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8 In 1 (and a return to my multi-keyboard roots)

Mr Gone Keyboard rig

As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for”. I’ve tried to take that philosophy to heart, and to focus my heart & mind on where I want to be and what I’d like to be doing, in the best possible scenario. If the month of June is any indication, then I’d have to say it’s starting to really pay off.

The title of this post is “8 in 1“, and it refers to what might be for me a new record – 8 bands in one month! (Actually, I highly doubt it’s a record because I’ve done this sort of thing before. But this time there’s a key difference. More on this later.)

Let me be a tad bit clearer: by “band”, I mean a specific performing situation. This can be a traditional band (drums, guitar and so forth) or a non traditional “ensemble” such as the show I did with Decora – synths/loops (me), a DJ and a drummer.

I’ve been building to this for a long time, ever since I left “The Machine“, the Pink Floyd Tribute I was in for 10 years, in 2006. (My friend, bassist Keith Macksoud, lovingly referred to them as “La Machine, the food processing band”. Some of you older folk will get this joke.) The Machine was, from 1996-2006, my primary gig. What happened before that is very long and complex, and material for another post altogether, but involved a large number of bands, often at the same time, starting with “A. Animal” in 1978 and ending with “Neil Alexander & NAIL“, which I disbanded in 2011. From 2012 to 2013 I focused on my solo piano CD & tour.
At the beginning of this year, or actually the end of last year, I realized I wanted – and needed – to go back to ensemble work. I had worked with various groups in the interim, but mostly “pick-up” gigs and not anything I was particularly committed to. There are always ongoing relationships in my world, and those continued. I did quite a few jazz gigs; played with “Blue Food” (a funk band based in Woodstock NY), did High School musical theater pit work, and more. But after disbanding NAIL for “lack of interest” (not mine but the audience, apparently) I had nothing of mine – nothing uniquely personal – to go back to, musically speaking, and nothing I was particularly invested in. Well then: a fresh start was needed. (In reality, this is still in progress. Stay with me here…)

Another thing that transpired in my universe, starting in 2011 or so, was a long overdue (that’s up for debate) move away from the “Small mobile rig controlled from a single keyboard worn on a strap” that I had completely focused on for 15+ years. During that time I had taken that concept as far as I could musically and technologically. In addition to running out of room (physically, on the short keyboard) and having my main axe be a “plastic piece of junk” (sorry Roland – your AX7 is fun to play but just ain’t built well), I found a subliminal attitude among my fellow musicians: they were not really taking me seriously. In hindsight this is understandable. In the interest of “not carrying around this much crap ever again” I had abandoned my many years of work with a multi-keyboard setup, years of practice in on the spot orchestration. It was a skill I’d developed over years, and I’d forgotten I had it.

One of the other bands I was in after leaving “the Machine” was (is) “The Mahavishnu Project” (2008 to the present), fronted by drummer/composer Gregg Bendian. This was for me a quinteseential experience – I grew up with, loved and worked on this music for many years, and now I was getting to perform it, in front of an appreciative audience, and actually get paid. (!) But there was no way I could do this gig on the AX7 remote MIDI controller (commonly reffered to as a “keytar”; I bristle when I hear that word) that was my tehcnological focus for so long. I woud need a real rig, what I came to call a “traditional” rig – and more importantly, a real analog synthesizer.

I have a good friend from Long Island NY – let’s call him “Mr. Smith” – who is a fan from the Machine days. Mr Smith is also an Analog Synth enthusiast, and a bit of a collector. He had this curious habit (for which I am eternally grateful) of showing up at my gigs with something from his collection – usually an immaculately maintained original Minimoog, the “holy grail” of performance synths – hoping to hear his instrument played, apparently, by an expert. As someone who has spent most of my adult life in love with synthesizers, I was perhaps uniquly qualified to deliver the goods, and he recognized this. At the time I owned a non working ARP 2600 and a Sequential Circuits Pro One. When I started touring with the Mahavishnu Project it became apparent I would need something more robust.

For one thing, a Minimoog-type instrument was essential to this music – the sound has to cut, and it has to be playable in that style, well built and with hearty controls. Nothing I owned really fit that bill. In actuallity I had no need for it previously – it was an expensive investment into instruments that had no effects built in and could only play one note at a time. (But O that sound…!) I used whatever keyboards I could – usually my Kurzweil PC88 controller, a recently acquired Roland VK-7M Organ module (with drawbars) and the Pro One. Sufficient, but ultimimately unsastisfying. Meanwhile, during this time, our intrepid Mr Smith would periodically whisper in my ear “I think you should go back to playing a traditional rig“. I can’t remember how many times he said this, but during my time wth the Mahavishnu Project a light bulb went of and I said “you know, perhaps you’re right!!”
I went thru the process of acquiring a real “trad” rig – first selling everything I wasn’t going to use or that wasn’t road worhty, like the ARP 2600. (I’m not a collector you see – I need gear that will hold up under fire, and the older instruments just aren’t made that well). I sold enough gear and rasied the money to by a Nord Electro 3 and a Moog Voyager (the updated version of the Minimoog). I also scored an endorsement with Moog Music – my first and only instrument endorsement. So now I had the tools, and the door was open. The AX7 came off the strap and went on the stand as controller for the Roland Module I had long used (XV5080, also swaped out for an XV5050. I have years worth of custom programmed sounds I didn’t want to give up, including all of those glorious guitar sounds).

After the first few gigs with the new rig I had to laugh. It was like going back to 1977 with a Rhodes and a Minimoog, the place where it all started for so many of my keyboard playing peers. (It even opened up the possibility of doing something my friend Steve Lawson suggested – using a processed Fender Rhodes electric piano, without the heartache and backache of carrying a real one around.)

Back to 2014: The Solo Piano tour/CD/exploration is now complete; I’m looking to get back to ensemble work. NAIL – which was based in part around the use of the AX7 and it’s accompanying playing style – were finished. I was using this new rig on every gig I was called to do, and loving it. I replaced the AX7 with an A37 – essentially the same instrument (a keyboard controller) but a 76 key version, much more suited to sitting down.

Also during my Mahavishnu Project tenure I met saxophonist, educator and composer Peter Furlan. Introduced by our mutual friend Pete Salo (photographer), it was immidietaly apparent that Peter F & I had a lot of common ground. We began to do a variety of things together, including his sextet, a trio and our duo project “Le Jazz Electronique” in which I make extensive use of Ableton LIVE in an improvising context. (I’ve been using Ableton for years now – check out my user group page here.)

Looking to become involved with a somewhat lucrative project, I began to toss ideas around with different folk. One of those folk was Peter Furlan and one of those ideas was “Mr. Gone“, a band focusing on the same 1970’s/80’s era Jazz Fusion stuff I knew and loved, but concetrating on the GROOVE side of that music, as opposed to the “everything in odd time sigantures & lots of unison lines” stuff. The most well known and longest running of those groups was Weather Report, so we are in effect a “Weather Report Tribute”.
Late in 2013 I got a call from some very nice people in NJ who call themselves “Piktor’s Metamorphosis“. My friend Glenn Alexander (guitarist) recommended me to them. Seems their keyboard player had gotten himself a full time teaching gig, and would it be possible for me to do the 2 shows they still had on the books? Oh, and the tunes are Return To Forever, Pat Mehtney Group, David Sancious and Mahavishnu. Just my cup of tea. And how fortunate that I’m now using a traditional rig… 🙂

Another relatonship I had developed over the last few years was with drummer Ray Levier, a great drummer and practically the nicest cat you’ll ever meet. We have an ongoing duo thing called “Red Slider” in which we were BOTH using Ableton LIVE, syncing our laptops togther on stage and generally having a good time with it. Ray periodically calls me for his gigs, usually at one of his regualar spots.

Meanwhile, Pete Furlan had introduced me to another bandleader/singer Rick Oberson and the Flying Obersons. Rick has an ecyclopedic knowledge of Rock ‘n Roll, including progressive rock and a lot of other things. I moved into the sub spot for his regular guy. Good! Work is work.

The “Thunderhead Organ Trio” is another group based on a long standing relationship. In this case it evlved out of The Bean Runner Jazz Project, orignally assmebled by trombonist Joe Gil with his friend Premik Russel Tubbs (whom I met thru the Mahavishnu Project). The Bean Runner project was a 5 pice band, and while great fun, it always seemed to be tough to get everyone together. As a trio, belive me – scheduling is much easier. And again, my traditional rig comes to full bear, allowing me to orchestrate, hilight, explore and just generally have a great time with the music.
Many other situations had, by this point, come on and gone. Another one that is still active is Aleah Long‘s group “En Full Circle“.

And finally, I was recruited for something I had never done before: playing behind a rap artist. Decora is a Newburgh based poet and rapper with extraodrinary talent, and his vision put me along side a DJ and drummer. It was a brand new way of working for me, and I was genuinley thrilled and excited to explore this new prospect.

On top of all this, I was able to add a short solo performance on June 28th, which I called “NAILgun“.

So there it is: A culmination of many years worth of work, groups, gear – and the slow whittling away of “unessecary” things, or things that just did not make me happy. And now the magic begins to work; the phone, which has pretty much contunued to ring (thank heavens) with all manner of music work now delivers one musically satisfying situation after another – till we arrive at what I can only think of as a sort of “personal critical mass”, where all this comes together to mean a month full of work, spread over 8 different situations, all of which I’m thrilled to be a part of. Here’s the list:

Aleah Long & En Full Circle
Mr Gone (2 shows)
NAILgun – Solo show
Piktor’s Metamorphosis
Ray Levier & Friends
Thunderhead Organ Trio
The Flying Obersons

I am savoring this moment, because I’ve worked for it – and wished for it. I’ve been moving, concsiously or unconciously, in this direction for quite some time, and I feel like I’m actually getting somewhere.
A lot can happen in a month – and at any time really – and I have no idea what’s coming next. But if this is any indication then I think it’s gonna be alright. 🙂

– Neil Alexander


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