In one sense, responding to this is easy.
Q: So, what are your musical influences?
I like to think that I am influenced by everything I hear, even the stuff I dislike. Still, there are certainly a few big highlights worth mentioning, and maybe taken together it even explains a lot. So, with that caveat in mind…
(And yes…what follows is indeed but a summary. Enjoy a (proper) cup of coffee. I’m pretty sure that you have been warned elsewhere that I am…a bit of a geek.)
Robert Fripp and Guitar Craft
English guitarist and composer Robert Fripp is without question the single biggest musical influence I could name. It is utterly impossible for me to imagine a musical worldview without him in it.
My first exposure to Fripp’s work came from a college buddy at Stanford who exploded my listener’s world in a way that would have taken me years to achieve on my own, even if I might have ended up at the same point in the end. Among the many monsters he created in me, the biggest was incubated by introducing me to the prog-rock group King Crimson, of which Fripp has been the only constant member. Brent did this by starting me on the 1981 album Discipline, which was a brilliant move on his part; that record both was the most accessible of all the KC then available, and yet still contains some of the most quintessentially Crim material that there is. I was blown away by the polyrhythmic gamelan of which the title track is constructed, and by the sheer snarling power of the lurching 5/4 improvisational vehicle “Indiscipline”. And towering above even those masterpieces, for me at least, there was “The Sheltering Sky”, which just flattened me with its brooding, patient insistence. At one point I described it this way:
There are a number of live recordings available, and they pretty much all capture great moments from a fantastic live band. But for me, what puts “The Sheltering Sky” over the top is the measured, constantly simmering, (dare I say) disciplined restraint that is so obvious in the studio recording. As a living, breathing thing, it constantly threatens to break from its chains as it swells, but it never quite gets there, and then when finally it subsides away, it’s with a tiger-like, smiling snarl that reminds you, “I’m still here.” Live Crim naturally stretches out a bit, ever experimenting, and while the restraint is still there, it’s just not quite the same as that first statement.
Needless to say, it did not take me long to acquire the entire Crim catalog available at the time, and I immediately latched on both to the ’72-’74 group, and also to the ’81-’84 period; the musical intensity that KC regularly achieved, especially live, was just off the scale from anything I’d heard before. Interestingly, years later, when more live recordings of the original ’69 group became available, I gained a whole new perspective on how powerful that band was as well; as momentous as the In The Court Of The Crimson King record was, it didn’t even begin to prepare a listener for the things that happened live.
Since that introduction, I’ve been pretty dutiful about following the group. You might therefore imagine my excitement when, after about five years of rabid listening and wishing I’d have been able to see any Crim live, the ’90s “double trio” edition seemed to come out of nowhere. Then there were the deliberate splinter “ProjeKcts” of the late ’90s, which I absolutely loved, and the consolidated ’00-’04 four-piece band, which had its own share of spectacular moments…and most recently, out of a set of on-again-off-again pot-stirrings that started in 2007, we now have another emergent incarnation, the ambitious but intriguing three-drummer septet, with the return of outstanding reedman Mel Collins. Crim is indeed a recurring muse!
A few of the things I love so much about Crimson bear specific mention. A big one is that KC has always been willing to take on the biggest musical risk there is–full group improvisation. Even in the jazz world, there aren’t really that many groups that truly venture past vamp-and-solo improv; in the rock music idiom, it’s almost unheard of, but KC has done it for over forty years now. The risk here is huge; a fully improvised piece can very easily fall flat on its face in front of thousands of people–and often does. But ah, the potential reward–those moments when Something Else swoops in and the muse truly comes alive, with all the immediacy and vibrancy of a shared, gossamer magic at constant risk of disappearing at any given instant–well, that’s the sort of thing that can power human hindbrains for months. Any group willing to take that risk, especially on a regular basis, earns my immediate respect. (And there is this: based just on my own personal experience as a listener and audient, I can vouch that Crim regularly “gets there”.)
Another distinguishing thing about King Crimson as a composing group, and to a lesser extent as a performing group, is that it very rarely repeats itself. Fripp has often written about the need for a group to play the music that it–that particular group, at that particular time–is meant to play, and then to recognize when its time has passed, and then to stop. And so it is no surprise that KC thus comes in “editions”, where each new group iteration plays a music that is quite distinct unto itself; you are not going to confuse the ’80s Crim material with the ’69 band, nor with the late ’90s ProjeKcts. You do not go to a King Crimson show to hear all the old hits, because that is not what they will play; more likely you will instead hear brand-new, current-edition material that has not yet made it to any recording. (Crim tends to test-drive new compositions for a while at the live shows, before ever laying it down on record.) Again, this is all a Very Big Deal to me, this commitment to letting each group create independently of what came before it; I also note with pleasure and delight that despite what might be called this deliberate lack of continuity, each edition is nonetheless identifiably Crim. Now, maybe this is just the force of Fripp’s influence through all the iterations; or perhaps, as he has long insisted instead, it is that the King Crimson muse simply chooses to make itself available to certain working groups, and comes through naturally. Frankly, either explanation is perfectly acceptable to me, as long as it keeps happening!
As solo artist and collaborator
King Crimson, as one might imagine, then led me to Fripp’s solo and side project work. As a guest artist, he automatically stands out in at least one respect: stylistically, nobody else sounds even remotely like him; for all his massive influence among guitarists, nobody seems to be able to capture the way his mind, or his muse, creates. And then there are the “Soundscapes“, which grew out of his pioneering collaborations with Brian Eno in the mid-’70s. Here again, Fripp is leaning on this notion of taking a deliberate musical risk in what amounts to full, real-time improvisation; at least in the “Frippertronics” period years before the advent of modern looping tools, any “mistake” he played would enter the loop and stay there for the entire piece!
I got my first glimpse of Fripp’s massive, 25-year Guitar Craft project from the three commercial albums that showed up on his discography listings at the time: Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists Live (1986), A Show of Hands (1990), and Intergalactic Boogie Express (1991). In the early 90s, I was still years away from even considering that I could try to make music instead of “just” listening to it, so the idea of what Guitar Craft really was, was largely lost on me. (Hard to believe, now, but it’s true.) The music on these discs was somewhat startling, not really like anything I’d heard before. It wasn’t simply an “acoustic King Crimson”, exactly, although there were obviously some elements in there that were very Crim-like. Many of the compositions were starkly beautiful, while others sounded a bit mechanical–but all of them tended to get your attention. I think I realized, at some level, that there were things going on here that I did not understand, but were significant.
The League‘s records at some point suggested the California Guitar Trio, the first and most well known of the Guitar Craft groups. The CGT’s writing struck me as distinctly coherent and original, but it clearly owed much to the League. Two things that stuck out about CGT were the lovely Bach and Beethoven arrangements, and the playing of linear pieces such as the Moonlight Sonata by “circulating” the notes: each player plays, and sustains, every third note as the piece unfolds, creating a beautiful, harp-like effect that is only possible when done this way. And they were–are–brilliant at it. All this got my full attention, and somewhere in there I started to realize what Guitar Craft really was.
Let’s just say that ol’ Robert didn’t exactly waste his time between the ’80s and ’90s Crim bands. Nosir, he was plenty busy launching an incredibly important project that would transform the lives of thousands in a way far more immediate and lasting than anything he could have ever done in the studio or on stage. (Little did I know it at first, but one of those lives would be mine!)
In 2002, not very long after I had picked up an instrument for the first time, I got wind of a Guitar Craft “guitar circle” operating right there in Colorado, where I was living at the time. Tentatively–I was very unsure of myself, especially considering the level of musicianship and complexity I ascribed to the things I’d heard from the League–I went to my first Guitar Circle Colorado meeting, telling myself I would just observe and not waste anyone’s time. Pshaw! They insisted I not only participate, but actually improvise with them in circulations. (Crafties everywhere are like that, bless ’em till the end of time!)
So it was pretty easy, given my love of the music of Crimson, Fripp, the League, and the CGT, for me to then quickly settle on a personal development strategy of learning music with this group, and I am so happy I did; especially in hindsight, I cannot imagine a better way to get a solid foundation than the path I took. It’s a bit bittersweet, now that the Guitar Craft project has ended, and new players no longer have the incredible vastness of that option, but I can absolutely understand Robert’s point that the project has completed its intentions and should come to a natural end. And it’s not like all those Crafties are just going to go away… 🙂
It’s quite hard to describe how much influence Guitar Craft has had on me; where would I even begin? It is not merely a “method”, although at least arguably there is that; it is not just a musical education or even a general education, although there are both of those; it is not just about making connections or becoming aware, but there are those in spades…
How I hold the plectrum…the mechanics and technique of right and left hands…approaches to practice, exercises, practical music theory, improvisation, and group collaboration…attention to efficiency, posture and respect for the powerful principles of the Alexander Technique…listening for musicality in the simplest of exercises and phrases…being aware of myself, and others, and of what is happening…the appreciation for Silence not as the absence of sound, but the presence of Silence…the sense of willful collaboration and shared purpose in a group…the importance of the kitchen team to any learning effort…and then there is the Practice of Doing Nothing…
Musically, there is a terrific influence from the Crafty repertoire as well, which is a distinct canon unto itself, with its own orchestral tuning of expanded range, multiple ensemble parts of varying difficulties, emphasis on single-note lines within most parts (and the subsequent creation of chords through ensemble arrangement rather than through single-player strumming), frequent use of unusual time signatures and polyrhythms, non-Western syncopations and scales, wide intervals and transport around the neck within each ensemble part, and the overall Crafty composing and performing aesthetic, which plays regularly to the acoustic sound of the Ovation shallow roundback guitar.
There is also the specific influence of instructor Curt Golden, both in all the many things he has taught me, and also for his marvelous compositions. (Curt writes gloriously compelling basslines, and I can hear some of his ideas in my own writing.) There are also the Turkish folksong influences from Tony Geballe…the gorgeous melodies of Bert Lams…the haunting moods of Fernando Kabusacki…and others. Do not be fooled into thinking that Crafty tunes are all Fripp tunes–there are a number of great writers and collaborations here.
A Guitar Craft residential course is a life-changing experience. Part of that, of course, is that you learn–and what you learn. You practice. You ask questions. You develop technique. But you also improvise, and you pay attention, in ways that may never have occurred to you before–sometimes you learn how to pay attention in ways that never occurred to you before. My own favorite story is from a week-long course in Spain, hosted by the Guitar Craft Europe team and led by Robert; at one point, we convened all 80-odd students in a single room with chairs arranged in a giant circle, and Robert in the center. He divided the circle into quadrants, and addressed each in turn: this section was to play these two notes on the one and the four of five; this one was to play these three notes on the one, four, and six of seven; this one was to play these notes on the one, seven, and ten of eleven, and the final quadrant was to play a single note on the thirteen of thirteen. He began to conduct a pulse with his hand. “Go.”
I was in the ‘elevens’ section; like everyone around me, I was desperate to count it right and not get it wrong, and so I was focused so hard on the count, and my notes, that I hardly heard anything other than my notes, and saw nothing other than Robert’s pulse.
After a little while, the ‘feel’ of my pattern started to settle in, and I was able to release a lot of the tension I’d contorted myself into. I started to look around at others, noting that we were all at various points along the continuum between pure panic and starting to internalize our own parts. As more time went by and I allowed myself to pay more attention outwardly, I started to hear my own part against the others, just a little bit. And at this point I saw Robert, in the middle of this giant four-part circle, not just holding his pulse, but also making tiny movements in different directions…and it occurred to me that he always made a little movement in our section’s direction when our “1” passed by.
No way. That man is not counting all these parts at the same time. No way. Just…no way.
Of course I don’t know. But the thought occurred to me that just maybe he was. (After all the things I have seen and heard from Robert, I’m no longer convinced he’s really from this planet in the first place. So, maybe.)
Sometime after that crazy thought, I realized I was going quite well on feel, and so tried deliberately to close my eyes and really listen to what was going on. I didn’t need to see the pulse any more; with all the notes twinkling around, the pulse was obvious enough.
And at some point, it happened. I started to really hear what we, as a group of 80+ people working together, were doing in that room. What we, together, sounded like.
It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard, before or since.
I listened as intently, as intentionally, as I possibly could. There was no tension in the sound any more–as if everyone in the room had fully let go of the panic of counting, and were simply playing their parts. And maybe they were now hearing it all as well, just like I was. We went on for just a little bit more–such incredible sound!–and then I heard it quietly fall apart. Perhaps the muse realized we were all looking at her.
I opened my eyes, and the first thing that struck me was that Robert was no longer in the room. None of the instructors were; it was just us students. Somewhere in all that, they had all left, and we kept playing.
After we all stopped–it was quick, once it happened–it got quiet. Then, it got really quiet. And then Silence showed up, and stayed with us for a few precious minutes before leaving.
My face was wet–so were several others nearby–and I had a bit of a hitch in my breathing for a few minutes. (“Overwhelming” really doesn’t cover it adequately.)
At some point, I looked at the clock. We had started the thing (piece? exercise? demonstration of magic?) over fifty minutes ago. Amazing! (It had felt more like 10-15 minutes, tops.)
No, I’m not kidding when I say Guitar Craft changed people’s lives. 🙂
I was introduced to saxophone great John Coltrane by the same aforementioned college buddy. Whereas with Crimson he started me on some of KC’s more accessible music, with Trane he wasted no time at all, and went right for the crux. As he expected, I hated Om the first time I heard it; but, as he requested, I put it away for a year and then listened again. Hm. And then I listened again. And again…
Perhaps you can see where this is going: I quickly became a monster. I like to think that I appreciate, and learned a great deal from, each period of Trane’s work, but the one I keep coming back to after all these years is the “classic quartet” of Coltrane, drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison. I consider the bookends of this period to be, first, the 1961 “residency” at the Village Vanguard with bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, and finally the tumultuous 1965 period immediately before Trane’s full shift toward “free jazz” with Ascension and Om. One could argue that these bookends were not really “of” the classic quartet period, but were instead distinct and transitional periods of their own; I have considerable sympathy for that view, but for me, I see in Trane’s playing style a distinct fount of new ideas coming out of the Village Vanguard dates, which the classic quartet then refined beautifully over the next few years, and which briefly bulwarked the ultimately unstoppable avant-garde period that was coming. Together it describes a complete, self-contained arc within Trane’s larger historic development. And it is precisely the “in-between” nature of these bookends that makes them so important to me, as a lover of musical mutts; when distinct styles and ideas clash, stunning things can happen, and they certainly did here!
I suppose I am at least somewhat typical among Coltrane fans; at his best, he hits me in the hindbrain like a religious-quality dream-vision, and the experience can verge on being metaphysically overwhelming. I’ve heard many who have tried to emulate and copy him, but nobody ever really even came all that close. For my money, his best pairing was with Eric Dolphy at the Village Vanguard; the two of them fed off each other beautifully, and just churned out idea after idea as though there wasn’t a minute to lose.
I remain fascinated by the stories of Trane and Jones together, duetting for long periods while the rest of the band would leave the stage. I like to think I can hear some of Elvin’s legendary physical power in some of the recordings, but to the exact extent the legend is true, it must have been a completely different beast in person. As for Coltrane the soloist, I have always been struck by his phrasing and the way he hits a punchline–especially with the exquisite tone and emotion he got from the soprano instrument.
Of the three biographies I’ve read of his life, the tidbit that stands out the most to me is the fact of his terrible teeth. I admit, at times I wonder how he was able to do all those incredible things while holding an embouchure over a mouth screaming in pain–but on the other hand, maybe that in fact explains a lot!
If I had to bestow the horribly-overused title “genius” upon one person only, it would be the late and much-missed American composer-guitarist Frank Zappa, hands-down. It wasn’t always that way; I was one of those who overlooked him, for far too many years, as nothing more than a schlock artist, and as a result I only “discovered” him a year or two before he died. Even then, it took several more years before I really started to understand the magnitude of his importance, and of my mistake. Zappa lived in a world that at once desperately needed him, but was even more desperate to ignore him. Fortunately, part of his genius was that he didn’t seem to care about that at all; he simply made himself available to those who would listen, and put himself out there with no apologies. And yet FZ was no preening peacock. Far from it: his walk was so much greater than any of his talk, what earthly use would he have had for peacockery? He was the very essence of “the real deal”.
It is actually difficult to overstate how titanic a musical force FZ was. As just one example, in parodying the excess and bombast of ‘7os prog (something which, even those of us who love prog must admit, needed to be done), he regularly did it with music far more complicated and impressive than any of the chest-thumpers he was poking fun at. There are the legendary stories of simply ridiculous compositions like “The Black Page” (see here for an excellent demonstration–of two drummers playing it in unison!). And then there is the regard in which other musicians hold him. For starters, as a bandleader who regularly graduated “alumni” who then went on to do great things of their own, he was at least the equal of a Miles Davis or a Duke Ellington, and as such he tended to attract some pretty stellar talent in the first place. Which then highlights the audition stories. Just do a YouTube search on the terms “Frank Zappa audition” and watch just a few of what comes up: these are not exactly hack musicians, and look at how they talk about him. Steve Vai’s story is but one example, and it speaks volumes.
Personally, I would (and have) hold up this clip of “Drowning Witch”, from the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore live series, as the single demonstrative example of most of what I love about FZ’s music. It’s got the shifting musical styles, the complicated structure and broad full-band arrangement, the playful delivery of both music and words, and a pretty good representation of what his glorious and largely inimitable guitar voice sounds like. (“Something really stinkin’,” as he might say.)
Guitar Circle Colorado has been known to cover FZ’s “Sleep Dirt”, on the strength of a Mark J two-part arrangement; it fits the Crafty aesthetic well, and is simply beautiful besides.
Michael Hedges and ‘violent acoustic’
In the way that Jimi Hendrix is for many, composer-guitarist Michael Hedges was the artist I thought I was ready for, but really wasn’t. I discovered him through William Ackerman and the Windham Hill label, and was simply blown away by his 1984 record Aerial Boundaries. At that time, still many years away from even considering that I could try to make music instead of just listen to it, and knowing nothing about guitar technique at all, I instantly assumed that the title track (still one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard) was made with multiple overdubs and a goodly amount of “studio magick”.
So, when I got a seat about ten feet away from him at little Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford in 1989, I was possibly a little disappointed when he walked on stage carrying nothing but a rather beat-up looking dreadnought guitar. When he then proceeded to play “Aerial Boundaries”, in its entirety and with every spacey nuance on full display, on that same instrument, right in front of my unbelieving eyes…well, I never looked at music the same way again.
About twenty years later, after (finally) gaining a solid playing foundation from involvement in Guitar Circle Colorado and Guitar Craft, I came back to Hedges in a somewhat unexpected way: by listening to the latest players carrying on the playing and genre ideas he had inspired. Most responsible for this was Pandora internet radio, which quickly exposed me to a great deal of what Hedges called “violent acoustic” music.
And holy smackers, but there is some great material in there! Antoine Dufour is one favorite, bringing together compositional musicality, innovative technique, jaw-dropping execution, and an aesthetic that suits me well. Erik Mongrain may be my favorite composer of the bunch; his ability to create moods is fabulous. Kaki King is who I’d pick for improvisations; her aesthetic for challenging the ear is right up my alley. Andy McKee seems to have more fun than anyone, to the point of it being infectious. And Mike Dawes has lately roared onto the scene, with a beautiful and wildly inventive style that I’m still stumbling to catch up with. Add in the instrumental work of Davy Graham and Phil Keaggy, the force of nature that is Algerian wonder Pierre Bensusan, and the pioneering work of Don Ross and Preston Reed, and what you have is a genre that seems to have reached full maturity.
One of the great things about this company is that many publish their scores, giving at least some insight on the “how on earth does (s)he do that?” question; taken in tandem with the glory of performance clips on YouTube, it is a great time to be a student of new ideas.
Sam Bush and newgrass
How much influence does Kentucky mandolinist-fiddler-singer-bandleader Sam Bush have in my life? Well, if I had to limit that answer to a single observation, here it is: all three of my children were born to the sounds of Sam’s music, something that was designed and on purpose. As with Robert Fripp, for me to contemplate a musical life without Sam in it, is rather like trying to divide by zero.
My first taste came in 1994, when a coworker and friend insisted I come with him to try out this event called the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “Even if it turns out you don’t like bluegrass, it’s still a great event,” he said. “We’ll go Friday and Saturday.”
As it turned out: oh, I liked bluegrass all right. I liked bluegrass a lot. But what I was completely unprepared for, was the musical mutt called newgrass, which starts with bluegrass and then adds…other elements. Elements like jazz and non-Western influences, and complex time signatures, and difficult arrangements…
So, on Friday, the headliner set was Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which simply left me somewhere between blubbering and totally speechless. The virtuosity, the stunningly complex arrangements and effortless tour of musical styles…what in the holy hell was wrong with the world, that I’d had no idea any of this existed before? More of that, yes, please! And then Saturday, the anchor set of the whole Festival was Sam’s. He led off with his signature mandolin tour de force “Stingray“, and as I felt the power of speech leave me I realized that what had happened the night before, was going to happen again. It did, and it was glorious.
Initially, it was Béla who struck me even more than Sam. I’m still not entirely sure Béla is from this planet; his skills are well past mind-boggling, he is phenomenal as a composer, and with the Flecktones at least, the risks of experimentation and improvisation that he takes are obvious, and even somewhat Crim-like in their scale. But over time, I noticed that I reached for Sam even more often. Huh. Why was–is–that? I still don’t have an answer, really. I suspect that it has something to do with Sam’s total package, but who knows? Sometimes not having an answer is just fine.
And with the newgrass crowd, they often run together anyway. Béla worked with Sam for about 8 years in New Grass Revival before starting up the Flecktones, and the two guested on each other’s records for years after that as well. One of the most delightful things about the bluegrass/newgrass world is how collaborative the aesthetic is; at an event like the Telluride festival, the big topic of conversation isn’t what act might have a given set–instead it’s “who’s going to walk out on stage during the next set?” All in all it’s a very exciting tradition and practice.
Sam Bush is the reason I picked up the mandolin in the first place. He is an absolute master of creating exciting rhythms within his playing, and is arguably the reigning king of the chop chord. He’s not prolific as a composer, per se, but when he does pen a tune of his own, it’s nearly always noteworthy. And in addition to all the bluegrass standards that he covers, he’s also been known to perform music as diverse as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bob Marley, and the Allman Brothers Band, usually with clever arrangements that bounce back and forth between the tune’s original aesthetic and something identifiably ‘grassy.
One of my favorite Sam stories is from the Telluride festival the year of the Laps In Seven record. One of the tunes on that record was John Hartford‘s “On The Road,” and before they played it as part of their live set, Sam told the audience the story of how Hartford wrote it quite deliberately in 5/4 time, to convey the disjointed feel of a musician’s life on the road. “5/4 is one of the hardest times to play,” he said, and went on about the man’s quietly impressive musicianship and willingness to tackle things like odd time signatures. It was a cool story, and made it pretty obvious the respect that so many musicians, ‘grass and otherwise, have for him. (Sam has more than once stated that but for John Hartford, there would be no ‘newgrass’.) Then, of course, they just ripped the tune apart.
Thing is, what Sam said absolutely nothing about, was that the song they had just finished playing, to lead into the “On The Road” vignette, was Sam’s own instrumental composition “The Dolphin Dance”, which is built around a 13/4 structure and 5/4 interlude, and yet swings beautifully. I have long wondered just how many others in that audience were aware of the irony! (And the Laps In Seven record is so named in the first place, because one day Sam overheard his dog lapping water from his bowl…in perfect 7/4 time. The last sounds on the disc are a recording of the dog doing just that!)
Somehow, the vignette seems fitting: bluegrass is hardly known for its chest-thumpers and self-promotion in the first place, but even within that delightful aesthetic, Sam’s relentless humility and obvious love and enthusiasm for both his influences and his collaborators stands out, and is infectious. He seems to combine the very best aspects of both the hippy-longhair and the country gentleman.
The next year at the Telluride festival (after that sort beginning, I didn’t miss one for another dozen years!) I also saw the David Grisman Quintet for the first time, and instantly had another mandolin hero. “Dawg” music turns the bluegrass aesthetic on its head simply because it’s nearly all written in minor keys (bluegrass is unabashedly major in tonality), even before adding the jazz, Latin, and klezmer influences. Dawg is a phenomenal player and composer, and a bandleader not unlike Miles, judging by the accomplishments of his various groups’ alumni… As but one example, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around just how good original DGQ guitarist Tony Rice is, as a player and improviser, and really as a composer as well: judging from his solo records, one is tempted to observe that he may have had a strong hand in developing the “Dawg music” sound from the beginning!
Both Sam Bush and Dawg speak in reverent terms about comedian and jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns as one of their chief influences, and the more I approach his work the more I understand why. Burns had a great approach to simplicity that has really taken root in my own thinking, especially the idea of the three-string chord. He is still known to most just for being the “Jethro” of the “Homer and Jethro” act, but his jazz playing was outstanding and very influential.
Other collaborators of both Sam and Béla stand out as well; to list them all out would defeat the purpose (and my goodness but there are a lot of them), but to ignore them all would seem to leave a few unexplained holes in my influences. I’ll compromise on two.
One really has to see bassist Edgar Meyer perform, to understand the magnitude of his skill. I remember reading about him once, that he used to win fiddle contests bowing his bass. I didn’t believe that until I saw him play, and now it doesn’t seem far fetched at all. When collaborating with newgrassers, his arco style is often used as a deliberate goad, to bring the best out of whoever he’s playing with–and man, it works! He has worked regularly with Béla and Sam, and is at least as well known in the classical music world
The other is the man they call “Flux”, the master of the resonator, Jerry Douglas. It would be an understatement to say that he re-set the bar for resonator playing. I’m not sure he was ever an official member of New Grass Revival, but he might as well have been, as he has been all over both the records and the live sets by Sam, Béla…and nearly everyone else. (In that way, he’s kind of the Tony Levin of the ‘grass world.) For me, what makes Flux such a notable influence is his compositional style, his approach to improvisation, and the way he decorates an ensemble piece. (I appreciate his ability to fit both high- and low-density decorations to a group, especially in a genre where “sharing the 8th notes” can be a very real problem.)
Further touring the pantheon
As if the foregoing didn’t already cover a fairly broad spectrum, there are many more that deserve mention–truly, too many to even attempt to be exhaustive. So, instead, I’ll highlight a few here that may shed some specific light as to where ideas may be coming from.
I have been simply blown away by a couple of Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen‘s instrumental groups; the Continuo record in particular has some spectacular pieces on it, including the intoxicating 5/4 vehicle “Nu Nu“. More recently, and also thanks to Pandora internet radio, I have been much taken with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem‘s quartet, which creates beautiful moods that hit me squarely where I live. Brahem’s instrumentation is suitably eclectic; the in-front instruments are the oud and bass clarinet, and the rhythm section is bass and tabla. Entirely representative of what I’ve heard thus far is “The Astounding Eyes of Rita“.
Then there is the prolific and enigmatic American composer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn, who seems to be very nearly his own genre; I recall first hearing Bar Kokhba quite some time ago now, and have since discovered that I really appreciate all his Masada-related projects.
I first became aware of Indian violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar through Tony Levin’s first solo album World Diary, and then I kept finding him working with other people I knew about (e.g., Zappa, Gabriel, Mark O’Connor), but really it was his flabbergasting acoustic work with John McLaughlin in Shakti (try this for an example) that finally made me seek out his solo work. His records Pancha Nadai Pallavi and Raga Aberi, featuring his “double violin” brainchild, are mesmerizing expressions of the South Indian tradition that he came out of.
In the rock idiom, Led Zeppelin has long stood out for the impressive range of their influences, and for the sheer power of their delivery. Mark Knopfler has long been a favorite as well, at least as much on his own as with Dire Straits back in the day; there is something identifiably unique about Knopfler’s style, and uniqueness nearly always speaks to me. And of course–given the hardcore interest in King Crimson–it won’t surprise you to see a few other names from the “prog” stable. Yes is a big one, especially the Fragile / Close to the Edge period; Genesis, particularly from Foxtrot through Duke, and then there is Rush, principally the period between A Farewell To Kings and Moving Pictures.
In jazz, aside from Coltrane, I would definitely list Miles Davis as a heavy interest, particularly the ’60s period from Kind of Blue right though Filles de Kilimanjaro. (Oddly, I identify more with some of the groups that came out of Miles’ explosion into fusion, than with his own groups.) I loved the first Return to Forever album, but the subsequent ones, for all their virtuosity, just didn’t hit me where I live nearly as much. Then there was Weather Report, which had so many fresh ideas; I loved original bassist Miroslav Vitous as much as the Jaco Pastorius years that came later. And of course there are the various projects of master guitarist John McLaughlin, who IMHO reached a pinnacle with the aforementioned acoustic project Shakti, but which included the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra records, the Tony Williams Lifetime, Miles’ first fusion bands, the supergroup guitar trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, and several small groups, including one in particular that really spoke to me with bassist Kai Eckhardt and percussionist Trilok Gurtu.
In “old dead white guy” music, I seem to favor the Russians pretty heavily: Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol are favorites, as are Stravinsky‘s Petrushka and Prokofiev‘s Alexander Nevsky. Dvořák‘s New World symphony may well be my favorite exemplar of that form, and I have long been fascinated with Béla Bartók‘s use of the Hungarian or “gypsy” minor scale, with its major second, minor third, augmented fourth, flat sixth, and major seventh intervals. (Diatonic chords can get…nasty.) And of course there is Bach, so beloved of Crafties; of his expansive corpus of work my favorite is probably the D minor Ciaccona written originally for solo violin…about which no less than Johannes Brahms wrote:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
And last but not least…
Lest you think I am nothing but serious (not just wordy, but wordy and serious!), I must conclude with the immeasurable impact that music for kids has had on me.
One of the most valuable musical lessons I have yet learned was taught to me by my first child, at the age of maybe three months. I used to sit down next to her with the mandolin and she would perk right up with a huge grin; I therefore figured it would be a great thing to practice while entertaining her…
…and it was…provided I truly did entertain her. That was a huge lesson, for me. I quickly figured out that this arrangement would not work at all, if I just sat there and did my normal ‘be-a-geek’ thing. No, I actually had to do something that would hold her attention, actively. I had to come up with it on the spot, and make it work both with what came before and what came after.
It was at that moment that I really, truly started improvising. And it worked; she would play happily next to me for long periods, if I would but keep playing something she found interesting. Wander too far and I’d lose her; this audience was not interested in mere wankery.
My playing got a lot more confident, over the next six months, and the lesson has stuck with me ever since. I make no claim to be a great improviser, but I think I’m a much better listener now, and I’ll take that!
I had heard of They Might Be Giants before, but it was a road trip in the car with Here Come The ABCs that really got my attention. Here was music for kids that was more than just satisfying for adults; it was both musically and lyrically clever, conspicuously talked up to kids instead of down, spanned a huge range of musical styles, and was just plain fun. It seemed to me like the sort of kids’ music I’d love to make. The more I listened and got closer, the more impressed I was, and remain. (And even more importantly, the kids frequently demanded it!)
A similar thing happened with Barenaked Ladies. Like TMBG, they can, and do, make music both for kids and for adults, and they do an excellent job at both. I’d been casually aware of their work before having kids, but somewhere in there I ran across the Snacktime! record, and got hooked. Again, the more I approach and listen intentionally to their work, the more impressive it seems. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that my first dose of respect really came when I saw them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “Outside guests” though they were, these guys were all over the “gather-round-the-single-mic” bluegrass aesthetic, and they pulled it off brilliantly. The real deal, indeed!) And once again, the kids started asking for them by name.
There is also Weird Al Yankovic. It is probably fair to say that I became a true Weird Al fan because of several things that didn’t happen at the same time. The stage was set, I think, when I started to really dig in to Frank Zappa; it occurred to me at some point that Al’s ability to use any musical genre was an impressive skill just on its own, just like Zappa…and then there was the skill at parody. Al of course keeps it cleaner and less biting than FZ, but still, sometimes it’s harder to do it that way, and Al is frequently very funny. With the Running With Scissors record, there was the specific masterpiece “It’s All About The Pentiums“, which was so pluperfectly spot-on that I used to use it as comic relief and historical perspective when teaching technical classes. And then my wife and I started playing Al for the girls, who glommed on immediately; they particularly like his mad polka medleys, and they love the idea that he asks permission of people before parodying them!
Finally, I’ll give a shout out for Trout Fishing In America, who have become another specific favorite of both the kids and mine. The counting song “18 Wheels on a Big Rig” even made an unexpected academic appearance as my oldest went through her mid-year assessment for kindergarten; when asked to count out loud as far as she could in one minute, she began and immediately settled into a…certain rhythm: “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve-thir-teen-four-teen-fif-teen-six-teen-seven-teen-eight-teen-whe-els onnn a big rig…” She was actually singing the line by the end, and, remembering herself, her eyes immediately bulged out; she looked at me and we both burst out laughing. After the minute or so it took us both to calm down, I offered to explain to the amused proctor what had just happened. (We like her.) Anyway, Trout has become another favorite of the girls, and as a parent I like the way the guys play with subjects without pandering.
Yeah, that was a summary.
Hell, I didn’t mention Jamie Janover or Neil Haverstick at all. Nor Stephane Grappelli, nor Natalie MacMaster, nor even Mark O’Connor, who ran for all those years with Sam, Béla, Flux, and Edgar. There’s all the specifics of Guitar Circle Colorado, and the stories of the King Crimson and Guitar Craft side projects and alumni, such as Trey Gunn and Tony Levin. Oh, trust me, there’s far more to tell, but I had to stop somewhere.
Like I said in the beginning: my influences? Well, yes! 🙂