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.


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.

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.

My Percussive Perspective (or Where do I get off?)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about who I am as a musician, and what can I offer the world that no one else can. This blog will be an outlet for ideas, advice, reminiscences and eventually, you know, actual music recordings and maybe even videos. But before I go shooting off at the mouth, I’d like to tell you what I think gives me the right. My musical path has been unusual but deeply satisfying. I think most high school band geeks eventually settle on one of three fates: Pursue their training further in college, give up entirely when the real world beckons, or find a happy medium and join a rock band. Somehow I managed to fulfill all three of these destinies.

I got my Bachelor of Music from DePauw University in 1992. Music Business was my major and trombone was my axe. My college years revolved around performing in any ensemble I could: Concert and Marching Band, Choir, Jazz Band, Brass Quintet and eventually, as my playing improved, the DePauw Symphony. These were top-notch groups with great players, many of whom went on to sing or play professionally. It was there in Greencastle, Indiana where I honed my ability to listen to my fellow musicians, to read and react. These ensemble skills are the bedrock of my musicianship, much moreso than actual talent. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had accepted the fact I lacked the chops to ever be a professional trombone player.

In my final semester, just for the hell of it, I took drum lessons and discovered that my true calling was rhythm. I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on the face of Pat Reynolds, my band director, when he heard my first drum jury. After years of hearing me struggle through uninspiring trombone juries, his expectations must have been pretty low. Making such a positive impression on him from behind the drum kit was a thrilling affirmation.

My development as a musician was put on hold for several years after college as I tried to focus on the Business part of my degree. I tried to stay close to the music world with jobs in music retail and entertainment marketing, but was very disheartened by the commodification of art. I began to harbor a deep resentment of radio and MTV, trying to feed me what their demographic analysis told them I should want, and an even deeper appreciation for art created outside of that bubble. Phish became a religious experience for me, having grown from a college curiosity to a national phenomenon with little influence from the machine.

Before long I was once again surrounding myself with musical people. Only now they were not music students but working folks who were finding the time to create something special. While they may not have had the same discipline as me, they more than made up for it with passion, talent and creativity. For a few years I lived and breathed music that relatively few people had ever heard, soaking up inspiration from bootlegs of Phish and God Street Wine concerts, and seeing bands I had befriended like thE otheR waY, Three Hour Detour, Kid With Man Head and Burning Bus. All without playing a single note or beat.

I bought my first congas, which I still play today, from Ray Ashley in 1996. Before leaving New Jersey four years later, I collaborated with friends on a few short-lived rock bands, the 9-Volt Smoke Detectors and Go Banana! Soon after arriving in Oregon I was introduced to Scott Hewitt (by a mutual Jersey friend, naturally.) I accepted his invitation to play with some friends in his backyard, and the musician in me was reborn.

Seven years later, Mystic Canyon still brings me much joy and satisfaction, combining the discipline of my formal education with my passion for the creativity of my friends and my love of music that has thrived outside of the commercial influence of the music industry. The lessons I’ve learned in this band are as profound as any I learned in college, and will be the subject of future posts. I just figured, when you read them, you’d like to know where I’m coming from.

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.