Bernard Purdie at the Cadence Jazz Festival

David Haney, Andre St. James, Bernard PurdieI went to the last night of Cadence Fest on Tuesday. Cadence, a well-respected jazz magazine, has been reborn thanks to the efforts of jazz pianist David Haney (left), who put on the festival as an extension of his magazine work. (Willamette Week did a nice write-up about him before the festival.)

I managed to catch a set by the Rich Halley Group, which was neat. Halley, a saxophonist, played with a trombonist, bassist, and drummer. I’m not usually a big fan of really free jazz, but I found it was a lot more approachable when I could see the musicians cue off of each other.

But the real reason I was there had to do with the headliner: David Haney was playing with bassist Andre St. James, and a drummer named Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. As a drummer, I’ve been a fan for a long time — I’ve been listening to tracks he’s recorded for most of my life (I’ll bet you have, too. Check out a list of his top 100 tracks.) But I’ve never seen him live.

The trio was great. Haney actually took the stage wearing a winter coat, a sport coat, and a scarf, like a commuter on the bus. But Haney plays piano unlike almost anyone I’ve ever seen — his right foot taps, his legs kick out, and he lurches around on the bench. If there’s such a thing as a physical piano player, he is one. All that motion warmed him up, and he took off the jacket, then peeled off the sport coat during a song. One song later, the scarf joined the jacket and the coat on the floor next to the piano. It was like the dance of the seven veils.

As good as Haney and St. James are, I was mostly focused on Purdie. For the most part he was just comping, and didn’t even solo. But even compared to the drummer that preceded him, Purdie was smoother, his time was perfect, and his dynamics (variation in volume) were just effortless. He was so technically adept that when he was playing a fill, his hands would just bring his idea to life.

Purdie is now 73, so I’m feeling lucky that he came out one night to help out his friend’s jazz festival. I can only hope he decides to do it more often.

“Moneyball” and the Case of the Copycat Song

I saw “Moneyball” this weekend. It’s an excellent movie, but I still think Michael Lewis’ book is even better. My suggestion: Go read the book. Then go see the movie.

But one thing the movie has, which the book doesn’t, is a subplot involving Beane’s 12-year-old daughter. In the movie the daughter sings and plays guitar, and the song she writes becomes kind of an anthem for her father.

The song, called “The Show,”  was actually written by a singer-songwriter named Lenka and released in 2008. Here’s Kerris Dorsey’s cover (she’s the actress who plays the daughter), in a video that looks like a trailer for the movie:

Lovely song, eh? But since I’m a hobbyist musician, I spend a lot of time listening to music, and I thought it sounded familiar. Like, really familiar. Like, substitute-other-lyrics-on-top-of-existing-song familiar.

Which existing song? “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz (first released in 2005):

I took a look at the chords, and they’re not the same (though I think they’re both using variations on the I-IV-V chord progressions). Then I compared the first two lines:

“The Show”:

I’m just a little bit caught in the middle
Life is a maze and love is a riddle

“I’m Yours””

Well uh you dawned on me and you bet I felt it,
I tried to be chill but you’re so hot that I melted,

Similar number of syllables, similar meter. You could easily sing those four lines as a single verse.


The Hot New Real Estate Trend? Guitars

Although I am a paragon of virtue 99.9% of the time, I will admit to occasional procrastination. One way I do it is looking at real estate. If I were seriously in the market for a house that would be a different story; but my material of choice is things like “Real Estate for $760,000” and similar slide shows in the New York Times.

In other words, fluff city.

This morning I happily drooled my way through a two-bedroom one-bath cabin on over five acres of rolling hills and forest in Carmel Valley, Calif., and was somewhere in the bedrooms of a three-bedroom midcentury modern house in midtown Atlanta, when I saw this:

Since I’m a musician, my first thought was, Cool! Nice guitar! But the longer I looked at it, the less sense it made. There are broke musicians whose guitars live in their bedrooms, but electric guitars require cables and tuners and picks and amps. Which is why my bass and its attendant junk live in the den.

I’m just taking a wild guess here, but I’m guessing none of those are in this bedroom (especially since the article mentions that the home owner is an architect, not a guitarist for Bon Jovi).

But hey, maybe they just pulled the guitar from another room and dropped it on the bed. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Otherwise, the bedspread in the center of the photo is pretty darned plain. Plus, all things being equal, if the owner has a cool hobby I’m more inclined to like him.

That thought lasted until the very next picture:

See the guitar on the couch? Here’s a pro tip: The one thing you never, ever want to do with a string instrument is bend its neck, since a bent neck is basically a death sentence for the instrument. Guitarist don’t put their instruments down that way. I wouldn’t even put my guitar or bass down that way to go get a cup of coffee. It’s just too easy to have someone accidentally put weight on it. I have a guitar stand next to the couch. If you have a $760,000 house and a $500 guitar, I suggest coughing up an extra $10 for a stand.

So the guitars may belong to the home owner, but what’s more likely is that the photographer (probably not a musician) is putting them in for visual interest.

All of which wouldn’t even rate a blog post, except that I hadn’t been looking at real-estate porn in a while, so I was a few slideshows behind. After I finished touring the the bargain homes, I moved on up to the ones for $1.6 million.

I was in one of the four bedrooms on the second floor of an eight-bedroom Federal-style mansion built in 1827 in Salem, Mass., when I ran across this:

Another guitar! And it has a practice amp, like someone actually plays it!

Except that again, there’s no cable. And the guitar doesn’t have whammy bar, even though it has a hole for one. And it’s sitting in the chair like a favorite teddy bear.

In other words, it’s just a prop. And a badly used one at that. So let this be a lesson to you, real estate stagers: Once I win the lottery, I am not buying a house if I see an improperly treated guitar in it.

So there.

Superman Teaches Ethics, Through Music

Let’s throw together some highly unlikely elements for a song: We’ll take a male singer with a startlingly deep voice. We’ll have him sing lyrics over a funeral dirge, complete with  lachrymose cellos. But he won’t sing about blues or heartbreak, which would sort of make sense. Instead, he’ll sing an ethical lament.

About superheroes.

As odd as that premise is, that’s the gist of “Superman’s Song” from the Crash Test Dummies. Odder still, the song works. I realize I was a philosophy major, and there’s no accounting for taste, but the song charted in the US and Canada. And its video has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube.

Go ahead and listen while you read. It’ll be a multimedia experience!

I like the song for all its improbability, and that it uses characters from comic books and crafts something wise and moving. Instead of the Superman with the giant, gleaming pectorals and impeccable jaw naively fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way, we get this:

Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phone booths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

In other words, it’s not always a highlight reel; it’s often a series of small, unglamorous, almost forgotten decisions to do the right thing.

A few months back I played the song for my cousin … and then time passed, events occurred, and I forgot about my Canadian-artist evangelism.

A few days ago, he sent me an email telling me he played the song for his fifth-grade class, and asked them what they thought the song’s message was. Here’s what one boy wrote:

The lesson is to live your life helping people even if you don’t get anything back. One piece of evidence is that “Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy,” but he still continued helping people and that is what you should do even if you don’t get anything for it. “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” But I think a lot of people can be like him even if they don’t have super powers.

If you ever wanted to know whether a song works, you can’t ask for a much clearer testament than that.

Saturday in Austin, Texas: Frosty and the Amazing One-Handed Drum Solo

Last Saturday I was in Austin, and my friend and I went to Antone’s to see a few bands. One of them was Mike Flanigin, who was groovin’ on a Hammond B-3 organ. Since I play the drums, so I sidled up close to watch Mike’s drummer, a veteran session musician named Barry “Frosty” Smith.

Frosty can play, which might explain why his discography is two pages long and includes names like Delbert McClinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Frosty also plays with his eyes closed.

Barry "Frosty" Smith playing the drums

Barry “Frosty” Smith playing the drums. My cell phone takes such bad photos, they look like they’re printed on cheap t-shirts.

So, Mike and their rhythm guitarist (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t catch his name) do their thing, and their thing is goodly. While they power through their set, I was content to watch Frosty put on his drumming master-class from about 10 feet away.

My sometimes drum teacher Justin Matz suggests going to see drummers who are a bit better than you, because you’ll see how they fit things together. Justin’s advice didn’t really apply, because Frosty is a bit better than a bit better than me. He was doing some pretty slick things on his kit, such as playing a polyrhythm by alternating between the surface and the bell of his ride cymbal, and keeping time with both feet. But that was part of the fun.

Then came the last song of the night. Mike or the guitarist (I forget which) played the first few bars of the intro, and then Frosty was going to join in. Only just as he was about to get going, Frosty dropped a stick.

This happens when you play the drums. Unlike Animal in “The Muppets,” to be any sort of drummer you can’t clamp your sticks in a death-grip and swing your arms like windmills. To play with speed and finesse you need to hold the sticks lightly, so that they bounce off drum heads and cymbals. When you hold them lightly and your hands are moving quickly, sometimes you drop ’em. Sometimes you drop more than one, as one of Justin’s cute young students demonstrates:

Anyhow, since drummers drop drum sticks from time to time, they have a little stick bag that they typically attach to their floor tom. Frosty, his eyes open for a change, quickly pulled out a stick, and away he went…

… Until the end of the song. When he somehow he dropped another stick.

And this is where it got really interesting. Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note — it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

So how did Frosty cope? For some reason either didn’t have a backup stick, or couldn’t reach it because it was in the middle of the song. At this point, as the song was reaching its crescendo, Frosty’s eyes were open really wide.

He was managing to keep the beat with the stick in his left hand, but he was clearly having to rethink how he did everything. Then he switched  his one stick to his right hand to play crash, ride and hi-hat, played the snare with his left hand … and finished the drum solo.

And Mike Flanigin, his band leader, never even noticed.

[Insert Your Tuba Player Pickup Line Here]

These things always start kind of innocently. Today it started during the afternoon dog walk, when dog and I strolled past a home and heard the unmistakable blatting of a tuba.

I came home and immediately made some inane wise-ass remark on Twitter:

“Walked the dog past a house where someone was practicing the tuba. I didn’t know people took vows of chastity like that nowadays.”

But the Twitter hive-mind was having none of my japery. “Tubas are so hot right now!” said @janedonuts. As incontrovertible proof, she steered me to America’s foremost authority on cultural/tuba trends, The New York Times, which is reporting that ‘Tuba Raids’ Plague Schools in California.

At this very moment I can almost hear you starting to utter “What the …” so here’s the gist:

In the last few months, dozens of brass sousaphones — tubas often used in marching bands — were taken from schools in Southern California. Though the police have not made any arrests, music teachers say the thefts are motivated by the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role.

The story quotes a music teacher who says that banda used to be uncool, but now it’s cool to have a live band with a tuba, or to be a tuba player. Not only that,

As a result, sousaphones have made work in bandas more lucrative. A banda can make at least $3,000 for a night’s work at a wedding or quinceañera, said J. D. Salas, who teaches tuba at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. And the tuba player, who is often the leader of the group, usually gets the largest share.

Gimme all your lovin'

Big money! For tuba playing! (Who says it’s impossible to make a living as a musician?) Since I’m already playing three instruments that are not the tuba, I sadly admit I don’t have time or oompa-power to hoist a fourth. A shame, really, since I could have been the next version, of … well, this guy.

And two women on Twitter leapt to the sousaphone’s defense. One said, “Do not diss the tuba! Tubas are awesome!” And when I teasingly asked Jane Donuts if she’s dating a tuba player, her response was, “Not yet.”

Hmm, eh? Hmm.

But wait — in a third shockingly unforeseen event, it turns out there are tuba player pickup lines:

  1. How deep do you want me to go?
  2. In my section of the orchestra pit, we all have big brass
  3. It’s not every day you meet a guy with a huge instrument and
    great tonguing.
  4. Wanna play Baby Elephant Walk?
  5. You’re so fine, I’d drink outta your spit valve.
  6. Stand back, I’m not sure how big this thing gets!
  7. Your lips say “oom,” but your eyes say “pah.”

[It’s a good thing I don’t have to try and use any of those. I just can’t see the elephant one ending well. ]

Still, I’m not persuaded that tubists are now the hawtest musicians on stage. When the nation’s other revered arbiter of culture, The Onion, updates their story “Area Bass Player Fellated” to something involving a sex act and a tuba, maybe I’ll change my tune.

How Low Can You Go?

I had a chest cold last week, and for a day or two it gave me a deeeep voice. When I wasn’t coughing or having those lousy viral out-of-body experiences, I felt a little like Barry White, with a low rumble coming from my chest. Here’s Barry White doing his secksy voice thing. (Warning: the song lyrics are suggestive — worse, the graphics are deeply cheesy.)

As I was coughing out the remnants of my cold, I had one of those instances of news-coverage-imitating -life-imitating-art. I heard an NPR story about Decca Records, who are on the lookout for someone who can sing a low E, nearly three octaves below middle C. “The note is featured in a new piece called De Profundis (Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord — Psalm) by the Welsh composer Paul Mealor,” sez NPR.

To give you some perspective, that’s almost to the left edge of the piano keyboard, down where all the notes sound like a pissed-off T Rex. NPR even added the score, on the off-off-off chance that would help you sing it:

Just in case you’re musically inept and can’t figure out which note they’re referring to, they even circle it. As much as this amuses me, I really wish they’d added a little “Sing This” note and an arrow.

Know that we know the note is waaay the hell down there, can anyone sing it? To prove it was possible, NPR did something cool. They got back in touch with Roger Menees, the record holder for the lowest note ever sung (NPR profiled him in 2010). For him, singing that note is not even an issue — his record is and F-sharp that’s actually lower than that low E.

How low? “When Menees sang “A Little Talk With Jesus” at a church in Canada, he hit a note so low that it shattered an Electro-Voice speaker.”

Doesn’t matter if I have a cold or not. Compared to him, I sound like Mike Tyson.

When Celebrities Compare Hair

I have my first piece in The Nervous Breakdown, “an online literary publication type deal.” It’s titled “A Tale of Two Nominees: Justin Bieber and Esperanza Spalding,” and it uses the 2011 Grammy awards as a pivot to discuss two very different types of musicians. Bieber you might have heard of. Spalding is a jazz bassist and vocalist.

(Please go read the article. And leave a comment at the end. For complicated technical reasons, the piece had a rough birth, so it didn’t get a lot of promotion. Thus, the comment stream consists mostly of my mom’s friends, which is gratifying, but also makes me feel like a nine year old who’s full of promise … but I digress.)

When I wrote the piece, I spent a little time researching Bieber, especially since I heard that after Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist, instead of him, he went to congratulate her. (MTV has video of that encounter, but it’s tiny and inaudible.)

What’s a lot more prominent is a cringe-worthy interview of them together, apparently jammed onto the same stool, where they compliment each other, and each other’s hair … and then Bieber pets her hair.

After I saw Esperanza Spalding perform, I wanted to write about her, and realized that the notoriety she gained after Bieber fans attacked her Wikipedia page made Justin Bieber and appropriate comparison.

But after suffering through that video of him and Spalding at the Grammys, I’m pretty sure I’ll never write about Bieber again.

Two Great Song Covers

I have a theory about covers of songs. It goes like this: if you play the song exactly the way it was recorded or performed by its original artist, it’s much less interesting than if you, you know, change it in some interesting way.

For example, one of my favorite reggae albums is a compilation called “Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead.” Another favorite is the Toots and the Maytals version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” (Of course there’s a flipside to this. If you’re Pat Boone covering/whitewashing R&B songs, you can go straight to hell.)

Last week I stumbled across two more great covers. First is from a woman named Taimane Gardner, a Hawaiian woman who plays a mean ukulele. In this clip she plays a cover of  Toccata. Ever seen a ukulele run through an amp? Better question: ever seen someone play the hell out of a ukulele? Well then, here you go:

The next morning I was driving to work and heard two DJs talking about a couple of cellists who covered Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

What the … cellists? Playing Michael Jackson? Don’t cellists come from poor Eastern Bloc countries, have band-aids on their knees, and wear mournful looks on their faces?

Stejepan Hauser is indeed Croatian, and Luka Sulic looks to be from whatever they call Yugoslavia these days. But these two dudes are so embarrassingly good-looking, I doubt any red-blooded women would be kicking them out of bed for band-aided knees.

Oh, and their cover? It rocks hard.

The Album that Changed My Life

The slightly grandiose title to this post comes from The Olive Reader, the blog of Harper Perennial (a book publisher), which is doing a promo for a book of theirs, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. On the blog they ask, “What album changed your life at 17? (Or whenever.)”

That’s easy. Here’s my answer:

It’s 1981, and I’m 15, a gawky, pimply, f*cked up soup of hormones, and I’m busting my ass on the subway to get back and forth to my new high school where no one likes me because I’m new and I’m not from the suburbs.

Reagan is president, I’m convinced he’s going to make me sign up for the draft in a few years, if he doesn’t annihilate us with nukes first.

The radio is filled with crap like “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Juice Newton. It’s worse than bad. It’s insultingly bad, like saccharine on a popsicle.

Then I discover the Clash. Specifically, “London Calling,” with its brilliantly dark, apocalyptic title track, plus “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Death or Glory,” just to name a few.


This is a punk band, yeah. I’m 15, I’m all about that. But there’s reggae in there, dub, rockabilly, ska, pop culture references … and POLITICS.

LEFT politics. These guys are playing Rock Against Racism, they know their history (“Spanish Bombs” is about the Spanish Civil War and fascism, “Guns of Brixton” is about the Brixton race riots) … and they can flat-out PLAY.

At 15 you’re right at the bottom of the trough, as awkward and angry and frustrated and drug-taking and screwed-up as you can be. And when Air Supply and Abba and Hall & Oates’ hair gel were all conspiring against me, along came Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon putting out music that was angry, vital, political, engaged, smart, and most of all, REAL.

And after a few hundred listens, you figure it out. It’s OK to be screwed up and angry, because you can be all those other things, too. Note by note and song by song, they showed me the way.