When the Voyage of self discovery leads you…where, exactly?
I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in the last decade or so I made a conscious decision to walk away from “progressive rock” as a composer and performer. So it was not without some trepidation when much to my surprise I suddenly found myself neck deep in the goings on at ProgStock 22.
Let me clarify things by starting off with the fact that Prog Rock was a HUGE part of my life and musical upbringing. I never did care for “regular rock and roll” when I was a teenager – boring, repetitive and “focused on guitars” (which as a keyboard player I just couldn’t get with).
Let’s back up a bit: As a young musician (age 11) in training, certian classical works were already wired in: Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky. In addition I listened to and readily absorbed whatever was on the radio. Some of the tracks that caught my ear were “Space “Race” (Billy Preston), “Crimson and Clover”, 2001: A space Odyssey”, and anything that had a synthesizer in it, a sound I fell in love with after hearing “Switched On Bach” at age 10. The Deodato arrangement of 2001 firmly fixed some of the foundations of jazz in my mind while simultaneously giving me the desire to try my hand at arranging. Those influences stuck – records like “White Rabbit” (George Benson) which was my introduction to the playing of Herbie Hancock, had made a big impression on me. Around this time someone gave me a copy of “Birds of Fire” but it was too advanced for me at the time and I didn’t understand what I was hearing. And although I had been introduced to Bird and Diz and Miles from a friend who was a big bebop fan, I couldn’t connect the dots just yet. A copy of LiveEvil (Miles Davis) also made it into my hands and was similarly dismissed. I just couldn’t dig it…yet.
2 years later (or so, you know how memory works): 1972/73 proved to be a big turning point. Someone gave me a copy of ELP’s record ‘Trilogy”. Now here was something that lit me up – it had serious jazz harmony, burning synthesizers and it ROCKED. Then at a party in South Nyack I saw the inside picture from the record jacket of “6 Wives of Henry the 8th” by Rick Wakeman. As I gazed at that picture I suddenly knew where my destiny lie. I needed to be doing THAT. Surrounded by keyboards. To be honest, I didn’t really care for the 6 Wives record…. (I loved Rick’s work on “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Tales From Topographic Oceans”, but I heard those later.)
The idea of being a keyboardist with multiple instruments checked a lot of boxes for me even in my 13 year old brain. The idea of keyboard orchestration established the keyboardist as an orchestral component. Crafting parts and arrangements was part of the game, and I could hear it being done on what I was listening to. Then the records started showing up en Masse: Tales from Topographic Oceans” was discovered in my mother’s record collection; “Headhunters” in my father’s. Tarkus, Sextant, Foxtrot, Spectrum and more made it into my personal regular rotation. Birds of Fire was finally appreciated for the masterpiece it was. Records like Abercrombie’s “Timeless”, Jarret’s Survivor’s Suite and Towner’s Solstice and others grafted themselves to my musical DNA expanding my musical palette and interests beyond reasonable limits.
Then another turning point, this one in 76 at the original laserium show: a tune I had never heard before had hands down the coolest synth solo I ever heard – Wakeman, Emerson, Banks, Moraz – great synth players all, no denying it – but to me in this moment, this was a profound revelation. The song was “I Remember Me” and the soloist was Jan Hammer. The combination of the sound of the synthesizer (including all the pitch bending and incredible articulation Hammer is known for) against the backdrop of truly modern harmony was next level shit. Have a listen:
“I Remember Me” [YouTube Link]
These and other influences (Pink Floyd, Bill Evans, Weather Report, Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock etc.) helped create my musical mindset. It should be noted however that absent from this list are the works of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, the Stones, the Beatles, and many other artists considered foundational by most people I talk to. I went back and rediscovered their work much later, but my own personal foundation was already cemented in.
I remember being at a party in Queens NY when I was about 14 or 15. It was the first time I had ever seen a Hammond organ up close. Naturally I asked for a chance to play it; however I had no clue and no access to one on any kind of regular basis. At this same party someone insisted I listen to Jimi Hendrix. At the time it did nothing for me. How foolish that seems now…
I started my first official band in 1978 (or so, again that memory thing) and started writing music – really writing. Those early tunes of mine had all the influences – elements of Mahavishnu-esque uptempo odd time things, crunchy Crimson style rock, modern jazz and avant- garde free jazz. A little keyboard pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure a la ELP and I thought we couldn’t lose. The band evolved into what would be called “A. Animal”, and would run, with time off here and there, from 1981 thru 1994.
OF COURSE That’s when life happens, and those best laid plans get scrambled to bits. In the mid 80’s in NYC no one was remotely interested in what I was trying to do musically – ‘jazz fusion’ had become a dirty word, and besides our music started leaning towards more rock based stuff. When we finally made our one album “Overhaul” in 1990 we had included a cover of Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam” and a few originals that were decidedly in 4/4. We also had a couple of epics (“Reality in Check” was one such piece) and a series of pieces (Overhaul pts 1 & 2) that were an homage to Crimson’s ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic”. We had more planned for that series but we didn’t make it. That’s not the focus of this story, however.
I was at Progstock 2022 at the behest of my friend, the drummer/composer/bandleader and Mahavishnu Project founder Gregg Bendian. Gregg had been tapped to act as musical director for Rachel Flowers, a young woman of extraordinary talent. Rachel was slated to perform 3 of her original works. 1 was a piano trio in which she also played flute (she plays flute incredibly well), the 2nd was a rocker with lots of guest musicians (quite a lot of them, including myself on auxiliary keyboards) and the third an amazing piece for Piano, band and orchestra. Rachel created all the parts on the recording herself; I was tasked with transcribing the orchestral parts and rendering them into playable keyboard parts. (I should pause her to mention that Rachel is completely blind.)
Rachel was also going to perform “Tarkus” (ELP) complete and I was also responsible for setting up her synth rig – selecting gear for her to use, (a Moog Voyager was all that was available); programming the synth and it’s associated controller keyboard (the Voyger keyboard isn’t long enough to accomadate Keith Emerson’s parts, since they were originally played on a 6 octave modular keyboard), setting up a 2nd synth for sound effects (in place of a ribbon controller) and trigger all her patch changes in real time during the performance. As I said at the beginning, “Neck Deep”. I worked quite a bit – essentially 10 hours a day for 4 days – but it was extremely rewarding and exciting, especially working with the amazing Rachel Flowers who is even more amazing then I have words to convey.
This re-immersion into the world of Prog Rock set me on a path of some serious soul searching and inward looking examination: I had moved away from Prog to align myself with Jazz Centric circles, but I couldn’t deny my prog roots, as they were inextricably linked to my classical music upbringing. It is worth noting that I spent a good 10 years in “The Machine“, that well known Pink Floyd Tribute, starting in 96 – long before I made my decision to turn definitively towards Jazz and away from Prog. Floyd was accepted in prog circles but was never really considered “true Prog” by official definitions, and I had many conversations with folks about this. It seems the term “Art-Rock” best described the Floydian genre. Of course Prog is actually a type of Art Rock, so the lines tend to get blurred….but again, while relevant, it is not the focus of this story. The focus of this story is a recent more thorough examination of my influences and how I am attempting to synthesize them into my own personal musical dialect.
So where am I now? Well, as I said my Progstock experience led me to re-examine my roots and my choices. In taking a closer look at what I tend to align myself with (and here I’m not even mentioning the giant catalog of ‘required listening” and historically significant artists and/or recordings) I find a lot of what my friend Dean Sharp calls the “Muscular” stuff; what I consider “hardcore” fusion: Mahavishnu, RTF, The Jan Hammer Group, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, Allen Holdsworth, The Headhunters, Shakti, and McLaughlin, plus certain records by Jeff Beck, Cobham, Herbie, etc etc. This is not a large body of work, and rarely do I come across “new entries”, but also there’s plenty that I love that fits outside this self imposed categorical limitation – pianist Bill Evans, guitarists Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, Brian Eno, Keith Jarret, minimalism a la Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and others; more modern artists like Squarepusher & Bjork, and too many other artists in multiple genres to mention. What I have found is that there are certain elements in common across artists whose work really speaks to me. Among these elements are contemporary harmony (both modern classical and post bop jazz), flexible time signatures (5/4, 7/8, etc, drawing a lot from indian classical music), a combination of acoustic and electronic sounds (including use of loops and other devices), soundscapes, synthesizers and a demonstration of craft and an understanding of how a sonic “space” can trigger an altered state of consciousness (for me Zawinul and Wayne Shorter accomplish this by combining electronic keyboards with deliberate playing). All of these elements, consciously or unconsciously, inform my own personal musical direction – whether it be with NAIL, solo as Nail Jung or when composing for the X Ensemble.
But it is only when confronted with my past obsessions and prior choices does a clearer picture of my trajectory, often obscurred, come into some focus. I’m always at work trying to sort things out for myself, and my recent experience at Progstock was an opportunity to really step back and observe: What do I define as my personal musical language? As 2022 comes to a close, with the craziness of the last 2 years (pandemic, insurrection, #metoo, #blm, etc) and the global uncertianly caused by the growing climate crisis, the humanitarian crises in many parts of the world and now the war in Ukraine, this quesion I ask of myself is more urgent than ever.
Art & life, if nothing else, are profound voyages of self discovery. And as journeys go, “one foot in front of the other”.
If you’ve made it this far then many thanks for listening, and best wishes for 2023.
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