Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Bad Plus

So, the Bad Plus performed tonight in Norman, OK, as part of the annual Jazz in June Festival.

I'm gonna pause a moment and let that sink in, for those of you who need it.

The BAD PLUS. Certifiably, for those of us who like this sort of thing, the most inventive, exciting jazz group working today. One of the only mainstay jazz groups who still take the idea of moving jazz forward seriously, and who will always have a place in my heart because of it.

Watch this if you need an introduction to them:

Okay, so let's talk about this for a minute. This was a free festival, in Norman, OK. Yes, the University of Oklahoma is in Norman, so it's a college town, but this is also a free festival, so it attracted all sorts of folks who don't routinely listen to jazz, and if they do, they DEFINITELY don't listen to anything like the Bad Plus.

I sat on the grass with my friend Kyle and his friend Ben (who I'd also call my friend now, especially after he found $40 in my back seat I didn't know was there), and watched as the spectacle unfolded before me. People milled about, oblivious to the fact that there was even music going on. They talked, they got drunk. All ages of folks, too...there were little girls dancing that couldn't have been more than 4 years old. There were tweens and teens who actually paid attention. There were adults of every generation, even seventy-something couples sitting in their camp chairs and listening. There were ladies in their 50's to the left of the stage dancing to songs that changed meter, tempo and groove multiple times in the space of a minute (and were tonally challenging to boot). I guarantee you, most of these people had never heard anything like this before, and here so many of them were, "finding themselves unable to stop listening", as Kyle put it.

I have two things to say about this. One. It was a phenomenal, phenomenal performance. These guys might be the best musicians I've ever seen play, period. It pretty much comes down to Zappa Plays Zappa and these guys. Their mastery of what they do is unparalleled. All three of them have such a large musical vocabulary that nothing is beyond their reach in terms of their three instruments. They all compose pieces for the group, and all the pieces are flabbergastingly amazing. I feel blessed to be alive while they're performing, because, if there's any justice in the world, their work will live on long, long after they're dead. I hope, one day, I can tell some 20 year old whipper snapper that I got to see them play once.

Two. These guys have saved jazz as an art form. No, I'm not kidding. Once the bebop revolution occurred in jazz, the music ceased to be about the pop charts, or compromise. This was jazz's destiny; to be the first form of art music to emerge since the European classical tradition. Some time in the 70's, jazz became pop music again, and all through the 80's and 90's, many, many jazz players continued to push it in that direction. The Bad Plus came along, however, and decided to make jazz on their own terms, with a vocabulary that included the rock and roll tradition and the songs of its icons (see their covers of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Iron Man", "Heart of Glass", "Tom Sawyer" to name a few), as well as the entire jazz vocabulary of the last century. The result is a music that is uncompromising, beautiful, challenging, and swingin'. It is the logical, true jazz of the 21st century, and tonight, in a park in Norman, Oklahoma, a thousand people heard it and reacted positively. All of us there witnessed a miracle, I'm pretty sure.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Listening to Phish, Making Dr. Pants

So, Phish are on tour again this summer. I will not get to see them...this is the continuing reality of living in Oklahoma, and Phish's staunch refusal to routinely never get anywhere near here. When the rumors of their Halloween festival occurring in Austin started flying around last year, I hardly even allowed myself to get excited, because I knew that it was not bloody likely.

I've downloaded one show from the tour so far, 6/18 from Hartford, CT. Set list is as follows:

Set 1:
Wolfman's Brother
Summer of '89
The Moma Dance

Set 2:
Halley's Comet
Billy Breathes
Theme From the Bottom
Harry Hood
Wading In the Velvet Sea
Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan

Sleeping Monkey
Tweezer Reprise
Tweezer Reprise

No, that's not a typo. They played the same song twice in a row in the encore (it comes from a tradition where if the song "Tweezer" is played, it doesn't get played again during the tour until after "Tweezer Reprise" is played. This time, they played "Tweezer" twice, once on 6/13, and then again in this show, and didn't play a "Tweezer Reprise" in between. So they played two of 'em to catch up). I should say before I go any further, there are moments in this here concert recording that I have really enjoyed, namely "Possum" (surprisingly's not my favorite Phish song by any means and generally is kind of boring, but it had some really great guitar playing on it this time around) and "Harry Hood" (always a beautiful tune...I've loved it since I heard it for the first time on A Live One back in 1995). And how about the crowd singing on "Sleeping Monkey"? That's a good-sounding audience, right there.

I don't think downloading and listening to these shows really holds a candle to being there. Is it way less expensive? Sure. But I think the "warts and all" elements of the performances would be way more forgivable (or even unnoticeable) if I were there in person, rather than listening on headphones. I wonder if there's anything Trey can do to keep his voice in better was my hope that once he cleaned up from his days doing harder drugs that his live vocals would improve. He's not necessarily out of tune (much), but he generally sounds crackly and weak. Maybe his voice just isn't holding up over the long term, and there's nothing that can be done. Overall, though, I think they're playing really well, which is great.

I wonder, though, if my days of utter, wide-eyed fascination with Phish are over, though. I sit and listen to what they do, and I just want to go do it. Let me be clear: I don't want to BE in Phish, or BE Phish, I just want to go do Dr. Pants, and do it well. We won't ever be as skilled as Phish (although certainly we aspire to be better players than we are), and we probably won't ever have a following like them, either. But it's clear to me that there are a lot of moments listening to Phish that make me feel something along the lines of, "I'd sure enjoy playing right now a lot more than I'm enjoying listening." And I don't think this is due to Phish being lousy, or uninteresting, because I still think they're fantastic and worth paying attention to. But I spend a lot of moments making excuses about not taking that moment to work on what I do. And an excuse is just an excuse, nothing more. It's not a reason, or an explanation. The excuse exists because there is no other valid thing to fill its place. So I want to choose to do what I do more, write and record for Dr. Pants more, perform with Dr. Pants more...because we're worth it.

It's a discipline thing. My friend David, who K.C. and I just visited in St. Paul, is back to practicing piano for at least 45 minutes a day every day. I want that discipline. I want to play. I hope to update again soon, and say that I have played. Every day. We'll see.

Monday, June 21, 2010

25 Records That Mean Something to Me, #1

I wanted to do some blogging about some of my favorite records, and 25 seemed like a good number. So here’s the first in a series of 25. I’ll be doing entries about other stuff inbetween as well. I’ll try and keep each one relatively short…wish me luck.

The Cure-Disintegration

I figured I’d start with this one because I just purchased the recently-released 3-disc deluxe edition. I first heard the Cure when I was 14, and the first Cure record I bought was a cassette of “Standing On A Beach-The Singles” (titled “Staring At the Sea” if you purchased the CD version). “Standing” was a pretty good introduction to the band, since it contained every single they’d released up through 1986 or so. It made me a fan to some degree, but I really didn’t learn what it meant to truly love the Cure until I heard “Disintegration”. It had been about 6 or 8 months since my initial purchase, and I had heard just enough of the band’s 1989 opus at a youth group event to get really, REALLY excited about buying it.

This record, to me, is a 70-something minute demonstration of the word “atmosphere”. I think it applies in several different ways, one certainly being that the whole record has a vibe that’s as thick as molasses from start to finish. Also, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s maybe the best rainy day record EVER…when there’s activity in the physical atmosphere, “Disintegration” gives plenty of corresponding atmosphere in the emotional sense. The composition, arranging and production are phenomenal…one of the things that’s always blown my mind about “Disintegration” is how on every song, every time you think they’ve finished adding parts to the mix, some new melody or motif comes in and takes the whole thing up another notch. Some characterize this record (and much of the Cure’s other music) as “depressing”, and I suppose that, emotionally, it’s definitely not an upper, but I think that short changes its value. It may bring you to a melancholy place, but sometimes that’s a place that we all need to go.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thoughts About & Inspired By the Kerrville Folk Festival

The Kerrville Folk Festival is a difficult animal to explain to someone who’s never been. I say this at risk of becoming something I’m not, which is one of those people who elevate an event like Kerrville to some sort of divine status…the people that when you finally cave in and go, they look at you and say, “Yeah, it’s kind of commercial/sold-out now, it’s too bad you never got to come when it was cool.” Mind you, the remarkable thing about Kerrville is that it’s been going strong for 38 years, and anyone who was going to cry “sell-out” probably got that over with quite some time ago. The festival is what it is, and gradually evolves every year in subtle ways that are sometimes difficult to detect but are almost always positive.

So, having said this, I have thoughts about this year’s festival.

I am so grateful for all the great friends I made this year, all the friends I got to see again, and all the songwriters I got to hear (most of which qualify as friends now as well).

I am really grateful for all the inspiration Kerrville gave me this year, both in terms of working on becoming a better songwriter, and a better guitarist/instrumentalist (I have decided that I am going to get my mandolin back out and try to become less of a hack).

I’m happy to see a crop of New Folk (Kerrville’s annual songwriting contest) winners that are truly diverse and enjoyable. I mean, I’m sure this applies every year, but this year I was particularly impressed by the judges’ picks.

I am ready to see things get even more diverse at this festival. The folk world tends to be pretty insular, and I think it’s only going to hurt it in the long run. The music world is changing, though, and it’s going to be interesting how this affects Kerrville and the folk world in general. The younger generation (as in, 40 and under) should not be afraid of shaking things up. Start radio shows/podcasts on the internet. Play “folk” music, but play rock and r&b, too. Devote your shows to “good” music, and not to things that ultimately pay service to “radio formats” that are going the way of the dinosaur.

As I get closer to starting my radio show later this summer, I wonder a lot of things, but I wonder if I can have any impact at all on the folk world that I’ve become a part of through working with K.C. I’d love to see a real revolution in terms of the way music is approached, or at least, the way PRESENTING music is approached, both in a live context and a radio context.

I’m sure this segregating of music worlds is good for some things, and that there are people who get a lot out of it being this way (the house concert movement, for instance, wouldn’t have much momentum if it weren’t for the folk world and its attendant conferences/organizations/festivals. House concerts for rock & roll are completely impractical most of the time. I’d welcome any comments on how rock & roll can reinvent its presentation for the new era…ideas for presenting band-oriented music in contexts that don’t revolve around alcohol sales). Those people may suffer in some capacity if the walls start to break down. Maybe a complete demolition of those walls isn’t necessary, but making them a bit more porous is positive and probably inevitable.

Betty Soo’s mainstage debut at Kerrville this year was a riveting blur of Texas country, rock & roll, and sure, something that could be called folk music. Two Bob Dylan covers didn’t hurt, either. Of course, there are people in the folk world who would rather forget that Dylan ever went electric. It’s bizarre that I’m even writing a blog entry like this when ultimately the first cracks in the walls started appearing in 1965. You’d think, by now, the discussion would be over. But since it’s not, let’s discuss. Please comment, especially if you’re someone who attends Kerrville or Folk Alliance.