Hip Deep

I got a call around Christmas from my good buddy Jimi Hardin. Jimi was Mystic Canyon’s drummer when we started gigging regularly back in 2005. He brought an energy to the stage that took everyone’s game to the next level, and we developed an instant and undeniable chemistry. More recently, Jimi and I have connected when he co-hosts a jam night at Mama Maria’s, Queen of Hearts or Knuckleheads.

I had heard that Jimi’s band, Hip Deep, as well as the jam night at Mama Maria’s, had fallen apart. So when he called me on that winter afternoon, he filled me in on what had happened, but was already looking forward to the next project and wanted me to be a part of it.

He was putting together a funky backing band for a singer he had worked with over the summer. In fact, I had met Nayibe Rojas when we both sat in with Hip Deep in July. She was looking to put together a 60s, 70s and 80s revue of funky soul and dance music, and Jimi thought my percussion would be perfect for some of the songs she had in mind. “Don’t worry about the horn, right now we just want percussion and maybe some backing vocals.” I was happy to accept the challenge.

And what a challenge it has been! In just about three months, we have put together 3 sets totalling nearly 40 songs that cover a wide spectrum of dance music from classic 60s soul to 80s new-wave synth-rock. The percussion parts are juicy, and the background vocals are pretty lush. And sure enough, once the band got to know my skill-set, I found myself adding trombone, drums and even keyboards to the mix.

Now we’re ready to raise the curtain on this new incarnation of Jimi Hardin’s Hip Deep featuring Nayibe Rojas. Filling out the lineup will be musical director Julian Stefoni on keyboards, guitar and vocals, Tevis Hodge on guitar and Naiya Cominos on bass and vocals. Our good friend Maynard will be adding his saxes to the horn section as well. Check out the Hip Deep blog for all the details on our debut this Saturday at Portland Saturday Market, as well as our club premiere at the Spare Room on April 20.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Same as it ever was...

The taste of metal, the tingly sensation after the first vibrations on the mouthpiece. The slight soreness above the upper lip, and the tightening of muscles in the corners of my mouth. Deep breaths through the nose, pushed right back out through the embouchure with a buzz that would be considered unacceptably rude were it not for the 9 feet of twisted brass through which it is directed. The mind starts to recall what the muscles still seem to know. C# sounds in tune, not because I remember where to put my hand, but because my hand already knows where it needs to be.

I can still fake my way through the first sight-reading, marking spots in my head that I’ll need to woodshed later. Second rehearsal much smoother, even starting to drop in little bits of personality that make the flute player giggle. Playing them with confidence helps me get away with the parts I’m still faking. Things have gotten better and better with each rehearsal until now, five days from showtime, the reality seems to be sinking in – I’m a trombonist again.

The whole experience of preparing for the Magenta Theater concert this Saturday has me remembering what it is like to juggle so many performing ensembles. In college, it was band, jazz band, choir, then later orchestra, but at least it was only trombone and voice, maybe occasionally drums in my fraternity band. Now, not only am I in four bands, but I’ve also got to be ready to play drums, percussion, voice, trombone, melodica, harmonica, pennywhistle and calimba. Sometimes I feel like I did when I was 12, in an arcade with a roll of quarters. I just can’t decide what to play next!

Most importantly, the theory is coming back. Remembering how it all fits together. Having people ask me questions I don’t expect to be able to answer, but somehow helping them understand what I’m feeling when I play and sing. Reminding the guitarists when they have forgotten their capos. Maybe I’m reminded so much of college because I’m on a college student schedule lately, but 2010 is feeling like a year of inspiration and education and I hope to soak in as much as I can.

Come see my first trombone concert performance in 18 years this Saturday

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, et.al. 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 Arrival of the Prophet

While January 20, 2009 promises to be a memorable day in American history, the date will also mark the release of a remarkable album that will help to secure a place in music history for Umphrey’s McGee. Mantis (greek for Prophet) is a compositional wonder and a production masterpiece from a band that has learned to leave their legendary stage prowess under the lights and embrace all of the possibilities of the studio. The eight songs contained in these ten tracks represent more musical ideas than many bands have in an entire career.

um21

Mantis was recorded without having been roadtested, although some riffs were born out of onstage improvisations and later woven into the fabric of this dense collection of tunes. Over the last few weeks, the band has released a few singles and radio edits to their fans to build a buzz for the album. Adding to the anticipation has been a groundbreaking marketing scheme, with thousands of pre-orders unlocking access to hours of bonus downloads from the band’s extensive archive of live performances, studio outtakes, demo sketches and out-of-print fan favorites.  Mantis will continue to unlock new material for fans throughout 2009, giving listeners a reason to own the album instead of acquiring it illegally.

 Umphrey’s McGee has been winning the hearts of progressive rock fans for years with adventurous compositions that evoke comparisons to King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd. On Mantis, that courtship continues on several tracks, including the funky crunch of 1348 and the majestic Spires. The epic 12-minute title track, together with its 30-second Preamble, stands out as the centerpiece of the album and one of the most complex and beautiful pieces in the UM repertoire, seamlessly bridging the gap between the forms and influences of the Seventies and the futuristic sound that Umphrey’s has been honing on stage the last ten years. Mantis, the song, is at once a departure and an arrival.

This compositional standard should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Umphrey’s McGee. The really surprising achievement within Mantis, the album, is the ambitious production, allowing the guys to pay further homage to the likes of XTC, Steely Dan and Alan Parsons. The album-opening Made to Measure scintillates like a Paul McCartney showtune, while the aforementioned Spires gives way to a mesmerizing coda awash with lush strings and vocal harmonies that could easily have been sccoped up from the editing room floor of the Pet Sounds sessions. Primary beneficiaries of this treatment are Joel Cummins’s keyboards, which have never sounded so commanding, and Brendan Bayliss’s vocal work, which shines like a prophetic beacon above the darkly layered soundscape.

But don’t let all of this praise suggest that the album is inaccesibly esoteric. UM has earned a reputation for rocking with both litheness and precision, and they bring this to bear on mid-album tracks Cemetary Walk and Turn & Run. Jake Cinninger’s incendiary guitar work on these tracks, as well as the title opus, serves to cement his legacy as perhaps the last real Guitar Hero.

The album is not without its indulgences. Cemetary Walk II is a remix that incorporates a dancehall sound that is becoming an increasingly prevalent element of the live show, while Prophecy Now is an ethereal tone poem exploring a simple atonal melody. Red Tape may be the most poppy tune on Mantis – if the rest of the album elicits thoughts of Close to the Edge and Fragile, this is clearly the 90125 moment. These tracks may not hold up on their own as well as the others, but they lend balance to the overall complexity of the project.

Fans who have been as lucky as I have to hear the album early are already salivating over the live possibilities of these songs. Umphrey’s McGee must be commended for the restraint they have exhibited in withholding these gems for so long. The reward for that patience, for them and for us, is a pristine listening experience that will be cherished in its studio form regardless of how the songs evolve onstage. From the first listen it is clear that Mantis is unlike any album by a band that has ever worn the “jamband” label. Beyond that rather modest accolade, surely many more await.

Project: Hewitt

Scott Hewitt at the doorway of creation

In a year full of musical highlights, the ones that I believe will stand out the most occurred during a week-long visit to the Berkshires. My dear friend Scott Hewitt invited me along on a working vacation to put the finishing touches on his “vanity project” of original songs. After a few days of recording at his brother’s studio in Amherst, MA, we’d spend the weekend at the Saratoga Jazz Festival. I kept a mini-journal and took plenty of photos, even some video.

Scott had a few days’ head start on me, so by the time I arrived at Watercourse Studios, he had already done most of the guitar and bass work. After catching up on a little sleep, we went on a mission to borrow some drums from Lorraine and started adding my parts. Our goal was to come away with four new recordings and add some drums to a track or two that Scott had started two summers ago on his last trip to Doug’s.

Way Across the Water is a song Scott wrote years ago that was once a staple of the Verge of Something repertoire, so its calypso rhythm was very familiar to me but still a challenge to synch with the track. I was very comfortable with Norman’s Song as well. It’s one of Scott’s newer ones, but it swings with a groove that Scott and I have honed for years.

 

Taking the borrowed drums for a test drive while Doug gets the mics in place

I found the other tracks to be far more challenging. Another Bend in the Road is a song that Mystic Canyon plays, so my percussion part has always been more decorative. Here I had to relearn it and provide the rhythmic momentum. Before the Duel was the wild card; we had no idea how this would turn out. We decided to keep it simple with a slow heartbeat that became increasingly rapid toward the end. That simplicity left surprisingly little margin for error.

We got a lot of the drums down on Day 1 and finished them on Day 2, including take after take of silly arhythmic fills for Scott’s old ditty Razzy Hat. The rest of Day 2 found Scott working on vocals and me working on a bottle of rum. I took one late night stab at a backing vocal track for Way Across the Water before we all agreed we needed fresh ears in the morning.

Imagine Doug’s surprise when my first vocal track on Day 3 was nearly indistinguishable from my rum-soaked take 9 hours earlier. He decided to keep them both as stereo harmonies. I added harmonies to a few more songs and a harmonica solo on Before the Duel that unexpectedly took only two takes. Scott added a guitar solo to his beautiful jazz ballad Elsewhere and we wrapped the session just in time to host a party for Doug’s friends.

The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt
The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt jam at the "Wrap Party"

Of course, it would not be a Hewitt party without some music, and everyone joined in the jam. The recording process had given me a different perspective, as I remember catching details that might have otherwise faded into the groove. Even after dozens of hours of dissecting and reassembling music, we still found the energy to jam into the wee hours. Luckily, Doug keeps a schedule that synchronizes well with our West Coast body clocks.

The next day we took off for Saratoga Springs, but that is a story for another time. Until then, I hope you check out Scott’s Myspace to hear the fruits of our labor.

Beyond the Campfire

I’ve been working on this post for a while, not quite sure how to whittle down what I’m thinking into a cohesive piece. What I’ve decided to do is use this as sort of a conversation starter and discuss some points further in their own posts as warranted.

Over the years I find myself more and more frequently in the unusual position of being a more experienced player than some of my musical co-conspirators. It’s forced me to think long and hard about what that experience has taught me, what I might pass along to a younger player if asked.

I enjoy music most when played with others – it’s probably why I don’t practice nearly as much as I should. As I have said before, I believe I’m a stronger ensemble player than a soloist. For a player in a band or ensemble of any kind, this element of musicianship is a much more important quality than talent. So without the benefit of that musical education, what would someone need to do to make the transition from casual jams to a band? 

We’ve all sat around the campfire, enjoying someone playing guitar, only to have the whole thing fall apart when a second guitarist or (heaven forbid) a drummer enters the mix. Whether it’s ego or insecurity, some players are so focused on what they are doing they cannot hear or feel how it fits into the whole. There is so much more to musicianship than just being able to play your instrument. A little time spent focusing on the following aspects of playing will go a long way to improving that campfire jam. These are just some random and generic bullet points that could apply to any player.

  • Learn lots of simple songs. They can help form the building blocks you’ll need to play harder stuff.
  • Learn the underlying concepts of harmony, rhythm and form in each song. You’ll be amazed how frequently they will reappear in another song.
  • Look around, make eye contact, see if anyone is trying to cue you to do something different.
  • Be open to suggestions and criticism. Don’t take it personally.
  • Know when to stand out and when to support. If you don’t have a lead, do something complementary or contrapuntal, or just find a simple pattern to vamp on. Don’t compete for attention when it’s someone else’s turn.
  • Sing only if you know the words. If you’re singing harmony, try to match the phrasing and style of the lead.
  • Paying attention to dynamics (not just volume, but also crecendos and accents) will instantly set you apart.
  • Serve the song. You don’t need to use the whole box of crayons on each and every picture.

I’d love to hear what you think. What do you think is important for musicians seeking the proverbial “next level” of musicianship? Some of these ideas, yours and mine, will be fodder for future posts.

My new face in Cyberspace

Greetings from Portland, OR. Home of great craft brews, outstanding Pinot Noir, progressive ideals and the 2010 NBA Champion Trailblazers (you heard it here first.) For almost eight years now it has been my home as well, and though we still have very close ties to Mother Jersey, Donna and I have never regretted a single day since we settled in. And until we pay off the mortgage, retire early and embark on many cross-country adventures, Portland will be the center of our universe.

I’m still fairly new to blogging. I started using the Notes section of my Facebook page to share my thoughts on my music and fantasy football. My good friend Nash invited me to join his blog, We Opine, where we offer unsolicited opinions on all things irrelevant and useless. You’ll find me over there when I’m feeling creative and silly. It is, of course, a must-read.

All of which leads me to the creation of my own little corner of the web, Sounds Good.  It’s a phrase I find myself using a lot, in response to a nice jam, a good idea, or just to acknowledge that I’m listening. I’ll be sharing more personal and earnest insights on music and life in Oregon. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine in regard to where this particular bus is heading. But welcome aboard, keep your head outside the vehicle at all times, and enjoy the ride.