Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Electric Bass in Jazz

What are your thoughts on electric bass in jazz, particularly in smaller traditional settings? By that, I mean small jazz combos of 6 or less playing jazz standards; where you would typically find an upright bass.

In the last 15 years or so of attending local performances, only once have I ever seen an electric bass in this type of setting, and that was due to space constraints. It was at a local steak house, where Mark Flugge was playing in a piano/bass duo setting. The bassist, who I'd seen not a week before playing upright with Mark in another locale, was playing an acoustic-electric bass guitar (so not even an electric bass in the common sense of the term). The spacing was tight, and there was no way he was getting an upright bass in there.

When listening to the radio (Real Jazz on SiriusXM because local jazz radio doesn't exist in Columbus, Ohio), I almost never hear electric bass outside of the jazz fusion genre. In fact, you're much more likely to hear the left hand or feet of a Hammond B3 organ player keeping the bottom end than an electric bass. We're fortunate to have some fantastic local B3 players as well.

I do have a few albums featuring electric bass in smaller combo settings (Bob Cranshaw with Sonny Rollins, Jaco with Brian Melvin, Anthony Jackson with Buddy Rich), but that's really about it. Everything else is focused on fusion.

One thing I have seen on more than one occasion is local big bands with electric bass. I think it's more acceptable in that situation because it's easier to hear across the stage and isn't susceptible to feedback like an upright bass.

I ask this question because I've been struggling over the last several years with playing both jazz and upright bass. Once I decided I wanted to learn to play jazz, I got an upright bass because that's what jazz is played on. However, trying to learn a difficult genre of music on what is essentially a new instrument has provided me with more anguish and frustration than one should be expected to bare at my age. As a result, I haven't made nearly the progress I should have made in either area.

At this point, I'm thinking it may be time to cut my losses and just focus on electric bass. I've been playing bass since my early teens, so I don't have the difficulties getting around the instrument like I do with the upright. This way, I can focus on just the music itself without having to worry about the instrument.

Of course, this would be foolish if there's no call for it, which is what I suspect given the last several paragraphs I've written on the subject. Who gets more gigs? The electric player who can hold their own but sounds out of place, or the upright player who struggles to keep up and can't solo to save their life?

*EDIT: I forgot to mention that the two times I went to Jamey Aebersold's Summer Jazz Camp, only one of the 6 or so bass instructors played electric, with the rest playing upright. In fact, my first time there, when I expressed dismay over the difficulty I was having on upright and suggested going home to get my electric, one instructor told me to stay on upright because "that's where it's at."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Macadam Advance

A friend of mine is leaving social media. Why? Because a stranger found a picture of her on a photographer's website, a picture taken to commemorate a very special time in her life, and turned it into a crude meme to post on Facebook. After being asked to take the meme down, this person pinned it so that it stays on top of their page. And now my friend feels violated, a wonderful memory tarnished because some asshat thinks he's funny.

I've known this person for 15 years. Tammy and I went to her wedding. Our daughter babysat her daughter. She's creative and intelligent and funny. Being a techno-junky like myself, she chose to open her life to the internet; to allow all of us to share in her ups and downs, just as we've all come to do the same so that she and others may share in ours. I've always advocated this, because I think it helps to bring us and keep us closer together.

This is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. Hell, my own wife was the victim of online harassment a few years ago, simply because a stranger felt she didn't live up to his expectations of what a woman should look like. Needless to say, this caused her much emotional pain and stress, which ultimately resulted in my own feelings of inadequacy because of my inability to 'fix it'. Eventually we were able to get past it and move on, but the experience left us both scarred.

My own creativity seems to come with limitations. When it comes to music, I often come up with little snippets of songs that just float around in my head until I either incorporate them into someone else's song or forget them altogether. To this day I've only ever written and recorded two complete songs: one a tribute to my mother and the other a throw away comedy bit.

In addition to music, I've occasionally dabbled in writing, with little success. In my teens, I spit out pages and pages of rudimentary poetry that relied much too heavily on cadence and rhyme to feel natural. With the advent of blogging, I feel I've managed to sporadically find my voice, but even then I don't have the patience to give it work it needs to be more than just stream-of-consciousness writing.

A long time ago, I came up with a title that I just couldn't get out of my head: Macadam Advance. I don't know where it came from or how it got there, but there it remains. I have managed to flesh it out just a bit, but no further. It seems to be about a playground war between bullies and their victims, and a piece of territory under dispute known as Macadam Advance. The thing is, I don't know if it's a poem or a song or a story or even a painting. I do know that it's a Simpson's episode though, so there's that.

The relative anonymity and detachment of the internet has turned many people into playground bullies who delight in snapping girls' bra straps and pulling the wings off of flies. It seems we're in a never-ending battle to retain our privacy and dignity while still sharing our lives with our friends and family in ways that were never available before, while constantly putting ourselves at risk. 

Women have it the worst. The misogyny that permeates the internet puts to shame anything we've witnessed to date. I'm still astounded that gamers would turn on their own just because of their gender. And now friends are afraid to share their photos because of what some bully may do.

It seems I don't need to write Macadam Advance. We see it every day on the internet. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Most Embarrassing KISS Story

Hands in the air like you just don't care
It's no secret that I'm a life long KISS fan. Yes, I know that musically they're sub par, and without make-up and theatrics they have nothing going for them. Doesn't matter. I was introduced to them at just the right time in my life. I was young, impressionable, and was looking for something my parents could hate. KISS was perfect.

The very first concert I ever saw was KISS at the Spectrum in Philly on December 22, 1977. They were touring to support the Alive II album, which had been released two months earlier. My mom and step-dad took me to the concert, and my mom had a big leather hippy purse, which she emptied and filled with cans of Schlitz beer. Needless to say, the guards stopped us at the gate and made her hand over the beer. While this is not the most embarrassing KISS story referenced in the title, I was mortified. I was certain we were going to be thrown out and I'd miss my chance to see the Hottest Band In The World! I was already nervous as it was, because word on the street was that some kid at one of their shows had fireworks land on his clothes and he burned to death. I was sure I would suffer the same fate, but I still wanted to go because at least I'd get to see them before I died.

Besides, now the guards had all the beer.

They didn't kick us out and my clothes didn't catch fire. I came away with really grainy pictures from my dinky little 110 camera and a handful of the confetti that rained down on us. No other concert in my life would match that experience.

So, last night KISS was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 25 years after they first became eligible. The HOF didn't want to do it. They never wanted to do it. But it was starting to look a bit ridiculous to have all of these rap and disco artists in and not have KISS.

I'm not here to complain about that, though. I'm here to honor their induction by telling my most embarrassing KISS related story. And trust me, I have plenty of them.

Now, I've never paid a whole lot of attention to lyrics. Sure, some of them stand out to me, and I can usually sing along with songs I know well, but that's not why I listen to music. I'm too busy analyzing the instrumentation to give them much thought. Besides, I tend to take things at surface value, which means that sometimes the simplest of metaphors is lost on me. You can see where I'm going with this, right?

In the early 90s, I went to see Ace Frehley play at a club in Atlantic City. This is a club that I had played in many times myself, and to see my childhood idol on the same stage was sure to kick ass! Trust me, it did. Ace was still in the midst of his long battle with alcoholism at this point, and he could hardly stand upright. At one point during the show, he had a roadie come out on stage and help him remove his jacket without dropping his guitar. He was a mess. But he didn't miss a note. As fucked up as he was, he could still play. And there I was, standing right at the stage, the speaker blaring into my left ear.

On side four of Alive II, KISS included 5 new songs, recorded in the studio rather than live. Ace Frehley's contribution to this set of new material was a song called Rocket Ride. I've listened to this song a million times. I can sing it in my sleep. It's the best song on that side of the album.

Baby's on her knees. Baby wants to please. She wants a Rocket Ride.

So there I am, beer in hand, watching Ace Frehley play on my stage, not 15 feet from where I was standing. While introducing Rocket Ride, his next song, he looked down to the front of the stage where a friend of mine was standing with his girlfriend, and drunkenly mumbled into the mic while pointing to her "You look like you could use a rocket ride."

Oh. My. God. So that's what that song is about! It's not about space travel at all! It's about SEX! That explains why "she's" on her knees. She wasn't begging him to give her a ride in his rocket. She was blowing him so he'd give her a ride on his rocket!

And with that, I give you this video. There was never an official video of the song, because music video's hadn't been invented yet. But some fan put this together. You will want to watch it twice. First, so you can hear the song. Second, so you can watch all of the awesome footage from their movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Try to take note of the African American Ace Frehley stunt double, whose hands they didn't even attempt to cover.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Power Of Music

So, I've been battling a pretty serious bout of depression this past week. I've blogged about my depression before, so I won't go into it too much. Suffice it to say that the planets aligned just right (or wrong) to put me in a place I haven't been in a long time. It's not fun and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 47. Now, before you chime in and start pointing your finger at that as the source of my depression, let me stop you. While it's true that I'm not a big fan of birthdays, it's not the "getting older" part that bothers me. I'm human. I get older. We all do. I simply think making such a big deal about a single day is kind of silly.

Anyhow, about my birthday. Last Spring, I learned that Return To Forever, the legendary jazz-fusion group, would be playing in Columbus on my birthday. Readers will note that my introduction to jazz was facilitated by an introduction to one Stanley Clarke, bassist for RTF. Needless to say, I bought tickets.

So, the concert was last night. The opening band was Zappa Plays Zappa - Dweezil, along with some other excellent musicians, playing his father's music. It was really something to see and hear.

Then, RTF hit the stage. We were third row center. And I could feel my depression washing away from me. At one point, I wanted to cry - tears of joy, not tears of sadness. This is the power of music.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Friend Gil

In honor of Pride Month, I've decided it was time to share this very personal story...

When I got my first job as a computer programmer in '92, I shared an office with a couple of other guys. One of those guys was a balding, overweight, heavily-bearded person who just never seemed to be able to get his clothes to match. His name was Gil.

Now, Gil was a very friendly and personable character. He had a wry sense of humor and a boisterous laugh. I immediately felt at ease with him. I found out later that his mismatched sense of fashion came from his colored blindness, which also accounted for the extra tie and pair of socks he kept in his briefcase.

The thing I remember most about Gil was his love of music. He would come in every day with 5 or 6 cassette tapes, which he would play throughout the day for the enjoyment of anyone entering our office. Fortunately, I found that I loved listening to music while writing code, so this worked out well for me. We listened to all kinds of music. He turned me on to some wonderful, eclectic stuff, and occasionally I was able to do the same for him.

It wasn't until some time later that I found out he was gay. This did not present a problem for me, because growing up in and around Atlantic City, I'd been exposed to quite a lot. My mom had gay friends when I was young. I knew a good many gay people. It really was not a problem and didn't effect our relationship at all. At least not at first.

We would hang together at lunch, sometimes breaking off from the other "pod of programmers" as we walked along the boardwalk after eating. We discussed various forms of pop culture, went to see the film adaptation of Burrows' "Naked Lunch" and made plans of getting together to jam sometime (he played keys). I suppose some people might accuse me of having a "boy crush" on him, but I don't think so. I just genuinely liked him.

And then, one day when he was out and I was walking off lunch with one of the other developers, he told me that someone had asked him if I was gay. Now, normally, I don't give two shits what other people think about me. I dress how I like, wear my hair how I like, and just let it go. But I was in an odd place in my life at this time. I had had my heart torn apart a couple of years earlier and had just stayed away from any kind of romantic relationship since then, but I knew it was time for me to get back into the game. And here I was making people question my sexuality.

Eventually I started to put some space between Gil and me. I would let him go off on his own during lunch while I walked with the other group. I still liked him and we still talked, but I just allowed myself some distance. I remember one Friday in particular he invited me to a party at his house--a "Wizard of Oz" party. "Come dressed as your favorite munchkin," he said, "and we'll all watch the movie on TV." I told him I'd be there, got his address and then, come Friday, spent the evening hanging with an old friend while I watched the minutes tick away on the clock.

When I saw him on Monday, I apologized for skipping the party. He assured me it was alright, that I'd missed a good one, and that it would be on TV again. I told him I'd be sure to catch the next one.

Two days later he was dead. He had been in a car accident on the Margate bridge. He hit a patch of black ice, slid into the rail and broke his neck.

People have asked me why I care so much about GLBT issues. After all, I'm not gay...why is it so important to me that they be allowed to marry or adopt children? I usually say something about it not being a "gay" issue so much as a "human being" issue. And that's 100% true, but it runs deeper than that for me. I had considered myself to be an enlightened person, and yet I managed to let my own, deep-seated issues separate me from my friend in what would be the last months of his life.

I've mostly forgiven myself for this, but have never let myself forget it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How jazz has ruined my life

The year is 1986. I'm playing in a very good originals hard rock band. The writing is good and the musicianship is top notch. I'm happy (well, for me anyway). Sure, we were what would one day be called a "hair" band, but we enjoyed it. It was good music and good fun. Then the drummer, one Jimmy Paxson, introduces me to Stanley Clarke (not literally...in album form). It seems his mother played keys with Stanley and he assured me it would blow me away.

He wasn't kidding. Here was a music where the bass wasn't buried beneath all the other instruments. The music was complex and driving and just...there. That day was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a couple of years. I'm still playing "hair" band music, but in a different band. We're good, and have a decent following around South Jersey, but I could tell something was missing for me. When I went home from practice, I no longer listened to Ozzy or Metallica or even Bon Jovi. I listened to Jean-luc Ponty and Jaco Pastorius and Return to Forever. This was the music that did it for me. Eventually, the rock band broke up (as they do) and I did finally manage to find myself in a fusion style band. Of course, the problem was that there was no audience for it, so our playing was limited to the basement.

Move ahead another decade or so and you find me selling all of my instruments because I don't play and I have kids and a job that take up my time. But this won't last long.

So, eventually, as the kids get a little older and no longer need constant attention, I get the bug again. I buy a really nice bass (because I can finally afford a really nice bass) and start playing. But wait a minute. What kind of music am I going to play? I can't play covers. I hate playing covers! I still like fusion, but it's even less popular than it was in the 80s.

Then, for some reason, I started going backwards. Who influenced the fusion artists? I started taking Miles and Coltrane CDs out of the library. I bought classics like Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. I familiarized myself with the bassists of the time - Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, etc. This stuff was fantastic. You start with a chord progression and a melody. The horns play the melody so it gets in your head. And then they just start playing. You can still hear the melody in your head as the soloist builds on it. It's the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity. Oh, and the bass! The bassist doesn't just sit on the root of the chord. He's playing chord tones and scale tones and passing tones, all while driving the music forward...always to the next measure. And then what's this? The bassist gets a solo? Really?!? And it's not just a solo thrown in to keep the bassist from complaining too much either. A jazz bassist is expected to know how to solo.

Of course, all of this is done on a double bass. So I get a double bass and a teacher. At 40+ years old, I pick up what is essentially a new instrument. Sure, it's strung the same as an electric bass, but that's where the similarities end. Even with my fretless bass experience, it's just not the same instrument. It's quite physically demanding and difficult just to even get a good sound. But I figured it's worth it because nothing says jazz like the double bass.

Remember what I said about jazz being the perfect marriage of musicianship and creativity? Well, I have a very limited supply of each of these. Sure, I can find my way around an electric bass ok, and I can find a decent groove, but walking bass on an upright? Well, that's a different animal.

So how has jazz ruined my life? Well, simply put, everything else pales in comparison to me. Sure, I still like classic rock, but hell if I want to play it. And I like blues (and, quite frankly, could possibly be a good blues player if I put my mind to it), but it gets old fast. But jazz? I could (and do) listen to that all day. But even now I can't seem to play it. After 6 years, the upright still gives me fits. I struggle to play a simple two octave scale. Add that to trying to swing the beat and drive the music and outline the chord movement, and I just fall apart. (Don't even ask about soloing.)

There you have it. My current music process moves on a continuous cycle:
  1. I'm going to be a jazz bassist. I'm going to work to tackle this damn instrument if it kills me and I'm going to play music that most people no longer listen to (and that's...ok). But then I try to play and realize I'm 46 years old and can barely play a scale after 6 years of trying. So...
  2. I'm going to play electric jazz. I have the equipment and (some) of the talent, I can do this. But wait. Even fewer people listen to electric jazz, including me. It just doesn't strike me the same. And what passes for fusion these days is filled with college students who don't want to play with an old man. So...
  3. I'm going to play blues. It has improv (sometimes) and lots of people like it. But for some reason I can't stand to listen to it for more than 1/2 an hour or so because it all just sounds the same. Same form, same solo, same same same. So...
  4. Go to step 1

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Need a New Music...One That Won't Make Me Sick

Lately, I've taken to saying that, with few exceptions, no good music has been written or recorded since 1980. Of course, I don't really believe that's so, but that's the way it seems.

Of course, a good bit of this has to do with my current musical situation. As of now, I have three completely different projects happening:

The Rock Band
I grew up on rock, this is what I've played most of my life, nearly always original music. But no one wants to hear a 46 year old hippy play a bunch of original tunes, so I play in a cover band. We've decided, though, that we're going to play what we like rather than what we think other people want to hear. As such, we're sticking with largely late 60's, early 70's bluesy-rock like Led Zep, Hendrix, Grand Funk, stuff like that. We've thrown in a couple of newer songs, but this is what we dig and what we sound best doing.

The Jazz Band
My friend Jody plays ukulele and asked me to sit in with her on upright bass a couple of months ago. I had a great time playing old standards as well as a few 70's rock tunes in an gypsy-jazz style. Since then, she's added a cello player to the mix and, while we haven't played together in a while, I can't wait to pick this back up again.

The Orchestra
Yes, I do plan on playing with the Cardinal Health Chamber Orchestra again. I took some time off to get my head together, but really think this is a good thing for me. Helps to keep my playing the upright.

As you can see, aside from two songs the rock band plays, I'm not playing anything written past 1975. The anemic state of radio in central Ohio keeps me listening to one of the 5 available classic rock stations, with occasional switches to the one jazz station. I think there's a classical music station somewhere on AM.

I've tried listening to new music, but it just doesn't strike me. And that's probably ok, since I doubt I'm the target demographic. Even the two newer songs we do play, I just don't care for them. I don't find them to be particularly enjoyable beyond a single listen, and the songwriting/musicianship is just too shallow.

So here I am, stuck paying big bucks going to nostalgia concerts. I'm asking: Is there any new music out there that's inherently listenable? Preferably something that requires more than 6 months of music lessons at the local Guitar Center to be able to play (assuming it's even played on musical instruments and not a synthesizer with a turntable and drum machine)?

I realize no one but my wife reads my blog, but eventually this post will make it over to Facebook, so maybe some of my friends can recommend something for me to listen to? Or are you all stuck in the same boat too?