Bobby McFerrin, just killin’ the point.

I have long felt that just about everybody “knows” basic music theory, even if they don’t have fancy names to go with the concepts.  Some things in life just tap directly into the human hindbrain.  I try to describe it, usually along these lines:  “Look, I could sit down and play a simple sequence of chords in a room full of ‘tone-deaf noobs’ , and yet everyone in that room will know–know–if I end the sequence ‘correctly’, or if I botch it.”  Seems to make sense to me, but I still get blank stares.

Well.  Perhaps my problem is that I use too many words* to try and make that point.  Behold the glorious gift of nature that is Bobby McFerrin, who needs no words at all to demonstrate what I would argue is very nearly the same idea.

Wow.  Just–wow.  It’s almost impossible for me, as an instructor and an advocate, not to get juiced when the audience responds perfectly to each successive, unannounced note.

I’m delighted to be able to point to such a great example of the “everyone understands already” idea, but hell, part of it is just the joy of watching a true master at work.  And McFerrin is at least that.  I recall vividly the first time I got to see him live;  he had a set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2005, which was awesome enough on its own (at that time I had some–some–idea of what he could do), but it was the usual TBF cross-pollinations that really took it beyond the planet.  When he came out and sat in with the trio of Béla Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stanley Clarke (!!!), I figured it would be something spectacular, and it most certainly was!  But the actual high point, believe it or not, was when he guested on Alison Krauss’ set;  he said he wanted her to sing a particular tune of hers (don’t recall now what it was), and she agreed…and then Union Station (Krauss’ backing band, one of the most accomplished in the genre), clearly in on whatever this deal was, left the stage.  She seemed both giddy, to be singing with one of her heroes, and also a bit terrified, not to have her usual crew behind her, and not quite sure what was going to happen…but she took a deep breath and started singing…

And McFerrin “played” all the band’s parts, with his voice, at the same time, against Krauss’ vocal.  It was absolutely stunning;  I have never seen anything remotely like it.

So, by all means take the point from Bobby McFerrin, instead of from me.  Believe me, I don’t mind that a bit.  🙂

* No snickering, now.

Steve Ball’s Airport Exercise.

Long-time Gaucho and general ace Crafty Steve Ball demonstrates his workhorse Airport Exercise, designed to stretch the fingers and otherwise provide a calisthenic challenge within a simple form.  Here, the brilliant addition of the moving bass line is a good reminder that exercises can also be musical, if we listen for it and respond in kind.

The tuning in the video is the Guitar Craft standard tuning, C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4, but obviously the core idea could be extended to any tuning with reasonably minor arrangement.

The exercise can be as simple as the core five-note pattern, which systematically stretches the fingers and provides a basic alternate picking challenge (the “1” alternates between an upstroke and downstroke), or as rich as what you see Steve doing here, adding parts, playing with muting, staccato vs. ringing notes, and having the exercise move against ensemble parts like Tony Levin’s added bass.

Bookmarked here for easy reference!

Stuck in my head: “Song for Sonny Liston” by Mark Knopfler.

So I’ve got this love-hate relationship with the blues, as a genre.  Really I think that it’s a simple matter of having been bludgeoned with it so heavily, for so many years, that it just invokes the overkill reaction automatically.  In the public eye, at least, the amount of attention paid to blues and blues-derived rock can get pretty absurd.  In my lifetime, nothing else has been pushed in my face anywhere nearly as much.  Just consider, as but one example, all the different “Top [N] Guitarists Of All Time” articles you’ve seen in the big music rags over the years.  Isn’t it absolutely astonishing how many of them turn out to be blues-rock players from acts wildly popular with American audiences?  Gosh, whatever should I infer from this?

And yet fresh music still happens within every genre, and I am still sometimes reminded of how powerful blues can be.  As one recent example, via the unlikely vehicle of commentator William Norman Grigg’s repeated insistence within Facebook posts, I first became aware of Derek Trucks’ truly unique and quite stunning guitar voice.  Wow!  Another example, via Pandora online radio and the…interesting adventures of navigating their classification taxonomy, was when I came to be aware of the not-exactly-recent John Fahey, who either wasn’t or most certainly was “blues”, depending on who you ask, and there is a whole genre’s worth of authentic music there as well!

And then there’s the ongoing enigma of Mark Knopfler, who seems to be able both to move across genres, while retaining something that is always identifiably him.  I appreciate that in an artist, and over time, Knopfler has delivered pretty reliably.  Reliably enough, in fact, that I chose to chase a somewhat arbitrary link to him playing “Song For Sonny Liston”…and now I can’t get it out of my head.

To be sure, there’s nothing extraordinary about the tune, except just maybe the totality of it.  Simple music, beautifully played, in support of a deeply non-trivial lyric observation of the enigmatic and tragic life of a somewhat unusual subject.

Curiously, I had been thinking about Liston somewhat recently anyway, after the death of Muhammad Ali;  perhaps there is a little of that fascination at work as well.  Or maybe it’s just all of the implications in all of the unusual things that happened during an unusual man’s unusual life.

Whatever it is, it’s strangely compelling, and worth bookmarking here.

Perhaps this could be called the “eku-cello” tuning.

See, “eku” is “uke” upside down, and this tuning idea combines an upside down ukulele tuning with cello pitches…where the two 4-string groupings overlap the C2 and the G2 strings.

Maybe I should explain…

Continue reading Perhaps this could be called the “eku-cello” tuning.

7/7/7 Day Eight (yes, Day Eight): Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 8. Wait, what?
I needed a vehicle to recognize Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

Any such list is bound to have a criminal omission on it. Mine, true to type, has at least three. At least: three of this magnitude:

Frank Zappa, “Drowning Witch”

How does one choose “a” Zappa piece? Which of the forty zillion musical ideas deserves the single highlight? I played in a trio whose repertoire included “Sleep Dirt”, so y’know, maybe that one. Or perhaps it’s a legendary composition like “The Black Page”. Or hell, why not go straight to the obnoxious–there’s plenty to choose from, after all.

I went with the tortured idea-mill otherwise known as “Drowning Witch”, partly because it seems to have a little of all of it. (This is the version from the third installment of the “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore” series.) But really, I just needed to recognize FZ as an influence, and as a genius of just as much depth as anyone may care to discover. (To paraphrase from the liner notes: “This is a hard song to play. How hard? The 1984 band *never* played it perfectly, and the 1982 band only came close on two occasions. This edit captures some of the best efforts of both.” Consider the musical caliber of FZ bands, against that statement.)

Béla Fleck, “System Seven”

Jeez, I could have picked any of a dozen Béla Fleck songs and been happy with the choice. In the end I went with a quiet, unflashy piece from the first “Tales from the Acoustic Planet” record, where by “backing band” what is really meant is “acoustic supergroup”. It makes the point as well as any: the man has been a wildly important figure in multiple musical genres, and it’s certainly hard to imagine my musical life without him. (For anyone looking for a delightful story, check out Fleck’s “Throw Down Your Heart” documentary.)

It sometimes seems strange that I have followed Sam Bush even more closely than Béla; knowing my usual preferences it would be easy to conclude I’d always gravitate toward Fleck first. This probably says more about Sam than about Béla, and make no mistake–on the recordings we used at all three of our kids’ births, only Sam appears more often than the Banjo Boy Wonder. There are times–a lot of them–when it seems that there is simply nothing he cannot do with a five-string banjo.

JS Bach, “Ciaccona”

As a composition, Bach’s “Ciaccona” / “Chaconne” is simply a monstrous, haunting masterpiece. I keep telling myself that some day I will actually get around to tackling that one in earnest…and I’ll have my hands full doing it. The version of it that really took my attention for the first time was an arrangement for guitar (in the Guitar Craft tuning) played by Bert Lams on the first California Guitar Trio record, “Yamanashi Blues”. Spine-chilling! On the other hand there is a tradition of playing it on the mandolin (hell, it was written for violin, which is tuned the same), and I can certainly say that just playing the main chord sequence, voiced as it is, just burrows right down where I live.

The YouTube clip above is the very definition of aggravating. Incomplete, with several random splits in the timeline,…grrrrh. Nonetheless, it is Mike Marshall playing…the same Mike Marshall that guys like Sam Bush go to for technical tips and help with the truly impossible passages. And he’s playing this ludicrously beautiful piece as well as you’ll hear it played.

Well, I fell better now, having found a way to include Zappa, Bela, and Bach. And I’ll call the project done.

For now.  🙂

7/7/7 Day Seven: King Crimson, ‘The Sheltering Sky’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 7. King Crimson, “The Sheltering Sky”.…/Discipline_(King_Crimson_album)

To this day, this for me remains *the* most viscerally insistent piece of music I have ever heard. (Yes, I’ve thought about this before. Given that the “inner circle” of contenders for that title includes things such as Miles’ heart-stopping pianissimo solo in the Aranjuez section of “Sketches of Spain” and Coltrane’s otherworldly interpretation of “Compassion” from his first (quartet) “Meditations”, you might say the accolade is not arbitrary.) Like “OM”, I simply could not consider such an effort as this “7/7/7” of mine to be valid without this in it.

In that regard, I’m a bit bummed I can’t seem to find a YouTube link to the studio version of this piece. There are a number of live recordings available, and (as with the one above from Frejus in ’82) 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.

If you have never heard the original, do consider gifting yourself a copy of the “Discipline” album, and really listening to it–the whole thing, but especially “Sky”. “Discipline” is what simply exploded my musical world, bent my ears, and put me in the place I am today. I have since become a fan of all King Crimson and Robert Fripp in general, and of course that is how I found out about Guitar Craft in the first place. (When you consider all the coattails, it’s kinda hard to overstate the impact that’s all had on me.)

Incidentally, once I’d heard (and been flattened by) “The Sheltering Sky”, I of course had to read the Paul Bowles novel. Crimson’s piece is an eerily appropriate soundtrack, and I have since remained interested in this metaphysical distinction between a tourist and a traveler. (All the things that art is supposed to do!)

And so concludes my official “7/7/7”. But you know me, right? So it won’t entirely surprise you if that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m quite yet done.  🙂

7/7/7 Day Six: Curt Golden, ‘Bicycling to Afghanistan’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 6: Curt Golden, “Bicycling to Afghanistan”.

Every player has at least one personal nemesis. This one is mine! During my involvement in Guitar Craft, I came by the score of this piece and, ambitious SOB that I am, resolved to bring it to Guitar Circle Colorado. During one of my many extended business trips of that time, I spent…a lot…of time studying all three parts, and the extent of the “reverse beer goggles” phenomenon was astonishing.

The way I remember Curt telling us the story about the piece, he by God wanted to write a Guitar Craft piece that you could count in four and in three like everyone else. (Guitar Craft is somewhat known for its fives, sevens, and the occasional thirteen) So…he, ah, did. In such a way as to (re-)earn his nickname, “Curt You Bastard”.

Note this YouTube of a Guitar Craft trio, bravely attacking “Bicycling”; I’ll use them as a backdrop for explanation:

The fella on the left is playing the “fives” part, which you might call the main melody line. Its core figure is a five-count, which features completely counter-intuitive finger movements, and it must “catch up” to the main song’s four- and three-counts.

The fella in the middle is the bass part, which is mostly counted in six, and with some of the most glorious syncopations I have ever seen. (Curt writes absolutely bomber bass parts.) Finger gymnastics are demanding, as is the string skipping to get the octaves at the suggested tempo. (The score indicates it is intended for 98-104bpm, which given the technical demands borders on outrageous.)

The guy on the right is the “harmony” part, also known as the sevens, with an over-the-top eleven in the C Phrygian section, and two extremely challenging turnaround descents. Like the fives, it has to “catch up” to the overall four- and three-counts, and on top of it all, there is this motif, which you can hear go up an octave in the F# Phrygian section, that is actually handed from the fives part to the sevens part.

Curt you bastard, indeed. It’s freakin’ glorious.

But here’s the thing. I learned all three parts, both just to do it (and understand the piece better), and also to be able to take it to GCCO with the aim of playing it as an ensemble. And so I did; we divided up the parts, studied a bit individually, and then the trio came together to work on it.


Each part, on its own, is so engaging and interesting that it really stands on its own; in one way it’s a real shame that the ensemble covers so much of what is going on in any one part. And so Dave and I sat down to work on the sevens against the fives…and I completely fell apart on the sevens, simply because I was so mesmerized hearing him play the fives against it. It was a whole different learning curve to play it together…and yet we were already a seasoned ensemble with an existing repertoire of complicated, interlocking parts. This, somehow, is a whole different beast.

Again: glorious.

That first link is of the Atomic Chamber Ensemble, one of Curt’s various Guitar Craft projects; it is a great reference standard for students of the piece–especially as it has the “fourth part” ending, which gilds the lily in a truly beautiful and over-the-top way.  (The fourth part is absent on the League’s 1990 A Show Of Hands album.)

And here is another YouTube link to the piece being performed by the League in Atlanta:

The evil SOB on the right is Curt, by the way.  (You…bastard!)

Kudos to the trio at the second YouTube link for getting out there and playing it. I can certainly hear a few clams, but then again we had ’em too! And you can see their hands–players can perhaps get some idea of how challenging it really is.

I’m happy to call it my nemesis; may I never stop studying it!  🙂