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. 🙂


CoD 2010 Musician’s Concert

Ah yes, it’s that time of year again….

The unwritten posts are starting to pile up. There’s about 4 of ’em right now. But with this event happening tonight (it’s March 18th here ATM) and my continuing desire to use E-Programs instead of paper ones, I’m going to put this up right quick…

So – once again it’s time for the Annual SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance 2010 MUSICIAN’S CONCERT.

For the E-Program, click HERE.


As usual, we are pleased to present an amazing assortment of musics with more stylistic diversity then you can shake a stick at! Jazz, Classical, Rock, Funk, Ambient, electronica – you name it, we got it.

Musicians at SUNY

Last Year’s Concert

This year we are featuring Performances by:
CARY BROWN
DAVE LEWITT
NEIL ALEXANDER  (hi there!)
IAN CARROLL
DAVID NICHOLS
OLEG ARZOUMANOV
STUART ISACOFF

Special guests are numerous. Harrison Roach (singer-songwriter type), Guitarist Scott Barkin, and I’m pleased to announce that I will be doing  a very cool short piece with my daughter Rebecca – performed entirely on handheld devices.

As our old friend Richard Cameron-Wolfe (brilliant composer, and the Musician’s coordinator for for the 1st 10 years I worked there) posted on our Facebook event page:

Music dances in the aether; dancers sing through space. When the essence of our being is made vulnerable/tangible through our respective arts, the existence of the eternal moment is confirmed.

We’ll be videoing again this year. I’ll try to get some footage up ASAP (but it’s going to be waiting in line behind a dozen other items waiting to be posted). (!)

Anyway, thanks for reading. Maybe we’ll see you there. 🙂

A Peek into the Making Of “A 400 Year Musical Journey”

Everyone loves a good story, right?

This all started back in the summer of 2008. That was when I began to hear about the “Hudson Champlain Quadracentennial Celebration” (from now on called the “Quad”) – the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic voyage up the river that bears his name.

It was around this time that Betsy McKean, a very charming and wonderful person who works in the City of Newburgh records office contacted me about how NY State was promoting this event. There were going to be available several “Mini-Grants” for folks wanting to do an event connected with the Quad. Whether it’s a historical event, or an art show or almost anything – money was going to be available.

She gently (and quite correctly, as we shall see) insisted that I apply. I then had to come up with an “event” related to the Quad, and one that could be funded. (A concert! Of course!) It was then I got the idea for a sort of “400 Year Musical Journey” (although it wasn’t called yet). But Betsy and I discussed the possibilities, and she even helped me research a few things on the net. It was conceived as a way to treat NAIL as a a semi-classical ensemble, which has been one of my intentions from the start. (NAIL is registered as an Ensemble with Chamber Music America.): NAIL as a true 21st century group, doing festivals, clubs and concert halls.

As someone who grew up around the Hudson River, it was always a presence in my life. I live within site of it now; all I have to do is walk 20 feet to the corner and look down the hill. I had even already written a tune, called “(At The) Water’s Edge”, which is the feeling of joy I get from doing outdoor concerts near the river. Yay.

So the paperwork was submitted, the idea finalized and filed away, nearly forgotten. And then, the little miracle: Application Accepted! I guess this means I had work to do.

More thinking & researching… I wanted to do an outdoor concert at one of the oldest intersections in Newburgh, where the two first main streets crossed – Liberty & Broadway.

View Map

There are 2 empty lots on 2 of the 4 corners. But the ownership of these lots was in question, so I turned my attention elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I got an email from one of our many Art “organizers”. There are a lot of artist trying to make a dent in the apathy of this town, and one of those methods is “4 Citys/4 Saturdays”. The 4 citys are Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Kingston & Newburgh. In Newburgh it’s known as the “River Artwalk” (Newburgh has no discernable center of town – it was bulldozed in the 70’s.). Artist/Photographer Tom Knieser is one, and it was from him that I first heard of “River Day” (June 6th 09) and and open call to artists to come down and set up by the river. I contacted him, and he put in touch with – that’s right – Betsy McKean. A price was agreed upon, and NAIL would perform for around 2 hours that day. It was a great show!

Then as you well know, Life happens. Next thing I knew I was knee deep in “Vishnufest” with the Mahavishnu Project. So it wasn’t until the end of July that I began to work in earnest on the “400 Year Journey”. But all things are interconnected…

Having known violin luminary Zach Brock for about a year, through the MahaVishnu Project, I had been trying to figure out a way to get him onto a NAIL gig. Well, here I had the perfect situation. Violin would add tremendous sonic character and authenticity to what I was trying to accomplish. (Besides, we’re funded.) So Zach was hired. I next turned to my old friend Erik Lawrence, but scheduling conflicts made that impossible. So I contacted another member of the MP, someone who among his many, many credits had actually toured with McLaughlin- reed and woodwind master Premik Russel Tubbs.

With these two cats in addition to Nadav Zelniker and new bassist Dan Asher, I now had a stellar band. I then made final music choices, starting with music of Thomas Ravenscroft, a British composer from 1609. I worked the format out – it was to be 2 sets; the 1st set would go in 100 year intervals: 1609, 1709, 1809, 1909. After intermission, we would pick up the pace, as music evolved faster, and jump to 20 year intervals: 1929, 1949, 1969, 1989. We would end with 2 of my original pieces, representing 2009.

Now I had the group, and the program concept. I needed a location. And one of my favorite spots in Newburgh is the Newburgh Free Library. It’s a massively wonderful place, and I’m very good friends with a lot of the librarians, especially the wonderful Chuck Thomas (on twitter as @infocowboy – stop by and say hello.) I keep trying to get them to put a cot in the basement for me, so I can live there. BUT ANYWAY…

Because we are funded, the kind folks at the NFL were all too happy to allow us to perform at their location. The outside spot – in front of the Library – forms a natural Amphitheater and is a great place to play. And – if it rains, we’ll use their indoor presentation room. All bases covered.

Then the music began to really fall into place: Bach in 1709, Duke Ellington for 1929, The Beatles for 1969. 1809 was the year Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto was completed and premiered; this was one of the 1st pieces I fell in love with and learned at the piano so it was a shoe in. 1909 was chosen as “The Birth of the Blues”; 1949 finds us in Bebop territory, with a glance at early country music a la Hank Williams. I spent 2 weeks arranging the material and writing scores and parts, which I haven’t even quite finished as of this writing. I wanted to represent 1989 with Hip Hop, and one of my former students is a rapper and stepped up to the challenge.

But wait – here’ where it gets really interesting….

I got an email about 2 1/2 weeks ago (more? Less? Hazy) from Clayton Buchanan, one of the Newburgh Artists mentioned earlier. Apparently a certain painting of his won an award at a Kent, CT. art show. The reason I got the email was because the painting was of….me. ME? How could this happen? Well, remember “River Day”? Clayton was there, taking photos. He was moved enough to create this painting, of yours truly:

Clayton Buchanan's Painting "Street Noise"
Clayton Buchanan’s Painting “Street Noise”

Then another extraordinary thing happened (that’s 2, if you’re keeping score at home): A friend, fan and supporter named Mark Delano (@mark_delano on twitter) bought the painting with the intention of semi-permanently lending it to the Newburgh Library. Naturally it was decided that the painting would be “unveiled” and presented to the Library during our show’s intermission. Mark’s also been a tremendous help with the press, writing press releases and contacting local print and news media. I can’t thank him enough.

So now we’re a little more than a week away from the show. The last piece fell into place with a Hip Hop piece about the history of Hip Hop written with rapper Tell-a-Vizion. I still have a few charts to finish and my own press to do (i.e. this post). I’m still working on bits of the sound system (we need monitor wedges, for example), but it’s just about all come together. All that remains is the show itself! And yes – we’re working on streaming it on the web at our NAIL ustream page. I just have to get my hands on a camera…!

To learn more about this event, check out our news page at All About Jazz, or read one of Mark Delano’s Press Releases.

So – that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. I’m enjoying the ride. It’s even possible that there will be money left over for me. I think that was part of the idea…

Love ya’s – take care of yourselves. Perhaps we’ll see you at the show. It’s not one to be missed IMHO.

Lost Document found on Craigslist

This came across my digital desk today. I immediately recognized as a “long lost document”, a set of guidelines that every musician I’ve ever worked with knows (and could recite under their breath). Profound in their simplicity, forgotten, yet remembered, unspoken, and not often enough acted upon…

I hereby present to you the Sideman’s Bill OF Rights. Authorship in this case is claimed by someone calling themselves “Mudd”. I make no claims. Enjoy.  🙂

Read more

Street Noise – Painting by Artist Clayton Buchanan

Here’s the painting that Clayton did of my performing down at the waterfront in Newburgh last month. This painting just won an award in the President’s Show of the Kent Art Association. More details to follow; but I thought you’d enjoy the image.

Clayton Buchanan's Painting "Street Noise"

Clayton Buchanan's Painting "Street Noise"

VISHNUFEST: Lila’s Dance

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZpW_ZGf7Po

Finally – after a failed attempt to stream the gig and crashing iPhone apps (re: Audioboo!! You listenin’??), 2 days later I finally got one song up on Youtube. There will be more; I have 90 minutes of footage and will need to go through it all, but as soon as possible I will post more trax.

All in all, it was a tremendous experience – dare I say the musical “thrill of a lifetime”. I hope we get to do it again.
My best –
– Neil

Vishnufest: The Sets

So – I did say I was going to write a post about playing the music of John McLaughlin, and all that that entails.

Well…..this isn’t it.

However, I wanted to – for the sake of those who are fans and cannot attend (or can and want to know what to expect) – post the complete list of material we will be performing over the next 2 nights. Once again the venue is:

Le Poisson Rouge – 158 Bleecker St, New York, NY

Shows 1 & 2 are tuesday night (tonight!) and show 3 is wednesday night.

So, without further ado, here are the set lists for this year’s VISHNUFEST.

Show 1: The John McLaughlin Songbook – Before & After Mahavishnu.
Extrapolation
New York on my Mind
Guardian Angels*
Do you hear the voices?
Electric Dreams
Freindship
Devotion

Special: SUITE FOR CHOIR:

I Am My Beloved’s
One Truth
Law Is Not Love
God Then, God Now
Name of Truth
Walk

Show 2: BEST OF MAHAVISHNU

Birds Of Fire
Miles Beyond
Celestial Terrestrial Commuters
You Know You Know
Vital Transformation
Dance of Maya
One Word
Meeting of the Spirits

Show 3: RETURN TO THE EMERALD BEYOND

(-includes String Quartet, Premik Russel Tubbs on sax/flute and Melissa Stylianou, voice)
Eternity’s Breath
Lila’s Dance
Can’t Stand Your Funk
Pastoral
Faith
Cosmic Strut
If I Could See
Be Happy
Earth Ship
Pegasus
Opus One
On The Way Home To Earth

And there you have it! Hope those of you in the area who like this music can make it – you won’t be disappointed. 🙂

Love to you all –
– Neil

The Sunlit Path: VISHNUFEST 2009

“A long, long tine ago…I can still remember how that music used to make me smile….”

It’s been a long way around. But if, as the physicists say, the Universe is curved, then it figures you’d end up back where you started. So why am I still somewhat surprised? If you’d told me someday people would want to hear this music again I might have laughed, and given a sad little smile…

First, a little background: I first got the “Birds Of Fire” disc back when I was 12 (13?) years old. At the time I was deep into ELP – particularly “Trilogy”, and was just discovering bands like “Yes” & “King Crimson”. (Alternately, another friend I used to hang with would play me Charlie Parker records ALL DAY.)
Anyway, when I tried to listen to “Birds”, I really just didn’t get it. I could tell it was something special, interesting, but…. just “out of reach” of my developing ears..
As time was passing, I was being introduced to more and more great music: the Classic Genesis Lineup; “Tales From Topographic Oceans” and “Relayer”; Patrick Moraz “Story Of i”; also “Bill Evans at the Village Vangaurd”, Herbie Hancock “Headhunters” (and way too many more to mention). It was an exciting time. I was also playing with my High School Big Band, and was writing and arranging for them. I was in it up to my ears, and…loving it.
But I noticed a disparity (at least in my mind) between the Rock & the Jazz worlds.They kind of didn’t “talk” to each other. (What a shame, I thought….)
There were many “moments” – you know what I mean, those points where you experience music in a new way, or hear something startling that changes you’re whole perception..
One of those moments that sticks out in my mind as being relevant is when I went to see “Lasarium” at the Hayden Planetarium in NYC (now the Rose Center). Amongst the Pink Floyd and other prog and experimental tracks was a weird little piece that featured, without a doubt, the coolest synth solo I’d ever heard. The track was called “I Remember Me”, and the synthesizer was played by non other than Jan Hammer. Here. have a listen:
I Remember Me

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point I pulled out “Birds of Fire” and listened, with new ears, to the most astonishing music I had discovered yet. Around the same time I became aware of their other records – “Inner Mounting Flame”, “Between Nothingness and Eternity”, “Visions Of The Emerald Beyond”. Then I got my hands on the Mclaughlin Book, which has the first 4 CD’s in score form – every part written out! My musician friends and I dug into this stuff will military-like discipline. We each learned all the parts – not just our parts, but all the parts. We would mix & match. Play them slow, fast, in different registers, etc. We “workshopped” this stuff to death! I made it my personal mission to get inside this music and be able to play it well – not just to be comfortable with the odd time signatures, but to “feel” them, to internalize them. I learned and memorized 90% of the material. In addition, the music had very strong spiritual connotations, and I was very drawn to it on a lot of levels. I began to see the odd time signatures as “mantras”….

Over the next few years the house of cards slowly came down, and the heyday of Jazz Fusion and Prog Rock came to an end. To quote George Duke from the Billy Cobham/George Duke Live record, “Disco’s taking over the universe”. Disco and Punk Rock. (The latter I learned to appreciate, thanks to my beautiful wife.)

I continued to play this music, mostly with my group “A. Animal”, but interest was waning. We played a lot of original stuff too, mostly in the progressive vein. It became apparent that people were “just not that into it”. (I’ve only recently realized a satisfactory blend of prog rock and jazz elements with NAIL, but that’s another story).

In 2000, I finally gave up the ghost, and looked towards playing new music – moving forward into uncharted territories. One of the first folks I met along the way was drummer Dean Sharp. We began to work together, producing the CD “Galvanized” along the way.

Around the same time, drummer Gregg Bendian was forming “The Mahavishnu Project“. At the time I was full time in “The Machine”, and trying to reinvent NAIL to include ALL of my influences (from Eno to McLaughlin to Metheny to King Crimson to Bill Evans). But they certainly caught my attention, and I began to court the band as something I was interested in. It just so happened that I knew all the music…!

I finally secured an audition with Gregg in early 2008, and did my first gig with the MP in May of that year. It was a little rough getting “back on the horse”, but much to my delight, like riding a bike, it all came back.

And now we come to something I thought I would never see, not to mention get a chance to play: a live rendering of “Visions Of The Emerald Beyond” – complete with string quartet, winds, and vocals. And at a killing NYC venue besides!
Well, I’ve gone on too long already. I’ll stop here, and present to you:

Vishnufest 09

Vishnufest 09

THE MAHAVISHNU PROJECT Presents:

THE 4TH ANNUAL VISHNUFEST
REDISCOVERING & EXPLORING THE CUTTING EDGE JAZZ-ROCK OF JOHN McLAUGHLIN & THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA.
3 Shows in 2 Days. Info: Mahavishnu Project
JULY 7th & 8th, 2009
It’s All Happening At:
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleeker St. New York, NY
Tickets are $23 at the door / $18 in advance
ADVANCE TICKETS STRONGLY SUGGESTED. THREE SHOW DISCOUNT PASS AVAILABLE.
THE MAHAVISHNU PROJECT (Vishnufest 2009 band)
Gregg Bendian, drums
Chad McLoughlin, guitar
Neil Alexander, keyboards
Zach Brock, violin
Jim Cammack, bass
Melissa Stylianou, voice
Premik Russell Tubbs, reeds
Esther Noh, violin
Matt Szemela, violin
Jon Weber, viola
Leigh Stuart, cello
Randy Taber, live sound
And introducing The VishnuVoices Choir with Melissa Stylianou, Abigayl Ventner, Missy Castleberry, Martha Cluver, Avery Griffin, Roosevelt Credit, John Young and Matt Hensrud.

…Maybe I’ll see you there?
– Neil

Rules of Engagement: Fighting Frustration as a Performer

NEIL’S “3 Rules Of Engagement”: My three personal requirements that make a gig, well, worth doing.

I have been a performing musician now for more then 35 years(!). I still LOVE it – and that’s saying something! But in the last decade or so I began to find myself in situations that were not entirely to my liking, breeding anger and frustration. Hmmm…

I’ve heard it said that being a Pro musician means that you take a lot of work that maybe you’re not that happy with…or does it? When I left “The Machine” and began to take a wider variety of gigs, I found myself getting tremendously frustrated in certain situations. I had to ask myself some tough (for me) questions – did I want to be a professional musician or not? Does that mean I have to do gigs I hate? How can I keep myself from falling into the trap that so many have fallen into before me? After a bit, I came up with these three “rules”, or guidelines:

1) Acceptable Financial Compensation. Commensurate with the work involved. ‘Nuff said.

2) High Visibility/High Profile
. A situation that puts me/us in front of a LOT of people, or the RIGHT people, and makes visible use of my abilities – in other words, lets me show my stuff.

3) Spiritual and/or Personal Satisfaction. This one’s a little harder to define. It could mean music that brings me great enjoyment or other such satisfaction, or that lets me experiment in a very creative way. Generally, it’s music that I can feel good about and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I can generally tell, as I find myself getting angry & frustrated with music that doesn’t have this quality – even if it’s an “easy” gig.

Generally, any TWO of these rules MUST be met for me to take the gig. For example, playing extremely creative music to an empty house for no money WON’T do it for me. Subsequently, playing a show that pays well but doesn’t have at least ONE of the other qualities, well, doesn’t really do it for me either.

Though these “rules” are not generally “hard & fast’, they can really help in critical decision making. It’s especially important to apply these guidelines to my own Group NAIL, lest we find ourselves in situations which are not beneficial to the group’s presence in some way.

I have to say that at this time, the Mahavishnu Project (as great as it is), is only meeting ONE of these requirements (can you guess which one?). In addition, I have been putting in a lot of time in rehearsals, and am beginning to feel frustrated. I had to do a bit of looking inward – and that’s when I remembered my 3 rules of engagement. (My next post will be about the upcoming Vishnufest shows…!)

Whenever I am offered work as a performer, be it gigs or recording, I look to these guidelines. When taken into consideration, they can save me a considerable amount of frustration and help me to make what can sometimes be difficult decisions about whether or not a gig is worth the trouble!

As usual, your comments are always welcome. Thanks for reading. 🙂