Thursday, August 27, 2009

Girls from Ipanema, UFOs and a new CD

It's been a few months since I updated the "blob", as my wife Susan calls it, but life's been a happy whirlwind (be sure to pronounce the "h", as is "hwhirlwind"). In the interest of saving time while still offering a healthy diversion from the health care reform battle, I'll try to condense the last few months into a few pithy paragraphs of particular potency.

In June I made my first trip to Brazil with the amazing singer Dianne Reeves. (Dianne, I love working with you and will go with you anywhere, any time.) Nobody can touch her in terms of overall power, vibe, and soulfulness... she is a master of her art. Ironically, I arrived safely home from Brazil, proud of the fact that I didn't get mugged (having the drummer-defensive tackle Terreon "Tank" Gully as your bodyguard doesn't hurt), only to find out I had $3,000 of fraudulent credit card charges. I got got, internet-style!

The surprise phone call of my life came just before that trip, when I got hired at the last minute to fill in for Danilo Perez in Wayne Shorter's quartet for 3 concerts in Los Angeles, Ottawa and Montreal. Suffice to say I jumped through the roof of my small office. Ever since I was 15 (1985) when I bought Wayne's record "Atlantis", and all of Weather Report's records before that, Wayne's music has been so deeply woven into my DNA that it felt completely natural and at-home to be playing in his group, a dream come true. Was I nervous? No time for that... there was music to make, and being in Wayne's presence just brings out the best. And what an inspiring guy to hang out with, too.

August brought a couple of gigs with Denise Donatelli, a lovely singer from Los Angeles. We're working on arrangements for her third record and will be in the studio in November. We played the San Jose jazz festival (my first time performing in an Imax theatre... where were the sharks?) and the Douglas Beach House in Half Moon Bay, CA, possibly my favorite venue on Earth. The gig is right on the ocean, and you can watch the sun set over the waves through big glass windows while you play. The ocean theme continued last week in Hawaii, as I played 2 concerts with Hawaiian slack-key guitar legend Keola Beamer, continuing our association that started in 2003 with my CD "Falling Up". Keola's music is so gentle and relaxing, and I feel like I'm just starting to scratch the surface of understanding how to play it. Joining us was a lovely and talented young Hawaiian singer named Raiatea Helm.

This week marks the release of a long-awaited pet project, a full-fledged electronica CD made in collaboration with Vancouver keyboardist/producer Mary Ancheta. Our "band" is called Montre Echo, and the new CD is called "The Near Forever", available as a digital download here. The response has been very positive already - it's unlike anything I've done before but it's right where I want to be, fully enmeshed in these wonderful, swirling electronic beats and sounds. We collaborated with NYC video artist Benton C. Bainbridge on "Chrysoglott". Most of the song titles are names of obscure pipe organ stops. Hope you check it out!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Doing Japan - Keezer style

Been in Japan all week, performing in Tokyo and Osaka with legendary septuagenarian jazz guitarist Jim Hall, along with Ron Carter and Steve LaSpina on bass, Greg Osby on sax, Terry Clarke on drums and a string section of not-unattractive Japanese women with names like "Crusher" Kimura - naturally leading us to assign similar provocative nicknames to the other girls, which for the sake of decency I shall refrain from listing here. Annnnywayy, the Tokyo concerts were very nice and I'm looking forward to our third and final show here in Osaka tomorrow.

Today, I spent my day off in Osaka visiting my good friend Yasukatsu Oshima and his wife Miki. Yasukatsu and I made a recording a couple years ago of traditional Okinawan folk songs. Oshima lives in a lovely little town called Nishinomiya, nestled between the major centers of Osaka and Kobe. From his house, we hiked up a steeep (extra 'e' added for emphasis) mountain trail to a lush botanical garden, then caught a bus the rest of the way up the slope to Arima Onsen, a famous hot spring resort town. In case you don't know, I'm obsessed with hot springs, making a point to go to one (or more) anytime I'm within an eight hour train ride in any direction.

In fact, the only two times I can recall ever being recognized in public were both at hot spring resorts, and both times I was stark naked. Once was in California - I was toweling off and a fan came up and said "You sounded great at Yoshi's last night." Uhhh... thanks. The other was even weirder. I was deep in the mountains of Yamagata, Japan, miles from civilization or underwear, and I was perched on a rock, my business boldly exposed and swinging like
A) the Count Basie band during a late-night set
B) Tarzan on his way to Jane's house
C) Babe Ruth's custom model R-43 in the 1928 World Series
D) "Yeah sure, honey, keep dreaming" (my wife)
I see a pair of eyes, alligator-like, slowly moving toward me through the murky, bubbling sulfuric water. Suddenly the man jumps up, points (at my face, thank you) and says "JEFU KEEZAA! JEFU KEEZAA!". eek. Turns out he was a trombone player I went to Berklee with.

After our brief dip in the onsen, we went to eat "takoyaki", which literally translates as "octopus balls". Mmmm. Actually they're quite good - little pieces of octopus surrounded by golf ball-sized dollops of gooey pancake batter that come steaming off the grill at 9,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the approximate surface temperature of the Sun. Word to the wise, have plenty of beer and/or an asbestos suit on hand.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. More road adventures to come, I'm sure....

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bringing the Road to you!

What I've been up to:

Last Friday, I filled in for guitarist Mark Whitfield (on keyboards) with Chris Botti in the lovely town of Great Barrington, MA in the Berkshires. The incredible Billy Childs is Chris' regular pianist (somehow he manages to squeeze Botti's endless world tour in between winning Guggenheim fellowships and writing awesome chamber, symphonic and choral music) a I occasionally sub for him in the band. So we had 2 keyboard players and no guitar. Chris liked the 2-keyboard sound so much that he hired me last minute to play in Chicago the next day, in a gorgeous concert hall called the Chicago Theatre, this time with Whitfield on guitar as well. It was lots of fun, my job was pretty easy (synth pads) and I got to mostly sit on stage and listen to one of the world's best jazz bands throw down hard! Not a bad way to make a living eh.

Then Monday I caught a 6 AM flight to New York to record a new album with my old friend Joe Locke, who graciously let me out of Sunday evening's rehearsal so I could make Botti's gig in Chicago. It's a working band, with Joe on vibes, Clarence Penn on drums, George Mraz on bass and a relatively unknown (not for long!) singer from San Francisco named Kenny Washington (NOT the drummer). Kenny's a true jazz musician, a real improviser and creative force. We've played together as a band several times, so the recording process went quickly and easily... just a great bunch of musicians doing what we do best. It felt like a live gig. It's been quite a long time since I've made a record this way - hit it and quit it. One take, two at most. Fine with me... if it ain't broke don't fix it! It was my first time recording with either Clarence or George. Hopefully not the last :)

This morning a creative video artist named Benton C. Bainbridge came over to the pad where I stay in Astoria, NY to shoot the inside of the piano - hammers hitting strings, etc - for visuals to accompany the song "Chrysoglott" from my upcoming electronica collaboration with Vancouver artist Mary Ancheta. Our project is called Montre Echo, and many of the song titles are names of obscure pipe organ stops (like "Kerophone", "Noli me Tangere" and "Montre Echo" itself). Stay tuned for 12-second video clips and updates via Twitter as the album progresses. No word yet on whether it will be self-released or on a label.

I'm home for 2 days then off to Japan to play with Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Greg Osby and a Japanese string section. Looking forward to the music, and glad Jim is in good health and able to tour again. He's a load of fun on the road, he hates all forms of technology (cell phones, computers, etc) but ironically loves to run his guitar through all kinds of effects pedals - which he places at waist level on a music stand so he doesn't have to bend over to trigger them. LOL.

See ya soon in blogsville!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Paris Drinks Lattes - News!

Did that get your attention? OK, so after almost 5 years in the making and many, MANY thousands of dollars spent on my latest CD "Aurea" (like the subtle link there?), with a handful of those K's from very kind and generous people who believe in and support me (thank you!!!), it's become painfully evident that it's hard as fuck (and that's a very hard substance, right up there with diamond, rhenium diboride and carbon nanotubes) to get people to actually buy my music. I'm tweeting, tribing, facebooking, youtubing, myspacing, iMixing, offering CDs for sale at my gigs, handing out business cards with the Aurea logo to inquisitive strangers, even velcroing them to passing animals, and it's resulting in just a handful of sales and a wristful of carpal tunnel issues! Double-you tee eff. I sincerely enjoy connecting with friends and fans on social networking sites... I'm not doing it only to sell records... but it would be nice if more of them would support the artist they're joking with, arguing with, showering with praise or reprimands. It's all good... just show me some love so I can put groceries on the table!

The music business is changed forever, and I can honestly say I have no idea how to convince someone that it's worth spending $15 (or less) for a valuable, rich, emotionally engaging and rewarding musical experience that can potentially grow and unfold subtler layers with repeated listening. Without an extra $20,000 to spend on a publicist, I can only really count on word-of-mouth. And then the word-of-mouthee still has to make the leap of faith and click the button, and not just wait for their friend to burn them a copy or email them a neatly packaged, gift-wrapped zip folder. People these days want something for nothing - the Paris Hilton phenomenon. They'll pay $4.50 for a grande nonfat soy mochaccino latte that comes out in the toilet 2 hours later, but can't see spending a few dollars more to own some great music that will last a lifetime.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

World's shortest jazz piano lessons

Yesterday I got a wacky idea to start posting 12-second piano "microlessons" on Twitter. The aim is to provide students (or anyone else interested) with daily snippets of musical information, whatever happens to float across my brain's fuzzy radar screen, with the hopes of sharing something that might help your playing or give you an idea to build on - free of charge. There's so many people peddling online lessons these days, and I've considered it, but hey, I didn't invent jazz piano. I remember vividly being 18 years old in NYC, seeing Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note. As he descended from the stage after his amazing concert, I boldly walked up and asked him what the correct turnaround was on "Footprints" (it's F#-B-E-A) and to show me that nutball chord on "Eye of the Hurricane". He'd only been offstage for five minutes, the audience was still in their seats paying their tabs, and Herbie went right back up to the piano and answered my questions. In front of everybody. And I was a nobody then. That experience, and Herbie's selfless generosity, has stayed with me ever since.

Why only 12 seconds? Well, because it's a convenient Tweetdeck app, and because the people over at think anything longer is boring. And it's about all I have time for these days, with a toddler running amok in my house!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

..."practice!" goes the old punch line. Jim Hall actually used that one on me a few years ago, when we performing at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. I was lost downstairs somewhere and was literally asking how to get to the venue - he nailed me with it.

Anyway, I've been teaching music all week in California to a great bunch of kids, many of whom's futures could hold a successful jazz career (whatever that means...). Success in jazz isn't measured in money, it's in how clearly you're able to express what's inside you, and how well you connect with your (small but appreciative) audiences. Everyone deserves a chance to earn a living doing what they love, but I wonder how it's going to be for these kids - we're training more and more players for a business that has fewer opportunities than when I was in college.

There's a dude who keeps writing me on Facebook, asking me how to "get into the music business". I finally responded, saying "Basically, you practice your ass off, get out and meet people, and play as much as you can." Let me repeat... be excellent at what you do, and GET OUT AND MEET PEOPLE. That's it, kid. No short cuts that I'm aware of. And he wrote back a few minutes later and said "Thanks for the advice! So how did you get into the music business?" Argghhh... My next answer will be "How you get into the business is you stop bugging people on Facebook and start practicing!"

Playing music is hard work. I love my job, and can't imagine doing anything else. When musicians go on the road, it's not a vacation. Europe? Great! I've seen the airports, train stations, backstages and 3 AM roadside truck stops in 30 countries. Someday I may travel there on vacation, but you can be sure I ain't gonna show up at a jam session!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rubik's Cubes and Maria Schneider charts...

There's nothing like a good arse-whupping once in a while to keep me humble and on my toes. Last weekend I was visiting my inlaws and my wife was cleaning out her childhood play house. She brought down a box of assorted goodies including those Strawberry Shortcake dolls, snap-together plastic blocks that my baby son Cameron would like, and a Rubik's Cube. I was planning to take a nap that afternoon ("Sleep when your baby sleeps" screeches the annoying, unrealistic mantra of parenting books... whoever wrote that must have a live-in nanny, cook, housecleaner and a trust fund), but instead I decided I could solve the Rubik's cube in, oh say, an hour tops. This was a real vintage Cube, you can tell because some of the stickers had been removed and replaced, the end game of a frustrated 80's teenager giving up and outsmarting the toy designers by simply moving the damn stickers. A week later, I'm still determined to beat this thing, this hideous piece of bubble economy engineering and spatial-orientation challenge, some nearly thirty years after it first reared its ugly square head. And I'm not going to cheat by moving the stickers... I'm much smarter, clever and patient than I was in junior high school. My wife might beg to differ.

Which brings me to part two: I'm practicing for a concert this Thursday in Sacramento, with vocalists Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, and the three of us are doing a program of Maria Schneider's music in preparation for Julia and Kerry's upcoming album. They've worked out vocal arrangements of some of Maria's most challenging music, singing all of the horn parts, and somehow I'm supposed to play the rest of it on piano. So I get the solo on "The Pretty Road", which starts out simple enough as a nice little pop tune in D Flat. But by the time it gets into the solo changes, Maria has me jumping through harmonic hoops faster than a trained tiger in a Siegfried and Roy show. I'm getting my butt kicked, and it's leaving a mark. But it's good for my brain, they say... and the effect of actually getting to the end of that solo without major psychological damage is cathartic, kind of a chord scale sweat lodge with a movable "do" system.

I feel confident that as I get older, as long as there are Rubik's Cubes and Maria Schneider charts around to kick my butt, I won't go senile.