100 Years Ago this week…

It’s Tuesday May 28th. Tomorrow, Wednesday May 29th, will be exactly 100 years since Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, with choreography from Vaslav Nijinsky. The infamous riot (or whatever actually happened – look it up, it’s debatable that it was an actual riot) is now a part of our collective consciousness.

The stories & details of this event are numerous and can easily be found around the web, so I will not bother with reproducing or quoting them here. But I do want to speak briefly about my connection with the musical part of the work, which goes back to 1967. I was 7 years old, and my parents took the family to see Walt Disneys “Fantasia” – a film which had it’s original premiere in 1940 (Wikipedia Article). Why it was being shown again I can probably guess, but the seeds were sown: The now iconic footage of the formation of the Earth and prehistoric life – namely Dinosaurs – was the stuff of every boys dream.

My dad was an ametuer classical pianist, so there was a Chickering Baby Grand Piano in the house, and music was on the stereo. No surprise here: I wanted a copy of that music! I was given an LP of the complete piece. At the time, I didn’t know that the producers of “Fantasia” had cut and resequenced parts of the “Rite” so that it was considerably different from the original version. All I knew, at age 7 was “This isn’t it….it’s different”.  I put the record away; and while my memories of that first film experience still resonate, it would be years before I found myself in the company of the work again.

Fast forward: 1977-ish. I’m in High School.  There seems to be TONS of great music EVERYWHERE: The airwaves are flooded with tunes and everyday someone hands me something great to listen to. I’ve been playing piano now for 9 years or so, and have made some (what were to me) incredible discoveries about the music I liked and it’s history. Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was a big influence, and a big radio hit at the time. I asked my current piano teacher to help me learn it, and it sparked an interest in arranging which I realized by arranging some music for my HS Jazz band – in 9th grade. I was 13. Also during this time, someone gave me a copy of Mahavishnu’s “Birds of Fire”. I didn’t understand it, but… there was something about it, some kind of connection.

After that, as a keyboard player, it was a short trip to progressive rock where keyboards actually had some meaning. Bands Like ELP, Genesis and Yes were central to what I thought was “cool”. King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic” and Starless & Bible Black rounded up the hard edged composed music aesthetic. Soon after I rediscovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra – even more complex and exciting – and thru it Miles Davis. The whole of Jazz came flooding after, it’s complex harmonic language which I later learned was directly influenced by the “Rite Of Spring.”

Classical music had always been an underscore thru this time – Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky – some of the biggies. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to see the other stuff – Bartok’s String Quartets & concerto for Orchestra; Scriabin, Hindemith, Ives – and Stravinsky came Roaring back. And When I say Roaring… for several years the ritual was to point the speakers out the window on the first day of spring and play “The Rite” as loud as the system would go. Oh yeah, baby. It was AWESOME.

Fast forward again: 1982. Struggling in NYC; didn’t finish High School, didn’t go to college. Parents divorced. No family support. Just my music to hold on to…

During this time I received as a birthday gift a copy of the Rite for Piano 4 hands. At the time I had a fledgling interest in prehistoric culture, driven by a fascination with places like Stonehenge & Newgrange (in Ireland).  Suddenly I had in front of me the Complete Rite Of Spring – and its original scenarios and meanings captured my imagination.

I had begun to play for Dance Classes at NYU around this time; and while I didn’t really know much about the ballet – or that there even WAS a ballet – I quickly learned. I continued to work with dancers and choreographers. I learned of all the major version: Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and various balletic versions. But for my money, the Joffrey Ballet‘s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography is to me the most visceral, the most powerful. A fascinating documentary exists, “The search for Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring” that describes the reconstruction and ends with a video of the performance from 1987.

This whole situation strikes me as a sort of “fractal” – reconstructing the Rite, which is itself reconstructing things from Prehistory; and my connection with so called “progressive” & avant-garde music of which the “Rite” played such a huge part in both harmonically & rhythmically; and my subsequent work with Dance, that part of the premiere that is oft overlooked. It locks together music & events in my life into what is for me a startling mosaic.

 

My story from there is a little more well known, documented in press releases and reviews of my performances. All of this has culminated in my current “100 Years Of Spring” project, and I am thrilled to be performing this work in the year of it’s centennial. While I have no actual performance scheduled for May 29th, I will be celebrating with a trip to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC. Nicholas Roerich has the distinction of working with Igor Stravinsky to create the sets and tableaus for the original storyline of The Rite – “Le Sacre Du Printemps” – in which a primitive  pagan russian tribe celebrates the return of spring, and ends with a sacrifice as a young maiden dances herself to death.

I hope to continue and “Dance the work to Life” as my performances continue into the next year, with my next show in Los Angeles on June 16th. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come join me in celebrating this masterpiece.

– Neil

 

Realizing a “Dream”: My 1st Piano CD (part 1)

Greetings, Dear Readers!

It’s finally here: “Darn That Dream Solo Piano Vol. 1”, my first official solo piano album. A long time in coming, this recording represents a very significant milestone for me. This post gives a little backstory and a little about my process. This is Part 1.

Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1 

This record took almost 2 years to go from the recording session to the final product. Part of that was simply not having enough time to finish the things I needed to do – buying licenses for the standards, or setting up the mastering; editing the artwork, etc – but a more significant part of it was grappling with my fear of failing – or more specifically, not measuring up to my unrealistically high expectations. Many decades of listening to 1st class piano music will do that to you. How could I possibly hope to compete? The only way I could actually complete this process is to let go of all that and make something much more personal. I feel I’ve accomplished this, and although the lingering fear, now mostly habit, still floats around my head and makes me overcautious, I am proud to present you with this recording.

Part 1 – A Story Telling

My first connection to music was thru the piano. When I was 6, we moved out of NYC to the suburbs. My family bought a house on a cul-du-sac in one of those new developments, the kind of houses the song “little boxes on a hillside/and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky” was written about. It seemed like a big old house to me, however, coming from a small apartment in NYC. We had very little furniture to fill what seemed to me to be a gigantic living room. And then one day it appeared: The black Chickering & Sons baby grand piano that I learned to play on. That piano became my friend, my confident, my escape, my lover, my universe.

My dad got the piano because he loved to play; mostly Beethoven & Chopin (from what I remember). I remember hearing about Mozart – how he had written his first sonatina at age 7. I was 6, and fully convinced I could do the same. I plucked out some kind of melody and insisted my dad help me write it down. In my mind, I was Mozart… yet somehow I knew that that was a much larger world to explore. It was decided I should take lessons.

One of the earliest pieces I learned to play was the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. My father taught it to me note for note. Years later he admitted that I could play it better than he could. All I really remember is spending hours & hours at the piano. We lived on a suburban cul-de-sac and that meant stickball, kickball and a variety of other games were always happening. I did play a lot – kicking the ball over the house on the other side of the circle was always a big challenge – but I also chose to spend a lot of time indoors at the piano. My 1st teacher didn’t work out so great, so another was found – Mr. Printz. I studied with him for 5 – 6 years. Under his tutelage I learned the ins & outs of basic harmony; was introduced to jazz greats like Oscar Peterson (thru jazz studies books), and had the opportunity to learn anything I wanted – all I need to do was ask.

I remember Deodato’s ”Prelude” album had a big effect on me (remember the funky version of “2001”?), and by age 13 I had composed & arranged a tune for my High School Big Band. I was hooked on music.  During this time my parents marriage fell apart. They fought constantly. I stayed in my room, or at the piano whenever possible. By age 16 I was gigging fairly regularly, and was cutting high school to stay home and practice. Another key moment came when I first heard Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”. I knew then that music was my best option in life, and I could not wait to get into the studio and start making records. (That would have to wait until 1990, 27 years later when my band “A. Animal” recorded our first CD “Overhaul”.)

So why a nearly 40 year delay in recording a solo piano CD? And how did I get back to it? As already stated, I started with piano. My first electric Keyboard was a Fender Rhodes Electric Piano, 73 Stage Mark I. (I still have it..!)

I had, early on, made up my mind to always include some piano on any CD I would release.  Those few tentative tracks can be found on “Overhaul” (1990), Alone At Last (1996) and Galvanized (2004).

I had always dreamed of doing a solo piano record – hence the title, “Darn That Dream” – but listening to records by people like Keith Jarret, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and the great classical masters like Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz & Glenn Gould (among many others) I always felt like my own work could never match up. As my friend composer/pianist Richard Cameron Wolfe once said to me, “a little bit of competition there, eh?”  Geez. Part of my trepidation was that I didn’t fit comfortably into a particular style – I was not a “Jazz Pianist”, or a “Prog Rock” keyboardist, or a Classical musician. I did, however, wear all those hats at one time or another – preferably at the same time.

Meanwhile, I was constantly playing for dance classes – first in NYC (1982-1989) and then at SUNY Purchase (1992 till today), and that meant I was playing the acoustic piano constantly, in the wide variety of styles needed to accompany both Ballet & Modern Dance.

It was during my time at Purchase, in 2001, when former Masters Student and teacher Jill Echo said to me “you should make a solo piano CD. I would buy it.”

Jill & I had worked together in class, and she was a great appreciator of music. Somehow, even though it had been said to me before, it just…stuck. It took up residence in a forgotten corner of my subconscious and refused to budge.

A 2nd arc was happening around the same time, as later that year I premiered my solo piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” – first for the Conservatory faculty (read a review here) and then in a series of local performances, none of which were well attended. I knew I was going to have to record it at some point, though I was experiencing the same insecurity regarding recording. This was before I learned what REALLY goes on in the classical recording world these days, with literally thousands of edits..!

Meanwhile, I was trying to run NAIL around the rigorous touring schedule of a different band. This was taking up most of my time; that plus various other factors led to a decision to leave the touring group and focus on NAIL. This resulted in a CD in 2007 [“Tugging At The Infinite”] and a full gig schedule. However, I still felt like I was spinning my wheels. Then in 2010 I turned 50 – and I released “the train doesn’t go backwards, or stop” – basically that “we ain’t getting’ any younger!!” So I made the decision to put the band on hold (while I reflected on what wasn’t working), and went ahead with plans to record my first Solo Piano CD.

That’s it for part 1. Part 2 will follow in a week or so. Thanks for reading. You can download the new CD here.

 

Return to the Piano: Rite of Spring revisted

This is the story of my ongoing personal journey with one of the most iconoclastic pieces of music in history… Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring”, the piece that caused a now famous riot at it’s premier in 1913.

My journey started when I went to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at age 7. I was completely captivated by the music/image combination. It stuck with me something fierce. I’m not even sure I was playing piano yet, but I remember asking my dad for a recording of the piece (on vinyl, of course!).

Many years later in 1982, I received the 4 hand score (Stravinsky’s rehearsal score) as a birthday present. I was 22. An informal performance at New York University followed in 1984, with fellow pianist Bradley Kaus. Still entranced by the piece and not wanting to let it go, I started kicking the score around – exploring both parts – and this is when I began the process of casually “squeezing” it down to 2 hands.

I was really interested in the orchestral power of this amazing piece of music. As I worked towards a completed 2 hand score, I realized what I was trying to do was bring the Orchestral “experience” of the piece to the piano. i did the 4 hand score again, with Pianist Roberto Pace in 1995 for the Purchase Dance Corps. I continued to work on a 2 hand version, more for my own enjoyment then as a performance piece.

in 1999 I moved to Orange County and met quite a few musicians right away. One of them was Flautist Lynette Benner, who was programming classical shows at the Howland Cultura Center in Beacon NY, right across the river from me. “I’ve got it about 70% percent completed,” I told her. She said “Great! We’d like you to perform it in about 6 months”.

Gulp! Probably the best thing, tho – forced me to finish my arrangement and get it going. The thing I remember most about that 1st performance is that I was SO nervous, I thought I was gonna toss my cookies. 🙂 (Note: It took 15 years to cull the initial arrangement….1984 – 1999.)

The show was great fun, and a serious pianistic workout.

I also performed it in a private setting for the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance Faculty. In attendance was an undergrad student, Jonathan Reidel. He was given the assignment of writing a “review” of sorts, for credit.Here’s that review:

A séance was held this past Thursday at 3 p.m. in studio J of the Dance Building at Purchase College. Primordial forces of Pangean proportion were channeled through pianist NEIL ALEXANDER as he single handedly (well, there were two hands and a foot involved) interpreted Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring”.

The piece that originally moved its audience to riot during its premier in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was originally intended as a ballet score to conjure images of primitive man, tribal reverence for nature, and ritual human sacrifice. It was subsequently brought forth visions in animated film of prehistoric Earth; molten, cooling, plates shifting, mountains erupting skyward, the evolution of species, their reign and cataclysmic extinction.

This is a formidable amount of energy to pass through an orchestra. The present question, posed in Studio J on Thursday, is what happens to such sonic energy when bottlenecked through a solo instrument? Neil Alexander will tell you that it must gush and stream out the other end like water through a fire-hose.

Clever transcription, first by Stravinsky himself for a four handed piano version, then by Alexander for solo performance, has kept much of the original depth and dynamics of the symphonic version alive. All of the thunderous crashes, floral flourishes, stomping rhythms and tidal pulls are represented. The monochromatic aspect of this version (dealing solely with the timbre of the piano) does not leave us wanting. What is lost from not having the other instruments represented is in the intrinsic connotations that they provide (a bird-like flute, a majestic French horn); what is gained is a broader interpretation of The Rite’s gestures and sweeps. Perhaps the Chaos and beauty is all in the mind of one figure. Maybe the setting is now that of film-noir. There are sections that even sound jazz-infused, yet seem in keeping with the stylistic continuity. The transcription is as “monochromatic” as Picasso’s Guernica; a piece many people forget is in gray-scale.

Purists may cringe, claiming that that the concept of a piano reduction is only meant for ballet rehearsals. But this piece was made for riots and I believe Mr. Alexander will welcome them.

Jonathan Riedel, Purchase Dance Corps

Jonathan has since gone on to start his own Dance company, Riedel Dance Theater. We stayed in touch; I would jokingly bug him about doing “Sacre” with his company.

I continued to perform the piece sporadically for about 3 years, and finally had “had enough”. It’s a bit hard on the hands. Besides, I wanted to move on to other things. And as it seems with all (or most) of my shows, no matter how much promo I did attendance was lite. I guess maybe I was expecting – hoping – that it would generate interest on it’s merits alone.

I did get one really good review out of it, from one of the last performances in 2002. Here’s that review:

Shy brilliance

>Neil Alexander rediscovers The Rite of Spring for solo piano

> Leslie Gerber, Woodstock Times

More than a quarter of a century ago, in l976, I traveled up to Arkviile to hear a piano recital. In this most unlikely location, and on a less than ideal piano, the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski played one of the most memorable piano recitals I’ve ever heard. For virtuosity and musical comprehension and for the chance to hear Rzewski’s masterpiece, the People United will Never Be Defeated, that afternoon remains in my mind as one of the most unusual and satisfying piano performances in my experience.

I had to wait until last Friday evening for a similar experience, and it was even more unexpected. Neil Alexander is a jazz pianist and synthesizer player. When he played Friday night at the Uptown in Kingston, he introduced himself by saying that he usually performed behind a wall of electronic equipment. But he was going relatively naked, with just an acoustic piano, because of his love for Stravinsky’s orchestral score The Rite of Spring. For the past fifteen years, Alexander told us, he has been working on a piano solo arrangement of this music, and he was finally ready to perform it the first time two years ago. “Don’t “expect too much from me,” he said with excessive modesty. ~I’m no Vladimir Horowitz.” Well, he was right about that. Horowitz could never have performed this music the way Alexander did it.

The Rite of Spring is an extremely complex piece, with thick and often dissonant harmonies and irregular jagged rhythms more the rule than the exception. It’s difficult enough for a good orchestra to play it well. Alexander has truly nailed the piece in his piano arrangement. He’s got the harmonies I and the rhythms, the textures of the music, accurately and lovingly reduced to the piano keyboard. The color of Stravinsky’s orchestration is missing (although Alexander’s playing had excellent tonal coloration, despite the limits of another less than ideal piano), but the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the music are clarified in this arrangement.

And best of all, Alexander played the music with amazing command. Some parts of the score are inherently unpianistic, but those fifteen years of work really showed in the way Alexander managed to transcribe and play them so accurately and with such exciting force. In short, this was a riveting experience, world class playing all the way. The dozen or so people scattered around the Uptown shared in a great musical experience, one I won’t soon forget. After a break, Alexander returned to what he usually does, jazz improvisation — although it was fascinating to hear the way his study of Stravinsky’s score has influenced the technique and thought of his jazz playing. I am not as much of an expert on jazz as I am on Stravinsky, so all I can safely say about Alexander’s jazz is that he obviously knows , what he’s doing and executes his ideas with the same facility and power as he does with Stravinsky. For He certainly held my attention. And when he was working with material I recognized, l Loves You Porgy from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I was best able to recognize the ingenuity of his improvising. It’s a pity that a performance like this drew so few people. But I have a suspicion that those of us who heard it are going to be telling our friends.

Watch for Neil Alexander’s name in the papers. And if you love great piano playing, go to hear him — and tell him not to be so modest!

A very good review indeed; however, my “lack of audience” problem has persisted – to this day, no matter what type of show – and so I ceased performing “Sacre”.

ZOOM FORWARD to 2011. Jon Riedel has come back to Purchase to get his Masters Degree. His company is doing well….and he has an idea for new Choreography, based on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”. Dark stuff, but ultimately well suited to the overall mood.

So – after not performing it for 7 years, I brought “Le Sacre” back. I made a few improvements to voiceings and such, and we premiered his chorepography, with live music, 2 nights last May. It was a smashing success! I have some video footage which I will post as soon as I get a chance. We are also talking about working it into his upcoming (2012) season.

And – we are also approaching the 100 anniversary of the Rite Of Spring, and I have my own plans: an International tour of small concert venues & house concerts, ending in Paris in May 2013 where the piece premiered 100 years before. I have to tell you, I’m very excited by the whole prospect. Plans are being drawn up as I type. Of course this syncs up very nicely with my return to purely acoustic performance, and the (soon the be released) Solo Piano CD.

..And there it is! We’ll be keeping you posted, you can be sure. Thanks for reading. 🙂

 

Looking Ahead: 2011 and Beyond

Greetings, all comers! Welcome to another installment of the NAILblog…

About 13 months ago, I had started to write my 2009 Year-End wrap up post, about all that had happened in, well, 2009. There was quite a lot that happened; and in fact, kept happening – to the extent of which I never actually finished writing it. In fact, a whole other YEAR went by, and all the time I was thinking I could still get to it…. Not. Ridiculous, actually. So as 2010 came to close, I grappled (however briefly) with the idea of a 2010 Year End Wrap Up post again, and realized my mistake: its actually much more important for me at this point in my life to look FORWARD, instead of back. So I therefore change tack and offer more of a “what I hope to Accomplish in 2011” type of post. There’s a whole pile of projects and ideas I want to try and get to this year, and posting them here might (I am hoping) help me actually GET to them. Here goes:

What I’m planning for 2011: The Adventure continues

1) The Solo Piano CD & Performances
Folks have been after me to record a solo piano CD for something like 20 years. I know I’m off to a good start this year because Ive already recorded it. Editing/mixing now. The plan is to release it late spring, combined with a series of shows.
Coincidentally, I’ve been asked by choreographer Jonathan Riedel to perform my solo piano transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for 2 shows in May. It dovetails perfectly with the release of the CD, and “The Rite of Spring” will be featured in many of these performances. I am psyched!

2) The Planets Project
Gustav Holst’s amazing orchestral work, arranged for Jazz Octet. This will be one of my Kickstarter projects this year; in fact, Ive already got backers. Inspired by Duke Ellingtons arrangements of the Nutcracker, Mary Poppins, etc. A lot of the conceptual groundwork has already been put in place over the last 18 months. This year it HAPPENS. 🙂

3) ASCO
This is an idea that ive been kicking around for a lot of years at this point. Not necessarily new or original, but I feel very strongly about it nevertheless. ASCO stands for the Analog Synthesizer Chamber Orchestra. I imagine it as a kind of a live version of Switched on Bach, a work that had a tremendous influence on me. My goal here is to bring ASCO into existence as a viable Chamber ensemble; stay with it for a number of years and then let someone else take the reigns. The main reason I have not acted on this idea is because it includes the creation of a not for profit organization. (Not to mention the initial equipment costs!). This year I will begin the process of creating this ensemble.

4) Duets (various)
Theres a handful of wonderful musicians Ive been talking with over the last few years, about doing various types of projects. Classical, improvisation, recording, performance, remix. Lots of amazing ideas and energy. Some of these folks are:

Who loves ya, kiddo?

  • Pianist and author Stuart Isacoff
  • Drummer Greg Burrows
  • Bassist Steve Lawson
  • Multi instrumentalist Alan Wentz
  • Violinist Zach Brock
  • Bassist Trip Wamsley
  • Guitarist Rob Michaels
  • Wind player Premik Russel Tubbs
  • Drummer vibraphonist Gregg Bendian

..and quite a few more I’ve not listed at the moment. Also on this list is my lovely wifeNita Rae, a songwriter & keyboard player. We’ve done things together now & again; she’s acted as coproducer and/or engineer on almost all of my recordings. My collaboration with her is way overdue, and will take top priority when it begins to take shape.

5) NAIL reborn, or reinvented, or just renamed…
I’m not sure why NAIL never really caught on after 11 years of playing out. Didn’t get far enough away from home? Too many personnel changes? Just not the right combination of tunes and musicians? Or a promo FAIL? Ah well. Whatever the reason, I had really good response to my last Winter Solstice show which was more of a piano based quartet (still using synthesizers, tho). Ive been chewing on a lot of ideas about what to do next with NAIL, and I think Ive decided on a more flexible approach – i.e., not sticking to any particular ensemble size or instrumentation, but still featuring the piano. Im starting to get excited about this, but the idea needs to cook some more. Ill be hoping to take this version for a spin in the fall, or maybe sooner. This means that the Planets Project would also fall under the guise of NAIL. That works for me. 🙂

Who is "the Mysterious Phantom"?

Who is "the Mysterious Phantom"?

6) The Mysterious Phantom

I did this solo show at the Annual Zombie Barbecue hosted by my friend Dan at the Wherehouse restaurant in Newburgh. It was a sort of hardcore avant techno thing; I dressed in a cape, used a Theremin and was billed as The Phantom. There were suddenly a lot of requests for a Phantom CD. Sometimes you just gotta give the people what they want. Ill be doing that gig again this year, and I will have product in hand this time.

7) Choice NAIL: Live & Unreleased trax
Gee, Ive got a lot of these lying about. Enough for 2 CD’s, actually. It won’t take quite that much work to get these out; most of them just need to be mixed. Here’s a taste: “Box 555”:

Box 555 by nailmusic

8) UK House Concert & Lecture tour
If I can get this together, it will be amazing – especially to meet in person all the awesome Brits I’ve met thru Twitter.  Its all about earning enough cash to cover the cost of the trip. More on this story as it develops.

9) NAILMUSIC.COM Website Overhaul
Wrangling Nailmusic.com into shape, with a more comprehensive non-flash site, optimized mobile site, and full integration with Soundcloud, Bandcamp and all my blogs  – WordPress (this one), Posterous and my new Tumblr Synth blog. I’m gonna need some serious help with this one, and it needs to happen soon. Any web ninjas out there up for the challenge?

10) Solo Performances: Raves, Galleries, Concert Halls & House Concerts

Right alongside the acoustic piano concerts will be the electronic ones. In fact, I’m working a set of music for Piano/Laptop that has the best of both worlds. There will also be electronic only gigs, like Raves –  I did 2 last year, major fun. The idea is to get out there and PLAY.

….And the question now is: only 10?
In reality, the idea factory has been working overtime over the last few years. Ive got literally an amazing amount of idea energy. The problem has always been the actual way forward: how to proceed, and on which ideas. I still don’t have the answers, but Ill learn as I go. Like the song says: ” you cant always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find… You get what you need.”
I say: BRING IT.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading!

NEXT: The year of the Piano

NAILnews: Year End Goodness

Greetings, all! I’m wrapping up another year here at nailmusic.com, and I’ve got a few cool shows this month and some great things to look forward to next year. This week in particular seems to be the busiest! It all starts this Tuesday, when I have the honor of sitting in with the Bergen Catholic High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Saxophonist/composer/educator Peter Furlan. Then Wednesday night I’ll be the house keyboardist (with Bob Meyer on drums) for Kenny Lee’s Jazz Jam Session at The Bungalow in Mount Vernon, NY. Friday I’m back at the Bean Runner with Joe Gil and his “Trio Of Terror”, with Chris Weigers (bass) and Gregg Bendian (drums), and finally SUNDAY I’ll be returning to the wonderful Turning Point Cafe in Peirmont for another WINTER SOLSTICE CELEBRATION & Canned Food Drive (supporting the Food Bank Of The Hudson Valley). We have a great show planned. This year’s group features James Cammack (from Ahmad Jamal’s group) on bass, Bob Meyer on drums and 19 year old Steven Frieder on saxes. (If you’ve never seen Steven play, it’s NOT to be missed. He is truly exceptional.) Tickets for this are $15 and available from the Turning Point Event Page. Last year’s show was SOLD OUT, so get your tickets early! Please bring canned goods or other non-perishable food items to help our less fortunate neighbors here in the Hudson Valley. As we swing into the New Year 2011, the Mahavishnu Project returns to the Iridium NYC on January 20th with the full-out 11 piece group performing the complete “Visions Of The Emerald Beyond” record. Things are also in the works for us to perform with Jerry Goodman, the violinist from the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, in the spring of next year.

Well, that’s about all the news I’ve got time for at the moment! Have a great holiday, stay warm, stay well. And thanks for your continued support.

NAILNews: All Good Things

July 9th, 2010 – Greetings, all! I wanted to let you know what’s going on in the NAILmusic Universe… The big news is: NAIL will be doing what is perhaps our last show on August 28th at Benji & Jakes in Kauneonga Lake. After 14+ years, 3 CD’s & countless gigs, I am officially shutting down Neil Alexander & NAIL till further notice. It’s a combination of things: as an artist I have continued to evolve, and I think I’ve outgrown

Neil Alexander & NAIL perform at the BLue Note in NYC

the “keyboards-Bass-Drums” format that has dominated the last 10 years of musical life (it’s certainly served me well). Certainly the lack of an audience is a factor. I’ve also continued to write new material, a lot of it for larger ensembles; plus I’ve been doing a lot of straight up improv gigs (see Waves Across The Pond on the blog) as well as solo performances in acoustic, electric & electronic formats. When it comes down to it, it’s simply time to move on for the moment. I’m also working though some ideas about different types of instrumentation and piecing together a new picture of what the group could be should we have another go… Meanwhile, NAIL remains a linchpin in my musical evolution. My sincere thanks to all who have participated.

Happy shot!

Some of the great musicians with whom I’ve shared the stage with in NAIL have been:

Drums: Nadav Zelniker, T Xiques, Amit Shamir, Scott Morehouse, Mike Bram, Dean Sharp, Steve Sacco, Gregg Brendian, Peter Obrien, Costa, Rafael Figueroa

Bass: Charlie Kniceley, Steve Rust, Keith Macksoud, Jim Cammack,, Dan Asher, Lew Scott, Dave Hofstra, Joe Pelletier. Robert Kopec, Rene Hart.

Guitar: Dan Johanson, Marshal Woodall; Ryan Ball, Ken McGloin, Burr Johnson, Chad McLoughlin, Matt Finck, Joel Newton.

Horns: Norbert Stachel, Erik Lawrence, Premik Russel Tubbs, Freddie Jacobs, Joe Gil, John Richmond, James Delano, Steve Frieder.

Chris Hanson & DJ Wavy Davy have played turntables with us, and video artist David Resnick has tripped us out. My apologies if I missed anyone – send me an email.

You are all wonderful artists and humans and I thank you for sharing your talent, time and energy with me and with NAIL.

What’s next for me, you might ask? One of the things I’m now focusing energy on is: Solo performances and House Concerts. Read my blog post about that here. Other interesting projects are popping up, like my silent film series “Scene ReSeen”.

And so we go, ever onward, to the next and the next and the next, keeping the creative flame burning…. See you at the shows.  🙂

NAIL with Nadav And Charlie

For You: Solo House Concerts by Me. :)

So here we are: 2010. It’s been a wacky ride, especially the last few weeks! I’ve been so busy with gigs now (thanks heavens!) that I can’t see straight. My “Year end wrap up” post never actually materialized, but at some point I will touch on the things that started last year and are starting to flower and bear fruit this year. Things like “The Mahavishnu Project” – which is picking up steam in a subtle and most interesting way. But I digress – and I’ll come back to this with pix, video, and a story to tell. Promise.

This post is about looking forward – to possibilities, and to the future of Live Music. It’s about bringing music right to you, the listener. That’s right, I’m taking about House Concerts. Starting this year, I will be embarking on a new path: Solo House Concerts.

The Setup I i used at our 1st House Concert

Concerts in Your Home. 🙂

I’m sure most (if not all) of you have heard of this delightful phenomenon. Basically what it means is that A performer, one who’s music you’re interested in, comes to your house and does an intimate semi-private performance for you and your friends. People can bring food (ranging from snacks to a pot-luck dinner); it can be a cover charge or suggested donation. (I have to cover costs, and these will vary by location.) The important thing is everyone gets to have a meaningful musical experience – up close and personal, both for the fans and the artist. Basically, everyone wins!

Some great info about the House Concert ideology and how it works can be found Here:

Steve Lawson’s Excellent Page: http://www.stevelawson.net/2009/03/house-concert-hosting-a-beginners-guide/

Gaia Consort: http://gaiaconsort.com/house.html

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_concert


At this time, I’ve yet to do a solo performance (in someone’s house, that is – I’ve done tons of solo gigs at traditional venues), so I’ve no video to post at the moment. I am setting up a local performance for recording so you can see exactly what I’m offering, from setup stills and live video. But till then, here’s a brief description of what I do, especially for those coming to my music for the first time:

I am a jazz pianist and electronica artist. What I’ve done is combine these 2 styles into something unique; something that blends jazz, rock, electronics, funk and ambient music into a seamless blend. My music is both composed & improvised; I perform a combination of familiar jazz standards with a twist; gentle ambient electronica improvisations, and a variety of combinations of all the aforementioned styles.

I will bring  an ever-so-small electronic setup to your house. If you have a piano (and it’s a reasonably good instrument and in tune), I can use it along with the electronics – or keep it straight up acoustic if you prefer. I have my own style at the piano (somewhat along the lines of Keith Jarret and Bill Evans, with a modern classical vibe thrown in). In addition to standards and improvisations I also do select classical works – Gershwin, Bartok, Mozart etc. Stuff I’m SURE you and your friends will enjoy. 🙂

I will have some video to post soon, of both my electronic, acoustic, and “electro-acoustic” material. Meanwhile, I have a whole bunch of stuff that you can look at to get a better idea of what I’m about, at my YOUTUBE page.

I will be in the Los Angeles Area at the end of July and currently have an open date on July 23rd. Hit me up on twitter (@nailmusic) if you’d like to set something up!

Also wanted to mention that my group NAIL – in either acoustic or electric form – is also available for House Concerts, although we’d need a bit more room (and a bit more money…).

Here’s my group NAIL performing at our first house concert in May 2009:

So – stay tuned for an actual House Concert Page to be posted on this site with vids, booking info, contact form, etc.

Thanks for looking. I agree with the current sentiment that House Concerts are indeed the way forward.

Many thanks!

Waves Workshop: Steve Lawson & I perform for the first time

So – in the world of awesome gigs I’ve done, this rates pretty damn high. Although I Had never met (my now dear friends) Steve Lawson & Lobelia, our collective musical language intersected on so many levels it could only be awesome. We have quite a bit of video to post from the “Waves Across The Pond” event, but I wanted to post this right away. It’s from the workshop on June 1st, and is actually the very first time Steve & I made noise together. Listening back, it sounds to me like we’re old friends who just hadn’t met yet.

The complete workshop video plus footage from the performances will be up ASAP. Stay tuned!

Lawson & Alexander: Improvisation #1 from Neil Alexander on Vimeo.

Steve Lawson (bass, loops, process) & Neil Alexander (keyboards, synthesizers, loops, Ableton LIVE) peforming a short improvisation at the “Waves Across The Pond” workshop in Montgomery NY on June 1st.

Waves Across the Pond: an Interview (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of the interview with Steve Lawson. (Part 1 is Here.) Don’t forget to check out the related page, “Waves Across The Pond”. I’ll be meeting Steve and family for the first time on Tuesday; then we’ll head over to the Wallkill River School to set up for the event. We’ll be streaming to performance on wednesday Here.

NEIL: Brilliant, Steve. That was important for me to hear. Do you know that version of “Black Is The Color Of My True Loves Hair”? From Bass Desires, I think…

STEVE: I do know that tune, it’s great!  (listening to it now 🙂 ) It’s beautiful.

NEIL: THAT was a revelation for me – because it was about the “Melody” the heart of a song. And how it can work in ANY context. No limits.

STEVE: So I started digging deeper into improvisation, following that thought. I wanted to be part of ‘collaborative storytelling’. Rather than one person writing a ‘script’ and other actors playing roles in the band, I wanted to see if it would unfold in a whole other way. It was tricky to find that space in London. London has a MASSIVE tradition with ‘free improv’ – really heavy players – so any time you mention free improv, people think you mean Derek Bailey, Evan Parker etc…

NEIL: Wow, had no idea. 🙂 I usually think Cecil Taylor. lol

STEVE: non-idiomatic improv. the stuff that consciously avoids sounding like anyone else’s music. This stuff makes Cecil sound like Britney 🙂

NEIL: LOL!!! Jamie Muir, music improvisation company stuff?

STEVE: Along the Muir lines, for sure. So I needed a different name for it, because players were either drawn to that free thing, or put off by it, but were always constrained by it. So I started calling it Spontaneous Composition. I can’t remember where I stole that term from. It’s a fairly obvious one 🙂

NEIL: Keyboardist Patrick Moraz used to use it for his improv concerts. I love it.

STEVE: The distinction I REALLY wanted to work on was between ‘right’ and ‘good’…let me explain.

STEVE: If you’re playing a composition, being ‘right’ is really important. It’s a written piece of music, and you need to play the right notes in the right order. Get them out of order, and you’re ‘wrong’. But, as is apparent, audiences don’t often give a shit about ‘right’. They want ‘good’, and ‘wrong’ can be very good so long as we’re not distracted by it.

NEIL: Yes, and yes again. “Wrong” is very often right.

STEVE: if we’re worrying about right and wrong, not good and better, then we’re in a different place to the listener. So ideally, if you’re playing a composition, you want to know it well enough so that right and wrong disappear, and all is good/better. I realized that in most of the settings I play in, I just don’t get the luxury of learning songs that well.

NEIL: Funny – in most of my settings, I am expected to…!

STEVE: So I decided to either a) write REALLY simple structures to play over, or b) allow the structures to emerge from group improv, or rather, group listening :), and the group was never bigger than 3… My brain isn’t big enough to do spontaneous stuff with more than 3 people! But I made a point of a) creating a space where people felt free to play their own idea of good, and b) putting musicians together in interesting combinations.

NEIL: Lawson/Dodds/Wood makes much sense now.

STEVE: YES! That’s exactly what it’s all about. LDW was one of the best examples of this. Same with the album with Theo Travis, the one with Jez Carr and the new one with Mike Outram. All from the same place; wildly different musics.

NEIL: (LDW) That’s quite an amazing record. 🙂

STEVE: 🙂 But I still sound like me in all of them; I’m so proud of each one, and all of them are improvised. I found that giving great musicians room to completely change my ideas made them so much better. If I start with a loop, it gives a structure to build on but I often leave the harmony wide open so other things can happen.

NEIL: I think what I’ve found here in the US is that when you ask people to improvise, they tend to think “I can play whatever”, as opposed to thinking somewhat structurally. (…these might be mostly jazz musicians…) They don’t seem to want or be able to (or are not experienced with) creating “space & time” and harmony in an open context. Now I understand why you dug “Galvanized” so much – that’s exactly what it was about.

STEVE: definitely! I generally refuse any offer to ‘jam’. I’m not interested in jamming, because improvised music can be so much more than blowing over changes. Patrick Wood is a master of superimposing different harmonies on top of an initial loop – giving him the space to do that created some amazing music that we’d never have got close to with written tunes.

STEVE: Galvanized is outstanding; a really great record.

NEIL: Thanks! “Galvanized” was not very well received here; too “nebulous”. :/ For me it represents a way to play that I just don’t get to do with anyone.

STEVE: There’s a whole other side to improv, in terms of drawing people into the world it exists in, that seems to be about expectation…that’s what worked so well with the Recycle Collective. It became a format that allowed audiences to not expect it to be normal and crucially, not to judge it against ‘jazz’ gigs or ‘rock’ gigs. It was it’s own thing.

I spent a lot of time talking about musical journeys; about musicians exploring in a conversational way.

NEIL: It’s great to have created a space to work without expectations….! Tell us about how that started.

STEVE: Well, a lot of the exploration of these improv ideas was happening in my front room. I was trying to record as much of it as I could, but realized that it needed to happen in front of an audience. I was inviting various musicians round to just play…BJ Cole on steel guitar, Cleveland Watkiss on voice, Orphy Robinson on vibes and steel pan..some incredible musicians. I was playing at a festival, and decided to try an all improv gig where each musician would join me one at a time, and I’d add what they did into the loop –

NEIL: Ah, conceptual. 🙂

STEVE: …and it was amazing – but tragically not recorded! But the idea was there.

So when I got back home, I booked a couple more gigs. I started out with soloists and duos, but soon came up with the standard recycle collective format of 3 musicians, 3 sets, each set progressing solo, duo, trio. So everyone plays solo, all the duo combos are explored and the three trio sections are ‘curated’ by each of the musicians….more conceptual positioning 🙂

NEIL: Excellent ideas. A form of composition to be sure. 🙂

STEVE: definitely! That’s exactly what it was. The musicians were the composition;

the format was the composition, and the notes were what had to happen based on that combination 🙂

NEIL: A sequence of events…also helps maintain just enough order that even chaos wouldn’t be out of place. 🙂

STEVE: exactly. Sometimes it got really out; other times it was straight pop songs. Really varied.

NEIL: I’m sure!

STEVE: Very little swing/bop, but that happened occasionally 🙂 And almost none of it was recorded! I often took my recording set up (rudimentary though it was back then)

but always forgot to press start, or to plug it  into the desk. terrible.

NEIL: Damn. Best stuff never makes it to tape. 🙂

STEVE: That’s why we took the LDW trio into a studio; but we tried to keep as much of that improv spirit there. I still much prefer listening to the rough recordings that the ‘polished’ album even though the album is really well done. I get a kick out of the searching, questioning, journey stuff the most.

NEIL: That’s the stuff that scares most folk. 🙂

STEVE: yeah, I never understood that. It seems to ignore what it is to be in the audience.

NEIL: But – if you’re REALLY open, there are “no wrong notes” as Monk says. The full quote is “There are no wrong notes – only ones you don’t believe in”. Revolutionary. 🙂

STEVE: you want to be a part of something special, something unique, something specific, and something that could at any moment go HORRIBLY wrong 🙂 No, but there are idioms and I think that the territory seems to be pan-idiomatic rather than non-idiomatic. So within those idioms or combinations of idioms, there are vernaculars at work – shared languages, accents, jokes, stories, history that all come into play –

NEIL: Yes! in unimaginable combinations, no doubt.

STEVE:  – and, of course, a massive dose of trust. Without trust, improv is a random painful guessing game 🙂

NEIL: Trust is key; so is belief in what you yourself are playing, “self trust.”

STEVE: Never play music with an improvisor who’s trying to either beat you or impress you. Always try and make the other person sound awesome. In a collaboration, self belief is bolstered by not having to worry about the other person bogarting your wikkid mellow choonz 😉

NEIL: Feel free to come here and make me sound awesome. (That’s a joke!)

STEVE: Ha! If that was my only plan, I’d just sit there silently.

NEIL: So I guess we’ll both be sitting there silently, eh? We’ll see how that goes over with the audience. 🙂

STEVE: haha!

NEIL: “wikked mellow choonz”. WTF? Oh stop that now.

STEVE: I’m really looking forward to playing with you – you seem to have a pretty much endless stream of cool spiky melody that pours out of your instrument. I’m starting to recognize your sound-world, having listened to so much of your music. The things that soundtrack planet Neil. I’m intrigued to hear how they connect with what I do. it seems like an obvious fit 🙂

NEIL: Absolutely! BTW, You type really fast.

STEVE: 🙂

NEIL: I agree. I’ve gotten to know your sounds really well; I’d like to know a little more about your actual technical approach to looping so I can better understand what I’m hearing. I’m a good guesser, mind you. 🙂

STEVE: I use the same few looperlative functions most of the time…I tend to put every layer on a different track and mix and match sync’d and unsync’d tracks.

NEIL: For example “You can’t throw it away (there’s….)”. There’s a LOT of stuff going on there, different layers.

STEVE: yeah..

NEIL: Yes – I can hear that… some backwards…

STEVE: That also had a lot of live post-processing of the loops so I was able to change the delays that the loops were running through. They came out through a kaoss pad.

NEIL: Individual outputs?

STEVE: 3 stereo pairs

NEIL: That explains quite a bit!

STEVE: 🙂 Though at the moment, it’s in mono, cos I need to replace the sound chip…!

NEIL: Busted? 🙁

STEVE: just one side is broken, so I can run in mono. It works great like that 🙂

NEIL: I’m sure! I’m using a Line 6 Echopro and the JamMan, tho not synched. Each does several different things very well.

STEVE: The Echopro is very cool; some amazing delays too!

NEIL: Really awesome box. Yup. Like reverse, autovolume, etc.

STEVE: I like to have as much room to remix things as I go along, to reverse, fade, mute, scramble, replace etc…but quite often will leave a loop running through the middle of it all, just as the ‘glue’.

NEIL:Interesting. 🙂  I go for more of a “Tubular Bells” kind of concept: create & develop one idea; then let it go and start on the next.

STEVE: nice! I’m looking forward to seeing how all this comes together 🙂

NEIL: Yes! as am I. WOW. 🙂 Very often at a solo gig I won’t take a break – the ides are flowing….

STEVE: I’ve done that before!

NEIL: So I think we can use some of your recycle concepts to guide us through our performance – or rather, I’d like to. 🙂

STEVE: for sure! More than happy for it to work like that 🙂

NEIL: I have a thing for the “Marimba Ostinato” – it naturally falls under my fingers, can spin them off for days on end. Have you tried midi sync with other devices?

STEVE: I did with my echoplex, not with the looperlative. it’s possible; we could have each of us sending to the other, so that for any one tune one can act as master-looper – so I’ll loop you, or you loop me 🙂

NEIL: Might be interesting to try one thing with sync, in either direction.

STEVE: we’ll hopefully get to try that out!

NEIL: As I said, you type real fast. 🙂

STEVE: Are you busy on the Tuesday?

NEIL: Busy waiting for you to show up!

STEVE: 🙂 We could come to you then, and try the sync then

NEIL: Sounds cool.

NEIL: Have you tried hooking the JamMan and Looperlative up together?

STEVE: nope, but I’m sure we can!

NEIL: Personally, I find your approach to improvising quite refreshing! I’m starting to get the feeling that it would be best not to plan much.. 🙂

STEVE: yay! Sounds great to me. I’m much better when I don’t have to remember anything.

NEIL: Also, I will have mic etc set up for Lo. I  love to process live voice. 🙂

STEVE: excellent! She’ll be all about that.

NEIL: Nice!

The album with Mike Outram is one I’m REALLY proud of; some amazing music on there. And we’d never played together at all before the tape started rolling 🙂

NEIL: Wow, excellent. 🙂 Is it done yet?

STEVE: just finishing the mixing, then need to master it. Will all be done by the time we come to you, I think 🙂

NEIL: I love what you’ve posted so far. 🙂

STEVE: there are a couple of massive ambient improvs…

NEIL: How I love ambient improv… *sighs longingly*

———-

And there ya have it! Please join us for the event if you live in the area. IF not, be sure and tune in to the webstream on June 2nd.

Thanks for reading!

Waves Across the Pond: an Interview part 1

The “Waves Across The Pond” event is just a few days away! Steve Lawson & Lobelia will be here in Newburgh Tuesday afternoon, and then we’ll head over to the Wallkill River School to do the Workshops. I’ll just say again how thrilled and excited I am to have a chance to meet and work with these fine folks. For more info ’bout the project, go to the official project page.

As preparation for the performance part of the project, I contacted Steve via web-chat over Skype to discuss what we might play, either song-wise or conceptually.

What followed was a really cool “dual-interview” – where we both got to ask questions of eachother, exchange ideas, and talk about everything from our personal musical histories to concepts for group improvisation. I think it’s freakin’ Awesome.

Here’s the transcript, albeit slightly edited, in 2 parts. This is part 1:

STEVE: [interview starts] Neil, you’re clearly proficient in a dizzying array of musical styles and environments – did you start as an improvisor, or in a stricter classical school?

NEIL: I started with classical, young age, Beethoven & all that.

STEVE: did you break away from that, or stick with it and do both when you discovered jazz and prog?

NEIL: I’ve always maintained the classical thing. It tied well into my “prog” interests, and that led me to jazz – after a fashion.

STEVE: With prog rock, did you start with it in the more traditional ‘rock music plus classical virtuosity’ sense, rather than the jazz/fusion Mahavishnu end of things?

NEIL: Definitely the former. Although straight up rock held no interest for me back then.

One of the reasons I wasn’t interested in rock because there were no – or very little – keyboards. Unlike prog – “ELP” etc.

STEVE: right! When was that? Did you get into ELP first time round, or are you too young? 🙂

NEIL: 1st time around! I think I got Trilogy 1st, right when it came out. 🙂

STEVE: Keith Emerson must’ve been a revelation for a classical pianist discovering popular music…

NEIL: You’ve no idea. I didn’t understand half of what he was doing but lord, it felt good. Like Rock’n’roll is supposed to feel, I guess. lol!

STEVE: for sure! It seems that now so many boundaries have been smashed, it needs to mean something else… you can’t be radical just by playing Mussorgsky in a rock trio any more 🙂

NEIL: No you certainly can’t, tho it’s still really fun. 🙂 The other thing that caught my ear were these strange tunes by Billy Preston – “Space Race”; and Deodato’s “2001”.

STEVE: So who were the gateway bands into jazz and fusion for you then? Weather Report? Mahavishnu?

NEIL: I had a friend in the early days who was a Charlie Parker FANATIC. We’d get baked (yes, I said that) and listen to Bird for what seemed like days. I didn’t get it, at least not very much of it. But Prog led me to Mahavishnu. From there it was back to Miles (electric) – and then backwards to Bebop. I got the big picture all of a sudden, about how all this music is connected.

STEVE: aha! That’s really interesting. So you went back to BeBop? Did you study jazz harmony at all? And did the ordered nature of bop make more sense to your classical brain than the openness of what was starting to happen in fusion at that time?

NEIL: I’ll answer that question like this: The first time I heard a Hendrix Record, I didn’t like it. It was ‘too open’. In the beginning I preferred the tightly knit arrangements of Mahavishnu to the “we always solo & we never solo” approach of Weather Report. I’ve gone completely the other in the last 15 years; now I’m trying to reconnect with my “roots”.

STEVE: good answer! Did the openness bother you because it didn’t make sense, or because it just sounded like there wasn’t any thought going on? It’s always interesting how people perceive a lack of rules…because Hendrix’s songwriting was often very simple, it was the stuff on top that made it magical…

NEIL: That’s awesome. I had very narrow tastes until my lovely wife, who’s a singer songwriter herself, introduced me the amazing artistry that is songwriting. Before then, I’m somewhat ashamed to say – I had no interest. Can you believe it? It was like “what the heck are these guys playing? They’re just noodling around.”. I REALLY didn’t get it, lol.

STEVE: Of course 🙂 We all have very narrow taste, in the grand scheme of things. I was fortunate enough to listen to John Peel – a DJ on BBC Radio 1, who played pretty much anything, from extreme hardcore punk to electronic, world music, singer/songwriters, prog, reggae… he changed my life 🙂

STEVE: Did you listen to any indian music back then? did that make sense?

NEIL: I had a few Ravi Shankar albums – not sure where I got them – but it was Mahavishnu that got me into indian classical music. Plus, my bassist from the A. Animal (Conrad) group went off to Ali Akbar School of Music to study Tablas. He came back and tried to teach me everything he learned.

STEVE: wow! That must’ve been quite a schooling

STEVE: Did that change your view of improv?

NEIL: Yes, but the willingness to experiment coupled with not worrying about “if you know what you’re doing or not” has always made for interesting music. 🙂

STEVE: I guess McLaughlin made it easy to compare prog structure with indian freedom just by listening to Mahavishnu and Shakti

NEIL: It expanded it in different directions….

NEIL: McLaughlin’s magic was to combine serious post-bop harmony with open modal improv and indian rhythmic structures, which can be frighteningly complex.

NEIL: I grok that shit big time. 🙂

STEVE: ha!

NEIL: So – Have you always been a bassist?

STEVE: I started in classical too, on violin and trumpet – but was appalling at both of them. Had given up by the time I was 13, and for my 14th birthday I got a bass guitar. I was rubbish at that too, but was at least interested in it, and spent a lot of time seeing how many weird noises I could get from it…

NEIL: Violin & Trumpet, wow. At parent’s urging – or was it something you wanted?

STEVE: I wanted to play both violin and trumpet, but didn’t want to play the music I was given – a large part of my motivation to make music teaching mean something comes from just how bad my violin and trumpet tuition was. And my classical interests moved to the more progressive end – Messiaen, Bartok etc.

NEIL: So you’ve had an unusual approach to the bass right from the beginning.

STEVE: Yeah, I guess so – I was in a band to start with, but left when I broke my arm.

And then I just got a distortion pedal and tried doing solo versions of Pixies and Jesus And Mary Chain songs, strumming chords, and making a big noise!

NEIL: “Pixies” & “Jesus & Mary Chain” is actually after my time; I’m not that familiar with that music, expect in terms of the history. What band were you in when you broke your arm?

STEVE: oh, just a crapy school band – we didn’t even do any gigs. We did a cover of White Room by Cream, and Substitute by The Who. That was about it. I was awful 🙂

My second band was more interesting – I found friends who couldn’t really play, but were interested in making an odd noise, and we formed a band and started gigging. It was largely indie rock, but with a strange experimental edge, and a large dose of unintentional incompetence 🙂 The Pixies were a REALLY important band for me. I’ve often described their album Doolittle as Sargent Pepper for late 80s indie kids 🙂 JAMC were massively influential… blending the anarchic mess of punk with an amazing sense of melody. Both were really surf-rock influenced… but at the same time, I was listening to Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. I had really wide listening taste at the time.

NEIL: How did you find yourself getting into looping?

STEVE: Looping was an interesting journey. Before looping, I was tapping a lot. Trying to do the Stuart Hamm thing, with melody, bass and chords. But, like most people who head down that path, it looked great if you were watching me play, but I sounded like two really mediocre bassists duetting.

NEIL: 2 mediocre bassists, lol. Were you using effects as well?

STEVE: some delay and chorus, not much processing..But I really wanted to be able to play whole pieces. I was strictly a 4-string player back then, so struggled to play chord melody stuff; and then read an interview with Michael Manring, who talked about looping, and a light was switched on. it made so much sense. So I started experimenting with just the 2 second looper in my ART processor.

NEIL: What year was that?

STEVE:…this was probably 95…and in 97, I’d started writing for Bassist Magazine here in the UK, and was doing gear reviews, so I requested a Lexicon JamMan to review

NEIL: I think I bought my Lexicon JamMan around the same time… 🙂

STEVE: I got the last one that Lexicon had in the country, but wrote the review anyway, even though no-one would be able to buy one – I just wanted to be able to keep hold of it. Then I paid Lexicon for it instead of sending it back…and it had 8 seconds of loop time. 🙂 Which after 2 seconds felt like MONTHS. I fairly soon upgraded it to 32 seconds, and it fast became my main way to realize my musical ideas. I was in a quartet that was fashioned after Shakti at the time, even though I’d never heard Shakti… spanish guitar, elec. violin, tabla and bass..

NEIL: REALLY? But you’d never heard Shakti….? How does that happen, lol! I too have done quite a bit of composing with the JamMan (also upgraded to 32 seconds). Also, I keep having to remind myself about your writing chops – as a writer. You’ve done quite a lot of that from what I can tell. Does it change your listening perspective?

STEVE: that’s a really interesting question.. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I separate out the way I write about music from the way I think about it… It certainly exposed me to more music, and I got to interview and hang out with most of my favorite bassists in the world! There were always MASSIVE holes in my listening. I didn’t hear In A Silent Way till about 2006! Partly because I’ve always been obsessed with pop music, as well as jazz, prog and improv.

NEIL: I hear you – there are still massive holes in MY listening. Stuff i’d heard but never really dug into, classic jazz records….

STEVE: I love the cultural narrative of pop music; its relationship with culture, with growing up…

NEIL: Yes, it’s truly fascinating. My wife Nita & I talk about this stuff all the time, the evolution of music in culture, etc.

STEVE: …so while I was listening to John Zorn and Derek Bailey, I was also listening to chart stuff and obsessing over Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn.

NEIL: John Zorn is one of those “holes” in my listening… but Joni sure ain’t. 🙂

STEVE: Zorn I first heard on a documentary about him. Became mildly obsessed with the album he was talking about on the doc. “Spillane.” It was a bizarre cut-up album, no idea lasting more than a few seconds, with a spoken word narration. Mad shit 🙂 But I was a sponge for new musical ideas.I had so many different motivations for liking music. Some of it was because of how it made me feel, some was because I was interested in the process, some just because it was so extreme.

NEIL: I was always interested in how it made me feel – being able to play music basically saved my life. Not sure if I would have made it through the teen years without it. I recently heard Frisell’s “Billy The Kid”. There’s an idea factory.

STEVE: I know what you mean about teens and music. I first heard Frisell in the 90s…Well, I first heard him on Spillane, but didn’t know it was him!

I’d listened to one of his albums in a shop, and didn’t get it. Then saw him live opening for John Scofield, and it quite honestly changed my musical world. It made sense of so much that was going on for me.

NEIL: I got to Jam with Frisell a long time ago. I auditioned for Percy Jone’s band “Stonetiger”. I don’t think he had his concept yet. I know I certainly didn’t get it (or the audition). But he kept turning up.

STEVE: With Frisell? Wow, cool. 🙂

NEIL: Finally someone gave me “Powertools” and I’ve been a fan ever since.

STEVE: That gig opening for Sco was a revelation. I went for Sco’s band, with Dave Holland, Al Foster and Joe Lovano

NEIL: “ScoLoHoFo” was that band, I think. Frisell’s played WITH Sco a bunch – Marc Johnson etc…

STEVE: …who were great, but it was jazz; it sounded like jazz. It was expertly played jazz; while Frisell played Bill Frisell music. It wasn’t anything. And it was an entirely personal synthesis of everything that was going on in his musical world. There didn’t seem to be any sense in which he was constrained by anyone else’s perception of what he should be doing. It was just a story unfolding. And I was utterly captivated.

NEIL: YES! That’s the real way, the way to yourself – at least what I’ve discovered lately, within the last 10 years.

STEVE: I started buying everything I could find with him on. I got those Mark Johnson Right Brain Patrol records…

NEIL: “Right Brain Patrol”?

STEVE: …and an incredible album called Angel Song, with Dave Holland, Lee Konitz and Kenny Wheeler.

NEIL: Wow, more holes. Ulp!

STEVE: But the revelation with Frisell was all about sounding like ‘you’. I started to tell my students that when I hear a music I love, i don’t want to sound like them, I want to write music that makes me feel the way their music makes me feel, so I need to understand where the story comes from, how music is linked to them soundtracking their world…

END OF PART 1. Part 2 in the next post. 🙂