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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

 

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.

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

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. 🙂

The Jazz: FREDDIE JACOBS QUARTET – KENSHA

FREDDIE JACOBS QUARTET – KENSHA

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FFHJBUtsX0

From a recent jazz gig with Trumpeter Freddie Jacobs. This guy has been a great influence on my jazz playing. Featured here are myself (pno), Freddie (tpt), Cameron Brown (bass) and Bob Meyer (dms), another cat who has been extremely supportive and helpful to me. It’s a pleasure to work with them, and they have made me feel at home in the world of traditional Jazz as I never had before.
This was recorded at The Falcon in Marlboro NY, on April 25th 2009. Enjoy. 🙂

Upcoming Posts. Yeah, right.

Just thought I’d pop in to let you all know what I’m working on, blog-wise. There are a few ideas bouncing around my big fat head, and I try to keep a running list of things I want to share. Here’s the partial:

Tribute Band Part 2

Tribute Band part 3

CD’s I really want to make

Playing Mahavishnu:

Birth of an Idea: Working with a Vjay

There are more, but rest assured I’m planning on getting to those ASAP.

Now, how many charts do I have to write this week?

Best to all,

– Neil

My Experiences in a Tribute Band, Part 1: All the way ‘Round

(For a more detailed history of the Tribute Band phenomenon, visit the Wikepedia site here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribute_bands)

Neil with The Machine in NY CIty

Once upon a time, there were bands. Bands that broke BIG – we’re talking tremendously, phenomenomly big. Huger than huge. Bands like…. Led Zepplin… The Beatles… Pink Floyd… Van Halen…. The Police… (insert favorite GIANT rockstar band name here). As time went on, concert ticket prices for these groups reached astronomical levels – assuming you could get a ticket at all. It didn’t happen in all cases; and there was certainly a time in every band’s life when it could be seen for cheap, before they broke really really big.
But then, the unthinkable happened: the group broke up (curse them…)!, or simply stopped touring, or (as previously mentioned) became prohibitively epensive. And this created a vacuum, a “hole in space” (one of my favorite phrases).

Now during the time these bands were producing their primary body of work, young musicians (like…myself!) were learning how to play. Although some of these newbies focused on their originality, hordes and hordes of us learned by imitation: by learning the songs, licks, and the playing styles of the folks we listened to.

I remember clearly when “Dark Side of the Moon” came out – I learned the whole record, learned about echo tricks used, about arranging… it was the moment in which I said ‘THIS is what I want to do with my life – to be a musician, make records, etc’ “

In my own musical coming of age, I was devoted to performing original music and have since I started my first group “A. Animal” in 1978. But I had learned – and still know – many hundreds of songs by other bands – and not limited to rock (the Pat Metheny Group album is one in particular).

Playing songs we knew was always great fun, especially if everyone knew them. You could play lots of music with little or no rehearsal, or effort of any kind. Mostly we played this stuff for ourselves; I have plenty of old cassettes of us playing tunes like “Larks Tounges part 2” (King Crimson), “Arriving UFO” (Yes),”Dogs” (Pink Floyd), or even things like Stratus (Billy Cobham) or “Timeless” (John Abercrombie). We knew these songs and would play them for fun at parties, and work some of them into our setlists on gigs.

Meanwhile I had to earn a living: I started playing dance classes (which I continue to this day), and eventually got into a wedding band in 1990 (I left the wedding band in 95 before I got truly sick at heart). A. Animal finally disbanded in 1994… Around the same time I responded to an ad – for a keyboard player – in a (hmmm…) Pink Floyd Tribute Band called “The Machine”. Well, I needed work, plus I knew I could do that gig with my eyes closed. So I answered the ad. They asked me one question: “Do you have a sampler?” At the time, I did not. They didn’t pay very much (less then the wedding band, by more than 1/2), so I let it go and started to look for other things. (I also started working on my 1st solo CD “Alone At Last”, but that’s another story…)

Then, about a year after that I got a phone call from the Machine, wanting to know if I was still interested. I said yes, a session was arranged, and I spent the next 10 years touring with these gentlemen, and learning more about the music biz then I think you could ever learn elsewhere.

PART 2: A 10 year tour and more…