The new “Songbirds” CD! Available Now!

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Back around 1981, my friend Ann Mintz loaned me a cassette of an album of jazz standards by guitar maestro Joe Pass and jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald. It was bare bones music: No rhythm section. No overdubs. Just Joe and Ella having a musical conversation in which the beauty of the Great American Songbook took center stage. It quickly became a favorite. This was around the time I first got interested in learning to play jazz guitar, and this album, along with Lenny Breau’s “Five O’Clock Bells”, Jimmy Raney’s “Live In Japan”, and the George Van Eps “4 Memorable Solos” album, inspired me to study jazz guitar, and especially solo chordally based jazz guitar.

Fast forward about 30 years, and I was lamenting the fact that, while I was able to sing some of the standards, my voice was an acquired taste and would never be called “a thing of beauty”. I thought, then, that it would be cool to get together a bunch of the wonderful woman vocalists I’d known over the years and record my own version of the Joe/Ella albums. While I had a long list of candidates, the realities of time, distance, and such eventually led to the wonderful bunch who you’ll hear here:

As well as I can remember, the first sessions took place in 2014 at Jay Ansill’s Cheesy Road Studios. The Girls From Mars, Wendi Bourne, Annie Patterson, and Lauren Janson, were in town, but Lauren had a sore throat.

We got two good cuts each from Wendi (Darn That Dream, I Got It Bad) and Annie (Do Right, Cry You Out Of My Heart), a great start. In the meantime, I was talking to several of my cohorts from SAMW (Summer Acoustic Music Week in New Hampshire). I had performed as an accompanist to Buffie Groves there several times, and loved her classic vocal style for jazz.

SAMW sound guru John Doerschuk had gotten a couple good live recordings (Easy Living, Angel Eyes), and we were able to use them for the CD. Around this same time, I met Abbie Gardner, one of the 3 stellar young women who make up the group “Red Molly“, when we were both teaching at the Swannanoa Gathering, and jamming during the lunch break. In 2016, we arranged to meet at Bob Harris’s Ampersand Studios in NJ and record a couple of Abbie’s originals (What Gives You The Right, Afraid Of Love). Abbie added her great dobro chops and I overdubbed a solo on one cut.

In the meantime, I’d enlisted my dear friend Terry Leonino, of Magpie, to come down to Jay’s studio and record the beautiful Billie Holiday tune, “Left Alone”.

Back at SAMW, my fellow teacher Susie Burke worked with me to get a “live” recording of “Skylark”, and, over the course of a year or so, I went down to the DC area to record with my spiritual sister Marcy Marxer at Jim Robeson’s studio (I’ve Got The World On A String), and then Marcy took the engineer’s chair while we recorded “Miss Otis Regrets” with her wonderful spouse Cathy Fink.

Finally, all that was left was to take all these tracks to Jay Ansill, who worked his magic to make it all sound “of a piece”.

Another SAMW alum, Mel Green, was brought on board to put together a graphics package, and provided the painting for the front cover, all done in record time!

With the changing world of musical technology, this may be my last actual “hard copy” CD. For those who have already abandoned their CD players, the album will be available shortly as a download from CD Baby. It was, for me, a labor of love, and I made sure, in my slow moving way, to follow through in order to value the contributions of my 8 wonderful friends! I hope you get to hear it, and enjoy it!

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Some arranging thoughts on “Waltz For Debby”

This week’s Sunday Morning Music piece is pianist Bill Evans’s beautiful jazz waltz. Arranging it for solo guitar was an ambitious project, and one in which I came up against both the limitations of the guitar and the limitations of my own guitar playing. The first question that arises when arranging a tune for guitar is “what key signature shall I play it in?” Of course, jazz snobs would always go with the original key, no matter how hard it is on the guitar. Many jazz tunes are written in the flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, etc), because those keys are more comfortable for horn players. If you’re willing to use open strings on the guitar, the sharp keys (C, G, D, A, E, etc) are more comfortable for guitar. In this case, I stayed with the original key, F, mostly out of stubbornness, saying to myself, “Jeez, you can’t play EVERYTHING in C!”

For whatever reasons, my arrangement is much more sedate and less swingin’ than Evans’s. (Could it be the fact that Bill Evans was a musical genius and avatar? Or is it the piano?) One issue is that, after the first statement of the melody, Evans deserts the “waltz” form of 3/4 time, and swings the piece in 4/4. Here it is from a concert performance:

He goes into 4/4 at 1:00, and never looks back. From there on, the waltzing is over. It is a swingin’ thing of beauty, and makes me wonder why I even tried…did I mention that I can be stubborn?

Okay, so, given that I decided to do this, I was just stumbling along in the key of F when I came upon this very helpful video explication by piano instructor Kent Hewitt:

This gave me some wonderful insight into the structure of the piece, especially the movement of Evans’s bass lines. After awhile, I had put together a fairly satisfactory setting for the melody. It took 2 or 3 months before I could actually play it, but I felt that I was on track.

Now, normally, when I play a tune for “Sunday Morning Music!”, I’ll play the “head”, then play an improv verse or two, then return to the head and finish. These pieces are often just sketches, and I long ago made the decision that I would just “do what I do” and post it, warts and all…maybe not the smartest thing in the world for someone trying to “look good” on the internet, but there ya go.

In this case, all my improvs sucked, so I finally decided to compose a variation. (It’s worth mentioning here that Evans does not wander very far from the melody at any point in his performance, either…) In doing so, I tried to add a bit of a classical feel in some of the phrasing. “Waltz For Debby” has harmonic movement that could easily have come from Bach, so this felt okay. I set to work on this, and, after a week or so of woodshedding with it, came up with the version you’ll hear here:

As I said, it’s much more sedate than the Evans version, it doesn’t really swing, but I still think that the beauty of the tune comes through. Now it was time to record it. When I do these videos, I usually just fire up the computer and play the tune several times, looking for the most musical rendering to post. If the tune is a very difficult one, I may stoop to an edit or two, but never more than two.

In the case of “Waltz For Debby”, I recorded about two dozen versions, some of which were edited, and four of which, in succession, were considered postable, and then not. When I have qualms, I play the video for my wife Jan. If she’s enthusiastic, I usually consider it done. If she says something diplomatic, like, “Wow! That sounds really hard!”, I know it sucks, and I go back to the drawing board. In this case, I was up against the physical difficulty of playing the piece in F, and I reached a point where I was ready to give up. I considered borrowing my neighbor’s Parker Fly solid body, and playing it on that, but I knew the neck was a bit too thin. Then I thought about how George Van Eps, the great harmonic jazz guitarist, used to tune his guitar a whole step below concert pitch because he wanted it to feel more like a nylon string classic guitar. I said, “What the hell…I’ll give it a try.” On the third or fourth try, I got a version which, while imperfect, was fairly musical and had no edits. So, while I’m playing out of the “F” positions, the tune is actually in Eb. That’s what you hear on the video above. In some ways, of all the videos I’ve ever posted, this one may be the least relaxed and “free-ed up”, but I hope that doesn’t communicate to the listener. It’s been an experiment and an experience!

In The Beginning: 7

So, in this guitar pre-school lesson, we take the chords and strums we’ve practiced and put them in a song: One of the great anthems of my generation, “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan. Here’s the lesson, and look farther down the page for my video of the song.

And here’s a performance video of the song. Hopefully, you can see how the simple techniques in the lesson can eventually lead to the more developed accompaniment in the performance.

Oy! Again, with the J200’s!

A few years ago, I wrote extensively about my long love affair with Gibson J200s. I had gone on the hunt, and ended up with a very nice 1991 rosewood “J200 junior” (actually a J185 with fancy trappings) at that time. It’s missing a couple of the fancy trappings (bound headstock and fingerboard), but it sounds better to my ear than most any maple J200, and I’ve been very pleased with it.

Here it is on a Rev. Gary Davis-esque rendering of the 60s pop hit “In The Summertime”.


Anyhow, the iconic pickguard on this guitar had two little things about it that bothered me.

  1. J200’s are not big flatpicking guitars, but I often flatpick mine, and the deeply embossed pickguard was very scratchy and annoying when my hand slid across it during the picking motion.
  2. On my favorite J200s from the ’40s., the pickguard had a thin outline which defined its shape. Especially on a sunburst model, this has a notable effect on the appearance of the guitar. See pic below.

emmy-j200-outline

So, a few weeks ago, I went on ebay and found a suitable replacement guard for the “junior”. It arrived yesterday, and I spent an hour or so removing the original and replacing it. Here’s a before and after shot:

j200jr-before&after

Not only does the new pickguard have “the look”, but it’s not embossed. The painting seems to be safely beneath a substantial clear coat, which means the guitar now flatpicks just like any other guitar, with no embossed impediment! A win-win situation! Okay, now if I can just find someone to put binding on the neck and headstock…

Relic #2: The Third Eyebrow, by Robin Kessinger.

In 1995, I returned to the Winfield “Walnut Valley Festival” with my friend Mark Cosgrove, who proceeded to win the National Flatpicking Championship. We spent much of the festival hanging with his flatpicking friends, and the “Kessinger Camp” was the happening place. I met Robin, his brother Dan, his mom and dad, Bob and Doris, and the sisters, Linda, June, and Alice. They were a wild and crazy crew, and much of the banter was hilarious. The music was astounding, and I found myself trying to keep up with a crew of 5 or 6 national champs at any given jam. Within a year, I’d put fingerpicking on the back burner and dedicated myself to becoming a flatpicker. I learned a lot from hanging with all of those guys, and, while I never approached their level of high speed virtuosity, I got to where I could sometimes almost keep up, and was therefore more than competent to jam with mere mortals.

After that year, Winfield became my annual vacation spot, and has remained so for the past 20+ years. I heard Robin’s great tune, “The Third Eyebrow” very early on. I fell in love with it immediately. At the time, I couldn’t really flatpick, so I set out to arrange a solo fingerstyle version. When Robin and brother Dan heard the result, they said, “Eek! You turned it into a classical rag!!” That was not my intention, but I was fairly happy with the result.
I’ve used the video for this tune as an opportunity to highlight the wonderful Kessinger family, including Robin, Dan, and sisters Linda, Alice, and June, who make a cameo appearance in their matching “Wall Drug” teeshirts. Their family is traditional music royalty, and I’ve valued their friendship, music, and good humor for over 20 years.
Other cameos in the video include Wayne Henderson, Tom Schaefer, and, on the canine side, Keli and Django, our lovingly remembered Australian Kelpies.

Relic #1 – Chapel Rd.

When I was a 19 year old hotshot guitarist, a violinist friend was admiring my left hand technique. With the wisdom gleaned from his classical studies, he said, “Enjoy it now, man, because you’re at the height of your physical skills, and it’ll be all down hill from here.”

He was wrong about the time frame, but correct about the concept. Since 1996, I’ve gradually become more limited in my playing ability due to focal dystonia of the right index finger as well as the ravages of age. Because I had developed a wide variety of stylistic abilities, there is still a lot of music available to me, but I sometimes lament the loss of various parts of my repertoire. Right before I started having problems, I’d completed my second CD, “Max’s Ramble”. It’s now out of print, and, listening back, there are some tunes that make me wince…thankfully, when you lose your chops, you have to fall back on good taste, which was not always the case in my youth. But there are some tunes that I’m still proud of, so I thought I’d start posting them as relics of a bygone era, hence this first post.

The house on Chapel Rd.

The house on Chapel Rd.

We lived on Chapel Rd, near New Hope PA, for a dozen years. It was a modest cabin in the woods, with large windows and lots of barn wood along with the white walls. A long porch on one side of the house was a perfect guitar-picking site, and that’s where this tune was written. The music was published by Mel Bay in their “Fingerpicking 2000” anthology, but I’ve long since lost my copy…so it goes…

The slideshow features lots of nice guitars and good friends. I hope you enjoy the tune!

In The Beginning: 6

In our sixth lesson, I’m teaching some left hand hammer-ons and pull-offs, and how they apply to some simple right hand technique, both for flatpicking and fingerpicking. What I show here is very fundamental, but it leads toward more complex rhythms. Here’s the video:

If you’re working with a flatpick, you should also watch this video, a trailer for my “solo flatpicking DVD from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, which shows very fundamental but important pick technique:

Okay, have fun, and stay tuned!

In The Beginning: 5

In this lesson, we practice our 6 chords in 2-chord pairs, becoming fluent with every possible pairing:

Pairing C with: F, G, Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing F with G, Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing G with Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing Am with Dm, Em.

Pairing Dm with Em.

Get comfortable with each of this, as shown in the video. Then just sit around and randomly go from chord to chord. These 6 chords are all derived from the C major scale, and therefore they sound good together. See if you can figure out which chords sound like “home base” (good “ending” chords) as you’re playing through them!

In The Beginning: 4

In this lesson, we discuss 3 basic minor chords: Am, Em, and Dm. In addition, once you can play Am, you can move it over one string towards the bass side of the neck and it becomes Emajor.

Fingerings:

Am = 002210

Em = 022000

Dm = X00231

Emajor = 022100

All is explained on the video:

 

In The Beginning: 3

In this lesson, we’ll refer back to one of the two “2-finger shapes” we discussed in lesson one. Now we’ll turn them into complete triads (3 note chords). A triad is the most basic kind of chord, but that doesn’t mean we only play 3 strings on the guitar. For example, a C chord has the notes C, E, & G. The basic C chord in the video below can be played on 5 strings, because some of the notes are repeated…from bass to treble strings, starting with the fifth string, the notes would be C, E, G, C, E.

A simple way of writing this chord in text would be X32010. The “X” denotes a string we won’t play, and the numbers are fret numbers. “0” is an open string that gets played. If this is gobbledygook to you right now, don’t worry. Just learn the fingerings from the video, repeat them again and again, and we’ll sort stuff out later. Here’s the video. Have fun!