Mountains and Valleys man…

“Mountains and Valleys man, mountains and valleys” — I heard the voice of a streetwise Matthew McConaughey repeating these words to me as I woke up yesterday morning. Apparently Matthew McConaughey is the voice of the sector of my conscience that reveals (in quick, folksy quips no less) the wisdom contained in my experiences. What ole Mathew was referring to in this instance was the dichotomy between our show in Birmingham (documented here), and our show in Chattanooga.
In brief, we played what was likely the least enjoyable, lowest energy, most “I want to get off stage right now” show that we’ve played as a group thus far (in Birmingham), followed by (in Chattanooga) our best show yet. “Mountains and Valleys man.” How did this happen? Let me try to list some of the (more objective) factors contributing to the respective failure and success of each show. Birmingham: we didn’t get a chance to practice before this show (always important even though we do know all the songs we played); the show occurred immediately after a 6 hour drive (so we were stiff and groggy); there was a small unenthusiastic crowd (people who most likely just came to drink rather than hear live music); we were the only band playing; the venue was extremely grimy (distractingly so); and the sound was mixed poorly. Chattanooga: we only had to drive about an hour; we spent the day before the show relaxing and enjoying ourselves (playing catch, having a picnic, joking around); we had plenty of time to prepare for the show (vocal warmups, listening to the album etc.); we played at a clean, cozy venue to a decent and supportive crowd (people who actually came to hear some music); there were two other talented and enthusiastic bands playing (Mythical Motors, and Monomath); and the sound was very balanced. Most importantly however, I think the Chattanooga show was a success because the Birmingham show was a failure— after such a sloppy start to our tour, we were all extremely motivated to have a good show, resulting in our most focused and in sync effort yet.
Yet I also have to acknowledge that our subjective experience of each show as good or bad is intimately tied to our experience of every other show. The Chattanooga show wouldn’t necessarily have seemed so spectacular had the Birmingham show not seemed so drab. Similarly, the Birmingham show wouldn’t have felt so terrible had our previous show at Whitewater in Little Rock not been so well executed/received. “Mountains and Valleys man.” It is sobering to realize that this shifting up and down may never end. Being in a band (or simply being human), and having enjoyed the utter bliss of a great performance, I naturally want every show and every experience to be glorious (I want to stay atop the mountain). Yet as we play better shows, my threshold for what I consider a “good” show gets higher and higher, resulting in a greater probability that I experience a “bad” show; then, when I do experience a “bad” show, my expectations are slightly lowered and I am able to analyze and fix mistakes made, resulting in a likely spring-back to a “good” show, ad infinitum… I think that the desire to always succeed (though natural) can have unhealthy consequences, especially in a field such as music (in which success produces such a fine natural high, and chemical highs are often an easy substitute to secure). To realize that there is an inseparable bond between good and bad or success and failure, frees me up to dwell less on the outcome of my musical efforts, and focus more on enjoying the actual process of playing, practicing, and performing (whether atop the mountain or in the valley).

Last night we played in Nashville at The End with a diverse collection of impressive young bands. The Blake Parker Band was a group of 15-16 year olds that played heartfelt folk-rock songs. Abernathy (also 16 year olds) was a tight, bluesy two-piece (a la The Black Keys) with an incredibly talented front-girl singer/guitarist and rock solid drummer. Fable Cry (anywhere from age 16-32), a brother sister duo and self described Adventure-Gypsy/Scamp-Rock band, whimsically garbed in raccoon pelts and feathers, put on a captivating and theatrical performance of acoustic fantasy story-songs (seriously, these guys are something else, check em out). Seeing such young, talented, and passionate bands was extremely energizing for me. Because I am attempting to earn a living playing music, much of it can sometimes feel like a chore. I admit that I do sometimes lose sight of the fact that music is an incredible expression of human potential and my greatest passion. I’m probably too young to feel too nostalgic about anything, but seeing these younger bands play reminded me of how romantic I felt about being in a band and playing music when I was 16. I am (in touring with this band) literally living out a decade old dream of mine, and even though I am now much less romantic about the rock band experience than I once was, it’s nice to be able to remember my 16-year old self, step on stage, cut loose, and just have a blast. This tour is dedicated to you little Lucas.

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Birmingham Blues, Chatanooga Choo Choo

Hey blog-readers, so for the next few weeks or so, this blog is essentially going to be The See’s tour diary… Because for the next few weeks, I’ll be on tour with The See! Who the heck is The See you ask? Well let me tell you:

Since forming in the summer of 2008, Little Rock’s The See have made a steady climb to the summit of the Arkansas music scene. With their infectious melodies and primal rhythms, cornerstone members Joe Yoder (vocals/guitar) and Tyler Nance (drums) have ferried the band to enduring success despite changing lineups. Audiences and critics alike are consistently delighted by the band’s uniquely crafted high-energy rock songs and cathartic live performance (often comparing The See to bands such as The Pixies, The Strokes, and Built to Spill).
Having recently adopted local rock veteran/recording engineer Jason Tedford (Bass) and virtuoso* guitarist Lucas Murray (lead guitar), The See now look poised to achieve national recognition. They are currently embarking on a national tour in support of their debut album Pretending and Ending and will be playing in major cities across the Southeast and Midwest. Go to http://www.wearethesee.com to hear their music and see when they are playing in a town near you.

That’s a little something I’ve written for us to send out to radio stations, promoters, record stores, etc. to maybe get a little extra press before we perform in towns in which virtually no one has heard of us. Honestly this tour is one huge sloppily-designed experiment, with us simultaneously testing the multiple variables of our stage-sound, crowd interaction, promotion strategies, bandmate relations, sleeping arrangements, meal plans and more. We are having to do a lot of improvising in all areas and are learning things on the fly. Despite the fact that we are navigating mostly uncharted terrain, I feel confident that this will be a fruitful journey because of the amount of effort and care that we in The See are putting forth. For instance, earlier today we started recording for an on tour podcast that we are calling “Get in the Van”. I’ve been a part of other groups and bands in the past that potentially would have had the great idea to start a podcast or some other side-project, but The See is actually doing it! To me this points to the story of this tour, this band, and this stage of my life: Not really knowing fully how to do something, but just freakin’ doing it anyway, because that’s the only real way to learn.

So last night we played the first show of our tour at a bar called The Nick in Birmingham Alabama. A brief synopsis: “The Nick” is one of the dirtiest, grimiest, grungiest dive bars I’ve ever been to. There were plenty of roaches running around, but they didn’t really even look gross because the rest of The Nick was so sticky with filth that the roaches looked at home and even sort of tame by comparison. The stage was spacious; the sound quality was low; there were very few people there and they didn’t seem all that into the music. As a result our stage energy was low and we gave a relatively mediocre performance (compared to what we have done in the past). Yet somehow we must have impressed a few people because we sold more than enough merchandise to get us to our next location: CHATANOOGA (Choo Choo)!

Today has been a glorious day in Chatanooga (a delightful and thriving town that I’d love to revisit someday). We got here early enough to take our time, pick up some groceries, have a picnic at a riverside park, play some catch, record our podcast, relax, and enjoy a traditional irish band at The Honest Pint. We’re just a couple hours away from our show at the rich woodsy-smelling and stylishly decorated beer bar JJ’s Bohemia and personally I’m feeling very good about this one…

*Yes I am bragging about this band, yes I called myself a virtuoso guitarist, no I’m not being humble! I’m trying to get people to put us on the radio. Sit on it.

Fertilizer

I’ve unfortunately been too busy to keep up with my original goal of blogging every week day. I spent almost all of my energy last week giving guitar lessons, rehearsing, playing shows, and preparing for/conducting a garage sale. Yet a primary purpose for this blog is to motivate myself to seek out more musical experiences. The logic being that by exposing my musical life to the public, I would feel a greater need to make my musical life more productive and interesting (I suspect few people would want to read a blog about a musician who only sits in his room and practices). So I am partially excusing myself for not keeping up with my blog the way I set out to, because I was (in lieu of blogging) engaging in a variety of musical activities.

Thursday night I played music for the after-party of the Rock the Runway event at Savoy 1620 with saxophonist and singer Michael Eubanks and his band. Overall it was an easy, fun, and well-paying gig. We performed two hours of mostly 70’s and 80’s Funk/R&B/Jazz covers to a high-spirited (read: liquored up) crowd of some of Little Rock’s most fashionable movers and shakers. At one point we played probably about a 13 minute rendition of Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies Night,” — even though our dance moves were not anywhere near as synchronized as this, the crowd just kept digging it, so we just kept playing it… Perhaps if the collective blood alcohol content had been a bit lower, more people would have noticed that the musicians in the band were actually rarely in good tune with each other. Our bass player had been having intonation issues with his bass guitar and didn’t have time to fix it before the show and my guitar kept drifting out of tune as well. But we gave the people a good beat to dance to and plenty of energy to bounce off of, and that’s all they really wanted anyway.

The next night I played with The See to a sizable crowd at the Town Pump. We headlined the bill which included Nashville rockers (and truly cool dudes) The Paranormals, and the Austin-based indie sunshine-rock (I am just going to assume that is an actual genre) group Gorgeous Hands. My main complaint about The See up until this point was that we played too loud to hear our lead man Joe Yoder’s golden vocals (not to mention just generally being painfully loud to some of our viewers). I expressed this sentiment to the band and we all agreed to turn down, resulting in what I think was our best sounding show yet. I did however become aware at this point that my guitar’s intonation was definitely out of whack, and that I shouldn’t play it for our following night’s show at Maxine’s in Hot Springs.

The show Saturday at Maxine’s was tense. One of us in the band was extremely upset with another member for showing up late to the show, which resulted in us getting bumped from playing second (when the largest portion of the crowd was present) to playing last (after much of the crowd had already left). Additionally, one of our more inebriated fans got himself kicked out for being belligerent, incomprehensible, and annoying. And to top it off, we forgot to bring a drum stool. By the time we got on stage we were sweating from the stress (and yeah the heat), but luckily Maxine’s cocktail waitress (and local artist) Mesilla Camille gave us plenty of towels to dry off with and we ended up playing well. With a multi-state tour just around the corner, we in The See are aspiring for a higher level of professionalism, and nights like these can seem like a step in the wrong direction. Yet this is still early on in our musical journey together, and just as we are still working out exactly how to perform the music on-stage, we are also still working out the off-stage elements of rehearsing, booking shows, promoting ourselves, selling merchandise, showing up to shows on time, and maintaining equipment. In my mind, mistakes in any area are forgivable right now as long as we are working to make sure they happen less and less. We do have an image in our mind of how good this band can be, and the temptation is to become frustrated when we don’t live up to our expectations. But flowering into our full-potential will take time, and the shit that happens is the best fertilizer.

Anxiety and Encouragement

This past year alone I have performed numerous times in a jazz big band, a guitar ensemble, two rock bands, a hip hop band, a cover band, various small jazz ensembles, and as a solo classical guitarist. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to play with many talented musicians in such a wide array of groups and genres, yet I do often wonder if I am spreading myself too thin. I have a mild fear that I will never be as good at playing any one genre as players who have devoted themselves solely to studying a particular style of music. Furthermore, though it seems the most lucrative strategy right now, I wonder if playing frequently in a number of relatively unknown groups is the better economic decision than striving to have one musical project achieve “brand-name” success. Yet I realize that there are definite pros and cons to either specializing or diversifying and no way to simultaneously reap the benefits of both. As Kwai Chang Caine would say: “you must choose.”

For now, I have chosen the path of diverse musical output: I play background jazz and dance music at parties and events, I play loud hip-hop and rock shows, I give guitar lessons, I compose my own music, and I write about music. I do this, practically speaking, because it is the only way I can currently provide any kind of sustainable living for myself– no single group that I play in currently performs often enough to be my sole livelihood. Yet I am also naturally a “big-picture” person, and I feel satisfied that exploring music from these many different angles is potentially offering me an expanded picture of what music is and can be. Though I may never be the purest jazz guitarist, or the most virtuoso classical guitarist, I do believe that through playing many styles I am going to continue to develop a unique musical voice and generally become a better musician. Furthermore, I am comforted by an awareness that music is not a competition. Though it is tempting to compare myself with other guitarists and musicians (who may be masters of a particular style), I know that I can only express myself musically in accordance with my own tastes, background, and capabilities. To keep myself going, I must always believe that my current level of musical ability is adequate enough for performance, while simultaneously working extremely hard to expand my musical horizons.

Monday night I went to the Afterthought to see the great Bob Dorough, composer and performer of many of the great original schoolhouse rock songs (including the classic “Three is a Magic Number“). He was there playing with some of Little Rock’s finest musicians including Barry McVinney, Joe Vick, Jay Payette, and others. It was humbling to see these incredible musicians (musicians who have labored not for fame, but for their love of music) in all walks of life performing together on stage. Bob is in his 80’s and still has the spirit and enthusiasm of a 20 year old. What he lacks now in vocal power, he makes up for in a warm soulful and humorous delivery. Smiling widely as a row of horns shout the head to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Bob was having a great time (and so was the audience).

This performance stands in opposition to a conversation I had earlier that afternoon with a friend at my office (River City Tea and Cream). Our talk at one point hinged on a humorous, but obviously over-generalized, portrayal of elderly men as being either extremely sweet or the classic “dirty old man.” From here, it was only a small leap to us discussing the possibility of myself being a creepy old man at age 60, playing guitar in a Rock ‘N’ Roll band, hitting on much younger women. Though I don’t realistically envision this happening, I do sometimes have a vague concern that Lucas at age 60, will be stuck playing music appropriate to Lucas at age 20. I think of aging bands like The Rolling Stones and KISS and frankly it is weird to me that they are still on-stage performing songs about not getting satisfaction or rocking all night. I then look at Bob Dorough, and it seems completely natural for him to be singing and playing Jazz in this intimate bar. I find myself wishing to also have a fitting musical outlet when I am his age…

I then hear the voice of my conscience slapping me back to reality: “Lucas, you are 24 years old and still at the very beginning your musical and artistic journey. Worrying and fantasizing about what your musical life will be like in 30-40 years is not helping you right now. You may pursue goals, but understand that you may not achieve them, and even that achieving your goals may not actually be fulfilling. Simply focus on this unfolding process, trust that hard work will pay off, and continue to practice the art, craft, and critique of music.”

Can you dig it?

A week ago today I was lamenting the loss of my routine. Tired, and distracted by disappointment in my lapse of discipline, I was struggling to force-write a blog post. The past 15 hours or so I have repeated virtually the exact same sequence of events as last Wednesday-night/Thursday-morning: staying up late with a fond friend, sleeping past my alarm, skipping morning pages, and yes now struggling to write a blog post. Yet whereas last week I was consumed by feelings of guilt and regret, this morning I have the pleasant feeling that this is now part of my weekly song and dance. As the old Jazz adage goes: “If you play a wrong note, repeat it.”

Last night I went to “Sticky’z Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack” to see Little Rock favorites and my friends Amasa Hines play their patent brand of soulful groove-rock. Like many times before, I was delighted by their rich instrumentation (last night they collectively wielded two guitars, two saxophones, keyboard, bass, drums, and auxiliary percussion), tasteful tones, tight pocket, poetic lyrics, and emotive delivery. Yet honestly my heart was stolen for the evening by a Brooklyn based four-piece called The Dig. The precise vocal melodies of the band’s two superb singers (who traded time singing backup and lead) cut clearly through a lush instrumental foundation of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards (with some sampling). They played a pleasingly familiar brand of atmospheric and danceable indie-rock with a cool confidence won from logging in an enormous number of hours rehearsing and playing shows together. Yet what impressed me most about the band, and what made their sound so appealing, was their attention to the precision performance elements of dynamics, tone, groove, and phrasing. Relatively simple chord progressions and melodies were transformed into expressive gems by the band’s attention to detail.

In my experience, most bands I have seen live and even played in honestly kind of suck— it takes a lot of work to just not suck, and The Dig have definitely put in that work. Not only do they not suck, they are actually good, so good in fact that I bought their most recent album “Midnight Flowers.” Listening to it this morning I am once again enjoying the songs I heard last night, and impressed by their ability to so closely replicate their album’s sound live onstage. Yet what was quite spectacular in the live moment, sounds a little plain to my now more critical ear. The Dig are doing all the right things to sound like what good Indie Rock sounds like in 2013 and I think this is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I would imagine them being greatly enjoyed by any fan of bands like The Strokes, Tennis, Foster the People, Local Natives, and the White Stripes, ensuring The Dig a steady stream of gigs all across the nation. It is a curse, because they have not yet broken free to find their own unique identity and approach to music— they sound like “good Indie Rock”, but perhaps they don’t yet sound like The Dig.

Yet I can easily see this band making artistic and conceptual leaps necessary to attain the same status of the aforementioned bands (they are certainly no less talented), and I am rooting for them to do so. I think I am especially sympathetic to the plight of this band because I am currently in a similarly situated Indie Rock band called The See (yes note the name resemblance). Though I don’t think we necessarily have The Dig’s high level of dynamic, tone, and rhythmic precision (I’m confident this will come as we rehearse and play more shows together), we too are a band with an appealing modern sound who tend to delight and impress most audiences we play for. Yet I don’t think either The See or The Dig are any kind of “best kept secret” waiting to explode on to the national stage, because neither of us has yet found our own secret relationship to music. I am confident, however, that the key to each of our own unique sounds is close by; we just have to see it and dig it (respectively).

 

 

Jazz Improvisation and the Art of Conversation

I’ve been contentedly working harder than I ever have before on music these past couple weeks. I feel my creative energy flowing freely from and towards my many musical and artistic outlets of lessons, rehearsals, practice, performance, composition, recording, morning pages, and this blog. I understand that I have the rare opportunity to make a living making music, and I feel the need now more than ever before to work unceasingly at this task. Though I am realizing (and experiencing) that total artistic fulfillment is perhaps rare in the life of a working musician, I can think of few jobs I would rather have and am enormously grateful for this chance to make a livelihood out of my passion.

Yesterday morning I was transcribing (i.e. writing down the notes of a recorded piece of music) and practicing the Jim Hall/Ron Carter rendition of the Jazz standard “I’ll Remember April” from their excellent album Alone Together. Finally being liberated from the demands of school (and now bound by the economic demands of the “real world”) I feel a new level of urgency to hone my craft. I practice more diligently now because I see a clear path unfolding: The better at guitar I get, the better gigs I will get, the better paid I will get, the better I will be able to pursue the musical ventures that I am truly passionate about. I labored for two hours to correctly transcribe every note and rhythm of Jim Hall’s rich and deceptively complex guitar playing (only finishing about 1 minute out of the nearly seven minute piece). My brainpower was basically spent at this point, and so I moved on to something a little less taxing: figuring out the song “Little Black Submarines” by the Black Keys. I think it took me about ten minutes to learn entirety of the song, which I plan to teach to one of my students later this week.

With Hall’s melodies still in my head, I laid down for my normal afternoon nap around 2:00 and quickly slipped into an outpouring of half-asleep abstractions and mind-movies. Chief among them was a dreamy comparison and fusion of melodic musical phrases and verbal conversation. In most of the settings in which I have played or seen Jazz (art galleries, parties, fundraisers, bars, etc.) people have been talking and socializing during the music. This used to bother me— I thought more attention and respect should be payed to this intricate and difficult music— but I realize now that Jazz musicians are having an intimate and satisfying conversation all their own on stage, making it absolutely acceptable in my mind for people in the crowd to do the same. Furthermore, many of the same principles are at play in both arenas: a pleasing tone, clarity of statements, appropriate space between phrases, and the repetition/reciprocation/expansion of ideas make for both a good Jazz solo and a good conversation.

I had a vivid dream image of the common convention in blues and jazz improvisation of making a melodic statement, repeating it, then repeating it again and expanding it. I heard a descending minor, bluesy motif stated twice by a piano, then repeated and expanded into an ascending major sounding motif by a trumpet. This to me was an exact metaphor for a conversation in which two people take the same premise but extrapolate it to different ends (one gloomy, the other hopeful). I think that the bare experiential facts of life are neither innately good or bad— people (consciously or not) variably color them as such through evolving discourse. Music, especially good improvised Jazz, vividly illustrates and playfully explores the natural fluidity of ideas.

Last night I began composing a piece of music based on these ideas and my dream motif. I’ll share it soon…

 

Listening to “My Girl”, Talking about “Jazz”.

Saturday night I played for “Novel T’s 2013 Pine Bluff Summer Jazz Fest” at RJ’s Grill in Pine Bluff with some excellent local musicians: Ed Lawson (Saxophone), Ivan Yarbrough (Bass), Sheldon Joshua (Piano), Cliff Hawkins (Trumpet), Gavin Hawkins (Drums), and Legoria Payton (Vocals). I was very happy to get to do this, because after having spent four years at UALR allegedly learning how to play Jazz, I wasn’t totally sure I would get to actually play any Jazz outside of school. Because I don’t personally know many people who really like to listen to or play Jazz…

Yet I could express almost the exact same sentiment by saying that that I don’t personally know many people who know how to listen to or play Jazz. If more people were familiar with the songs, structures, and idiosyncrasies of Jazz, more people would enjoy it (or at least people would enjoy it more).  I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet many people don’t realize that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. I don’t want to imply that there is one unequivocal way to listen to or play Jazz— every true Jazz artist has found his or her own unique relationship to the ever evolving music— yet Jazz will always be rooted in a tradition of standard repertoire, swing feeling, and improvisation, and the more familiar a musician or fan is with this tradition, the greater capacity he or she will have for enjoying Jazz.

Much Jazz is advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet it may not occur to people that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. Jazz rewards those with a critical ear and a knowledge The more one listens to great Jazz artists, the more he or she is rewarded with a greater capacity to understand and enjoy it.

As I’m writing this, The Temptations’ “My girl” is playing on the radio over the speakers of the restaurant I am sitting at— the woman at the table next to me is singing along. She love’s it, I love it, we all love it. But why do we love it? I argue that certainly one of the prime reasons is that we understand it. We’ve heard these harmonies, this bass-line, these lyrical sentiments all before (and not only in this song). It’s familiarity makes it easy to digest. Furthermore, there is a probably a whole collection of pleasurable extra-musical associations we have with this song (a movie we saw, a person we love, a fun party we went to, “the good old days” etc…). “My Girl” and other pop songs provide a nice familiar pick-me-up in the moment, but listen to it once or twice and you’ve fully discerned all it intellectually has to offer. Jazz on the other hand is often advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. Yet with each new listen, the music of great Jazz artists (unlike pop music) keeps revealing new insights about what music is and could be.

Note: Many other thoughts about Jazz, oblique to the point of this particular blog post, have been running through my head as I’ve been writing this. For one, I am uncomfortable with simply stating the word Jazz as if it is a definite solid unified entity separate from it’s many diverse and evolving parts, yet I only have so much time and energy for one post, so I’ll leave it alone for now. But rest assured people, this is the only the beginning of an ongoing (but probably sporadic) soapbox about Jazz.