Month: September 2011

background music

a friend of mine has put some of my guitar work in his latest film project. It’s just a couple of small clips from a piece I wrote almost instantaneously after a wonderful dream. Some really great music has been inspired by nocturnal visions and this piece is really special to me. Since I released the music to Dave I’ve expanded it into a full-blown solo piece that is very classical-sounding. The parts Dave used, they way he shot and edited the film and the subject matter is very PBS, high-brow culture. I felt the same way when a group I was in played the top floor of the Brooklyn Museum last year. Perhaps I should start dressing like…THE CONTINENTAL. Wintage Champagné?

Dave Simonds is the producer, film maker, editor of this movie and he has a long list of really cool little films to his credit. He and I met when I was invited to join his writer/artist group about 4 years ago. It was a great collection of people that fragmented as people moved away and into other things. But I really enjoyed the meetings and it coincided with my beginnings in Django-Reinhardt/Gypsy Jazz guitar. Visit Dave’s site to see what else he has been up to. He and I plan to do more together in the future.

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Been Caught Stealing!

gibson’s bust and international guitaring

A very surprising bit of news came up on the radar while The Cave was closed due to vacation and weather. It seems Federal Agents raided the Gibson Guitar company in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee because of alleged violations of the Lacey Act. As Geraldo Rivera would say, SHOCKING MAAN! (did he really ever say that?) Basically this act is supposed to enforce national (and by extension international) policies that protect endangered flora and fauna, such as Brazilian Rosewood or Tortoise Shell, from being used in musical instruments or anything else. The Lacey Act was passed in 1900 to regulate use of bird feathers in hats (eagle feathers are supposedly such a big no-no that you don’t EVEN wanna go there) and was updated in 2008 to include wood and other plant-based materials. You can read about the case here, here, and here, if you don’t already know about it. The most interesting and balanced summary I’ve found of the story and relevant issues is this PODCAST with John Thomas, a lawyer, author, AND guitar player. During the course of the podcast he discusses Gibson and their troubles, The Lacey Act and the international CITES laws.

Thomas points to some questionable things going on in the purchase of the materials Gibson imported. Whether it was actually Gibson, an in-between subsidiary or one of their overseas suppliers (the one guy they use [Roger Thunam] was in the news before) has yet to be determined. The way Thomas lays it out makes it sound like there could be a problem for Gibson especially if something is found on the now-confiscated electronic records. Thomas surmises that the government will be looking at whether the people involved in the international sphere that supplies Gibson with materials honestly don’t communicate well (it happens…even in 10-employee offices), or there was a deliberate attempt to mislead and misdirect. While the company and their CEO, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, have denied any wrongdoing, they will have to explain why certain things were mislabeled and recorded wrong on this last shipment of fingerboard materials. One thing I keep seeing in all of the reports on this story is the difference between not knowing how these laws work and messing up the paperwork (a bit of a stretch given the fact that Gibson has been in business since 1890) and deliberately lying and/or trying to get over, is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony…whether you are a big guitar company or Joe or Jane Schmo trying to travel with, or import a guitar. Gibson had been busted on similar violations in 2009, so at the very least, they should’ve known they were on the radar. Also, this isn’t the company’s only concern. According to Glassdoor, an online site that allows workers to rate the company they work for, Gibson is one of the lamest employers in the United States. I know this is just the employees saying this but wow! The company has a paltry 1.8% rating and CEO Juszkiewicz has a meager 14% support rating. Even without the current headaches with the Feds, Gibson obviously has some major issues they need to deal with and that might involve getting rid of Juszkiewicz, who is described unfavorably in many reviews. Hopefully the company can do some soul-searching and re-emerge to be the GREAT COMPANY behind the ICONIC BRAND we all know and love.

Back in the day I worked for a very nice and cool and awesome textile designer and she had me do a bunch of research on selling to a country I’m not going to name. What I (we) learned is that while globalization was theoretically supposed to make international trade easier, that is rarely the case because there are as many different regulations as there are foreign markets. Guitar manufacturers and dealers already know this, at least they are supposed to, but now there are broader implications that apply to anyone who owns an instrument that is made out of protected materials. THIS is a very interesting read, especially if you are a guitar collector, buyer, seller, or traveler going through Customs, especially in Western countries, many of whom have their own laws that are different or stricter than what you might find at home (wherever that may be).

From what I understand by reading and listening to the podcast these are the important facts to consider. You now have to list all of the plant and animal material contained in the instrument — woods, bone, pearl, ivory, etc etc. Doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or protected or not, they want to know. As Thomas describes on the Podcast, US Fish and Wildlife now takes an IRS mentality with regards to imports because once you declare, you better be telling the truth. This is what I was saying earlier: messing up the declaration forms because you’re clueless is a misdemeanor, but if it is established you have deliberately lied you can be charged with a felony, and that ain’t no joke. If you are traveling with your instrument you have a personal exemption and you don’t have to get the paperwork… unless your instrument was built with Appendix 1 materials (Brazilian Rosewood, Ivory, Tortoise Shell etc) then there is no exemption. Realize that until the early 1990s many guitars were built with Brazilian Rosewood and even if it is just the fretboard, it is a material you should be listing. You also have to take the responsibility to find out what all of the Appendix 1 materials are. The safest bet, as Thomas points out, is to have a new guitar that was built with no controversial materials and carry that with you on tour or vacation or wherever you’re going. If you ship it you can not get a personal exemption. Another very important thing to realize is that these are the laws for the United States only and laws vary in other countries. This is spelled out in more detail in the Fretboard Journal article. I believe George Gruhn, the vintage guitar guru quoted below and owner of Gruhn Guitars, no longer ships internationally. (Emphasis below is mine).

Vintage-guitar guru George Gruhn amplifies Davis-Wallen’s concerns. “Look, this thing is a nightmare,” he says. “It’s cumbersome, illogical and nearly unintelligible. It’s hard enough to figure out what permits to obtain in the U.S., but it’s almost impossible to figure out the necessary permits to get a guitar in and out of another country. CITES only establishes a ‘floor’ of restrictions. The member countries can establish any other rules as long as they’re stricter than CITES. Imagine a touring musician who plans to visit several countries with a guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. It would be almost impossible to comply with CITES and do the tour.”

Armed with Gruhn’s insights, I contacted the CITES secretariat in Geneva for practical advice and spoke to a fellow who preferred to be identified only as “spokesperson.”“Travelers,” he told me, “should be most concerned when traveling in or out of the U.S., E.U., Australia or Japan because those countries have the strictest enforcement efforts.” “And,” he added, “They have domestic laws that are stricter than CITES. You’ve got to pay very close attention to the legal requirements”

I put that plaque at the top of the post because I thought it was a cool picture and the quote, which comes from the Publius Terentius Afe, a Roman playwright better known as Terence can certainly be true. That said, I don’t have any personal experience with this and don’t know anyone who has had an instrument take away. From what I’ve seen online, many other people either had no idea that there was a reason for concern, or are trying to carry on and hope no one notices they have an instrument with controversial materials. Others online have politicized the issue or are trying to create political conspiracies where there don’t seem to be any and still others (like Gruhn) hope that the laws can be streamlined to the point where all of the environmental and workers rights can be protected without hassling dealers and musicians who are guilty of nothing more than have an instrument that is 30 years old. There seems to be a parallel to the TSA in the United States. While there have been many tales of overzealous groping, hassling, and infringement into the personal space of air travelers all in the name of SECURITY, I don’t know anyone personally who has experienced anything over-the-top. Once, when I was flying out of Milwaukee a TSA person was running the wand over me and it kept beeping even though I had removed all metal objects. She threw up her hands and took two steps back with a look of fear in her eyes that suggested she thought I was Khalid-Sheikh-Mohammed. A couple of burly guys came over and I dug in my pocket and pulled out a pack of Wrigley’s gum. It turns out the foil was making the scanner beep. I said, “Wow, I always carry guy and it hasn’t set off any other machines”. They rolled their eyes and moved back to their stations at the baggage machine. Another time I was flying out of NYC taking freshly-baked bagels to some friends on the west coast. The bagels caused quite a stir at the baggage scanner for five minutes, but then all was well. I think the lesson here is that some fairly innocuous items can sometimes lead to interest and let’s face it, you really give up any semblance of privacy or control if you are going to fly anywhere. I have brought stuff back from trips out of the country with no trouble from Customs Officials, but then again I wasn’t trying to import live snakes, drugs or anything else they would have a problem with. But the fact is it only takes ONE TIME for it to be a problem, if the “problem” is a favored or expensive guitar, and that’s why I probably wouldn’t risk trying to fly on the sly, if you know what I mean. The laws were created with the best of intentions maybe, but the enforcement is in the hands of many different people in many situations all over world and it seems that for now, musicians should probably consider their options carefully.

SMOOTH OPERATOR — Romane

Most people in the United States have never heard of Romane (Patrick Leguidecoq), a classically-trained, Gypsy-Jazz and Parisian-style guitarist of the highest caliber. Romane is totally suave…as in GQ You Can’t Touch This suave. He was actually the first modern Gypsy-Jazz player I became interested in after a friend laid the Ombre CD on me 10-12 years ago. The music was a revelation! I still love the CD and have acquired a bunch of Romane product since then, including the two CDs featured in the right column where he partners up with another GJ master, Stochelo Rosenberg. (Of course you gotta be really good if you are going to play with Stochelo) Not only can Romane play with the best of them, for my money he is easily one of the best writers of this style. He’s not a guy to do a CD with 6 Django Reinhardt covers on it even though he can burn or make his guitar sing on any song that is thrown his way. I wish he would play the East Coast in the near future. He is on the list of people I would really like to see. Here he is with Stochelo playing Stochelo’s Double Jeu.

What fired me up when I heard Romane is how the music— the outrageous chords, sophisticated runs and blistering picking— doesn’t sound like anything this country has ever produced. It’s Jazz, but it isn’t, and because of the acoustic WHOOMPH! the music never sounds like that laid back, noodling stuff that many people think of when someone says the dreaded J-Word. What makes Romane so suave is that he never sacrifices melody and good musical sense for relentless chops and “out” playing that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. You probably wouldn’t want to throw his music on at your next classic-rock barbeque, but it certainly works for many other settings and occasions. You would certainly get the attention of any musicians present because not only are the songs and playing awesome, the music ALWAYS swings. It’s the hallmark of the style and it’s an infectious thing for sure.

There is a great variety of mood and intensity on Ombre and Acoustic Spirit. Romane can dazzle you with unbelievable stuff like Legendé, Gypsy Fire or the funky country twang-influenced Paris Nashville, and then cool you out with really mellow stuff like Selene or the every easy bolero, Monticello, which is built off of the following E7M9/13 chord. Give it a whirl on your axe and feel the magic. I can’t get enough of that sound. (The numbers are “open” “6th fret” “7th fret”. You can bar the “6” group with your first finger and play the “7” group with your 2nd finger as a bar or any combination of your remaining fingers).

——————— 7 —
——————— 7 —
——————- 6 —–
——————- 6 —–
——————- 6 —–
————— 0 ———

So… like what you’re hearing so far? Intrigued? Already trying to learn Gypsy Jazz and hungry for more? Not interested in playing Gypsy Jazz but perhaps thinking some of those licks and runs are pretty cool? Well you could buy this DVD…it’s chock full of info and demonstration and even though Romane does not speak English, the DVD does have subtitles in three languages and a small booklet showing the important stuff. I think he either did two versions of this instructional DVD or there was extra footage because it is packaged under different names at a few different locations. Some of the clips from this DVD are on You Tube, HERE. The embed option has been disabled so I can’t show them. This is not the whole DVD, but follow the You Tube links for the 3 chapters. The second set can be shown here but it has no subtitles. If you can follow along there is some more free learning to be had!

What I really like about Romane and all of the Gypsy players is that they are very generous with their knowledge and because they know so much, they are excellent teachers. The Acoustic Spirit CD shown above ships with the CD for listening and another CD that contains tabs and rhythm play-a-longs!! Who else does that? Seriously! And when I bought it at Virgin it was $14 or something. A total steal of a deal. If you are the ambitious sort you might want to add Romane’s L’Espirit Manouche to your collection. This awesome book contains every theoretical gem of an idea that you will ever need to be a pro guitar player in this style, or any style really. Though it offers no help with the very important picking technique, it does explore music theory and harmony in great detail while providing 14 of Romane’s songs as exercises and illustrations to the lessons. I do have to qualify this gushing with one criticism though and I really hate to do that but — There should have been a better translator brought on-board to help put Romane’s knowledge into English. The book is for an English audience and Romane has a virtual set of Encyclopedia Britannicas of musical knowledge in his brain. I am getting through it (a long off and on process) but there are sections that really try the patience of anyone attempting to figure out the major revelation that is supposed to be happening because the English phrasing just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it takes 2-3 goes or I skip the writing and just work on the songs. I’m still glad I bought the book and the more I learn from it and other sources, the more comfortable I am with it because I can ignore the writing and focus on the music.

Romane is at home in pretty much any situation as these last two clips illustrate. Above, he is playing with a big band on his really cool composition Opus De Clignancourt. In the midst of some great playing he breaks a string and hilarity ensues. The one below is from his new CD/DVD, Roots and Groove and features his composition, For Wes. There is a stripped-down duet of Romane doing this song with Stochelo on You Tube and the whole 35 minute show can be found on the Gypsy Jazz Masters CD/DVD that is reviewed at the top of the right column on my blog. Of course anything that Romane and Stochelo do is brilliant, but the Roots and Groove band turns this song into a whole other thing and it’s really smokin’ in my opinion. Romane is using a Stimer style pick-up which is a good move with the band he has with him in this situation. They are hot! The club is obviously really hot too…they are working up a sweat!

While Romane is always attempting new things, like many GJ artists he has a strong connection to TRADITION. His father was a very accomplished guitar player and so is his son, Richard Manetti. {HERE is a clip of father and son playing together…talk about bonding!} Aside from the familial, there is also a connection to the culture of the Manouche and the history of jazz, two branches of music and culture that have been intimately intertwined for the past 70+ years. It’s impossible for me to watch Romane, Stochelo or any of the others and not think that they create an environment that gets real close to the original guitar hero, Django Reinhardt and The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, or even people from a much earlier time who have propelled this musical lineage forward through many generations. I hear that in much of Romane’s music and while it is always interesting and sometimes thrilling to hear or see A TOTALLY NEW THING, there is something comfortable and life-sustaining in music and art that doesn’t disregard and pays homage to the vibrant sound and caravan spirit that has entertained people for generations.

Lead like a Great Conductor

Itay Talgam, an orchestra conductor and business consultant from Israel gives a very humorous and interesting lecture while profiling 6 famous symphony conductors. Conducting an orchestra, leading a band, running a business all require a leadership role and there are many different ways one can approach the challenge. Talgam knows his stuff and this is a very entertaining video even if one doesn’t like classical music.

While the focus on this talk centers on how different leadership styles can influence and effect the nature of one’s business and success, there are some ideas that any musician can take from it too. One can be a player (or band leader) who is very happy or serious and firm. One can let the music happen or perhaps be very controlling so that the prepared or pre-arranged ideas are played without any spontaneity or participation of other people or things in the “story” of the music. Or perhaps you can combine elements and lead (or play) in a manner that is spontaneous and involves others while maintaining the order and control needed to put across even a very complex performance. There is something mighty attractive and exhilarating about the concept of “doing without doing”. Great players and leaders are capable of getting out of the way of The Music without relinquishing the command needed to avoid a descent into chaos. Talgam shows how this is possible through the approach of two highly-respected conductors, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber.

There are plenty of illuminating talks on TED although many of them are not music-related. Even though this is a guitar blog, it’s very important to realize that as players, we are all influenced by many things in the world around us. Guitar-playing does not exist in a vacuum and all of the best players have stated at one time or another how a great song, a great idea for a lick or even a new piece of technology or way of doing things was caused by something that was completed unrelated to the guitar and probably happened when they didn’t have a guitar in their hands.

Cab City Combo on Dr. Demento

Yes! … a few weeks ago in my Cab City Combo post I said we had achieved Novelty Nirvana by appearing on the Dr. Demento show. Now if only K-tel would put us on an album. Anyhow, CCC still gets mad love from the Doctor of Novelty and you can find the current show/playlist online HERE. I forget how many times we’ve graced the show, but it’s really cool it’s still happening. This time CCC plays Monkey King, one of my favorite tracks, as  part of an Monkey/Ape show with many other illustrious guests, including Louden Wainwright and Nervous Norvus.

Happy 65 Freddie Mercury!

Freddie Mercury would’ve been 65 yesterday. Dude was AMAZING and so was his band, Queen. They were one of a kind and one of the heaviest of 70s rock. Many of their songs were staples of FM radio and definitely part of my high school/college years. And hey…Brian May is a heckuva guitarist isn’t he? I remember being like 12 and seeing the video (the first music video ever) of Bohemian Rhapsody on The Midnight Special in the 1970s. That was friggin’ unbelievable at the time…supposedly when he heard it Brian Wilson was so scared he cried for 10 minutes. {If you watch the video again starting at about 5:15 Brian May is doing obvious tapped-hammer-ons. Interesting because he never made a big deal out of it. Brian and Eddie Van Halen did play together in the early 80s in the Starfleet Project} Freddie was an extraordinary writer and showman and had one of the best if not THE BEST voices ever heard in rock. Queen at Live Aid is easily some of the greatest 18 minutes in popular music history and even back then it was obvious they stole the show. Here is the first section…view the whole thing by following the You Tube chapters. Freddie leading the crowd in the call and response at the beginning of chapter 2 embodies what Tony Soprano called “BALLS”. Freddie is as comfortable and confident in front of literally (with the TV audience) millions of people as he would be in his living room.

I’ve always really liked early, prog-rock Queen and long-hair, black fingernails Freddie. This song is a real great showcase for the rest of the band too. I’m pretty sure Keep Yourself Alive was written by Brian and it’s a total show-off song, but also way cool!

Queen never sounded like anyone else and it was obvious from the beginning that all of the members had extraordinary talents. Freddie’s operatic rock god vocals, Brian with his homemade guitar, wall of Vox amps, and mega-chops, the brilliant drumming and high harmony vocals provided by Roger Taylor and quiet John Deacon holding it all together on bass, these guys could ROCK! Stone Cold Crazy was so heavy that Metallica covered it.

I also like some of Queen’s offbeat material. Many people in the USA, including some critics, didn’t get the humor that was involved in the writing and performances. I’m not sure why it was so hard to understand — Queen named two of their albums after Marx Brothers movies didn’t they? That probably should have been a clue that they didn’t take themselves very seriously. Jazz was a really funny record and for a time, back in the late 80s at the VITAL VAN loft, that record got frequent airplay, especially Bicycle Race with lots of air guitars and shouting along. The first hint of this smart, clever writing and tight musical arrangements appeared on Queen’s first real hit, Killer Queen. I still love this song too, especially all of the phasing and the triangle hit before the 2nd verse. Of course the guitar parts are great and was there ever as glamorous a rock singer as Freddie Mercury? I think not.

While all of this stuff is from a long time ago, that’s okay. Because if you were there while it was happening you know how super-duper cool and important it was and if you weren’t, that’s okay, because you probably wish you could’ve been. I never got into Queen’s dance music very much — Another Bites the Dust was so EVERYWHERE in 1980 that it was almost a pop-novelty song. Thanks to Weird Al Yankovic it did become a novelty hit when he turned it into Another One Rides the Bus. (I saw this performance on Tom Snyder’s show when it was first broadcast) It was funny at the time because a lot of people, especially in the USA, thought this was something Queen was doing as a one-off. They were a different kind of band in the 80s but that was alright because they were still able to bring the rock and a really great show. Some of their ballads were similar to Elton John…he wasn’t the most rockin’ guy, but he sure had a lot of great songs on the charts in the 1970s-1980s and, like Queen, was really stellar in concert. One of the benefits to being old now is that I (we) were able to live through some very special times. There will never be another Freddie Mercury and I can say that with 100% confidence. Some people are just one of a kind and to have seen them, rocked to them and enjoyed their artistic endeavors is part of what has made my life a blast.
Happy Belated Birthday Freddie!