the party

cello, music, pictures No Comments »

Finally, the phrase ‘the party’ can be used to describe more than just a bizarre Peter Sellers movie from the 1960’s (from whence the band Birdie Num Num got their name), in which he plays a man of South Asian descent who wanders into a party and, completely befuddled, makes comments about everything he sees there.  Now—yes, NOW—it’s also the name of a stellar entry here on this very blog.  I know; it’s an impressive title.

After a week of starting a new job and re-mixing GhostBand’s CD (more about that at some point; it’s a very interesting story), I somehow manage to have a free afternoon, so I’m taking the opportunity to do what I promised the other day, and beginning the laborious process of posting pictures from the New England trip and sharing some of the stories behind them, rather than creating one super-extendo, fifty-thousand-word behemoth of an entry.

Might as well start from the first night (although I think the whole chronological ‘thing’ is unnecessary and even somewhat boring) since this was my first time in New York, and this beautiful night seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip.

This picture was taken at the home of our hosts, M and A, in Brooklyn.  Their home is a lovely, sparse, tasteful two-story apartment near the Green-Wood Cemetery.  They treated us like family in a million different ways, not least of which because A happens to be PolishCellist’s younger sister.  They didn’t know me from Adam before I showed up in their car and on their doorstep, but they welcomed me with open arms and instantly included me in the fold.  Both of them are engaging creative types (he’s a long-time Blue Man, musician and recording engineer, and she’s a freelance sound engineer and visual artist), so we had plenty in common to talk about.

They made us an excellent dinner of Caprese salad, grilled sausages, hot dogs, and bread.  We ate on their patio until the rest of the guests began to arrive in the early evening, when the wine flowed, a fire flickered, and PolishCellist and I played an informal cello and accordion concert or the small but substantial group.

Here’s a shot of us playing, taken by PolishCellist’s youngest sister E, who lives in Brooklyn as well.

Around ten o’clock, we decided to give the neighbors a break (although I suspect they rather enjoyed the concert) and set about roasting marshmallows for s’mores (as well as drinking more wine) and continuing the conversations.

Eventually the party moved inside and out came the cameras, because the three sisters aren’t in the same place at the same time nearly as often as they’d like to be, so when they are it’s a pretty special occasion.

From left to right are A, PolishCellist, and E.  Good genes certainly do run in their family, no?

Around two-thirty in the morning, we all went to bed.  PolishCellist and I were awake a bit later than M and A were, since we’re both night owls and our body clocks were still on Pacific Time.  She stayed upstairs and did some computer work, and I went downstairs and attempted unsuccessfully to sleep, while mentally going over all the places I wanted to see in the days to follow.  I decided to explore as many various parts of town as possible—downtown Brooklyn, the Bridge, lower Manhattan, and Central Park (including Strawberry Fields and John Lennon’s home at the Dakota) were on my agenda for the first day—but I also decided to ‘randomize’ and play things by ear, and to remain open to possibilities and suggestions from my new friends.

To be continued. . .

a strange evening

beautiful, music, Portland, sad, true No Comments »

I don’t like to jam.  There, I said it.

Musicians are supposed to enjoy jamming, it seems, but I usually prefer to work on songs with structure and create ‘perfect’ parts for them.  I do love to improvise, however, and I always jump at the opportunity to do so, especially with other musicians who can also improvise well.  I don’t know how to explain the difference between a Jam and an Improvisation, but a jam always seems so much more lame somehow.  It also implies that an actual song will come from it, as opposed to an improvisation, which exists as its own separate entity and then disappears into the ether.

The perfect opportunity came when a guitarist friend of mine used to host a weekly Not-Jam at his place.  It was all a group of professionals from various bands, and whoever wasn’t gigging that night had an open-ended invitation to come down and play.  There were two drum sets, a bunch of guitars, amps, keyboards, saxophones, percussion instruments, a full PA system, and everything.  The idea was to bring your instrument and your drink (or whatever) of choice, and everyone would grab whatever they felt like playing, and we’d all see what happened.  It was very Zen, and I miss those nights.  I’ve considered starting my own improvisational group of acoustic instruments.  I’ll play cello or accordion, and invite other string players and brass players, and anyone else who plays an acoustic instrument.

About five years ago, I was really trying hard to make a living at recording, despite the fact that I just getting started, and wasn’t quite up to that task yet, but that’s neither here nor there.  I try to carefully pick and choose the people I work with, since you end up spending a good deal of time with people when you’re in the studio with them, and I have to really like them and their music in order to want to spend that much time with it.  I would hate to slog through day after day with a black metal band, for example.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with black metal—you have to be an amazing musician to play it—it’s just not my thing, and I’d prefer to focus on My Thing.

So anyway, five years ago.  A songwriter friend hooked me up with a friend of his who I’ll call G, not because he’s a gangsta, but because that’s his first initial.  I didn’t find his songs particularly compelling, but I decided to work with him as a favor to my friend.  Plus, I needed the money.  G was (and still is) a guy of a certain age, whose songs were more classic blues-rock than I gravitate towards.  He also has a sort of ‘Earth Mother’ folky side to him that doesn’t quite jive with me, either, but he seemed to like what I did to his songs in pre-production, so we decided to work together a bit.

I told him that my usual way of working was (and still is) to record him doing his thing, and then I usually play most or all of the other instruments around what he had done.  I told him that I play drums and bass and all kinds of other things, and he wanted to hear me do that so he could assess my skills.  Fair enough.  He also had a weekly jam session with his friends, and he invited me to join them at his friend’s beautiful house near Mount Tabor.  They had all the instruments already, so I wouldn’t need to bring anything if I didn’t want to.  It was an offer too good to refuse, so I took him up on it.  I also brought my accordion and five-string Tobias bass, just in case.  I put them in the trunk of my forty-shades-of-purple BMW 2002 and drove over there.

It was quite different from the improvised music night that I’d been attending at my friend’s place, in that A) these guys were amateurs rather than professionals, and B) I suspect that they used their jam session nights as excuses to escape from their families and regular lives, rather than to express themselves musically.  I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I strongly got.   It was also different in that everybody else sat around and got high before we started playing.  I don’t smoke, myself, and I’ve found that when some people are blissed out, they occasionally overestimate their playing abilities.  That started out as one of those nights.

There were five musicians in the band, on guitar, bass, drums, piano, and organ, so whenever there was an instrument that wasn’t being played, I’d jump on it.  Usually that meant piano, but at G’s request, I played the drums a little bit, too, and played the bass a little bit.  Each song would start as a cacophony and then sort of find its way into a key.  We eventually hit our stride, played extremely well, and actually managed to create some beautifully dynamic pieces of improvised music.  After four or five songs, we all felt compelled to slap high-fives and have a group hug, which was interesting and a bit funny.

At that point, we’d been playing for a couple of hours, so we put our instruments down and walked into the kitchen to eat some food and refill our glasses.  We talked about how great playing together felt, and how amazing it was when songs spontaneously come together, almost as a form of emergence.  Suddenly, the pianist got very quiet and told us that he had a confession to make.  He had recently (maybe the week before) been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and he was gradually losing the use of his hands.  As a jazz pianist, this was particularly devastating, as I’m sure you can imagine.  This gave the evening an entirely new focus and gravitas, and Pianist told us how he would hear something in his head and attempt to play it, but his fingers were simply unable to comply.  He made a request that during our next song we go ‘all out’, in order that he could test the limits of his playing and manual dexterity.

I played my bass, and each of the other guys assumed their various roles, with the bassist switching between tambourine and percussion.  The pianist started the song as an atonal jazz ballad, and we all followed suit.  After a few minutes of atonality, my mind started to wander.  The good thing about playing bass is that you can really use it to lead and set the tone for the entire rest of the band, forcing them all to change structure if need be.  They kinda have to follow you if you’re going a certain direction.  I gradually morphed it in a very tonal, almost classical direction, and that, combined with the jazz piano, became really beautiful.  It was as if we all were creating a simultaneous homage to Pianist by weaving a colorful musical tapestry for him.  The song climaxed and wound down with a simple scale in B major, which gave everything a depth, and a certain positive overtone.  It was transcendent.

By then, it was ten o’clock, so we packed up all of the instruments and went our separate ways.  We seemed to be walking on eggshells.  What do you say when someone drops a bombshell like that?  ‘I’m sorry’ seems insulting, or anti-climactic, or insufficient at the very least.  Plus, it was the first (and last) time I ever saw any of those guys, so I was really at a loss.  I’m sure I stammered something tactful like, “Um, nice to meet you guys.  Good luck with the Parkinson’s—?”

As I was backing my ancient BMW out of the driveway, it slipped out of reverse gear, like it did occasionally.  It made a huge, metallic CLUNK sound which stopped the car in the middle of the street.  It sounded and felt as if I’d backed into something in the road, so I got out and looked behind me.  I saw nothing, so I got back in and drove home, albeit a bit nervously.  That was one of the most fun and also one of the strangest nights of music that I’ve ever experienced.

I haven’t done any improvisational nights lately, but I still think of that one.   I hope that Pianist is okay, and still playing.  I just looked up G, and he’s still out there playing.  And his music still doesn’t really do much for me.  He decided to record his album at his house, and spend the money to buy microphones and all that for himself.  I certainly can’t fault him for that, since that’s how I got started, but I do think that he’s the kind of person who could benefit from some editing and some outside influences.

And now I need to grab the cello, pack up the car and head over to tonight’s gig, but I’m glad to have been able to finally tell this story.  I really do hope that Pianist is okay, and that his Parkinson’s is under control.  I also want the best for G, and I hope that his career is going well.  I’ll keep tabs on him from a distance.  Who knows; maybe he’s doing the same for me.

World Accordion Day

music, pictures 1 Comment »

I just found out that today is World Accordion Day, which means that I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some pictures of my contribution to the cause.


How was YOUR day?

music, true 1 Comment »

Last night, I was co-hosting my friend’s really cool radio show.  While driving home, I was stopped by the police on suspicion of a DUI.  After being questioned, taken to the station, passing all the various tests, and being kept awake all night, I was cleared and released at ten o’clock this morning.  I got home by eleven and took a nap for an hour and a half.

This afternoon, I sold a keyboard case on Craigslist to a really nice guy who plays bass for churches in West Linn and Vancouver.

This afternoon, a lady came by to try (and hopefully buy) one of the two accordions I’m selling.  She had a third one to look at elsewhere first, so she wanted to try that one before she settled on one of mine.  She told me she’d let me know after she saw that one.  Totally fine.  Let’s hope she buys mine.

This afternoon, I wrote out the complete version of the police story here in BFS&T, in order to capture all the details as best I could remember them.

This evening, I played accordion with PolishCellist and our violinist friend at a swanky downtown venue with a North African theme, as part of a gigantic bellydance event featuring the most famous bellydancer in the world.  She’s so famous that even I know who she is.  The venue was full of elaborately clad dancers, cabaret performers, musicians, photographers, and a host of other interesting people.  It was loud, frenetic, and beautiful, and I’ll remember it for a long time.

Just now, I got home from the bellydance event and wrote down this short synopsis of the day’s  events, in order to capture all the details as best I could remember them.  The ironic, caricatural nature of the day’s highs and lows, and the significance of the juxtaposition between them, was not lost on me.  The whole time I was enjoying the gig I kept laughing to myself and thinking, This morning, I was in jail.

My eyes won’t focus anymore.  I’m finally going to collapse in bed, so that I can be ready for rehearsal at ten o’clock in the morning.

Life is weird.

How was YOUR day?



cello, music, pictures, Portland, sad, true 1 Comment »

Sorry for the silence on the blog front.  I’m sure that those of you who’ve been checking in here at BFS&T know by now that when I don’t write anything for a while, it usually means that I’ve been experiencing a deluge of activity in real life, which leaves precious little time for reflection, let alone writing.  This time has certainly been no exception, with lots of out-of-town gigs, lots of recording, and lots of gallivanting around the Pacific Northwest at all hours of the day and night.  Here’s the view from the cabaret venue where PolishCellist and I played in Seattle a week ago:

IrishBand played in Astoria, Oregon last weekend, as part of a poetry festival that brought in the likes of Bill Carter.  There was a freak snowstorm that night, and we somehow found ourselves in the midst of a snowball fight or three, always with random people.  That was probably my favorite memory of the trip.  Also, should you find yourself in that neck of the woods, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to Clemente’s restaurant.  Their food is incredible, and they treated us like royalty during our stay there.  We became fast friends with the owners and staff.

In the midst of all this, my friend and I started a new band in which she sings and writes lyrics and melodies, while I write the music and play all the instruments on our recordings.  So far, I’ve been playing acoustic guitar at our gigs, but the recordings have lots of other instruments, so naturally, the subject of finding more band members arose.  I’ve been involved with the singer-songwriter scene for the last ten years, in which the members may change many times.  I’ve also been invited to join existing bands, whether to replace a member who has left, or to bring my own particular type of musicality to the band.  It’s been a really long time since I’ve played an active role in recruiting band members for a project of my own.  It’s exciting and daunting at the same time, and that calls for a story.

For about four years, I was the lead guitarist and producer for a woman who, for the pseudonymic purposes of this blog, will be called Bird.  Our original plan was for me to be the bass player, since good bass players are so hard to find, but after auditioning a few guitarists (and realizing that the overwhelming majority of guitarists play in the exact same blues-based way, which was of no interest to us), we decided that I should have that role and that we should seek a bass player instead.  We auditioned a couple of bassists, one of whom bragged about his ability to play the upright bass, but as soon as he pulled it out, it was obvious to us that he was clueless about it.  We finally did find a really good player, who had actually auditioned for us as a guitarist first, but was still interested even after he found out about our change of plans.

Once that hurdle was behind us, the search was on for a drummer.  The three of us knew that this would pose the biggest challenge, since good drummers are already scarce enough, and a newly-formed band has precious little to offer, financially speaking.  We started by posting an ad on ListByCraig, which turned up the usual suspects of tire-kickers and carless (sometimes even drumless!) slackers.  We then posted a free ad in MessengerGodAlternativePaper, which yielded us a couple of interesting prospects.  ProspectOne, in his late twenties, showed up with an endless series of stories about bands he’d been in and tours he’d been on, and the layers of stickers adorning his drum cases lent credence to his stories.  His playing, however, did not.  He was horrendous, and if you closed your eyes, you’d have thought that a seven-year-old was behind the drums.   We slogged through three or four songs (he’d driven clear across town to play with us, after all), then thanked him and told him we’d let him know.

Not long after that fiasco, we drove out to BeaverSuburb to play with ProspectTwo, a guy in his mid-forties who was becoming overwhelmed by his career as a doctor, and who wanted to spice up his life by reconnecting with his love of playing the drums.  He had a beautiful house, and a beautiful drum kit, and a beautiful PA system to sing through.  He cooked beautiful frittatas for us (I had to check the spelling of ‘frittatas’ just now) and squeezed beautiful fresh orange juice for us by hand.  He was a great guy, and extremely intelligent, and we quite enjoyed his company.  His drumming, like that of the previous guy, left a bit to be desired.  His skills were not nearly as lacking as the other guy’s, certainly, but his playing was far from solid, and despite all the positive qualities he offered, we knew he would never be able to meet our drumming needs.

After that round of auditions, we were starting to become disillusioned, and (if I’m going to be completely honest) even a bit jaded.  We tried a new tactic, which was to actually pay money and place an ad in the Musicians Wanted section of the main weekly alternative paper in town, which provided us with a distinctly higher caliber of applicants.  The next person we auditioned was amazing.  He had just moved to Portland, he was a great player, and he had a great personality as well.  We felt like the four of us gelled as musicians, and we sounded like a real band for the first time.   After we had played through our list of songs, we sat around and chatted about Life In General, and about Music, and about Other Stuff too.  Before we knew it, another hour had passed.  Then, the subject of Money came up, and the atmosphere in the room completely changed.  He turned quiet and weird and defensive, and blurted out something about how he needed to be compensated for this and that if he was going to be in the band, and that he was used to making so much money in his other bands back in Colorado or wherever, and that if we couldn’t guarantee that much, he’d have to look elsewhere.  We had no delusions of grandeur, and we made it clear to everyone potentially involved that this was a brand new band, and we might never make money, but we believed in what we were doing, and we expected all of the members to feel the same way.  He made an awkward getaway, and the three of us were left scratching our heads.  Years later, he became a well-respected drummer around town, but I daresay that most people will remember him for being robbed and assaulted in the middle of the night while riding his bike, then being run over by TWO different cars driven by drunks who were friends caravanning home after a night of partying.  Both of them fled the scene.  Drummer did not survive, and the one driver that was convicted was sentenced to an insultingly small fine, a few days in jail, and a short time in a drug treatment program.  In a strange twist of musical fate, I was invited to play cello and accordion on a song that was written by a friend of mine a few months ago as a tribute to him.  The song has recently been released, and I just saw an update on SocialNetwork that said it will be played on a local music ‘spotlight’ show tonight.

The final guy we met had also just moved to Portland from Yakima, which is where I grew up too.  He asked lots of pertinent questions about the songs, and played very tastefully and dynamically.  He even commented on Bird’s blue guitar, which he said matched his blue drum set, and meant that he was ‘in.’  He was our guy, and we all knew it.  The lineup was complete.

The four of us played together for the next few years, until the electric version of the Bird band split up and morphed into an acoustic lineup that didn’t involve the three of us.  But we’re all still friends, and Bassist and Drummer are still out and about.  They even play together in a new incarnation of a really great band that’s been around for a while.  Drummer was lucky enough to tour with the Canadian band The Paperboys, which was a tremendous opportunity, not least of which because they were his favorite band.

We tried out a keyboard player for a month or two, but he could never make time to rehearse with us or learn the songs, and he was going to Australia, and he always wanted to come to my place and videotape my hands when I played the parts, so that he could learn them exactly.  He always seemed to have a reason why he didn’t know the songs.  To be fair to him, he was a genuinely nice guy, and he even came to watch a couple of our early shows, but it didn’t quite work to have him in the band.

This is what the audition process is like, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s challenging, and grueling, and fun, and interesting, and frustrating, but ultimately rewarding, and it’s a necessary part of the musical life.  The good news is that I’m not just starting out anymore, and I know a bunch of people, and I have lots more experience under my metaphorical belt, and I have a MOSTLY good reputation, but it’s still going to be a tough process.  Who knows; I may even end up being the drummer in this new band.  For now, the biggest news is that the two of us submitted a song to the annual compilation of up-and-coming Portland bands, and we’ll find out this spring if we make the cut or not.  IrishBand submitted a song too, and both songs are very unusual in the overall Portland ‘scene’, which I believe will help our chances immensely.

Naturally, I’ll keep you posted.