Cover-ing the Standards

I spent quite a bit of time and effort last summer learning scores of new (for me) standards—listening, transcribing solos and parts, and making charts. These were all for tunes I’ve known as a listener for years but never learned on my instrument. It was enjoyable, frustrating, and rewarding work. These tunes weren’t jazz standards, however, but rather a broad cross-section of pop songs.

Last year I began playing with a working cover band in the area. (Like many others, we’ll resume performing as soon as it’s safe to do so.) After the initial meeting and introductory sit-in, I went to work on putting together my book based on the band’s repertoire, and I’ve continued to add to it as the band has further expanded its song pool. With few exceptions, the band’s catalogue really covers the bases as far as horn-based pop songs from the sixties onward. Selfishly, part of my wanting the gig was to have an excuse to play these songs—cheese and otherwise—live with a band, if nothing else to exorcise those demons a bit. I played with a cover band in the year I lived in Houston a decade ago, but hadn’t done so since and had been feeling the itch for a while. As a saxophonist, it’s one thing to hear Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” or Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love” in passing and either chuckle or cringe, depending on the recording. But it’s quite another to learn and then tackle them in performance. It’s not dissimilar from finally getting to play a jazz standard like “Stars Fell On Alabama” on the bandstand after putting in the work in the practice room. There are differences, of course, but in the end it’s about knowing the song and the style.

Style is key. Rock and pop can be deceptively difficult, particularly when approaching them from a jazz perspective. I’ve long felt comfortable as a saxophonist in a rock setting, be it covers or originals, as it’s the music I grew up listening to. It’s not that I always try to think like a guitarist, but it’s easy for a saxophone to stick out like a sore thumb if not careful, especially if it’s the solitary horn and not part of a horn section. Of course, that’s a consequence of nearly always being an auxiliary instrument—a novelty. After rock graduated from its rhythm-and-blues roots in which horns were common, only a handful of rock bands with full-time solitary saxophonists have hit the mainstream. And I mean full-time as in always playing the saxophone. For example, Mark Rivera plays a mean horn with Billy Joel and is a full-time member of the touring band, but he also plays guitar and percussion and sings a significant portion of each show because the horn solos aren’t so frequent. Seger, Springsteen, and Dave Matthews Band have done it with varying approaches, but they (and a few others) are the exceptions that prove the rule. (Of course, I learned parts for the former two for the current cover band gig.)

In keeping with style, there are myriad possibilities, especially for original music. But if you’re talking the notable horn solos of yore, it’s a narrower scope: an extension of the rhythm-and-blues flavors such as a big sound, growling, prolonged altissimo, a brash or honky timbre, and melodically sticking to pentatonic scales and the blues. One or more of these qualities are apparent in such saxophonic hits as “Money,” “Touch Me,” “Turn The Page,” “Bad To The Bone,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and on and on. I wrote a bit about this “rock sax” phenomenon here.) Alto Reed (Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band) and the late Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) are of this lineage. Even on a soft-rock ballad like “The One You Love,” Ernie Watts‘s fat tone makes his pentatonic melody a force to be reckoned with (and it’s great!), and ditto Jim Horn‘s outro solo (still great!). It’s a smoother, easy listening extension of those more rough-and-tumble forebears.

I should note that DMB‘s LeRoi Moore was of a different breed, as, at least in the first nearly two decades of the band’s run, the saxophone (along with the violin) fulfilled the role typically filled by a lead guitar. Consequently, the saxophone was more of an organic part of the band’s sound instead of the aforementioned novelty. And, coming from a jazz background originally, Moore eschewed many of the more obnoxious so-called “rock sax” trappings. The band’s sonic architecture changed after his death, but I covered that elsewhere.

Splitting the difference of the above two points (Moore vs. more traditional rock saxophone soloing), I think part of my strong affinity for Tom Scott has to do with his ability to straddle this divide. He seamlessly fits into both pop and jazz settings, and sounds great all the while. For example, here he is with Joni Mitchell (scroll to bottom) and here he is with the GRP Big Band (also with the aforementioned Ernie Watts).

The above is by no means a comprehensive survey of the horn’s history in rock. It’s barely a taste. However, it’s worth setting the stage to compare it to what most saxophonists do when learning standards: listening to and absorbing the nuances of the jazz greats who came before. Often when learning a jazz standard, once you have the melody and chord changes, many recommend learning the lyrics (if any) and a solo (often of a like instrument). That’s because the style is perceived to be inherently more demanding, and it is in a number of ways: harmonically, melodically (in navigating improvisational lines), chromatically (how to extend the existing harmonic and melodic structure), and rhythmically (degrees of swing, etc.). That said, there’s an almost religious devotion that’s expected when learning jazz standards. Not that I really disagree—I still regularly work on standards even though I haven’t had a steady jazz gig in years.

And yet, I feel that such preparation and reverence for The Great American Songbook, though justified, can often lead one to dismiss the inherent nuances of pop and rock, material that appears on first blush to be simpler, particularly in terms of harmony. The harmonies may be simpler on net, but that certainly presents its own challenges. For example, during a solo, running a flurry of notes riddled with chromaticism doesn’t really fit. It’s best to think more like a rock guitarist than a jazz horn player. I’ve witnessed and heard of this numerous times, a jazzer sitting in to solo with a rock band on something besides a blues and they just don’t gel. (I’ve heard rock guys complain more than once about saxophonists playing too many notes, followed by a version of “this ain’t a jazz gig.”)

Does that mean that a jazz musician should sit and learn all the rock and pop solos they can find? No. But a few wouldn’t hurt, particularly in terms of picking up the nuances that are sprinkled in. Even something like “Rosalita” that doesn’t even have a saxophone solo can be eye-(and ear-)opening. Clemons’s prominent saxophone melodies and countermelodies throughout are rife with those more traditional characteristics: big and brash sound, growling, scoops, and more. And though it may not seem like much, it can be a workout, especially if realistically playing loud enough to be heard in an amplified setting.

My digging into this other set of standards last summer and since has been a nice learning process. One notable aspect is just how gratifying it was (and still is!). Sure, the work itself was legitimately rewarding and good for the ears and fingers, but getting inside of the tunes and then being able to perform them with such a good band was and remains just plain fun.

Mark Stryker’s ‘Jazz From Detroit’

I unintentionally kicked off 2020 with a bang, at least in one respect. I read Mark Stryker’s excellent Jazz from Detroit last month, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in some time, sticking with me weeks after I finished it.

I had been looking forward to the book’s release for some time, though it took me longer than expected to get around to it. (Upon seeing him at a wonderful Prism Quartet recital in Ypsilanti in November 2018, I introduced myself to let him know I was looking forward to the book’s eventual release.) I’ve followed Stryker’s work for years and his Twitter timeline is a wonderful repository of historical and musical morsels. I’ve seen him around at various shows in southeast Michigan over the years (the trademark hat and mustache make him easy to identify).

Whether people are aware of it or not—and many are likely not—Detroit has played an integral role in the development of jazz. For those with even a modest jazz collection (…for those who even have a non-streaming collection anymore, that is…), look through the liner notes and you’re bound to see at least one name who is from or spent time in the Motor City. I mean, where would jazz as an art form be without the John Coltrane Quartet (with Detroiter Elvin Jones on drums) and Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (with Detroiter Ron Carter on bass)? (Hell, Ron Carter alone is credited on over 2,000 albums.) That said, until Jazz from Detroit‘s release in July 2019, no one had tried to cover that history in a single volume.

A richly detailed and comprehensive look at both the musical heritage of the city and the lineages in which Detroit has played an integral part, Jazz from Detroit has much to offer to both the musician and layman. Coming in at nearly 300 pages—not including the informative appendices and voluminous index—it’s a taut text that covers a century of not just musical developments, but economic, industrial, demographic, political, and sociological ones too. Stryker reaches beyond purely musical considerations, digging deeply to examine the factors that helped make Detroit such a cultural powerhouse. Bassist and pedagogue Rodney Whitaker said it best, telling Stryker, “That’s what we do in Detroit. We make cars, and we make jazz musicians.” (p. 294)

Stryker spent decades doing his homework, much of that time as a critic for the Detroit Free Press. In addition to his digesting existing scholarship, many of the interviews with the musicians and sidemen discussed throughout the book, including several who are now deceased, were conducted by Stryker personally. His authority comes from being someone who is both a fan of the music and history as well as someone who is himself a part of it. (His anecdote about his first phone call with bassist Ralphe Armstrong had me laughing out loud.) Additionally, his genuine love of the city and its heritage come through with every passage. He’s not a dispassionate scholar who swoops in from parts unknown to examine a phenomenon, only to leave once he’s collected his data. Rather, he’s a champion of the city and its legacy, pulling it out from under the shadows of New York City and Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. As the author writes:

“Many Midwestern and Rust Belt cities with large African American populations also experienced golden ages of jazz in the middle of the 20th century—Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cleveland among them—but their musical impact eventually faded. Meanwhile, Detroit continued punching above its weight class.”

(p. x)

This book deals with jazz specifically. Myriad other books, articles, and films have been devoted to Detroit’s Motown and rock offerings. Though there is some musical cross-pollinating where Motown is concerned, Stryker, to his credit and the book’s benefit, stays in the jazz lane.

The book is divided into six parts. “Setting the Stage” (~1900-1950) lays the initial groundwork for much of what follows, particularly regarding the automobile industry and its role in shaping Detroit’s public education system and black working and middle classes, as well as discussion of some early musical figures in and around the city. “The Golden Age, 1940-1960” gets into the real meat and potatoes, with over a dozen chapters, each covering a notable musical figure (e.g., Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Sheila Jordan, and more). “The Jones Brothers” discusses that remarkable triumvirate Hank, Thad, and Elvin. “Taking Control” explores some of the more communal and entrepreneurial musical developments in Detroit, including the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Strata Corporation, the Creative Arts Collective, and more. “Marcus Belgrave and His Children” dives into the music and legacy of Marcus Belgrave, one of the city’s patron saints of jazz who mentored many of Detroit’s more well-known contemporary exponents (e.g., Kenny Garrett, Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, James Carter, and more). Lastly, “Tradition and Transition” takes stock of the health of both the city and its music of the last couple decades through early ~2019. Each chapter includes recording recommendations for the relevant artist or group.

As someone who grew up in Michigan, it was great to see how some of the more “local” or regional names fit into the larger musical and cultural tapestry. For example, laying all my cards on the table, I knew Marcus Belgrave was a longstanding musical and pedagogical institution in Detroit, having seen him at various masterclasses and concerts in college and elsewhere (annually leading and sitting in with myriad groups at Detroit Jazz Festival, sitting in with Wynton when he visited Detroit, etc.), but save for the occasional mention in a liner note when I’m getting a new (for me) album, it wasn’t always clear to me just how he fit into the larger puzzle beyond the Midwest. (Admittedly, perhaps it was my own ignorance.) I now have a much clearer understanding, thanks to Stryker’s work.

Stylistically, much of the book is weighted toward The Tradition, but that’s to be expected. After all, many of the figures discussed are known for styles steeped in the blues, swing, and bop (be- and post-). Even the more avant-garde folks who appear throughout, including bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Tani Tabbal, and pianist Craig Taborn, had a foot in more mainstream styles at one time or another. My only real quibbles with the book are extremely minor and subjective. For one, I was surprised to see Massive Attack labeled a rap group. (That said, as a fan, I was as surprised as anyone to see the group mentioned at all, and, admittedly, trip hop isn’t too widely known of a label.) Additionally, and it’s just because the album is a desert island disc for me, I would have included Chasin’ the Gypsy as a recommended James Carter album instead of either Heaven on Earth or Present Tense. But that’s me.

Selfishly, as a point of saxophonistic privilege, I must highlight one of my favorite passages. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Joe Henderson’s training and that he studied with Larry Teal. More than that, though, I was floored to read of the following convergence of greatness. Talk about a pantheon of jazz and classical saxophone: “[Larry Teal’s] Tuesday morning lineup of students in 1956-57 was Yusef Lateef at 9:30, Henderson at 10:00, and Donald Sinta at 10:30.” (p. 132) A real murderers’ row!

If you’re at all into jazz, history, or Detroit culture, I highly recommend Jazz from Detroit. Mark Stryker knocked this one out of the park. I only hope there’s a sequel of sorts in the future.

Recommended Reading:
Perhaps to whet your appetite if you’re still wondering whether or not you should read Jazz from Detroit, I highly recommend these excellent interviews of Stryker conducted by Ethan Iverson for Do The M@th: here and here.

Audience Highlights Over the Decade

Though tired of the relentless assault of best-of lists, I guess I can’t help but jump on the bandwagon. The last decade was big for me personally—marriage, a family, multiple interstate moves—but this list isn’t about that. Instead, for posterity’s sake, here’s a list of some of the best things I witnessed from the audience over the last decade. These are listed in chronological order, with mostly a single item per year. Some years had much more competition that others, but each year’s pick was formidable in its own way.

2010: Dave Matthews Band at The Gorge Ampitheatre (George, WA) on 09.04.10
— One of the best DMB shows I’ve attended. The band was on fire and several of my all-time favorites were played: “#41,” “Fool to Think,” “So Right,” “The Stone,” and “Two Step.” I may have celebrated too heartily afterward.
2011: Smashing Pumpkins at Riviera Theater (Chicago, IL) on 10.14.11 | Keith Jarrett Trio @ Orchestra Hall (Chicago, IL) on 10.21.11
— These back-to-back treks to Chicago were well worth it. One of the better SP shows I’ve attended (“For Martha” to close the main set!), plus it’s always nice to see Billy Corgan in Chicago, where it all began. Having his family in the audience made Billy a little extra chatty. As for Jarrett, it was the last time I saw him in concert. I’ve seen him four times (twice solo and twice with the trio), all in Chicago, and this was the better of the two trio shows I attended. It hurts that the trio has since disbanded after so many years of great music-making.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at UIC Pavilion (Chicago, IL) on 12.11.11
2012: Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center (Ann Arbor, MI) on 01.22.12
— A once-in-a-generation production and tour. I’m still grateful I was able to attend this. Nearly a decade later, I still think of this performance often.
*Honorable Mention 1: Charles Lloyd‘s New Quartet at Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor, MI) on 04.14.12 (that version of “Go Down Moses” haunts me still…)
*Honorable Mention 2: James Carter Organ Trio, Spectrum Road, and Neneh Cherry with The Thing at Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux Switzerland) on 07.07.12
2013: Rienzi at Oberfrankenhalle (Bayreuth, Germany) on 07.07.13
— A uniquely odd but wonderful performance and setting for Wagner’s bicentennial celebration.
*Honorable Mention: Dave Liebman residency at Detroit Jazz Festival (Detroit, MI), Labor Day Weekend 2013
2014: Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Constellation (Chicago, IL) on 02.22.14
— A moving, intimate performance, and afterward I got to hang for a bit with the one and only Tore Brunborg, one of my favorite saxophonists.
2015: Dave Liebman’s Expansions at Kerrytown Concert House (Ann Arbor, MI) on 10.13.15
— Lieb always delivers, and seeing his new regular band was no exception.
2016: River of Fundament at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland, OH) on 01.30.16
— Need I say more? Arguably the top “performance” of the decade for me, even though it’s a film.
*Honorable Mention: Der fliegende Holländer at Bayern Staatsoper (Munich, Germany) on 07.22.16
— This was my second time seeing this engaging production by Peter Konwitschny in Munich. Even though the end was changed at the last minute due to exigent circumstances (the onstage explosion was pulled due to the chaos ensuing from that evening’s nearby shooting), I got much more out of the production than the first time through. Dr. Mark Berry wrote a lovely review here. (After the opera, my students and I spent the night camped out at the Staatsoper due to the “shelter in place” order from the US, most of them eventually sleeping. It was an unforgettable evening for many reasons.)
2017: Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Chicago, IL) on 11.14.17
*Honorable Mention: Götterdämmerung at Canadian Opera Company (Toronto, Ontario) on 02.05.17
— My first time seeing Christine Goerke at Brünnhilde. Her commanding performance quite whetted my appetite for her debut in Chicago’s Ring cycle later that year.
2018: Radiohead at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 07.20.18 | Middle Kids at Mohawk Place (Buffalo, NY) on 06.07.18 | Elton John at Scotiabank Centre (Toronto, Ontario) on 09.25.18
— 2018 is a difficult one due to lots of great shows. My gut reaction is that Radiohead’s concert was the best one I saw that year. Simply amazing; even better than the previous time I saw the band. However, I can’t leave Middle Kids off the list. Middle Kids is easily my favorite new band of the last several years. The Australian band has yet to really break big here in the US, but fortunately for me the group played Mohawk Place in downtown Buffalo, an intimate, long-running rock club that holds a couple hundred people at most. Being front row for that was a special experience. (One of my great regrets of the last several years regarding this blog is that I haven’t written about Middle Kids. Hopefully that’ll change at some point.) And of course Elton. This was arguably one of the two best shows I’ve seen of his. Hercules and the whole band were on fire all night.
2019: Redoubt at Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT) on 03.02.19| Tool at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 11.12.19
— Attending the premiere of Redoubt (both the film and exhibit), along with attending an artist talk and getting to briefly meet Matthew Barney, was quite an experience. And then, months later, I learned that my boys are back. Great bookends to the year.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 10.06.19

Fandom: Here, There, and Back Again

I attended the second night of Tool’s two-night run at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena last Tuesday, and it proved to be far more consequential than expected.

The last time I saw the band was nearly eight years ago in January 2012. That Toledo, OH show was a bit underwhelming. Danny, Adam, and Justin were at the top of their game, collectively and individually, but Maynard seemed disinterested at best. To say nothing of his blasé vocals throughout, he was the last one on the stage and the first one off. Sure, people have off nights (myself included, not that I’m in the same league), and the show wasn’t bad overall. But what a bummer, especially after a long drive, the cost of the ticket and merchandise, and having not seen the band for several years before that. It was disheartening. I mean, I’ve seen less-than-great shows before by many bands—some downright bad (yes, Iron Maiden, thinking of you)—but not by an artist or group I hold in such high regard. More than that, as lame as I know it seems, as a fan I took it personally. And it festered.

Following that, I continued to listen to and love the band’s music, but a part of me did it at a distance. Some months after I moved from East Lansing to Buffalo, I passed up trying to see the band in either Rochester, Hamilton, or Detroit during the brief 2017 run. Even though I had a lot going on in my life at the time and didn’t need another event on my plate, I know that had that 2012 show gone differently then I wouldn’t have thought twice about whether to attend in 2017. (I would’ve been there without question.) But I had a chip on my shoulder and considered my passivity an act of defiance, particularly for a band that tours so infrequently. (My ~15 shows in 22 years is notable only because of that infrequency.) I thought that, if nothing else, I had a lot of good shows under my belt and didn’t need to go out on a limb at that time. Plus, it’s not like my emotional investment in the band was a waste. After all, that May 2001 show at Detroit’s State Theater is arguably my favorite concert I’ve attended. It’s in my top 3 or 5 (of everything) at least.

Even in 2019 I was hesitant, more so than in previous years. When Fear Inoculum, the band’s first album in thirteen years, was officially announced, I was skeptical. Would it be worth the wait? Should I even bother with the expensive deluxe packaging of the studio album or just buy it digitally? Will the live show be worth not only the wait but also the expense? I knew I’d go to a show if the opportunity presented itself, but there was a part of me that felt obliged to do so. Partially out of principle, but also out of procrastination, I avoided really listening to the album’s title track before the album’s release. (It was made available to stream weeks in advance.) I considered it best to just hear the entire album with fresh ears once available. Coincidentally, Fear Inoculum was released the same day as Bon Iver’s i,i. (Also coincidentally, I saw Bon Iver at the same venue as Tool ~6 weeks ago.) When I made a trip to the store that day, I knew immediately upon seeing Fear Inoculum and its oversized packaging that I had to go big or go home. If nothing else, I had well over two decades of emotional investment to honor, which outweighed my weird little grudge. (Yes, I wore it like a crown…)

Skittish, I listened to i,i first that day. But eventually…

I listened to Fear Inoculum. Then I listened again. And again.

My boys were back, I thought. I really liked it the first time through. By the second listen I loved it. And more with each full listen. Hot damn. A lot of hype surrounded the album. Not only was it the first album in over a decade—many of us fans thought it’d never happen—but there was also seemingly endless discussion about how it was a big album (the shortest song being over ten minutes long) that covered new ground for the band. Plus, given the amount of time that had passed since 2006’s 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum, there was a lot of concern that the band just wasn’t as invested as before, not to mention the music industry itself being a whole different beast than it was in 2006. But I wasn’t the only one who got sucked in. Enough people did for Tool to dethrone Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts.

But the hesitancy remained. The tour was announced and I didn’t try to get a close seat. Furthermore, I figured I’d play it safe and only go to one of the Toronto shows instead of both. I considered writing a full album review, going so far as to start multiple drafts but abandoning them.

Without making this a full album review, suffice it to say that it’s a great next step in the band’s evolution. There’s been some back-and-forth among the fans as to whether it’s heavy enough, but I think that misses the mark some. Maynard’s vocal stylings aren’t as aggressive as in previous albums, but instrumentals certainly contend with the rest of the catalogue. The blending of those two aspects is part of the band’s secret sauce. Tool was never going to release a direct-to-video sequel to Undertow, so it’s lame to hear when people expect it. (Just as Miles wasn’t going to treat his audiences to an acoustic rendition of “My Funny Valentine” after 1970.) As far as a review is concerned, right now I’ll note that if you like Lateralus‘s “The Patient” (as I do—one of my favorites from the band’s output), then Fear Inoculum is right up your alley. For me, “Pneuma” and “7empest” are the album’s MVPs.

Then Tuesday came. And the band DELIVERED. The boys are indeed back, and I still float on a cloud when I think of it. Some thoughts on the show, in no particular order:
• The band was TIGHT. Everyone, including Maynard, was locked in and the ensemble worked as one unit.
• Maynard seemed as into the performance as his bandmates. I dare say he even seemed jovial at times in his own way, interacting with the others on stage as well as the audience.
• The sound mix was excellent. That particular Tool concert may have been the best the band has sounded live. Even with it being so very loud (always wear your earplugs), everything was crystal clear. Considering Tool’s wide dynamic range and sudden juxtapositions, this really put things in welcome relief.
• Justin’s bass really cut through the texture in a tasteful way. Sometimes bass guitar can be muddled in such an environment, but thanks to the live mix it was clear as a bell.
• The phone ban was a dream come true. (Kudos to the arena’s staff for strict enforcement.) It’d been years since I’d watched an arena show with an audience that was free of phone screens due to photos and video. Of course, I do admit to taking one photo for posterity when the ban was lifted during the final song, but it was otherwise lovely to just take in the show without such distractions.
• The set list was an interesting mix, and only one song from 1992’s Opiate and 1993’s Undertow combined was included. “Part of Me” was such a surprise and a real treat. It was only the second time I’d heard that live, I think. Given the band’s penchant for mostly static set lists for a single tour, I’m glad I completely avoided looking up the shows prior to mine. Each song was an unexpected turn. (Consequently I won’t post the set list here.)
• “The Pot” hit me like a ton of bricks. For whatever reason, that had long been for me the weak link on 10,000 Days. Chalk it up to the euphoria from that night’s rekindling of the flame if nothing else, but I’ve been making up for lost time with that song over the last week.
• It never ceases to impress me that a band can rock such a large crowd so hard for two hours and yet only one six-minute song is in a continuous, steady 4/4 time.
• Some tweaking of the older material was a nice touch. For example, the extended jam during “Jambi” and the extended double-time during the bridge in “Schism.” (I thought Danny’s drumset would explode.) I did miss the “Suspicious Minds” interpolation in “Stinkfist,” but you can’t have it all.

All this is to say that my Tool fandom has gained a second wind of sorts. Not that it ever went away. Certainly not. But since the show I’ve been caught off guard at just how much it affected my spirits and how I see my relationship to the band’s music. It’s refreshing to know that after so many years I can still get that giddy, deeply connected feeling to it. And, without question, I now can’t wait for the next show.

Though the band didn’t perform it at last week’s show, it’s only fitting I include a live video of “The Grudge,” this from ’02. The lyrics are here.


2019 has shaped up to be an invisibly productive year thus far. I say that because I haven’t much to show for it. Save a couple pit gigs and a one-off crashing of a Forgotten Prophets show, my itinerary has been empty. That said, in some ways I’m in the best musical shape since my son’s arrival over four years ago. I’ve made a conscious effort to batten down the hatches and consistently practice with an eye toward goals both big and small. Some tangible victories include:

  • My clarinet playing being the best it’s been. It’s an instrument I’ve never really enjoyed playing, doing it only when I must. But I did have a few days this year where—gulp—I had fun playing it.
  • Reacquainting myself with a number of forgotten jazz standards. A decade ago I could do a 4-hr. jazz gig and barely need charts except for the original tunes. That said, I haven’t had a regular jazz gig in a number of years, and therefore no need to retain or practice them. It’s been nice to wake those particular muscles.
  • Progressing with some long-intended transcriptions.
  • Learning some new classical literature. Putting together a recital or something similar at this point would be completely impractical, and nothing I’m that interested in doing. However, it’s been great to be able to get back in that mindset to some degree.
  • Glacially paced improvement in music technology matters, including some recording here and there.

So, those are some wins. Of course, there have been drawbacks:

  • Ensemble performance. The pit gigs were fine, but I definitely felt caught flat-footed a couple times on stage with the Prophets. Even though I was just sitting in on the show with little prep, I definitely felt rusty at times when it came to playing in a live, improvised setting. I don’t know how it sounded or appeared, but I definitely had some internal unease. It’s a scenario that, years ago, would’ve been a non-issue.
  • External momentum. While I’ve been diligent about sheddin’ in the basement, I can’t say the same for playing beyond my property. Much of that has been because I’ve hit a brick wall with trying to make inroads locally. The union is a social and political network that I can’t seem to crack, despite having joined years ago and making and reaching out to contacts over the years. In other words, “Seat’s taken!” Turf wars and the cold crossfire of competitive self-interest. Such is life in a metropolitan area where seemingly everyone’s a townie or close to it.

Still, I suppose I should focus on the silver lining. There have been improvements, even if only I know about them. And, playing aside, I’ve made a point to do much more active listening these last several years. One consequence of that—or was it the other way around?—is that I’ve gone on a CD-buying tear since moving from Michigan, increasing the frequency I’d already been maintaining. In the beginning, I’m sure part of it was retail therapy to go along with the move. But also, for a time, I was just a few miles from Buffalo’s Record Theatre, a local institution that I’d been frequenting for nearly a decade. Of course, it was just my luck that it permanently closed the following year. Anyway, the shopping has generally continued nonetheless. I’ve yet to get into vinyl, so CDs are my physical copy of choice. I know, it makes me a ridiculous luddite, yada yada. I still think there’s value in curating a personal library. Also, it’s nice to not be completely reliant on the cloud for all my needs.

Eventually my schedule and availability will lighten up some, particularly when the little guy goes to school, at which time I’ll be able to plant more irons in the fire. And when that happens, I’ll be glad to have spent this time buffing out the wear and tear—taking the time to actually work things out as opposed to maintaining between gigs.

Music (mostly) aside, I’ve also made a point to consistently read more for pleasure. Not only has that been good for the eyes to lose the screens for a bit, but it’s just been good for the mind to focus on longer narratives, fiction or otherwise. (This does include re-reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Of course.) Right now I’m nearing the end of Dr. Mark Berry’s new Schoenberg biography, which I’m quite enjoying.

Additionally, I’ve been working on a lead from the Redoubt premiere, as the River of Fundament obsession continues. More about that if anything ever comes of it.

And here we are: June 2019. I only really know that from looking at the calendar. That’s fine. The seasons keep changing and the work continues. Whether it’ll amount to anything is an open question. Admittedly, my not-quite-suppressed nihilism make me think it doesn’t really matter either way. But at least I’m enjoying doing it.