Archive for April, 2011

Django Reinhardt—Improvisation #1

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by theguitarcave

“Django Meets Van Halen”

GUITAR RESOURCE

This incredible book is is the one you NEED if you want to play Django’s solo guitar pieces. This book is where I began my Gypsy Jazz odyssey and it continues to be a source of ideas and inspiration every time I open it. The worn cover says it all — I’ve used it a lot!

• Contains all of the great solo pieces
• Meticulously notated
• Spiral-Bound (Important!)
• Performance notes for each song
• Comes with a CD of all songs.

What can be said about this “song”, an off-the-cuff recording, done in one take in 1937? Nothing…you just have to listen to it, or watch Jimmy Rosenberg play it. While Jimmy is good, I mean REALLY GREAT, there is something even more amazing about Django’s recording of the song. It’s done with such wild abandon and confidence that the performance seems to fall out of him. It is the classic Django performance one could rightfully point to as example of how he was a one-of-a-kind guitar player and completely ahead of his time. Even today, I think it was performances like this one that cemented Django’s reputation as a player who could do things that defied comprehension. Keep in mind as you watch Jimmy play this with 3-4 useable fingers that Django only had two!

Django’s recording still holds up — (HERE)— the richness of the chords and harmony playing and the complete virtuosity with all of the rapid-fire single string lines, plus the tone, the SOUND of that Selmer guitar which jumps out at you even though the recording is now almost 75 years old. What I love about this performance is that it shows that Django anticipated and laid the groundwork for another of my favorite players, Edward Van Halen, forty years before the latter came along. From a purely technical aspect, Improvisation #1 is Django’s Eruption; blazing diminished arpeggios, the unbelievably cool and lightning-fast descending chromatic runs, the hammer-tapped harmonics between the two fast sections, the statacco picking that almost sounds like the beginning of the second part of Eruption after the key/ tonal center change from Dm to Bm, and the complete command of drama in the performance, which results from the confidence and ability to time and pace everything correctly without rushing, stumbling, or overplaying. What makes this even more amazing was Django recorded this at the end of a recording session and had someone signalling to him when his 3 minutes was running out. Everyone else at the session was amazed at the result and would not let Django reconsider a do-over.

Edward Van Halen

Much of the same can be said for Edward Van Halen’s Eruption which is dazzling in it’s pyrotechnic beauty and enhanced by the power of electricity, volume, distortion and effects (minimal compared to some players). Certainly both he and Django have similarities in their approach to playing guitar and were going for a similar type of (improvised) performance. Anyone who knows anything about guitar playing knows that Eruption completely turned the guitar-playing world on its head in 1978. It was EVH who brought the sophistication of classical and jazz music and a completely new level of virtuosity to arena rock audiences. While there had been many talented rock players taking many extended solos and solo pieces — Page, Blackmore, Howe, Beck, May, Hendrix — and jazz, fusion and progressive rock certainly had many technical powerhouses — McLaughlin, DiMeola, Fripp, Metheny, Coryell — the technique, sound, and go-for-it! attitude contained in Eruption and on every Van Halen record through 1984 was so overwhelming that he was repeatedly voted the #1 Player and an entire industry was created around learning to play his style. Whether one likes or appreciates his talents is immaterial because what is most important is the effect and influence he had on so many other players and how that has shaped what guitar playing is all about.

The Unaccompanied Django book at the top is really the first of it’s kind because for so long no one undertook the immense effort necessary to write all of Django’s solo music out, and author Michael Horowitz deserves a huge amount of credit for doing it. I have learned many of the pieces, play them at varying levels of skill and have yet to find a mistake in the whole book. Given the quality of some of the recordings and the focus that is necessary to learn and write out what is a very unorthodox style to many modern players (complete with fingerings) is an enormous achievement. In the wake of Eruption, however, new guitar magazines appeared and so did other materials like the“Hot Licks” cassette tapes, and soon after, videos with in-depth explorations of the technique and the sound needed to pull of the Van Halen performance. While the concept of “tablature” as a form of notating music has been around since the 15th century, personally, I can’t remember seeing music written out that way, even in Guitar Player Magazine before EVH turned the guitar world upside down (At the time was the youngest player ever to appear on the cover of that magazine). I have a copy of GP from the summer of 1984 that has Van Halen on the cover with an accompanying article that gives an in-depth look at his style, while another article explains the whole concept of what “TAB” is and today, some 27 years later, “TAB” is THE most popular form of guitar notation. I’m not saying Van Halen was personally responsible, but he certainly re-ignited interest in the instrument and re-defined (again) what the instrument was capable of…even though, the truth is, musically, much of what is contained in Eruption, minus the legato tap-pull-off passages, and the sonic landscape powered by overdriven Marshalls, can be found in Django’s Improvisation #1. Bands like Van Halen, and other guitar-driven virtuoso bands that followed, sold huge amounts of records and played to very large audiences world-wide. Therefore the market for prospective players learning this style was also very big, which is why all of the learning tools developed as they did.

Django Reinhardt

Another similarity between Eruption and Improvisation #1 is that they are improvised and there is, in my opinion, a slight misconception about what that term means. Even I was confused on this issue for a long time. Many people think improvisation means to make it up as you go along, however, that is and isn’t what is happening. Dissecting a piece like Improvisation #1 or Eruption, after playing either style of music for awhile shows that some very commonly used motifs, arpeggios, lines and technical “moves” that were/are mainstays of Django’s/EVH’s musical language are employed to create each performance. EVH has said that he used to do variations of Eruption at sound-checks before he and his band made the first Van Halen album and I believe Django played parts or variations of Improvisation #1 to and by himself before he ever recorded it. If you follow the link from the EVH pic at the top you will see a version of Eruption from 2007. Keep looking on You Tube and I’m sure you will find an endless number of versions, none of which are completely the same, but all of which have most of the same elements. EVH has said that he just “went for it” on most of the stuff the first line-up of Van Halen recorded and he was able to do that because a) the band had been playing quite a few of the songs live for years b) the band recorded their first 3 records pretty much sans guitar overdubs and c) EVH was always playing so he could just play and turn out something really good.

EVH Hot Tracks

Unchained
I’m the One
Little Guitars
Girl Gone Bad
Mean Street
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Romeo Delight
Hear About it Later
EVH Solo

The same was true of Django — on the streets of Paris as a musician from the age of 11-12, and with the extra motivation that it was his only source of income save for gambling, he was playing ALL the time. Also, like EVH, who was a classically-trained pianist, classical music and his understanding and intense love of it played a huge role in his formation as a player and as a composer. Of course, the Gypsy community from whence Django came holds music as a very important, almost spiritual element and from a very early age he was astonishing the others in the community with his instrumental prowess. Not even the severe damage to the third and fourth fingers on his left hand hampered his abilities as a player, although the sheer effort necessary to come back from the injuries he sustained in the caravan fire of 1928 I believe says something of the drive and determination that was Django’s character. It is what one hears in many of his performances — this great force of nature that will not be denied!

Not only was Django a total headbanger, as the clip above illustrates, he was capable of hearing, and playing licks that none of his contemporaries could match because a) they didn’t have his unique blend of influences: jazz, gypsy and classical music, and b) his instinctive understanding of music in general. I find this also to be true of some American jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and to a lesser extent, Wes Montgomery. While both may have surpassed Django as jazz players, neither of them ever composed or performed anything likeImprovisation #1. Many of Django’s best techniques: flamenco-style passages, diminished runs, mixing beautiful chord patterns with single string lines and very precise, powerful picking all come together to create a memorable performance. I think, that like any other guitar player, Django sat and around and played with ideas that he would then mix and match and change and do differently every time he picked up the guitar. He was just way better than most people at doing it on the spot without making a mistake. He totally nailed it the day it was recorded and considering that it was recorded at a time when you couldn’t go and “punch in” or fix a little mistake shows what a master he was at execution.

Django Hot Tracks (audio)

Ol’ Man River
I’ll See You In My Dreams
Appel Indirect
Tiger Rag
Impromptu
Fleche D’or
After You’ve Gone (1949)
Djangology
Moppin’ the Bride

The point of all this is not to diminish Django’s or Edward’s greatness and their natural abilities to make music, but rather to humanize them. They both WORKED very hard to become incredible players, and while they both were born with immense natural abilities, there is no musician who is capable of producing that level of art without a lot of effort. Constantly being involved with the music — playing it all the time, is what helps to produce great improvisation. They both deserve the reputation they earned as people who could do things others could not, but it must never be forgotten that there was a whole lot of determination and dedication to the cause. It’s certainly true that a player could spend 10 hours a day for years practicing to play like Django and not reach a point where it would be exactly the same, or even, nearly as good. There are always particulars and intangibles that must be written off to the abilities and personality of the player. However, both Django and Edward made the best use of their natural abilities and spent many hours honing their skills and refining their talents and this is something players and non-players alike should always remember.

It’s also important for players to understand that there is no magic key for having the ability to navigate around the complex changes of a song or reach a point in one’s development when it’s conceivable that music could just fall out of whatever mood you happen to be in at the moment. Anyone who has been playing for even a short time is capable of this to a certain extent. Building on what is known little by little and incorporating as many different influences and musical possibilities during practice can lead to great performance later. And don’t forget FUN. There must be plenty of that. Both Django and EVH obviously loved/love playing guitar and that in itself can take you a long way. When I began playing Gypsy Jazz four and a half years ago my improvisation skills were pretty hopeless because most of the music I had played over the years was either prepared or based on much easier chord progressions. Though I’m still not the improviser I want to be, I can do stuff now that would have been impossible in the past. It’s much like learning a 2nd or 3rd language — you can’t just know the words, you have to be using the whole scope of the language, words, punctuation, sentence structure etc., on a regular basis.

It’s really great to see EVH looking healthy and happy again. Long before I was a fan of Django or knew why he was important, Edward was THE MAN on guitar for my generation (and for others as well). In the video above, Les Paul introduces EVH as someone who he “wants to watch” and “someone who has changed many things about the guitar”. Considering that Les also thought Django Reinhardt was a great player I feel I’m in good company comparing Django and Edward. I think maybe Les saw some similarities too. While EVH has certainly had his share of troubles over the years and it’s been a long time since he put out a powerhouse of an album, clips from the last (reunited) Van Halen tour and the above NAMM show seem to suggest that maybe he has finally put some of his demons behind him. According to the Van Halen News Desk the band has some touring plans for 2011 and while I’m not one of those people who thinks he HAS to do anything, if he does stay in the game, all the best to him. I’ll certainly check out what he is up to.

Blast From the Past #1

Posted in Movies, Players, Playing with tags , , , , on April 20, 2011 by theguitarcave

RATS OF UNUSUAL SIZE
with John from Mental Decay NYC 1995

Before you read this or watch the video, have a drink!!

Rats of Unusual Size were a punk band that originated in the bowels of the East Village in the wild and wooly late 80s NYC. There was a very vibrant underground punk and rock scene (pretend the late Peter Graves is reading this to you) sometimes called Scum Rock by people who were insiders. After recording a few albums, some singles, playing a multitude of gigs all over the country, leader Jim relocated to Flint MI and formed a second incarnation of the Rats of Unusual Size. After more shows, records and further touring he relocated to San Francisco where he is a theater impresario and co-owner of The Dark Room Theater.

The other Rats, like Daniel Simpson Day — whereabouts unknown.

The Jazz Messengers

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2011 by theguitarcave

Incredible performances of hard bop drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, including trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxman John Gilmore, and pianist John Hicks, from a televised special in England in the mid-60s. I love these two videos I’m putting up — Buhaina’s Delight and The Egyptian, which was written by Wayne Shorter. All of these guys are monster soloists and very inspirational players to soak up ideas from. I also like the “heads” or “themes” on both tunes. Very cool.

Check out Blakey’s drum solo on Bu’s Delight…a jazz drummer with the thunder of someone like John Bonham — I know it pisses some people off to compare rock and jazz players doesn’t it? Blakey is really incomparable, I know. He was a total monster and played like he was on fire for 40 odd years and his Jazz Messengers served up some of the hardest and most soulful jazz ever made. He and his band also served as a training ground for young players and launched the careers of people like Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Kevin Eubanks (guitarist from the Tonight Show), Keith Jarret, Bobby Timmons and Wynton Marsailas. I have the Bu’s Delight album and it’s great! Also hear other stuff all the time on the jazz radio thing. Very hard and dark music with a lot of muscle and a lot of swing.

Both Lee Morgan and John Gilmore were great players too. Morgan played with many jazz greats and released quite a few of his own records before he was killed tragically in the early 70s and Gilmore played with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra until his death in the mid-90s. He has been considered by some to have been an influence on Coltrane!! Both of these guys should be near the top on any list of players of their respective instruments.

Why am I posting this when there isn’t a guitar involved?

• Because it’s awesome.
• Because listening to other instruments is inspiring.
• Because the Jazz Messengers are seriously under-appreciated.
• Because You Tube exists to show bona-fide historical treasures.
• Because it gives me an excuse to code a bullet list.
😉

Oiseaux de Iles

Posted in Movies, Playing with tags , , on April 17, 2011 by theguitarcave

If you read my sticky on Django Reinhardt, you’ll see that I picked this song as one of my favorite Django moments. So here is a vid of me playing the solo.

The song is in F major and the structure is really simple. MOST of the solo is pretty easy, except for that first descending passage. I do it better some days than others. I know my picking has gotten much better because I couldn’t play it to tempo before. The second descending part I usually nail but I had a “duh” moment. Hey it’s Sunday…I turned the camera on and went for it.

Oiseaux de Iles translates to “bird of the island” or “exotic bird“. But the song itself sounds like a train and the clarinets sound the train whistle, or I guess they also sound like a flock of birds singing. Or it could be inspired by an exotic woman Django met on a train.

Booker (Bukka) White and The Blues — Then and Now (1)

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , on April 9, 2011 by theguitarcave

I‘ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is  Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. On top of all that he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.

Booker White-Shake 'em on Down

There is very little showbiz in this kind of blues; it is art from the mud, saloons, juke joints, street people, hustlers and fast women. Though he recorded some early “spiritual” sides with Memphis Minnie on background vocals Booker was more about living and singing in the “right now,” leaving the glory of the hereafter to the others. Many of his best songs have a very conversational feel about them. They describe ordinary situations and feelings that carry powerful statements; When Can I Change My Clothes seems like a very mundane topic unless you realize he is in jail, on Parchman Farm in Mississippi; one of the toughest prisons in 1930s America. His plaintive holler and wail, the timbre of his voice, and cross-tuned E minor National guitar cast a very harrowing portrait on most everything he did, especially his 1937 and 1940 recordings that bracketed his arrest and prison sentence for shooting a man. He was able to embody that “devil at the crossroads in the middle of the night” terror better than anyone except for maybe Robert Johnson and Skip James, and like Robert Johnson, an aura of mystery surrounds him, especially the real story behind Booker’s arrest, conviction and release only two years later. He was initially sentenced to life for shooting an assailant in the thigh (just where he wanted to shoot him!) in a bar brawl, but research has turned up differing theories and no documents that explain why he was released after serving only two years or who the victim was or where the crime took place. It’s almost like the Kennedy Assassination! What this does illustrate though is that playing the blues in the old days was a very dangerous business and to survive one had to be as quick with his or her fists, wits, or weapons as one was with the instrument.

Booker, who didn’t like being called “Bukka” —  the name originated from a white record producer who had never heard of Booker T. Washington — was a heckuva guitar player. Here he is doing the Eddie Van Halen slap-mute move that would turn up on the song Mean Street many years later. Okay, not really. I don’t want to stretch my whole connections theory too far, but if you expand this technique a little bit, and put it through 3 amp heads and 6 cabinets, it’s basically what Van Halen is doing too. Aberdeen Mississippi Blues is one of my favorite Booker songs. The recording, from early 1940 is pretty soft and tender, as he is singing about two pretty little ladies from New Orleans, but he rocks it out here. Listen to the sound of that National guitar! Loud!

What always struck me about Booker’s records was the SOUND.  I wonder if his original records were done like Robert Johnson’s? Here is an interesting article on how Robert Johnson was recorded. Many acoustic, solo, and blues guitar players have heard about corner-loading I’m sure. But for those unfamiliar with it — the idea is to face the player/singer into the corner to roll off the highs and lows and pump up the middle frequencies. Heavily picked acoustic instruments, slide guitar (and possibly the vocals) sound more powerful and resonant when recorded this way, at least in theory. The diagram on the above linked site illustrates how the player set-up is something anyone can try in their own studio or apartment to see if it makes any difference. While Robert Johnson certainly laid down some brilliant playing and influenced pretty much every guitar player after him, I find his recordings tinny when compared with Booker White. Part of it, I’m sure is that Booker’s voice had a deeper timber (even in the high wail) and more resonance to it. The fact that he was a big and obviously strong player might have increased the powerful sound and resonance on his guitar work too, but it would be interesting to know how his records were done. All recordings in those days were pretty much “what you hear is what you get,” but producers, engineers, and even players themselves found little tricks to enhance the sound they were going for. Here is another song from the same film session as above. Booker lays the guitar across his lap and is using a thin piece of iron or metal, going for more of a lap steel sound. Booker is looking pretty advanced in years in these clips and he was man of modest means. No money for the rack-mount delay and crossover switches but it’s all very real and musical. I think this song has gone by different names over the years depending on the release or repackage, but here the title is Poor Boy Long Way From Home.

Some of my other favorite Booker songs are Special Streamline, Fixin’ To Die Blues, District Attorney, Sic em Dogs on Me, Parchman Farm, Strange Place Blues, Black Train Blues, When Can I Change My Clothes and, Pinebluff, Arkansas. The lyrics from all of these songs are as brilliant as his guitar playing and vocal delivery. He elevates simple thoughts and obvious personal situations to complex high art.

Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun
Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun
If the train don’t run, gonna be some walking done.

Then, of course, there is Shake ’em on Down. A brilliant song made even more brilliant by Robert Plant who used in repeatedly throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.

Here is a recording a Booker doing Shake ’em on Down and here is a recording of Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off to Roy Harper. Robert Plant got a lot of mileage out this song he liked and a man he must admire quite a bit. I think there are at least 4-5 LZ songs with some fragment of “shake ’em on down” contained within. Some people regard this as theft and some regard it as parody, but I believe Plant (and Page) genuinely love this stuff and used this as a template for where they would take their music. Many musicians from the 50s and 60s who loved and were influenced by records like this one incorporated various sonic aspects of them because they were all crucial parts of the song. Certainly on “Hats Off…” Page and Plant are using a combination of technology and no-technology to accentuate and exaggerate the effects of the sounds coming off Shake ’em on Down. This is certainly how all the blues players like Booker learned to play, perform and record. Shake em on Down was a hit for Booker, selling 16,000 copies, but Big Bill Broonzy recorded a New Shake em On Down soon after and had a hit of his own while Booker was at Parchman farm. This is also certainly what the Rolling Stones, the Heartbreakers and a million punk bands have done with Chuck Berry. Is that theft? Parody? I don’t know. I guess it depends on who is doing it and their intentions.

While the blues players of yesteryear certainly regarded themselves as guitar heroes, they were more concerned with entertaining the Saturday Night Juke Joint crowd because that’s where the money was. Guitar Player magazine didn’t exist then and like guitar players today, some were very protective of their technique and the various tricks they employed (Robert Johnson) and others were very open and even generous about sharing what they knew. Because many acoustic players performed solo or with a washboard player or another guitar, this resulted in a more focused and stripped-down playing approach, as opposed to the vehicle for soloing the blues became later. The SONG was the thing, because there were limitations on what they could pull off without compromising the rhythm and beat of the music, which was and is always more important than the guitar lead. A man by the name of Washboard Sam was present at Booker’s 1940 sessions and you can hear another guitar on some of his other tunes. Things changed for the blues as time went on, but there were those who kept it and keep it with the original vibe early players like Booker White had back in the day. But that’s another post for another time.