Stephane Wrembel

The Death of the Electric Guitar (Slight Return)

 

Last summer I wrote this fine article on the DEATH OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR because it was a terrifying, tumultuously timely story, affecting every guitarist in the land, right? Well, kind of, sort of, I guess. I wasn’t sure then, I’m less sure now. Would you like to know my thought process and the various bits of info I have gathered on the subject? Well, you might want to read the original article first, but if you already have (or in your head said “Go eff yourself, I don’t need to do that!”) away we go:

In the original article I tried to point out that many of these articles want to go all DOOMPORN as if the end of a few companies equals the end of rock and roll, the end of music…or the end of the world! It begs the question: Will Alex Jones be commenting on this issue at some point in the near future? Will the collapse lead to the Zombie hordes taking over or everyone living like the Road Warrior? I don’t think Guitar Center going out of business (if that happens) will lead to the end of the world, but WHAT IF? Can’t we just go back to the days when millions of dudes “rocked out” and everybody listened to the cutting-edge, magically sublime sound that was Warrant? I wish we could, but there is lots to talk about, like…

The other issue(s) that I explored rather humorously in the original post were a) how lack of “live” heroes equaled huge loss in revenues for the guitar industry (so let’s use holograms), and b) how Guitar Center and that model of business never resonated with me and finally c) maybe the finance guys and the people writing these articles are kind of full of poop. Well I’ve got new information man…certain things has come to light… In just the past few months there have been articles further detailing the plight of Gibson and Guitar Center. On May 1st Gibson filed for bankruptcy protection, which includes:

The change in control will give noteholders equity in a new company, replacing stockholders including Chief Executive Officer Henry Juszkiewicz, who owns 36 percent of the company, according to the filing. Those noteholders include Silver Point Capital, Melody Capital Partners LP, and funds affiliated with KKR Credit Advisors. Juszkiewicz and company president David Berryman will continue with the company upon emergence from Chapter 11 “to facilitate a smooth transition during this change of control transaction and to support the Company in realizing future value from its core business,” according to the announcement.

Doesn’t the language in that paragraph make you want to staple your face to your jacket lapel? Me, I’m to-ta-lly convinced turning Gibson Guitar over to companies named stuff like Silver Point Capital is just going to make everything crackerjack okay-fine. I’m not the most brilliant financial mind going, but according to Wikipedia, current CEO of Gibson Brands Henry Juszkiewicz , “acquired Gibson in 1986 for $5m USD with Gary A. Zebrowski and David H. Berryman” and now given that they are looking at about 500 million in debt, I’m going to have to say that financial mismanagement could maybe, probably, be an issue. Either that or somebody sprang for WAAY too many pizza lunches and took WAAY too many cabs to work. Also, as of 6/23/18 this was posted on his Wikipage: Juszkiewicz poor management of Gibson has caused a steady decline in the company, eventually leading to the company filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of 2018. (Holy Glass Ceiling Batman!). Then… there is the Guitar Center saga. A few years ago, Bain Capital (you know that name because Mitt Romney), invested heavily in Guitar Center and they also invested heavily in Toys R Us…that iconic toy brand that just closed all 730 of it’s domestic stores.

WHOOOPS!

In this article, titled Bain Capital Sees Three Investments Stumble, we see what is typically called…I think, bullshit? Right? Right? Because having one company that you are heavily invested in close ALL of its domestic stores sounds more like a full-on face-plant, not a… “stumble”. The other company, Guitar Center, is currently “stumbling” with one billion dollars in debt. *Breathtaking*. Of course Gibson and Guitar Center’s fortunes are intertwined and both companies need people to buy, buy, buy guitars if they are going to reduce their debt loads. So, while a lower number of people buying Gibon guitars at Guitar Center is not a good sign in general, it’s an even worse sign now…because DEBT.

But, of course, the finance guys never admit they messed up. Slow sales is all your going to hear and that isn’t any surprise. Another factor is there are a lot of old people involved in the conversation and you know Old People — They are ANNOYING! Back in the day they were easy to avoid; you didn’t visit except on Thanksgiving. But now old people in the form of so called “music gurus” are weighing in on the fortunes of these companies and it’s a whole lot of LOL. Are these guys genuinely clueless, too old to keep up, or are they full of it because they are heavily invested in the industry mantra that it wasn’t financial mismanagement… it was the lack of new guitar heroes? Let’s go to some quotes and you be the judge:

I would be hard-pressed to name any new ones,” (guitar heroes) George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars shop in Nashville, told the Daily News. “You’ve got Joe Bonamassa who is a great player. But he isn’t selling as many guitars as the other big time heroes. And Eric Clapton is arthritic. He’s having difficulty playing and is retiring from touring.”

Gruhn was quoted in my original article and he seems to be the go-to guy for all of these articles. Question: Why mention Clapton? He is 73 years old. People who are 73 shouldn’t be expected to drive youth trends and young people are not going to emulate 73 year olds in 2018. This is not rocket surgery. Personally, I don’t believe Eric Clapton “sold” a lot of guitars to players from the late-80s until now just like I don’t believe Lou Reed sold very many Shure microphones, even though here is an ad that features him trying to do just that. Speaking of Lou, did you know he had a mullet at one point? I had kind of forgotten that. That is a mighty fine mullet. Can’t we just return to the good old days of Lou Reed: The Mullet Years? Actually, no we can’t because George has more to say: Here is another quote from George that makes you wonder if he ever heard the term “cognitive-dissonance”:

Baby boomers are the best customers I’ve ever had. They’ve driven a lot of the guitar trends, but they are aging and many of them are downsizing their guitar collections,” Gruhn added. “This doesn’t mean that guitar sales are dying, but instrument sales in general are under stress.”

He continues:

Gruhn acknowledged that the demand for both acoustic and electric instruments has fallen. “I think the guitar market was built up into a bubble at a pace that was unsustainable,” he said. “It’s leveled off to something that reflects more normalcy. Factories that were designed to produce 100,000 instruments a year may now find that their demand has dropped to 75,000, and that’s a problem because now you have higher overhead.”

Not so fast says Andy Mooney, CEO of Fender Instruments:

Sales of fretted instruments are in great shape and Fender’s electric guitar and amp revenues have been steadily rising for several years,” he said…“electric sales are holding steady, acoustic sales are on the rise, and ukelele sales are exploding.”

MY GOD!! EXPLODING UKELELE SALES! Take that George Gruhn, guy who probably slaps a Trucoat® finish on the instruments you sell. Maybe it’s my mistake for taking these guys seriously. They are being ironic? sarcastic? with all of these articles saying “WE NEED A NEW GUITAR HERO”. What they really mean is “HOLY SHIT WE ARE SO FUCKED!” Because if manufacturers have been cranking guitars out at that volume for years, and you factor in all of the used electric instruments from the 50s through today currently available, PLUS all of the instruments Baby Boomers are dumping (and want to dump) on the market, at what point does every American family need to have 12 kids just to give every electric guitar a home? I don’t think Eric Clapton can fix this! Through the years I think I had 22 string instruments and I only ever bought 4 brand new ones and I started buying in the 70s. Since I have known a lot of guitar players over the years I can say with confidence that my experience isn’t unique. So, in addition to financial mismanagement, a completely over-saturated market (which I alluded to in the original piece) is also a component to this tragedy.

Another interesting aspect to this Los Angeles Times article that wants to address “changing tastes” is the very predictable notion that the solution to too big to fail is…more too big to fail. There’s a three-step progression at work here that’s pretty insidious, unless you find it hilarious; the two emotions are not necessary mutually exclusive. The first step are the sellers with the Muh Generation bullshit. The second step is that this generation can’t do it on it’s own and this is articulated by one Louie Concotilli, owner of Mugzey Music:

The bigger problem, according to Concotelli, is that most aspiring players don’t want to put in the time to become proficient on the instrument…“If they do want to learn they’ll just go to YouTube, but they’re not getting the proper instruction,” he said. “…kids these days, it’s all about instant gratification. No one wants to take six months or a year to learn. They don’t want to do the work.”

Who else is sick of these friggin’ kids at this point? Bunch of lame-bodies for sure. Not only does this generation (unlike prior generations) need guidance and help learning, but they also need A BIG FRIGGIN KICK UP THE ASS SO THEY DO THE WORK! So here we reach the third step. A solution in the form of a chain, courtesy of Corporate America:

One of the brighter spots in the industry these days can be found in School of Rock, a Canton, Massachusetts-based chain of 207 music schools which span 10 countries worldwide. Elliot Baldini, the company’s senior vice president of marketing, said the schools are designed to draw students in by giving them more of what they actually want to learn.

Right…because a chain of 207 music schools is how all of those Baby Boomers, including Eric Clapton, learned how to play. Because no one learns on YouTube, where a search for “Guitar Lessons” pulls up 14 million results and where some instructors (including some I list on this blog) have upwards of a half-million subscribers. Because on YouTube you can’t ever find that song that you actually want to learn, even though it’s designed to be user-driven. Because you need a chain of two-hundred+ schools to teach people music and that’s a bright spot in the industry. I believe that the guy mostly responsible for guitar sales in the Golden Age (the 80s) was Van Halen, not Eric Clapton, although curiously Edward is never mentioned as a driver of guitar sales in these articles. When he and his band came on the scene in 1978 he was playing a piece of crap guitar with one pickup and one knob that he built himself. The industry responded by building and selling a whole bunch of guitars patterned on his design. “The industry,” even when it tries to sell the idea that it “leads,” usually “responds”. Maybe they could respond by doing something else Edward Van Halen did. He donated a whole bunch of his guitars to low-income schools so young people who might not have the finances or exposure in their home have a chance at learning how to play the instrument. If every school in America had some guitars in it that would certainly get rid of a whole lot of inventory, wouldn’t it? That would also get rid of the problem of “nobody” playing guitar. Don’t I have great ideas? They should give me a cabinet position in Washington!

All kidding aside — and that was a lot of kidding you just read through (whew!) — I’m not disputing the charge that fewer guitars have been sold in the past ten years (to 2008), but I don’t think you can directly relate that to whether less people play guitar, especially world-wide. It would be really interesting to see industry sales stats going back to the 1950s when rock n’ roll exploded! I’m not the only person who is cognizant of the fact that instrument sales probably were not a straight-line increase from the time the Les Paul came on the market until 2008 when sales (at least as far as the data we can see) started slipping. If you’ve been around long enough you certainly remember companies and guitar models from back in the day that have no sales stats today because they haven’t existed for a long time. Who buys a Mouse Amp these days? Do you remember the Aria Pro II? That company still exists! See, how bad can things really be then? I believe there have been these peaks and valleys throughout the past half-century, and would be very surprised if there were not some very slow sales in the late 70s and late 90s too. It’s the nature of the world we live in that there are cycles and changes. There have always been people who have tried to make people aware of these facts and what the future might portend and a few of these people were quite famous, including The Geico Caveman…no seriously…David Bowie.

Around the 1:45 mark he talks about brands and subgroups and genres and how the music business has fractured from where it was in the 60s and 70s when definite BIG artists and one or two different ways of doing things were the rule. In the 70s if someone wanted to play music there were limited options compared to now. Of course the business behind those limited options was HUGE because everyone had just those choices, but a whole lot of people wanted to be in the business. Obviously a whole lot of people still want to be in the music and entertainment business, but today there are many more ways to go about that. Saying Eric Clapton over and over again is not going to solve any of the current problems and may in fact be part of the reason these problems arose in the first place. Remember…there were plenty of people who worked at record companies in the 1990s saying “Ho ho ho FILE SHARING is nothing to worry about!” But those people don’t exist anymore. Gene Simmons killed them. So you see…adapting is very important.

The fact is, there are guitar heroes out there who aren’t household names like Clapton or Van Halen, yet they influence people through the magic of their talent, presence and music. Gypsy Jazz players I have written about on this blog, Stochelo Rosenberg and Stephane Wrembel, to name just two, are the reason I bought a new guitar a few years ago. Just have a look at all of these other people and their guitars that they had to buy from somebody because it’s pretty hard to make a Selmer-Maccaferri type guitar on your own. (Although some can people do it). Gypsy Jazz wasn’t even really a genre of music until the 1990s and now people spend some serious coin on guitars and all manner of peripheral equipment so they can go out and get their swing on. I mention this genre because I know something about it. There are many other genres and sub-genres out there (just like Bowie said there would be) that I know nothing about because I’m old or haven’t been exposed to them. The Gypsy Jazzers are not going to get Guitar Center out of trouble, and neither will the players in these other smaller genres, but they certainly make it possible for other individuals and companies to have a business and make a living. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it has always been! God Bless America! It’s not all about the numbers! It should be about the quality and creative solutions, because they are out there. If I can think of a few, you know there are plenty more. If not, there is always 2112!

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The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!

Django a Go Go 2017

This was an evening to remember! As I mentioned last month, I was psyched for this concert and I can say now that I had a fantastic time at Django a Go Go and saw some GREAT live Gypsy Jazz in one of the best venues in the world (Carnegie Hall)! It seems the accompanying bandcamp and smaller concerts out in Maplewood, New Jersey were also well-attended and a roaring success. While talking about it from the stage, organizer Stephane Wrembel described the whole idea as “CRAZY”, but it worked out beautifully. Stephane has been playing/promoting these concerts since 2004 so he is definitely adept at pulling all of the necessary elements together and had all of the right kind of help. Gypsy Jazz is more popular than ever in New York City!

dgg5

My girlfriend and I arrived at Carnegie Hall, had a nice glass of wine, checked out some of the history in the place at the museum and then made our way to our seats at about 7:30. Together we have seen some great shows at all of the big venues in New York over the years, but neither of us had ever been to Carnegie Hall. What a great place. So much history and a part of a very different time, yet it remains so functional in the modern era. The view from our seats was awesome — completely unobstructed, which is just what I was going for. While I’ve seen people say that the show was sold out, that isn’t completely true. Our area of the balcony was not, which was GREAT! We could really stretch out and enjoy the show and the others who were around us were cool and likewise had plenty of room. I knew the sound would be amazing. It’s Carnegie Hall! While the above pic might make it seem like the 2nd balcony is too far away, it really wasn’t. As I have mentioned on this blog in the past: it was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 version of Night and Day, this video of Stochelo Rosenberg and seeing Stephane Wrembel live that inspired me to learn Gypsy Jazz. I’ve seen Stephane in many incarnations over the years, but have never seen Stochelo. I have also never seen Al Di Meola live and so this was what I was psyched for going into the concert.

Stephane started the show to great cheers from the hometown crowd and after acknowledging the importance of the night and his thanks to the fans, began the show solo with his sublime version of Django’s Improvisation #1. His band joined him on the next tune, the very kinetic original number, Prometheus. As always, Stephane’s playing was brilliant and his band was great. They totally nailed the tunes and then provided great backup for everything else over the course of the evening. Nick Driscoll joined in on saxophone for a great Coltrane-type version of Django’s Troublant Bolero. Totally cool. There was some singing from David Gastine who did a Jean Sablon tune and then related that his dream had always been to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads at Carnegie Hall. Hmm. Not what one would expect at this show, but he nailed it, had people singing along (including us for a chorus [blame the wine]) and got a big ovation for a job well done. Stephane also played Bistro Fada, his very well-known theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris movie. Then they were joined by guitarist Larry Keel who played some serious Doc Watson country style guitar. The show reminded me of an old-time variety show or maybe Prairie Home Companion. Stephane explained that this has always been the theme behind this concert; bring many divergent styles and musicians together and make it happen!

Then it was time for Stochelo Rosenberg and he did not disappoint. He was CHARGED! He explained before starting that he hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall since 1993 when he was invited by the great Stephane Grappelli. Twenty-four years later he returned thanks to another Stephane and completely burned through his original, modern Gypsy Jazz classic, For Sephora. To see and hear him play this song live was an incredible experience. Everything I wrote about in this post regarding Stochelo’s incredible technique; his strength, touch, tone, and articulation was on full display. Even the other musicians onstage were just shaking their heads as he blazed through 4 choruses of the tune. It was brilliant! It was awesome! They followed up with a Django-era classic, Coquette that also sounded great! I could see everything Stochelo was doing and he was very animated and having a good time, which is a bit unusual for him. Usually he lets his hands do all the moving. Al Di Meola came out next and related that he too had played the hall 42 years ago with Chick Corea and also hadn’t been back since. He launched into a very dramatic classically-inspired solo piece that went through many movements before coming to a big climactic ending and then the ensemble finished with a blazing version of Indifference. During this tune, Stochelo, Al, and Stephane did all kinds of tag-team soloing and comping that was a prelude of the great things that awaited us in the second set. It was a pretty amazing first set and the show had already run more than an hour and a half. And it only got better!

After a short intermission, Stephane, Stochelo, and Al came out alone and Stephane related before they began how influential the Friday Night in San Francisco recording of Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin from 1981 was to him and to many guitarists he knew. (It was to me too). I was expecting they might do this and as soon as I saw the three of them come out I knew they would! They launched into Mediterranean Sundance and it was EPIC! No, really, it was so good they all hugged at the end of the 12-15 minutes worth of awesome playing. I am not even going to describe how epic it was, but the playing from all three was magnificent! They followed it immediately with a great version of Chick Corea’s Spain joined by Keel and bass player Ari Folman-Cohen. Crazy good. For me everything that had happened between when Stochelo appeared and the end of Spain alone was worth the price of admission. But there was more! A great swinging version of Django-era Georgia on My Mind, with Stochelo playing all of Django’s brilliant lines and chordal fills and It Don’t Mean a Thing with sublime Freddy Taylor-type vocals on both by Ryan Montbleau. Then there was a great guitar hero version of Nuages (with a solo intro by Stochelo to open) that also featured some more great sax from Nick Driscoll. Finally, there was the big rave-up at the end with the Gypsy Jazz anthem, Minor Swing that included the great Paulus Shafer and Stephane’s student, Sara L’Abriola, that succeeded in bringing down the house!

The week after the concert I saw this page of the program (didn’t look at it the night of) and this review from Downbeat and both show a program I totally don’t remember in spots, but I think I’m remembering correctly. I know that Coquette was played because Stephane briefly introduced it as a song Django wrote (which he didn’t) and that had Stochelo shaking his head no (because he didn’t) while if they had played Djangology, that would have been true, since that is a Django Reinhardt composition. Minor Blues was definitely not played and neither was Dark Eyes and if Double Jeu was played it was worked in as a part of Indifference because I know Double Jeu from that awesome Romane/Stochelo Rosenberg DVD that I have raved about on this blog a number of times. Anyhow, I’m sure there had to be some alterations and spontaneity and that is what jazz is all about!

Finally, as I wrote here, I lost my mother almost a year ago to the day of this concert. She was always my Number 1 musical supporter and over the years I was able to take her to many different cultural events in NYC, which she always enjoyed. We never saw anything at Carnegie Hall though, but I like to think she was with me for this great night of music. My girlfriend lost her father about six months ago. He lived to the ripe old age of 94 and while that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself, the fact that he was stationed on Iwo Jima with the Japanese army when he was but a lad of 22 makes it all the more amazing. He was wounded in an air raid and was evacuated from the island before the final American assault. One of the bullets that struck him remained in his leg for his entire life. He passed away just after I bought tickets for Django a Go Go and bequeathed the field glasses from the his army days to his daughter to use for the concert. We were able to get up close and personal to some of the action on stage and that was great! After all of these years, and so many miles, they still work and he would’ve appreciated that they were put to such good use. Swords into plowshares and all of that. I felt very fortunate to have been a part of this evening with so much great music and great playing by all of the musicians. Of course, it was a monumental night on a personal level for me to see Stochelo! I am also glad that Stephane took it all on and set up such a great program of events and hope to see more in the future!

Eastern-Flavored Music

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The Beatles, Stephane Wrembel and Ali Akbar Khan

During the past few weeks I have listened to three albums constantly: Revolver by The Beatles, Barbes by Stephane Wrembel, and Journey by Ali Akbar Khan. There is a common thread running through all three discs and that is Indian/Eastern music. I’m a fan of different types of music from the Middle and Far East though I really can’t say my knowledge of the subject is very extensive. There are many different instruments and types of music involved and I favor the more traditional/instrumental. I have heard a lot of Asian pop music and some of it is pretty good, but I find that the instrumentation and the arrangements better and more sophisticated in traditional/classical music.

revolverLike many people, I came to “know” (I use the term “know” very loosely and in it’s most superficial sense), Indian music through bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Beatle George Harrison studied sitar with the late Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar and became one of Indian music’s most vocal proponents. Norwegian Wood, which was written by John Lennon, was the first Beatle song to use the sitar and was basically a western song that employed the sitar for musical effect (the same can be said for The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black). There is some great background at The Beatles Bible (A great site!) on the London scene at the time of recording Rubber Soul and Norwegian Wood. (As I have written on the blog before) Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds were also early pioneers of Eastern-inspired pop music. The original take of Heart Full of Soul actually had a sitar on it! The Davies brothers from The Kinks were also recording music with Eastern sensibilities (See My Friends) at the time. In the States, The Byrds 1965 hit Eight Miles High had a sitar-flavored Rickenbacker guitar sound playing John Coltrane-esque lines, which was pretty far out and groovy for pop music. As the 60s progressed “that Eastern sound” would become synonymous with being stoned and/or altered states of consciousness, much to the displeasure of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Unfortunately, the sound and influence of the music became so popular that it would invade even the most trivial and superficial places by the end of the decade.

When the Beatles’ follow-up album to Rubber Soul, Revolver, was released, it contained the Harrison composition Love You To, which was the first attempt to go “further into the style”. This tune would be a template for later Harrison songs like Within You, Without You and The Inner Light: they are all attempts to play bona-fide Indian music, albeit in a western pop music format. Musically though, I think Love You To is one of George’s best songs ever. Great arrangement and performance and he stays within the confines of the pop style. Other songs from Revolver that are very Eastern, but don’t contain any Eastern instruments, are the fantastic John Lennon compositions Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said, She Said. The former, a drone chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a cool, repetitive Ringo beat with loads of sounds and tape effects, broke a whole lot of rules for pop music and the guitar lines from the latter echo the Eastern-influenced mixolydian lines and quarter to half step bent-notes that one could also hear from Jeff Beck (Shapes of Things, Heart Full of Soul) and Jimi Hendrix (Love or Confusion, Purple Haze) during this time. As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, these Indo/Eastern influences became less of a thing in pop music, but started appearing in the jazz, fusion and progressive rock music of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Shatki and many more.

In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes. Recorded when his group was a trio (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion) the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. I have always dug this disc! Brilliant playing and my favorite of everything he has done. (To see his band live during this time was also a great experience as the clip above proves). Not only are the originals on Barbes fresh and inspiring, the band also covers Django Reinhardt‘s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie‘s Night in Tunisia and John Coltrane‘s Afro Blue. The group takes some of these tunes at breakneck tempos and the performances are a dizzying array of chops and melodic invention. Also, the ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions) are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; world music ragas perhaps?

A Raga is: in the classical music of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. A raga is based on a scale with a given set of notes, a typical order in which they appear in melodies, and characteristic musical motifs.

Manouche music or Gypsy Jazz has strong Indian roots because it is generally agreed that the group of people known as “Gypsies” originated on the Indian subcontinent and first migrated into Europe in the 12th century. There are various sub-categories of these Romani people: Manouche in France, and the Sinti of Central Europe. Sinti/Manouche guitar playing sounds very similar to not only Indian classical music, but some of the progressive rock and jazz of the 1970s. One huge connection is that IMPROVISATION is everything in Indian music, likewise for Manouche music or a lot of 70s rock/jazz as well. A Manouche player must have a very disciplined mind and an aural technique that includes whole tone scales, diminished and augmented arpeggios, altered scales and arpeggios and an emphasis on the “Django-favored” sixths and ninths of the harmony chords. Modern players like Stephane Wrembel have added depth to the sonic palette of the music by combining it with other influences and adding their own touches of musical imagination. There are rhythmic devices and picking patterns found in Indian music that one does not normally hear in a lot of western jazz or classical music and Stephane explores the picking and rhythmic subdivision topics in his book, Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar, which I review here. He advises picking quarter notes up through nontuplets (subdividing by 9 to the beat) with the metronome as warm-up exercises. He explains that, “musicians in India have their own efficient approach to time consisting of singing rhythms using certain syllables. A similar approach may be applied to right-hand technique which will allow for warm-up…” This is a very good way to improve your picking technique and I can say I did it religiously for about six months. In addition to giving my a bunch of listening pleasure, Getting Into… and Barbes are windows into another world and their influence definitely helped make me a better guitar player. Here are some further insights into the nature of Indian rhythm, courtesy of Ravi Shankar.

“…Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. “There are thousands of ragas,” Shankar explains, “and they are all connected with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean.”

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Ali Akbar Khan “was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod.” Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. Over the years Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar would perform many times together, including at The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and were easily two of the most prominent Indian musicians in the western world. After moving to the USA in the late 50s Khan would found a couple of schools, one in California and one in Switzerland and would spend the next 40 years touring and performing until his health failed in the late 2000s.

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I’ve been listening to Journey for the past 10 years and find it very enjoyable. As I related earlier, I’ve always liked the sound of Indian music, especially if it’s instrumental. Eastern philosophy doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize like Western thinking and Eastern music doesn’t separate Eastern Mystical concepts (that were the lyrics of western songs like The Inner Light or Within You, Without You) from the music. Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. I don’t meditate (perhaps I should?), but the sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like mid-60s George Harrison song and the other ballad-type tracks have the pacing and deliberate delivery that one can hear on some of the tracks of Barbes. There is a whole lot of crossover between these three discs is what I’m trying to say! Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by Guitars(!), Tabla, Shakers, Tanpura, Keyboards, Duggi and Dholak. All of the music was composed by Ali Akbar Khan and was recorded in 1990, giving the disc a classic, but very modern sound.

khan2I also own this disc, Traditional Music of India, which is four really long ragas. Very cool, long jams that have none of the more modern arrangements or instrumentation found on Journey, but still a very enjoyable listen. This is the kind of traditional music that one must be a master to play and would probably be impossible for most western musicians or anyone else not raised in the school. It’s amazing that no matter the musical style, or background of the artist, the performance of classic music such as this is basically approached the same way and requires the same skills. The pace and flow of these very traditional ragas remind me of some of the guitar pieces on the Bream and Williams disc I review in the right column, or a Django Reinhardt solo improvisation or Jimmy Page playing White Summer. (Incidentally…sometimes it helps to approximate an “Indian” sound/tuning by using alternate tunings, which I explore here.) Music from the Asian continent has given western listeners and players a very expanded sense of what music (and life) is and I believe any musician can only gain from listening to and experiencing music such as this. There is a nice quote on the cover of Journey that I relate to and maybe other musicians will find it interesting as well:

Music is something I learned all my life and am still learning. Earlier in my boyhood days, I learned naturally—as children learn a language, without deeper understanding of what it can really offer. I kept on learning and playing with rapt attention — with a sense of dedication — but not the deep inner feeling which finally came at the ripe age of fifty! Now when I play, my heart is filled with blissful joy that I can hardly express! I feel a sense of ultimate fulfillment that nothing else in the world can offer me anymore. Indeed, music is a very spiritual experience for me — only through music, I feel I can reach closer to God…”

— Ali Akbar Khan

Not To Touch the Earth

Taking The Doors music one step further (remember, this all started with Johnny Ramone or wait, was it Jimmy Page?) let’s talk about Robby Krieger. He’s never been thought of as one of the powerhouses of electric guitar (he’s rated #76 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Guitarists list). Yet, he was/is quite the capable guy and unlike most of his peers from that period, or ever, played fingerstyle instead of using a pick, or plectrum if you will. Originally trained on flamenco guitar, he moved on to learning bottleneck, folk, rock and even a bit of jazz, with Wes Montgomery and Larry Carlton named as big influences. In the process he helped The Doors become one of the most popular bands in America and to this day they are considered one of the best American bands ever. Though he wasn’t a virtuoso he played many an interesting guitar part and wrote music that had a huge impact on the popular musical landscape (his song Light My Fire has been covered 974,322 times or something). The LMF solo is a great example of a guitar in the DORIAN mode although that’s only 1 way to imagine it. I wonder what Robbie was thinking. It has a very 60s sound (in a good way). Obviously the above clip of Spanish Caravan, which incorporates musical ideas from Asturias (Leyenda), written by Isaac Albéniz, highlights Robbie’s flamenco abilities and when combined with Jim Morrison’s lyrics and the band’s penchant for drama, a very exotically beautiful song emerges. Below is a classical interpretation of Asturias (Leyenda). (Sharon Isben is pretty impressive, isn’t she?)

I think of Robbie and The Doors as playing primarily textured music with an ever present theatrical edge and very jazzy tinge. Since Ray Manzarek functioned as a keys/organ/piano/bassist instead of the standard bass player this was (and is) evocative of Wes Montgomery and others from the jazz age with a guitar/organ/drum lineup. Musically anyway. None of those trios had Jim Morrison for a singer, but the interesting thing is, Jim was a crooner (ala Frank Sinatra) so maybe The Doors were the second best (after various Miles’s lineups) jazz band of the 60s? (haha) I’m not seriously suggesting that any more than I was serious that Led Zeppelin was the best jazz band of the 70s, but obviously The Doors, along with Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers (and The Dead) did a whole lot of listening to and a whole lot of incorporating of various jazz elements into their ostensibly ROCK sound. The Doors sound was cold and weird and sometimes (when the organ was the dominant riff of the song) they evoked the nightmarish possibilities of a Clive Barker/Stephen King horror psychotic carnival band. Having an eye for theatrical presentation (Jim Morrison was a film student and heavily influenced by The Living Theatre) helped turn many of the band’s performances from the earliest days into a very strange trip on the dark road at the end of the night. But even without those elements, when the band sat for televised, no-audience sessions (because their performances had become a little too extreme, at least in the eyes of the authorities) they constructed a uniquely dynamic sound with what was already an established type of band line-up. The line-up is still popular in jazz and is especially suited to more intimate surroundings as shown in the following clip.

A few years ago I explored the history of one song, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise and tried to illustrate its evolution as “name” players performed it over a span of almost 60 years. I thought it would interesting to do the same thing with one of the prettiest (if slightly insane) songs The Doors ever recorded, The Crystal Ship, which was one of the songs the band mimed on American Bandstand, the America’s Got Talent of yesteryear.

Obviously a HUGE part of the band’s appeal was Jim Morrison’s presence vocal delivery. Keep in mind this clip is 47 years old — this isn’t some shoegaze band from the early 90s. The Doors put out a whole lot of emotion and feeling in this song and no one has ever completely matched their brand of seductive danger and weirdness. How might one try to capture some of that feeling in a solo guitar piece? Well…this first example recalls Robby Krieger’s flamenco influences or, possibly one can almost hear some José Feliciano or Django Reinhardt in it, something like Django’s song Tears perhaps.

The point is not to focus so much on the playing, although I think it is very well done. While it is not as fiery nor does it have the virtuosity of most of Django’s work, the song (like the harmonic structure in Tears) is very satisfying to play and listen to and more or less arranges itself. A very accessible structure, a haunting melody, supported by various harmonic elements that are reminiscent of either Morrison’s voice or Manzarek’s keyboard and variations throughout that can be improvised or not depending on the mood of the player. It doesn’t have to be played the same way every time. Yet the tone of the guitar and some of the harmonic inventions make this much more than a verbatim cover. Here is another version done a bit more simply, but just as well in a more traditional fingerpicking type of way. Notice that this player’s interpretation doesn’t take as many liberties but throws in a couple of nice moves. I love the Fmaj9-Fmaj thing. Artistic license but done in a way that completely fits with the arrangement he has put together. Very cool. Also note that none of these players are famous, but that is the beauty of Youtube and world-wide connectivity.

If you would like to learn to play either of these arrangements, both players have been kind enough to either put the music as is the case with the first version here, or a part by part walk-through for the second starting here. Finally, here is a third version that is a very stylin’ jazz archtop thing. Notice the rhythm change and all of the melodic and harmonic inventiveness not found in the other versions. Great stuff! But also notice it is no longer very haunting — the song has lost all of its quiet insanity. The tune is peppy and has the same bounce as Girl From Ipanema maybe. But, as with the other performances, it IS the same tune and the limit of where it’s going depends only on the arrangement and the player.

I have been listening to more music from the 60s and 70s lately (hence the recent posts), but as you can see, I am interested in how people today interpreting this music. I have been messing around with my own interpretations of various things and there is something about music from this period that lends itself to this type of experimentation. Perhaps the same could be said for any period of music, but there was so much experimentation and blurring of styles during this era that sometimes the songs just naturally fall into whatever mood you want to make them. Try it for yourself…You might find that thinking like an arranger and arranging your own versions of material can make you a better all-around musician in the process.

Jimmy Page and Improvisation

It occurred to me the other night that Led Zeppelin was, at the height of their career, the world’s best JAZZ band! Of course the concept began began with, and revolved around, Jimmy Page. Onstage he was the lead soloist of a combo that would sometimes do 30-minute versions of Zeppelin studio material/cover songs. In the studio, whether as a guitarist or producer, he constructed Zep’s body of work with the precision and care of Mozart or Wagner, layering instruments and tracks into sonic artworks of beauty, power, mystique and awesomeness. Everybody knows all that already, but approaching it from the angle that they weren’t really a rock band means you might hear something different the next time you encounter a Zeppelin tune. I’ve been listening to them since the 1970s and believe it or not, this happened to me recently. So let’s have a go! (as they say in the (UK)

As the Yardbirds were dissolving in 1968, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant came up with a strategy for the group that would become Led Zeppelin based on what they had seen in the USA on the Yardbirds’ final tour – music that was outside the milieu of the radio-friendly singles market. Both Grant and Page thought that the group that would be Zeppelin could take on American heavies like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly and do way better with the same formula. Interestingly enough, as related in Hammer of the Gods, Page had been considering a group in the Pentangle mode, because of his love and respect for artists like Bert Jansch, in particular, and acoustic music in general. Page is quoted as saying, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.” However, once Page heard and saw John Bonham play he quickly scotched the acoustic idea (at least full-time) and heard everything Zeppelin would become. From the beginning, Zeppelin focused on albums in the studio and explored a wide range of improvisations live. Many of these improvs were blues-based but because of Page’s wide range of influences and the outstanding abilities of Jones and Bonham, the music careened into many different directions with dynamics, including acoustic-based music, that would eventually be known as Zeppelin’s Light and Shade. Robert Plant would also help take the band into interesting directions as he became a more confident frontman and writer. As the group was in the process of launching their career, the world’s first supergroup, Cream, was calling it quits. Not only was Cream lauded by fans in the same way that Zeppelin would be soon (for their ability to just play), they were also taken to task by critics for their “excesses”, which would become a major point of attack by critics against Page and Zeppelin as the 60s gave way to the 70s.

Led Zeppelin has never said their approach had more to do with jazz than pop music, which was still the only alternative at the time. CLASSIC ROCK didn’t exist and even though The Beatles had been successful releasing a 7 minute single (Hey Jude), they were The Beatles and had earned the right to do that. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that music be produced in the conventional format and many bands like The Yardbirds and Cream, were constantly pressured by management that valued hit singles over a sound or a good album that would’ve sold in the newly emerging markets. Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about this because their manager, Peter Grant, never pressured the band for music and took anyone who did to task. He was savvy enough to see where the money was in the coming decade and left Jimmy and company alone to do what they wanted. While there are some to this day who view Grant as a gangster and bully because of his tactics, he was the first manager who ensured that the artists he represented got a huge percentage of the credit and compensation for their music and performances. Page insisted on complete creative control as a bargaining chip for Zeppelin’s record deal and Grant made sure he got it. He was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin and was a major factor in their success and has been recognized as a major game-changer in the history of popular music. With his help the band racked up album and concert sales that blew away everyone’s expectations. Not only was the writing and playing good enough to swing multiple generations of fans into Led Zeppelin’s corner, the band took their improvisation ethic to new heights and their live shows became an ever-changing exercise in a variation on a theme. This isn’t what most people think of when JAZZ is discussed, and heavy rockers and serious jazz artists would be equally offended by the term, but the basic drive and aspirations of Miles Davis and Jimmy Page or any of a number of ALT artists, which Zeppelin definitely were at the time, are primarily the same. It matters little what ends up on the disc. So much of that genre classification is all about selling units to consumers. A Led Zeppelin concert from the early days always had “songs”, but the highlights of the show were long improvised workouts on certain studio recordings — How Many More Times, Dazed and Confused, Trampled Underfoot, No Quarter, Whole Lotta Love,Moby Dick and whatever Jimmy picked as his “solo” spot (White Summer/Black Mountainside). As time went on the band was able to create long pieces that didn’t contain the same amount of improvisation but were arranged and conceptualized extended pieces of art: Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same/The Rain Song, Kashmir, Ten Years Gone, In My Time of Dying, Achilles Last Stand. None of this stuff is really ROCK music even if it sounds like ROCK music. It’s played with rock instruments and played at high volumes but the combination of instrumental prowess and artistic vision in the writing and live interplay produced something more than what most bands, even of that era, were capable of. It really does compare favorably to the best jazz and how the best jazz bands functioned without sacrificing any of the heaviness or youth signals (lyrics, stage theater, drama) that fans responded to.

LZ_1Before I started playing jazz music I always thought the version of Dazed and Confused (from The Song Remains the Same movie) was a bit too long and went through one too many “movements”. If it had been up to me, I thought there were two that could have been cut without losing anything from the performance (and this still might be true…improvisers are always in the process of editing and perfection is completely relative). Watching it recently, I thought the band’s performance was and is completely phenomenal. I’ve never liked the “fantasy” sequences in this movie because the band’s ability to take an audience through a half hour of music, power, drama and performance is totally cool and would certainly have been enough even in 1976. Is some of the drama silly? Of course, but the band didn’t take themselves as seriously as everyone else did and the limits of what could be done in a live performance were still expanding. Throughout the song Jimmy Page employs power chord thud, blues and country fills, dramatic wah-wah arpeggios and harmonics, slashing funk chords, avant-garde bowing and noise ripples and plenty of ripping riffs and zipping lines. When he was at his best Jimmy, like all of the great guitar improvisers, was a great synthesizer of all his influences and whatever was floating in his imagination at the time. By 1973 not only was the band firing on all cylinders live, their confidence level was completely off the charts. There is also maturity seen (and heard) in these shows that doesn’t exist in the early days and there is none of the dissipation and exhaustion that creeps into the band by later in the decade.

In 1973 Dazed and Confused was still a major centerpiece of Zeppelin shows. Typically, it occupied the 10th slot of the set, preceding Stairway to Heaven. In 1997 artist and Led Zeppelin bootleg expert extraordinaire Luis Rey analyzed Dazed and Confused in his book Led Zeppelin Live: An Illustrated Exploration of Underground Tapes. He split the song (1975 live version, which ran even longer than 1973) into 12 basic sections as a means of identifying the changing parts and progression of the piece. You can check the Wiki link for the actual sections and I think they’re pretty close in general to this version, at least the overall substance. Obviously some of this was rehearsed prior to the tour and Zeppelin played the set they rehearsed pretty much at all shows on a tour with only the encores varying from show to show. BUT…as was said at the time and what is obvious if you listen to enough copies of shows from their tour, within the general framework, there was plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity, especially as far as Page is concerned and he certainly took advantage of that freedom.

Dazed and Confused was originally “picked up” by The Yardbirds after seeing Jake Holmes perform it in New York City when he opened for the band in summer of 1967. The title, bassline and general vibe of the song were lifted intact, but the lyrics were rewritten and even before Led Zeppelin came into fruition it served as an instrumental vehicle for all of Page’s guitar wizardry. (In 2010 Holmes filed a copyright infringement suit and is credited with inspiration and no doubt got a bunch of cash as the writing credit remains with Page). Zeppelin started playing Dazed at its first rehearsal and did a brisk 6+ minute version on their first album. But the song was in a constant state of evolution and serves as a very good barometer of how the bad grew over five years. As the song begins the confidence level I was talking about is evident in the dramatic intro and sung verses. Nothing is rushed and Bonham’s drum punctuations keep the song from being a dirge. Notice how Page varies the main riff every time he plays it, either with different phrasing, bends or playing the harmony notes of Jones’ bass riff at one point. At about the 4 minute mark the band is off!! and the camera starts to focus on Bonham and then Jones and Bonham as they follow and react to what Jimmy is doing. Along with all of his many other talents, John Bonham was easily one of the most reactive drummers that ever rock and rolled and Jones is also amazing. The fact that all of his brilliant lines are finger-picked also adds a layer of fluidity and depth to the song. Notice how Jimmy breaks his first set of riffing with some funky slash chords, setting up his next high-register solo. That’s improvised composition in action. As the song comes to it’s first breakdown the camera catches Bonham and Jones trying to puzzle out where Jimmy is going (5:38). Even though the band has been playing this song for 5 years at this point, but there is obviously no formula employed here. It’s called spontaneity and there was never a band as heavy as Zeppelin who pulled off this type of spontaneity so well. I love the interaction between Jones and Bonham at the 6 minute mark — it shows the essence of what I’m talking about so well. As guitar players we are usually told to “sing” our lines to make better improvisation. Notice how Bonham seems to sometimes “sing” his hits (6:19-6:25). You can hear snatches of the 3-years in the future riff for Achilles Last Stand in the arpeggios that set up the “San Francisco” bit. Excellent casual flamenco-esque strumming by Page on the “San Francisco” bits before bringing the wah-wah to lead to another heavy crescendo. Up and down the band goes, bringing everyone in Madison Square Garden with them. Isn’t this exciting? Robert Plant’s various vocalizations (scatting) have the same dynamic spontaneity throughout the song. He knows when to sing and then drop out and let the band play again. The “I Knows” that he brings in to accentuate the heavy part that comes in around 7:50 don’t mean anything and he isn’t really singing. His voice is just another instrument in the mix that adds another layer of excitement as the final bit of CRUSH and the segue before the song devolves into complete and total weirdness (and I mean that in a good way). Same with the “Aahs” and “Oohs” as the bass and drums are dropping out. The band leaves as Jimmy takes over on bow at about 9:00. So far the song has been paced beautifully highlighting the band’s talents for improvisation and live drama. Ethereal swoops and echo feedback replace the power of the band and it becomes a completely sonic “event”. The “song” has been left far behind. At 10:20 the Tolkien theater or Mars the Bringer of War (whichever you prefer) is in full effect with bow smacks on an echo-driven guitar with accompany send-outs to the audience. While I’m sure this was the inspiration behind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel” violin solo“, it doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as it was made out to be. Sure, it’s not a 4 minute rock song, but John Cage and others outside the mainstream were doing stuff like this for years and Led Zeppelin’s fans, while maybe not classical music aficionados, ate it up. You don’t hear anyone screaming or heckling or any audience noise at all until Page does the dramatic slaps… and there is much rejoicing!! As Page continues bowing [the fantasy takes over and] Plant joins him with vocal accents as they fill the Garden with horror movie sounds that I’m sure were pretty awesome to an audience looking for a trip to another world (and under the influence of whatever they could get their hands on before the concert). See the internet and smart phones didn’t exist then kids. The rest of the band joins in with ambient noise effects before they return with the crunch and the blast at around the 16 minute mark. Once again the segue, helped by those little touches of Jones’ and Bonhams’ ambiance and impeccable timing, is perfect. There is another shot of John Bonham as the song kicks into the familiar riff that leads into the guitar/vocal interplay between Plant and Page. Bonham looks like such a serious (and sober) drummer on this performance doesn’t he? Very attentive to what Page and Jones are doing. A whole bunch of awesome, rapid-fire Page soloing follows on the same rhythm gallop. Back in the 70s this is what earned Page universal acclaim as the best guitarist of the era and it’s pretty impressive even today. The song breaks down into a funky rhythm that employs a prominent Hendrix-y 9th chord as it’s anchor. Jimmy has been playing guitar for almost twenty continuous minutes and has yet to repeat himself. Another dramatic major, happy sounding break leads into a different interaction with Plant (along with a bit more theater that totally pleases the audience). And once again Page is off with an Over, Under, Sideways Down-style riff and Jones and Bonham follow him until the song breaks again for another interaction with Plant in a higher register. The scene with the longhair is puzzling and says to me “we don’t have the film of that part of the performance.” Why that bit is chosen or what it’s supposed to represent I’ve never been able to puzzle out. At about 23 minutes the song breaks down again and goes into something that sounds vaguely like Black Sabbath before climaxing into chaotic noise and spiraling to earth and the final familiar strains of Dazed and Confused as you know it from the record are heard again. On the familiar outro figure Page once again takes off with screaming obbligatos and fleet-fingered wah chording and Jones and Bonham turn the rhythmic vibe into something that gets them smiling at each other (26:35-26:50) before a final burst of feedback and Plant’s echoes signal the ending chord slam and Bonham drum thrashing that finishes the song. While there was probably some post-production employed to really tighten the song up, other versions from the tour are extremely close and sound almost as good. Silly or dated as this might seem to some there is literally no one else in the history of rock who pulled this off as well, then or now.

LZ_3Given the nature of the above song and performance, Led Zeppelin has a lot in common with other “jamming” bands like The Grateful Dead, Cream and The Allman Brothers, much more than most “headbangers” would give them credit for. It’s interesting that many of the heavy bands that Zeppelin influenced picked up on the heaviness and the occasional acoustic ballad, but were not adept at either live improvisation or long orchestral-like pieces of music. All of that more or less faded out with the 70s. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and everyone who followed into the 80s did not play 30 minute songs and did very little improvisation, except for their feature solos. That whole approach to writing and performance became strictly the domain of “jam bands” most of whom descend from the California sound of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, there is a lot of that to Zeppelin as well — Robert Plant in particular was a huge fan of San Francisco bands and it definitely shows in his Zeppelin lyrics and his solo material. This is probably why Page and the rest of the band take umbrage of the title Heavy Metal to describe their music, because they weren’t, especially when compared with what came along in the 80s and beyond. (Notice that most of the time Page isn’t using that much distortion live compared to heavy guitarists of later years). The heaviness that Zeppelin brought was always balanced with nuance and other elements, which is very clear by analyzing Dazed and Confused, always one of their heaviest songs. Guitarists of the next generation would by and large take the obvious and simplest elements of Zep’s heavy music and make it louder, heavier, faster and, in some cases, more intricate and in the process lose the elements that gave Zeppelin’s music it’s timeless depth, dynamics and (live) spontaneity.

LZ_6Of course, I was and am a big fan of the later heavy music and have seen many of those bands and played more than a few of those longs in my own bands. However, there is something slightly intense and magical about the ability of a group of musicians being able to improvise or approach music with the type of dynamics and movement inherent in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you like, there comes a point when the quality of the music or performance renders all description and classification useless because there ain’t enough adjectives to really convey what goes on!

Goran Bregovic and The Balkan Sound

It’s been a long time since my last post and that’s because I’ve been very busy — 3 gigs this past week, but that’s how life is. I’ll get there just like we all do… eventually. Oh and I can’t stop watching this video! Goran Bregovic and his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra featuring GB on guitar, vocals, percussion and direction, Ogi Radivojevi on percussion, vocals and accordion and sister singers Ludmilla and Daniela Radkova. Of course, the band is powered by a totally slamming Balkan-style horn section! This band sounds like how many styles of music (Middle-Eastern, Gypsy, Punk-Rock, Klezmer, Balkan Folk) all at once at it totally works as a festive and dramatic conglomeratic presentation.

I love this stuff and how could you not? Goran Bregovic, who hails from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia) was originally a guitarist in the very popular and influential rock band, Bijelo dugme (White button). They had a run of successful studio and live albums, videos and were kind of like the Balkan Bon Jovi or maybe the Jugoslavian Queen. I definitely hear Brian May/Freddie Mercury influences at work in some of their stuff. The band was huge in Europe and went through a bunch of different phases before breaking up in the late 80s, but have reformed a few times since then, including the following concert from Kosevo where Goran plays some tasty rock guitar solos. (A whole bunch of the band’s vids are on Youtube and they did some really cool stuff, lemme tell ya. Everyday I keep finding a new one that really has it going on!

Even before Bijelo dugme quit in the late-80s, Bregovic began scoring films, including the first in a series of what was to become a very popular and productive partnership with Emir Kusturica (who is also a guitar player). The two collaborated on Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream (which featured Bregovic in a musical collaboration with Iggy Pop on the song In the Deathcar) and the award-winning and very controversial Underground. This is how I got to know the music as I’m a huge fan of Kusturica’s work and the soundtracks to the films have always been awesome. There is a lot of “Gypsy” in the music and that always works for me! You can hear this sound in many other artists from the Balkans and also some US performers like Gogol Bordello and Slavic Soul Party. Traces of it appear in Django Reinhardt, and current Gypsy Jazz players like Stephane Wrembel. The Balkans sit at the crossroads of so many cultures and religions, the result is always an interesting combination and amalgamation of sounds and rhythms.

The same can be said for Emir Kusturica’s movies and his musical collaborations with the No Smoking Orchestra. Here is a very popular song from that band called Pitbull Terrier. If you’re a fan of the whole “Borat” series, there a lot of similarities in the film and music. Totally offbeat and over-the-top.

The above clip features shots from the movie Crna mačka, beli mačor or Black Cat White Cat, which is on Youtube in it’s entirety. This is one of the coolest films I’ve ever seen, chock full of outrageous characters, lo-budget slapstick and traditional-style, old-world story-telling. Srđan Todorović (the guy juggling grenades and singing Pitbull Terrier) gives a completely outlandish performance as the bad guy, but the whole cast is really stellar. While Goran Bregovic was not directly involved in this film, the music is in a similar vein and just as exciting.

If all of this stuff is too traditional and slow and you’re looking for some more SHRED in your life, check out this guy below, Serbian guitar monster Borislav Mitic. Pretty rad, wouldn’t you say? A guy I wrote about last year, Denis Chang, has really expanded his instructional academy and he has just finished filming almost 15 hours(!!) worth of stuff with Borislav. It’s not ready for purchase yet, but the school is HERE. I saw a Facebook preview some of the material that was filmed and Borsilav passes along some really cool info and performs some great demonstrations. So look for that in the future!

So whether you’re a musician or just a person looking for some new entertainment and soul-sustaining art, don’t overlook all of the very fine work produced by Balkan artists because they know how to bring it! They have certainly been working me lately. Also, thanks for your continued interest and viewing. I’ll be back to a regular posting schedule soon!

Stephane Wrembel Talks Life and Music

Some very deep and wonderful insights provided by Stephane Wrembel in this brief interview. I had the pleasure of attending a seminar with Stephane a few years ago and his approach to playing and life are very inspiring and something any musician hoping to play and improvise well should at least consider. He helped set me on the path of playing the music of Django Reinhardt and many others. He is a really fun guy. In the interview, he talks about “getting the ego out of the way of your playing” and “reaching a state of ego-lessness” — something I’ve seen before… and it is SO TRUE. Easy to understand, not always easy to do. As players we invest a whole bunch of ourselves in what we do, but when it’s time to play, none of that matters. “We are NAKED” as Stephane says and we must accept and get comfortable with that and let our inner selves (our music) come out. I think it’s a good idea to watch this a few times and be conscious of your state of mind and body in the future when playing. See if what he is saying is something that could help with what YOU’RE doing.

Stephane is an extremely skilled musician and plays live in New York City all the time. His composition Bistro Fada was the theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris movie. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live and he is SMOKING! Don’t miss the opportunity if you have the chance to see him play.

Patrus (the interviewer) has an AWESOME Youtube channel. Some of his interviews are in French or German but many are not and he also provides translations on a few. There is an wealth of unbelievable playing clips too. Check it out!!