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.

Saratoga Jazz Festival

Return to Forever takes a bow after their headline set at the Saratoga Jazz Festival
Return to Forever takes a bow after their headline set at the Saratoga Jazz Festival

The second part of my summer vacation brought us to the Saratoga Jazz Festival. This was my first trip to the event, which has become a tradition for the Hewitts and their friends. A tradition that involves far more than just watching good music, as I would soon find out.

Dave leads the drum jam
Dave leads the drum jam

Everyone buys tickets for good seats inside the amphitheater, but we also try to snag a spot on the lawn, under the pedestrian bridge that goes up to the balcony area. Getting this spot usually involves a mad dash at the moment they open the gates, but I was somehow able to avoid being drafted for the task of “running the tarp.” Once we got the spot, everyone pulled out their drums and got a huge drum circle going between acts on the main stage. Everyone around us joined in to dance and shake something, and of course the more people involved, the less cohesive the jam, but nobody seemed to mind.

As for the music that everybody came to see, the lineup did not disappoint. Return to Forever was the Saturday night headliner and they were as impressive as ever. Although, since was a shortened festival set, I would have preferred they skip the lengthy solo pieces and played a few more group songs. I would have died for a Senor Mouse.

Other highlights from Saturday included Chris Botti, Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side (seen above) and the Saxophone Summit of Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. Sunday’s main stage highlight for me was Terence Blanchard’s haunting set of music inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans. I spent the rest of Sunday at the Garden stage, which featured tight performances by the Brubeck Brothers and the Aaron Goldberg Trio. Check out this drum solo:

I had a great time seeing all of this magnificent music and meeting some very friendly people. A much belated thank you to Paul, Lorraine, Glen, Terry, Bob, Dave and everyone else who made me feel like one of the gang. And of course to Scott and Doug for making me a part of their family tradition.

Drum Guys Dave and Mike seek shelter from a brief downpour
Drum Guys Dave and Mike

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.