Duetchman)
  8. Some Skunk Funk
  9. Peg
  1. Dr. Pluto (Szinger)                        
  2. Sunny
  3. Minority
  4. Atonement Blues (Szinger)           
  5. Havona
  6. Dolphin Dance
  7. Lift Off (Szinger)
  8. Cape Verdean Blues
  9. You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Till You Know What You Want)

Some of these originals I played in previous bands, altough the arrangement and sound have been updated.  Dr. Pluto is all-new, a funk jam written for this group based around a bluesy bass line, which Ken plays with a wah-wah effect.  Pour Me a Fifth is also new, a jazz waltz by our piano player Josh.

Watch this space for audio and video clips from the show, coming soon.

In other news, I finally finished trimming the hedges over the weekend.  All in all it took five sessions over three weekends.  This last one was all up on the ladder, including getting low-hanging boughs from the neighbor’s willow tree.  Now we’re done for a while, but next it’s on to weeding and edging.

And, it’s origami crunch time.  I’m trying to finish a few original models before the convention.  This week it’s dodecahedron star balls.  Watch this space for pics, coming soon.