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.

Busking for Bucks

Every first Thursday of the month my neighborhood (Hillcrest) hosts a “Shop & Sip” in which business stay open late and offer various free drinks and snacks to customers. When the weather is nice it usually draws a huge number of people, and there are always food vendors, artists, jewelers, and musicians showcasing their wares on the side of the streets. I had told myself over a week ago that I would go busking with my guitar at this event for a little extra cash and to advertise for guitar lessons. Yet I woke up feeling groggy and unmotivated, and began to talk myself out of it in my mind: “it’s not a real gig, you don’t have to do it… you don’t want to see people you know there, it will be awkward… busking isn’t respectable… you aren’t going to get any money… it’s totally not worth it… etc.” Eventually I decided on a compromise: I would go to the slightly richer, and more family oriented neighborhood of the Heights (which I believed also took part in the 1st Thursday Shop & Sip) and find a spot to play. I thought this would be a better place to advertise guitar lessons and a spot where there wouldn’t necessarily be a lot of people I know seeing me perform the lowly work of busking.

I rode my bike from Hillcrest to the Heights and stopped in Stephano’s Fine Art Gallery, where I met Stephano Sutherlin himself (an extremely kind and helpful man). He informed me that the Heights does not actually take part in the 1st Thursday Shop & Sip festivities, but that they have something similar on the 3rd Thursday of every month. He also seemed willing to have me play at his gallery sometime and pointed me towards some other good venues (he even called a couple places for me!). I’m convinced that personal interactions like these are the best way to develop a career in music (perhaps a career in anything). Yes it is much easier to sit at home and just send out emails, facebook messages, and blog posts 😉 about your music, but it is also much easier for people to turn down or ignore these mediums. Music is a social art— musicians rely on and interact with other people during most every step (from rehearsing/performing with other musicians, to talking with venue owners, to establishing a connection with the audience). The working musician must develop a great skill for interpersonal communication.

So after being energized by my interaction with Stephano I returned to Hillcrest to look for a good spot to play later that evening. I spotted a good bench in front of Hillcrest Artisan Meats (H.A.M.) and the workers there graciously agreed to let me use one of their outlets to power my amp. I went home to prepare, and thought it would be nice to have more than just a single guitar so I borrowed my brother-in-law’s loop pedal (which would allow me to play melodies and solos over my recorded harmonies), and quickly learned how to operate it. I ended up playing from about 6-7pm (I didn’t anticipate H.A.M. closing so early), and though it was shorter than I expected, I was pleased with people’s reaction to my music and relatively satisfied with the $16 I made (more than enough money for dinner)— I’m sure my rate would have improved later on in the evening with a few more drinks in everyone’s system 🙂

My initial reservations about busking come from a place of self-consciousness and a vague sense that busking is somehow a seedy or disreputable activity. Yet my better judgement knows that it is a perfectly fine and honest pursuit for me. I am talented, and playing good music for people to hear for free. I am not begging, or demanding payment, but if people so choose, they can drop a dollar in my hat. Furthermore, street performance is an ancient art! The street is virtually the one consistent stage for musicians and artists from antiquity to today and I should be proud to carry on such a legacy. Finally, the street is perhaps the purest test of whether people like your music— they didn’t come to hear it, they aren’t invested in it, but if they turn their heads, stop, and take time out of their day to listen, you must be doing something right.

Lamenting the Loss of Routine

My work schedule looks extremely irregular. This week, for example, I had a rehearsal from 8-10pm on Monday with a Jazz band, an out of town show with a Rock band from 11-12:30pm on Tuesday, and a rehearsal with a different Jazz band from 6-8pm on Wednesday. Tonight I am playing solo guitar at a restaurant from 6-8pm, tomorrow I am giving a guitar lesson from 5-6pm, and Saturday I am playing at a wedding from 4-5pm and a party from 9:30-midnight. Next week I may not have any gigs. A variable schedule is typical for the musician and flexibility is a must have trait.

Certainly there is some temptation to just utterly embrace this irregularity, working hard when I have lessons, rehearsals, and gigs, and just taking it easy when I don’t. Yet I’ve learned that I thrive on a regular routine. I am sharper, more productive, and generally happier when I have some level of intentional day to day consistency. Though I can rarely choose exactly when and where I am going to have performances and rehearsals, I can choose what time I am going set my morning alarm— I choose to set it for 5:55. Ideally, I wake up, write my “morning pages”, do a quick Chi-Kung routine, eat some breakfast, then spend the next four hours practicing and preparing for whatever gigs, practices, and lessons are looming. I usually feel relatively accomplished after this, and reward myself with lunch and a much needed nap. When I awake, I am ready to proceed to whatever musical exploit is scheduled or available for that evening (this is when the irregularity creeps in). When I am finally finished with all the day’s musical tasks (often very late at night), I blog about it and go to sleep.

Once again, that is my “ideal” weekday routine. I stayed loyal to it the first three days of this week, and it felt great. Yet last night I stayed up late with a good friend, skipped my blogging session, and went straight to bed. As a result, I slept through my 5:55 alarm this morning and didn’t wake up until 7:30, feeling guilty. I did some Chi-Kung, but not my morning pages, ate some breakfast, started struggling with this blog post, and talked with my roommate about how much is too much information for this blog 😉 as well as the relative merits of U2, Vampire Weekend, and Steely Dan. I am still struggling with this blog post. I feel out of balance and slow-witted and I want to stop writing. I want my routine back.

The Art, Craft, and Critique of Organized Sound

Disclaimer: This is my “about” page. I thought it could be useful to make this a blog post as well.

My name is Lucas and I, like most humans with a pulse, love music. Unlike most humans with a pulse (and any sense), I am attempting to embark on a career in music. I graduated from the Scholars Department of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the Spring of 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in “applied music” with a focus on guitar performance— hardly the most lucrative degree. Practically all I’ve been directly trained to do in school is play guitar, analyze music, and write papers— hardly the most lucrative skills. Yet during my undergraduate years I additionally developed great capacities for self-discipline, time-management, and connecting with other people. These skills combined with my love of music and inborn stubbornness make me feel that I can actually attain and sustain a career in music.

My plan of attack is broadly that every weekday I will practice the Art, Craft, and Critique of music. I define these as such:

  • The art of music is writing, recording, and performing original music.
  • The craft of music is learning pieces of music, practicing technique, giving lessons, and performing non-original music as well as marketing myself and finding new venues for my music.
  • The critique of music is a written critical analysis of the art and craft of music.

This blog is the cornerstone of my critique of music. Though I do sometimes write about other musical artists and their work, the main focus of my critique will be on my own musical output, and the methods I use to put it out there. I do this for one to help myself— writing about my experiences practicing, performing, composing, and working with others will better allow me to learn from my successes/failures and will hold me accountable to works, projects, and goals that I set out. For others the critique of my musical life will offer an insider’s look at what it is like to live the life of a working musician— perhaps interesting for the non-musician, and hopefully useful for anyone trying to follow a similar musical path.

Bear’s Den and Bug Dust

Every morning I wake up, fix some coffee or tea, and fill three loose leaf pages with stream of consciousness writing. I took this practice (called “morning pages”) from Julia Cameron’s book The Artists Way, which no I have not finished yet, but still recommend to anyone looking to expand their creativity. Today I started off all analytical-minded, trying to plan my day, but then I switched brains and just let it flow (kind of like I am going to do now, because it is 1:30 and I am riding home to Little Rock from Conway with my band The See and I am very tired, and want to finish this post before I get home so I can just hop in bed and slide into dreamsville). Anyway, I consider these morning pages as me practicing my art— they are often ripe with lyrics and ideas for songs. This morning I looked around my kitchen and expressed wonder at the myriad worlds around me— the wood lines in my table, the creamy surface of my coffee, the buzz of my refrigerator, etc… I wrote that it is impossible to capture with words the many worlds around me. Then I immediately retracted that statement, because the age old “poetic” notion that something is so profound that it can’t be described in words is a cop out! Yes, many things are impossible to fully capture with words, but if you are writing poetry or lyrics, you have to try to describe these things anyway! If something is truly inexpressible in words, your futile attempt to do so will express that fact. I hope I never put the phrase “words can’t express” in a song. With all this in mind, I set about trying to describe in acute detail the dust of decaying bugs sitting in between the two panes of glass of my kitchen window. For now I’ll spare you my portrait of the bug-dust.

I was all ready to give my first guitar-lesson of the summer to a brand new student this evening, but he had to cancel at the last minute due to a time-conflict with his work. He assured me that he is serious about learning the guitar and we have set up a lesson for next week. I do believe him, and look forward to teaching him— I just need about nine more students to keep the bills paid.

Tonight The See and I played at Bear’s Den Pizza in Conway, AR (hence why I am coming home so late). The Bear’s Den is a homey, spacious restaurant & pub with a collegiate feel (by this I mean they have a regulation beer pong table outside) and mediocre pizza. This place was packed for a Tuesday night— clearly the prime hangout for the young and the restless of Conway. The stage was large enough to comfortably host a heavily equipped four piece rock band (like ourselves) and I was overall pleased with the quality of the sound in the room and onstage (unlike some “music venues”, this place had multiple stage monitors). We played very well tonight despite the fact that our drummer Tyler’s bass drum wouldn’t sit still and kept knocking into Joe (our lead singer), and that Joe broke a guitar string on the first song (he did have a backup guitar). We kept everything very tight and we seemed to have impressed much of the audience; some of them even bought T-shirts. In my experience, playing for a new audience frequently infuses the band with a natural urgency and strong sense of presence that sharpens our focus and often leads to the best performances. This happened last night and it served as a reminder of just how special our upcoming multi-state tour (from June 28th to July 19th) could be…