Monday, October 16, 2017

Alone Again...Naturally:

Nothing stays the same. Sometimes that's good, though usually not. Least not in the short-term. If you'd have told me two years ago that I'd be an open mic regular I'd have flat-out laughed at you. But now--if its Tuesday, I'm most likely gonna be there. Least as long as open mic's there. So I guess that was a good change in my life. 

But God damn it...

Two weeks ago I went to open mic and it was just Dylan behind the mixing board. Normally that's not the case--normally open mic's a two man operation run by Dylan and Townsend. But not two weeks ago, and not last week either. Now its just Dylan. Hmmm. I know I went to public school, but if you go from two guys to one, that's a 50% cut in your operations--no? That can't be a good sign. 

When I first started at open mic, I was an open book. I didn't have a personality or any kind of stage presence. That had to develop; and indeed it has. To a degree anyway. Any limitation to that growth is likely a result of my own lack of vision and my inability to forge relationships outside of myself. I'd hoped open mic would have helped me on that last point; and in fairness, I'd say it has. To a minor degree. But I'm just not much of a people person.

Open mic's proven to be a peaceful way of inserting myself into a local community. Absent open mic or church or or some such organization, I'd have been reduced to thrusting myself on to society whether it liked it or not. Like that subway beggar apologizing for disturbing your ride or (to the most extreme) a political assassin. I'm here, I'm white, and you're gonna deal with me. Yes sir Mr. Big man! Course sometimes the pursuit of one goal comes at the expense of another. 

Case in point: 

Within my first few weeks of open mic I came to the conclusion that what I really liked to do was play with a drummer. That was how I'd get my collaboration/human interaction in, while still maintaining some control over the musical direction. In those early days I couldn't play with other chorded instruments (didn't really know how); couldn't hear or discern the other players thru the monitors; and I didn't like the musical tastes or song choices so many others wanted to play. So just myself and a drummer were perfect. 

(heavy sigh). 

But nothing stays the same. As my own voice began to develop and my intended musical direction became more clear to me, I found myself becoming more and more critical of the drummers. It wasn't a talent thing. Or a skills thing. A lot of the drummers--if not most, that I've played with are or were better than me. Relatively speaking, by which I mean if you translated where I'm at as a guitarist and turned me/transformed me into a drummer, I wouldn't be nearly as good as most of the drummers I've played with. And I wouldn't be where I'm at now without them, so I'm appreciative of them.

But just like a good bout in boxing is all about match-ups; a good musical collaboration is all about chemistry. Just 'cause a drummer's the best player doesn't mean he (or she's) the best match-up for my style. Or temperament. Most of the drummers at open mic are Rockers. They should be Rockers to the extent that the demographic in my neighborhood is young. Real young. And predominantly White. These kids look at Soundgarden or Nirvana or Alice in Chains the same way my generation revered Hendrix or Duane Allman or so many of the other bands that we never got to see in their true prime. If at all. 

That said, I'm really not a rocker. Not that I wouldn't like to be. My guitar heroes are Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. But I dont know. I'm 50 now. I have arthritis. I get tired real easy. My first love is R&B. Sometimes I'll be on stage and kick on that distortion pedal and...I start to turn into someone else up there. It doesn't seem authentic to me; and if I've learned one thing at open mic, its that authenticity is everything. In fact, I'd assert being authentic is Rock n Roll--regardless of what you're actually playing up there.

That same week Townsend stopped going to open mic (3 weeks ago?) I'd made a decision to shake things up. To change. I don't know if Townsend's absence actually triggered it--I suspect not; but I have a tendency to use bookmarks to delineate life events. I've been told that's a good thing--that successful people tend to put their life into chapters or frame personal development within certain events. So, cool. That's what I'm doing reader!

Anyway, three weeks ago I went to open mic; took stock of the drummers present (as well as those not there) and was suddenly reminded of something my favorite drummer had told me. Not my favorite all-time drummer; but my favorite open mic drummer. A guy I've played with in the past. We'd been outside smoking, and he said something along the lines of, "You like to play with the drummers 'cause you can hide behind them.

I didn't make much of the comment at the time. In fact, I recall thinking rather dismissively that he was talking too much. And wrong. He'd still likely be wrong if I'd have just found that same like-minded, R&B first, 45+  year old guy to jam with. But I never have. So every week I've been going to open mic. Hoping. Waiting. Reaching out to anyone who looked my age. Or demonstrated a similar musical taste. Until that day--three weeks ago now, when I went to open mic and there was no Townsend. And no drummer that excited me. So I waited 'til the end of the night and went up on stage alone. And for the past few weeks, that's what I've been doing pretty-much exclusively.

Which has proven to be a big change. 



Saturday, September 30, 2017

Up and Down at The Dreaded Blue Note (Dedicated to Puerto Rico!):

Blue Note’s probably my least favorite jazz club in New York. The cover’s expensive, the seats are too close together, the sight-lines are bad, and its always loaded with tourists. Music fans (particularly Europeans) recognize the Blue Note name and think its associated with the classic record label--which its not. And it has no relation to the old Blue Note club from back in the 50’s. Someone just bought the rights to the Blue Note name.

But because people recognize the name--or think they do; Blue Note consistently draws the biggest crowds; which in turn lures the biggest acts. Artists know asses will be in seats and that they're going to get paid, so a lot of big acts play exclusively at Blue Note.

At Blue Note you’re not supposed to take pictures. At least, not during the performance. In this present day of digital cameras they may have modified their policy to be no "flash" photography, but if you go there you might want to fact check that. Either way, when I saw Roy Haynes at Blue Note I made the mistake of taking his picture. This was with my old, company-issued film camera that used a flash. He’d finished his set (or so I thought) and was simply talking to the audience. So I figured, okay, it’s not like I’ll distract from his playing.

Well, I took his picture and Roy stopped on a dime.

“Who did that?” he asked as he put his hand to his eyes like a visor and looked out into the lights. Everyone looked at me. They'd seen it was me. I hadn’t tried to hide anything since I thought his performance was done.

“That was me,” I said with embarrassment from my seat.

“Stand up,” he said.

“What?” I asked, still in my seat.

“Didn’t you hear them at beginning of the show son? They said no cameras. What didn’t you understand about that? No cameras.”

He looked at me expectantly as he waited for an answer.

“..Well I thought they meant while you were playing since you might get distracted. I wouldn’t do that. But you were just talking so I thought it wouldn’t matter. ..That no one would get mad.”

Roy shook his head.

“No. That’s not right. No pictures means no pictures. People are mad. Come on, stand up.”

So now I’m really embarrassed ‘cause all proceedings have stopped until I stand up. People have paid their bullshit Blue Note cover charge and now they’re waiting on me. And I have no desire to stand up in front of a crowd of 300 people--I hate public speaking! So this was a real drag.

But I stood up.

Roy looked at me, then pointed toward the table.

“Now grab your camera.”

I reluctantly did as instructed.

“Okay," he said as he struck a pose "now take your picture," he said.

And I was like, “No, man, not like that.” But he insisted and continued to pose with his drink high in his hand, “No, take it. Take it right now. This is a toast to you, so go ‘head, take your picture.”

So I snapped this picture (below):

But even after the show Roy was still really indignant and made an immediate beeline to my table, insisting that I take another pic--just like he’d done from the stage. Only this time he was right in my face. "Go ‘head man, take your picture. Take it!" he said as he took a hit from his drink. 

So I clicked this shitty photo (above) motivated by mild panic more than anything else. It was so strange--the guy was like 80 yrs old. Maybe older. I could have taken him out right there. Or at least, I think I could've--he didn't seem to think so. He'd been absolutely fantastic that night; is a total jazz  legend, and had the whole crowd of support there. Plus I respected him so much! Really awkward moment(s) for me. 

Anyway, Blue Note gets all the tourists. They cram ‘em in like sardines. There’s maybe a couple-dozen worthwhile seats in the whole place. The rest are shit. You have to make a commitment to get there early or there’s a good chance you’ll have your back to the stage for your $40 cover. Freaking Blue Note.

But as Republican operative Karl Rove might tell you, sometimes you can turn a strength into weakness. Or visa versa.

Like when I saw trumpeter Arturo Sandoval at his recording party. Of course being Blue Note the place was packed, but this time it worked for me since I was seated at a table-full of women, all of whom looked like they’d just stepped out of a Univision telenovella. Or weather broadcast. A group of hoochies flown in that afternoon from Puerto Rico, looking for a good time over their weekend in New York.

Together we sat, without an inch to move in either direction--just the way they always do it at Blue Note. So the first time I felt a hand brush the inside of my leg I just chalked it up to the close quarters. Happens to us subway riders all the time. But the second time I felt that soft caress I was like, You’ve got to be kidding me. I looked over at the gorgeous girl seated to my right and she simply giggled at me wide-eyed; 'til her whole group fell into riotous, drunken laughter.

“You know, me and my chicas have a bet,” she said to me through her bubble-gum lip gloss and perfectly white teeth.

“Oh yeah?” I replied, “What’s that?”

“We have a bet as to who’s going to be first to kiss a guy here in New York.”

“Really,..that’s kind of a fun bet.”

“Who you think is going to win?” she asked me with a smile amongst her girls and a squeeze of my leg.

“Oh, I suppose it could be any..”
Then before I could even answer she planted a really excited and hot kiss on my lips, punctuated by a barrage of camera flashes and a cheer from her friends. All while Arturo’s band sang Eso Es Lo Que Hay.

Now that I'm old and dried-up things like that never happen to me; so how much is that memory worth? Some things are beyond money. So I'm glad I didn't charge with her sexual assault. Even if that was at the dreaded Blue Note.

Get better Puerto Rico. New York's w/ you!!



Saturday, September 16, 2017

My Favorite's the Best:

"I'd assert John Mclaughlin is the greatest overall guitar player in the world..."

"I'd bet it's a fact that if you were to ask only professional singers who's the best, they'll say Stevie."

"Beck feels more of us."

Making music's a "performance" art; but it ain't sports. Or even athletics. You can't definitively say "this guy's the best." Depending on the instrument, that question's a little easier to answer now--in 2017, since so many people have recently died or can no longer play; but still, there's no professional music tournament that culminates in a Bill Russell trophy and championship ring.

But the people who can really play--who have real careers, they know who's the best. Game recognizes game. Sure its just my opinion that Stevie Wonder's the best singer in the world. I can't back that up with any tangible stat or factoid. That said, I'd bet it's a fact that if you were to ask only professional singers who's the best, they'll say Stevie. Pretty quickly too.

Course that remains to be tested.

I'd assert John McLaughlin is the best overall guitar player in the world. He's not what he used to be--and in fact, I heard he's retiring after this last tour; but I'd argue that a John McLaughlin who's on his game would smoke pretty much anyone's ass regardless of the style chosen, type of guitar played, or even the genre. So long as he was having a good health day.

But being the best doesn't necessarily make you my favorite.  To me choosing McLaughlin as greatest guitarist is a no-brainer (just look at the resume); but Jeff Beck's my favorite and nothing's gonna change that. Both guys are geniuses; but McLaughlin has the kind of super-human virtuosity that can be a little off-putting. Like watching a movie that's extremely clever, with a lot of plot and visuals. Sometimes all that genius can get in the way of a direct, emotional connection; though in fairness to McLaughlin I give him credit for being as tasteful as he usually is considering the freaking Tommy-Gun of technique he has whenever he wants to use it.

Still, Jeff Beck's got just the right mix of virtuosity (by which I mean a ton) coupled with realness. That's not saying McLaughlin's an insincere player; it's just that Beck feels more of us. Or me. He plays genres that stay pretty close to my familiar home (rock; blues; R&B) as opposed that spiritually elevated, celestial stuff of McLaughlin's. Beck doesn't usually play all that fast; and in fact its not that any singular thing he does is really all that hard to play. Or do. Least in comparison to McLaughlin. Its the original conception(s) and uses of techniques that distinguishes him above all others. The beautifully melodic phrasing. The note choices and fluid mastery. The fact that I can physically pull off most of what Beck does makes me respect him more--not less. If he's not doing anything all that hard, why can't you ever phrase your solo's like that Lodo?

...Just leave me alone. 

If I were to run through all my favorites, I'd likely list Dave Holland as my favorite bass player (least on stand-up);  Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass; Danilo Perez on piano; Marc Cary on electric keys; Dave Douglas on trumpet; Angie Stone and D'angelo (songwriters); Joe Lovano and Wayne Shorter (sax). I already mentioned Beck on guitar and of course Stevie's the greatest of all-time at so many things. Drums gets a little hard--I like Joey Baron, Brian Blade, Calvin Weston. Whether they're actually the best...whatever. Its a stupid line of thinking. Those guys are my faves.

In sports, like say...boxing, they used to set things up to establish who's best. Linear champion was a term used to describe the guy who held all the division's belts. Course as Capitalism reared its ever-present ugly head it gave rise to more and more governing bodies (WBO; WBC; WBA; IBF; NABO). Please shut the the fuck up! It wouldn't be so bad so long as the boxers eventually unified the division; but I guess there's more money to be made avoiding that scenario.

But even in the days of unified champions there were still questions. Controversies. Jake Lamotta famously took a dive to get his title shot--and in fact, that seems to have been standard operating procedure back in the day. Gotta give the mob one first, then you get your title fight. Just ask Archie Moore how it goes when you don't do that. Well,..Archie's dead, but you see what I'm saying.

In boxing you can always ask what if in regards to championships. Or almost always. You can do that in a lot of sports. What if Draymond Green had been suspended for kicking Steven Adams when the Warriors played the Thunder in the West Coast Finals a few years back? Or what if he hadn't been suspended when the Warriors played the Cavs in the Finals? What if the ref hadn't made that terrible call on Bill Laimbeer back when the Bad Boy Pistons lost Game 7 to the Lakers? What if Dez Bryant's amazing catch had been allowed to stand against The Packers in the NFC championships a couple years ago? I'm not a huge sports fan; but there's always questions.

But those questions are heightened in boxing cause of boxing's idiosyncrasies. There's no "league" per se; and no such thing as best of 7. Hell, in today's day and age were lucky if we even get a re-match to a good fight. And in boxing the bigger star has WAY more advantages than the lesser-knowns. The contenders. The star and his team get to pick the most ideal timing to take or accept a bout; whereas the contender's gotta be ready to jump and accept if and when that offer comes. Its unlikely the contender's going to get a decision even if they win--unless Bob Arum or Vegas wants them to; so that stains the final records/stats of a career (just ask Erisandy Lara--among too many others to mention).

In boxing you can be better than your opponent--literally better; and yet still lose to them consistently. We saw this with Vernon Forrest against Ricardo Mayorga. Forrest lost both his fights against Mayorga and yet was a way better boxer and all-around athlete. He easily ranks above Mayorga on the ladder of all-timers; yet Forrest never could get past Mayorga's physical toughness. Muhammad Ali was a much better all-around talent than Ken Norton; but probably lost to him 2x. In boxing, styles and match-ups make fights. When you get to that highest level of athleticism, there's someone out there who's style is gonna trip you up. Course much like the diminished state of music in 2017, that's assuming there's enough actual talent out there in the pool.

One thing boxing and music share more so than most other sports is timelessness. Its common in other sports to ask "How good would Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell be today? How dominating--if at all, would Jim Brown be in today's game?" Fair questions. But in boxing and in music, you don't ever have to ask that. Boxing in 2017 is the same as boxing in 1917. Or 1817. The Joe Louis of the 1930's would easily be as great now as back then. Better from what I've seen. The same holds true for any of the greats: Ali; Duran; Leonard; Hearns; Hagler; Jake Lamotta; Aaron Pryor; Tony Zale... If you could put 'em in a time machine and make them 26 years old, they'd be fully equipped and ready to go in 2017.  Same for Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis or any of the great musical artists. Music and boxing talent is way diminished now--not better.

Once in a while you get unanimous agreement as to the greatest. Most oftentimes it comes in individual, one-on-one sports. Usain Bolt's the greatest sprinter of all-time. Who's gonna argue that-- Michael Johnson? Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer. And its pretty-much unanimous that Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest boxer ever. Amazingly, there's not even much debate on that. All the old-timers agree. And they know. I've been hearing this guy's name since I first heard the word boxing.  At one point in his career (and Robinson's era was the greatest, most stacked era in boxing), he was 128-1-2 with 84 KO's. Oh my!!!

Sugar Ray Robinson may be the undisputed greatest boxer of all-time; Ali the most famous and important; and Mayweather (yuck!) may have the best record on paper (and only on paper!); but my favorite boxer's always gonna be Tommy "Hitman" Hearns. He's from my era. My hometown. He had his entirely own look in the ring--with the long lanky arms; skinny legs; and that snap-jab left hand. He'd lull his opponent with that left; hypnotize them with it as he swung it low, back and forth.  Motor City Cobra. Then BAM! Overhand right sent you to sleep. All Tommy's biggest fights ended in KO. Unfortunately it wasn't always Tommy's opponent who hit the canvass; but you were never let down Mayweather-style after a Tommy Hearns PPV event. Fought in 6 different weight divisions--always fighting the best in that division. Fought huge guys he had no business fighting like Iran Barkley; but also boxed beautifully against cagey guys like Wilfredo Benitez. Always left everything in the ring. That's my man!

In today's modern era, Gennady "GGG" Golovkin is the closest thing we have to Tommy Hearns. He doesn't have Tommy's unique look or style; but much like Tommy, all the fights end in KO. Sure his defense isn't the greatest (nor are his communication skills), and we'll have to see what kind of motor he really has; but he's got the highest KO percentage of any champion--ever (again, skewed stat because of today's overall weakness in the sport). He's a soft-spoken guy who until tonight has always fought his biggest fights in my new hometown of NYC (at The Garden). GGG's my man. Is he the best? Well, he's my favorite. And as far as I'm concerned, your favorite is the best.  



Monday, September 11, 2017

My Hero Died Twice on September 11th:

I can't believe its been 10 years since Joe Zawinul died, though its somewhat fitting that he died on September 11th. Joe Z--my man. Only guy I ever really liked on electric keys. 

I mentioned last post that Steely Dan was one of my introductions to jazz; but it was bands like Mahavishnu and Lifetime and Weather Report that brought the real crossover heat. Course when I followed the chain back to the source it led to Wayne, and Tony Williams; and they led me to Miles, which lead me to Trane and...then I was a jazz-head. 

For better or worse, Joe went all-in on jazz-fusion. It makes sense when you consider his era was the most technologically exciting for keyboard players. The Rhodes and Moog, then the ARP 2600 and the Synclavier. Probably a bunch of others too--I'm no expert on equipment. But I know Joe was really important in moving electric keys forward. 

And Joe was a sincere globalist. He really embraced the concept of bridging cultural and national divides. Since WWII, there's been both a domestic and international coming together of economies and cultures, helped along by music. The slow crossing-over and acceptance of Louis Armstrong's genius. The international fame of Josephine Baker. Little Richard. Bo Diddley. Eventually Elvis. Then the Brits began adopting and co-opting our awesome R & B ("you're not using this America?--we'll take it!). With the Beatles came not only a faster-paced, racial integration here at home; but their eventual involvement with Ravi Shankar and world music. A lot of the Brits were interested in Indian music since Britain had a controlling/governing interest in India for so many years. And people in Europe are more international anyway. They're linked. So when the "British invasion" took place here in the States; it also began the beginning of a world-music invasion such as the kind we saw with Hugh Masakela at Monterey Pop and countless others. Only now--with the "election" of Trump do we see a retreating of those trends both here and in Western Europe. 

Joe was always very warm to me. I don't say that just to name-drop; but because he was a real big influence on me beyond just his music. The way he carried himself. Ran his band and business. The way he had real interests outside of music. That impressed me. And most of all, his accessibility. Before I moved to New York I'd have got the chance to see him maybe...once every 3 or 4 years? Maybe. He'd have been in town for a night, and I'd have to see him in a formal setting. A real theater where he'd be up there and we'd be down there

But in New York I'd just bump into him at the club. He liked that I knew boxing history and was quick to actually initiate a conversation when he had time. With me! That was when I knew New York was going to change me. Suddenly these guys became very real. They saw me. I'm no groupie; but I'd assert that it's important to feel a tangible connection to your heroes. Like Cesar Milan or all the life-coaches say, you have to see the reality in front of you to believe it. When you see yourself talking to guys like Joe Z or Dave Holland. Engaging with them in a back and forth, you're suddenly...someone who has conversations with people like Joe Z and Dave Holland. Its real. And if you're like me, it then becomes a lot easier to take yourself and goals for real as well.

The last time I saw Joe live was when this photo was taken (above). At Blue Note. It was the day the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders in the Superbowl. I think the temperature that night was 14 degrees; so it was only die-hards in the crowd. 

Sometime before the end of his set, Joe addressed the crowd. Keep in mind, this was in 2003. He made a little light conversation about...I forget what--himself most likely. He liked that subject, but he was a super-cool guy. He could listen when he wanted to. Hear things most of us lesser mortals can't. 

At some point during his little speech he suddenly stopped talking. I hadn't been listening closely 'til that point, but then he began to address a person in the front row. They must have made a remark to his prior comment, which caused him to pause. Then with a pained expression he began to say something like: "I'm still an integrationist; both in my music and my life. I believe that the coming together of cultures is still the way. The only way. My drummer couldn't be here today because he couldn't get into the country. Visa issue or something. This is not the way it used to be and cannot continue. Going backward. This is shit--that's my opinion. And I know here in New York you understand. You're a true international city..."

I'd be lying if I said I remembered exactly what he said, but what I definitely recall is that when he'd finished, he stood in front of us like a man at confessional. Looked out from the stage for a reaction; and in fact I think he'd expected a round of applause to his international message. A message and perspective that the First World and music world as a whole had espoused as a given since WWII. Joe himself was born in 1932. He saw globalism as a progress. Internationalism to him meant cultured. An expression and enjoyment of personal freedom. But in January 2003...

When Joe finished his speech, he got some scattered applause. Muted. I know it was 14 degrees that night and people had just been drinking/watching the game; but for looked like to me like he saw something. Recognized it. This was NYC. This crowd was nothing but Zawinul die-hards. His international band had just been kicking.

And yet, something had changed. Joe looked at us. We looked at him. I think he was still waiting for someone to second his thoughts. But he waited a long time. Until eventually he had to shrug his shoulders and finish the set. Which must have been painful for him, since I know forward-thinkers can hear things a lot of us can't. Until we do.