The Art of Now

In January 2011, Camp Creek Records and the Mt. Tabor Theater rang in the new year by launching a brand new spin on “Jam Night.”  Each Tuesday this month, The Family Funktion assembled 3 diverse lineups of local jammers for an evening of 100% improvisational music. The spirit of spontaneous creation of art carries over into other media, as video and digital art is projected on the walls while dancers, painters and rappers become part of a masterpiece of the moment. 

Taylor Schwartz draws inspiration from the music to create this digital wall art

There is no charge for admission, but folks are encouraged to make a donation to  a local charity. January’s beneficiary was the Community Warehouse, a local non-profit that provides necessities to needy families in Portland. At the January 25th event, a raffle of jewelry and glass prizes from local artisans also benefitted the organization. Each week has attracted a sizeable crowd for a Tuesday night, even the second week, when ice storms threatened to make the roads treacherous. 

Within the walls of the Mt Tabor Concert Hall is a highly innovative canvas for artists of all persuasions to make an impact on Portland’s live music scene, and on each other. Digital artist Taylor Schwartz brings exotic and shapely figures to life against vibrant and horrific backdrops on his laptop and on the South wall of the room. A dancer named Sarah Flores combines rhythmic gymnastics with impressive body control to create a kinetic whirlwind of color with a glowing hula-hoop. Jordan Inglee from captures the music and streams it to the global community, and occasionally gets on stage to get his groove on. Each beat, movement and stroke is influenced by, and impresses itself upon, all who contribute to the whole.

All of this is not necessairly a new idea. I’ve been to many festivals, parties and campgrounds over the years that have combined live music and lights with fire dancing, juggling, painting and other forms of expression. But to see this kind of scene happening indoors on a Tuesday night in January feels fresh and exciting. Seeing more people at the Tabor on these Tuesday nights than they often draw on weekends is encouraging. Jamming with musicians who have never played together before just for the fun of it is liberating. And seeing a good cause benefit directly from the scene fills me with hope and pride.

Setting up for the Family Funktion Week 3.

The Tabor’s exquisite sound system has provided a fertile ground for sonic explorations by members of Sauce PolicyOutpost, Jesta, Reeble JarThe Escort Service, StellakinesisJuno What? and many other bands. Colin Ward does a great job harnessing these talents and putting together diverse and exciting lineups for each set. I am proud to have shared the stage with many adventurous jammers over the first month of this journey, and look forward to future Family Funktions. February’s shows will benefit Hope 4 Friends, kicking off with a lineup featuring the Motet’s Jans Ingber this Tuesday February1. Until then, enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at a recent Funktion Jam.


Fantasy Football Week 6 Recap

Last Sunday should have been a forgettable day. Both of my teams were involved in lopsided matchups, one winning and one losing. But after weeks of sick and/or lazy Sundays, I was ready for some fun. I watched the early games at a great sports bar, then had quality rehearsals with two of my bands, Mystic Canyon and Harmless Eccentrics. Turns out the best way to get over a crushing loss for the Giants is to jam late into the night.

North Coast Greenleaves (4-2) 162,
Vancouver Volcanoes (4-2) 120

Jason and I had been looking forward to this matchup for a few weeks, as it also happened to be the week that his Saints faced my Giants. We met at the Cheerful Bullpen for the 10am start. While the game was painful to watch, the breakfast was tasty and the Spanish Coffee strong! Drew Brees gave Jason an early lead, and Randy Moss sealed it later in the day. Like the Giants, the Volcanoes put up enough points to win against a lesser team, especially during the bye weeks. But there was no catching Jason, even if Pierre Thomas had managed to be one of the 7 Saints to score a TD.

Things don’t look too good for Pierre this week either against a stiff Miami defense, but the rest of my team looks solid going into Sunday’s matchup against another New Orleans native, Steve, and his Amite Steelmakers, who are gonna need to make some moves due to injuries and byes this week.

PDX Prowlers (4-1-1) 111,
Degoba Green (1-4-1) 55

It was a small consolation as my Giants went down in flames that Drew Brees’ huge game was at least helping me in this league. But the Prowlers’ biggest point total of the year went to waste as my opponent didn’t even show up. Greg Jennings remained on his bench from the previous week’s Bye, and he never picked up a Defense to replace the ones that weren’t playing this week (Miami and SF.) At least I got the Toyota Biggest Fantasy Blowout award for the week, a new feature on Yahoo’s league page. This weekend’s matchup holds a lot more promise as I look to break a first place tie with TDs ‘N Beer.

Birth of a Song, Part 3: Bringing it all together

I started with a few verses, then decided that the song should end with a chorus I wrote 3 years earlier. The first part is an A-minor reggae groove, while the Rejoice! chorus in D-Major has a more West African feel – same tempo, but straighter eighth-notes. Since the song was inspired by memorable jam sessions, I have always envisioned Our Own Holiday as a jam vehicle. So I wanted the middle section to be an instrumental improv with a little bit of structure, ideally in A-Major. I may eventually write something for that part, but for the sake of getting to work rehearsing what I’ve got so far, I asked my good friend Scott if I could borrow a tune he wasn’t using.

Signs of Life is a jangly instrumental jam in A-Major, built on an Allman Brothers-style bass riff, set to a tribal sort of beat that would flow nicely into Rejoice (A>D.) Scott wrote the song a few years ago, right about at the time that Mystic Canyon went full-time acoustic, so it never found a home in the stage repertoire, but we’ve revisited it in casual jams a few times. Scott agreed that it would be a good fit.

One final touch was a brief turnaround in F-Major, to transition from the A-minor verse to the A-Major Signs of Life section. I put together a chord and lyric sheet and headed over to Keith’s house for Jersey Rhythm Mafia rehearsal.

We worked on a bunch of other stuff earlier in the evening, and in retrospect, we would have had a better first read if we had done the new tune earlier. It was a good reading that kind of ran out of steam, as we never quite worked out the ending. But I felt I was able to communicate what I was looking for. With a few more tries we’ll smooth the transitions and lock in the rhythms. A recording was made of the final run-through but I have not heard it yet. I’m hoping to see Keith before he skips town for a week so I can listen to what we’ve got so far.

I’ll continue this series in a few weeks when we’ve got a few more rehearsals under our belts and hopefully a recording worth sharing.

Birth of a Song, Part 2: Rejoice!

In July 2005, Mystic Canyon played at the Bend Summer Festival, still the farthest we have ever traveled to play. We did the right thing and rented a cabin so we could sleep well and jam throughout the weekend. At the time, Matt Kuerbis was moving beyond “new guy” status and starting to show us some songs he was working on. We also discussed collaborative writing, something the band had never really tried. He even suggested a lyric idea from a store marquee in his neighborhood, an optimistic twist on the familiar incantation of doomsday street prophets:

“Rejoice! The Beginning is Near.”

This line repeated in my head for most of the afternoon while driving around Bend and setting up my percussion gear. I thought about other ways to spin a potentially fearful situation into a message of hope.  The weather took an unusual turn that day as storm clouds blew in and drenched our audience. But the rare summer storm also provided the perfect metaphor I was looking for:

“The rain will wash away fear.
The storm will be chased by the dawn.
We will be one! We will be one!”

The last line was inspired by the sense of tribal unity that I felt all weekend, especially later that evening at the cabin, when I taught the rest of the band my new melody and Scott helped me figure out the chord progression in D. We made a joyful sound that night, working out the three-part harmonies I had been hearing in my head all day.

Upon returning to Portland, I was eager to add some verses to this new chorus, but I was never satisfied with the results. I tried to come up with stories of people perservering through dark times, but every attempt sounded forced, not at all as natural and inspired as the chorus had come to me. Eventually I accepted that it was a great but incomplete idea and kept it filed away until I could find some use for it.

As I alluded to in Part 1, I have now found a home for this chorus as the ending of Our Own Holiday. The message of hope in the lyrics, which I had originally conceived on a more global scale, fits well as an addendum to the first verses about overcoming social discomfort through music. The beginning of a beautiful union is near, if we are not afraid to let it happen.

In Part 3, I try to tie it all together with an instrumental jam section in the middle. I’ll also report on how the first rehearsal goes tonight.

Birth of a Song, Part 1: Inspiration

Being in a band with four very talented songwriters, it is hard not to be inspired to write music of my own. I have never considered myself a composer, but I have often had musical ideas pop into my head that capture my imagination. Most of these ideas go no further than that inital spark, as my attempts to develop them usually end in forced lyrics and incomplete chord progressions. But I have tried to keep these song fragments in mind in case I am ever compelled to complete them. Recently, inspiration has taken hold and I am finally ready to share a creation of my own with my musical brethren.

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting the Birth of a Song. Since songwriting is new to me, I thought I would share my process here for the sake of discussion and facilitation of future compositional endeavors. The song is called Our Own Holiday, an upbeat jam tune with multicultural influences. I am sharing writing credits with my Mystic Canyon bandmates Scott Hewitt and Matt Kuerbis, but since the song does not really fit the MCB repertoire, I will be introducing it via my side project with Scott, the Jersey Rhythm Mafia.  

The first part of the song, an A-minor reggae groove, came to me in July 2008 after a particularly fun jam at Horning’s Hideout. I was invited there by some friends for a birthday party, although I did not know the hosts or the guest of honor. When all of the scheduled bands had finished, there was plenty of time left before the sound curfew, so I joined up with Chris and Ken from Jersey Rhythm Mafia, Dave from Jerry Rig and Josh from High Ceiling for an impromptu open stage jam. Afterwards, the campfire jams continued well into the morning hours.

The next morning I was filled with wonder at the ability of music to bring people together. There were a lot of people at Horning’s who I could not pick out of a lineup today, but that night we were one musical family. Drawing from that feeling, I sketched out some lyrics – essentially an invitation from one musician to another to let music be the bridge across their fleeting acquaintance. One line is even borrowed from an actual party invitation I had sent a few months prior: “No gift but your presence, no presents but your gift for music and conversation.” This line in particular suggested that the song would work best in a reggae style.

After writing two verses and a B section, I hit a snag. I wanted an instrumental jam section in the middle, followed by a return to the verse and chorus, but I didn’t want to repeat myself or force some lyrics to fit the form of the first part of the song. It then dawned on me that the jam section should be followed by a distinct third part, and a long-abandoned melody jumped immediately from the back to the front of my mind. In Part 2, I’ll flash back to the Summer of 2005 to revisit the creation of  a chorus that waited a long time for the right verse to come along.

The Random Jam Session

This looks like a good place for a jam
This looks like a good place for a jam

I arrived at a converted warehouse building in a neighborhood not far from home just after 5pm Saturday. I met up with Chance, drummer from the Bridgetown Saints, and started loading in my gear. All of the businesses in the building were hosting an open house, and Chance was putting together some musical entertainment for his friend Peter’s achitecture studio.

Our mutual friend and bandmate Joe had invited me to join in. Several of the Bridgetown Saints were there as well, and having jammed with them before, I came prepared to get my funk on. However this jam went in a completely different direction than I would have guessed. A guitarist by the name of John was also on hand and he led us through some great acoustic finger-pickin’ tunes. Saxman Greg added some beautiful chromatic harmonica. It was a very relaxed affair with people coming and going, but towards the end we had a full 8-piece band together.

I got a chance to lead the guys through Paul Simon’s “Have a Good Time,” which I sing with Jersey Rhythm Mafia. It’s an easy 3-chord groove that works well in pickup jams and even better when someone knows the backing vocal parts. I’m slowly but surely coming out of my shell as a lead vocalist and although I was a little too raspy for the high A in the third verse, the guys all thought it sounded alright.

The evening was a real confidence builder for me, and it showed in the way I sang and played with my own band at rehearsal the next day. I’m starting to enjoy the challenge of playing outside of my comfort zone and I look forward to more chances to see how I hold my own with new collaborators. It always amazes me how quickly a random assembly of musicians can find common ground. I have found quite a bit of common ground with the Bridgetown Saints and am really excited to join them on stage this Wednesday at the White Eagle. Come check it out if you’re in town.