I’ll be taking my “Sunday Morning Music” project “Live” on Facebook tomorrow morning (Sunday, Mar. 29th) at 10:30 a.m. for a short (15 minute) set.
If you’re on Facebook, come to my profile page and click on the link for the Facebook Live event at 10:30 a.m. Hope to see you there!
This story doesn’t start with James Taylor. In 1981, I saw the movie “Chariots Of Fire”, and found it to be very emotionally compelling. In fact, I went back to the theater again and again…in all, about 11 times. One of the most powerful components of the film was the music. The soundtrack by Vangelis was perfect, but the piece that moved me the most was sung by a boy’s choir during the elegiac last moments of the film. I never knew the name of it, but, partially due to its placement in the film, and partially due to the intrinsic power of the piece, it could easily bring tears to my eyes.
Okay, here comes the James Taylor part: Recently, Audible released an audio presentation, Breakshot, by and about James, in which he talks about his first 21 years. It’s a beautiful piece. He speaks eloquently and intersperses bits of his music. While talking about his school years, during which he was required to attend chapel, he discusses how the hymns he heard there influenced his musical development, and how he would arrange them on the guitar (I LOVED hearing that!) in order to explore the harmonies and voices therein. He names several, and then proceeds to play one on the guitar…and it’s THE one! From Chariots Of Fire!! And I search Youtube for the names of the three titles he mentioned as examples, and find “Jerusalem”, composed by Sir Hugh Parry to accompany lyrics by the poet William Blake.
And then I sat down with my guitar, to work it out. I listened to a half dozen versions, again and again, and worked up a hymn-like arrangement. After practicing it for a couple days, I was able to record a pretty nice version. As I often do, I put it aside, and returned to it to listen with new ears after a day or so. On this later listening, I felt like maybe my performance was a bit ponderous, so I set out to record a slightly more rhythmic version. After a dozen or so takes, I got one that I really liked. When I compared the two versions, I found it very hard to choose one over the other. Finally, I edited the two versions together, and decided to let the listeners compare the two. Feel free to email me and tell me which you prefer! I’m curious.
And if you’re looking for something inspiring in these dark times, go back and rewatch “Chariots Of Fire”, and listen to James Taylor’s “Breakshot”. Great art can improve your day!
In the mid 90s, I was thinking I should “go back” and study with someone again. Living near Philly, two obvious choices were Jimmy Bruno and Pat Martino, both among the very best jazz guitarists in the world. To make my choice, I bought a CD by each. The Jimmy Bruno CD was mostly jazz standards, and Bruno’s playing was totally jaw-dropping. The Pat Martino CD (“The Maker”) was all originals, so there was, in a way, no frame of reference. My initial prediction was that I’d prefer the Bruno recording, but I found myself so moved by Martino’s playing that it was a no-brainer. (disclaimer: Bruno is a fantastic player AND teacher…I just felt some other kind of connection to the Martino CD.)
As it happened, I didn’t approach either of them, because, in the interim, a friend suggested I contact John Carlini. John became my mentor and my friend, and I have no regrets about that decision. In one lesson, John gave me a photocopy from a Martino book. Martino eschewed the idea of “scales”, opting instead to share musical passages that he called “activities”. John said, “don’t ask me any questions about this. Just memorize it and get it hardwired into your hands and ears.” This was great advice. 20+ years later, I no longer remember that “activity” (or “lick”, if you will), but the DNA of that activity is embedded in a lot of what I play as an improviser.
The principle lesson in the “activity”, for me, was the fact that it was not confined to a specific scale. Martino might say, “this activity is based on Dm”, but there would be all sorts of outside notes, and the message was not about understanding a theoretical reason they were there. It was not a roadmap which led you on a linear path to being able to play like Martino. It was about hearing that sound, connecting it with a fingering, and letting it seep into your subconscious mind.
So I bought some of Martino’s books and videos. His ideas seemed so arcane and unrelated to “normal” music theory that I just scratched my head. The main message I got at the time was, “this guy is so out of the ordinary that I can barely understand his use of language, let alone the concepts he’s trying to communicate.” I’m not sure if I ever really got anything from those materials in those years (late ’90s), other than what John had already turned me on to. I attended a workshop with Martino about 5 years ago. I can’t say exactly why, but I just innately love the guy as a human. Maybe it’s something “spiritual” that I perceive in him. Nevertheless, I probably didn’t really learn anything new.
Last year, I bought his Truefire project, “The Nature Of Guitar”. I don’t know if I’m getting older and wiser, or if this project is better, but it’s beginning to make sense to me. If nothing else, it’s just such a pleasure to listen and watch as he plays various examples, but I’m also beginning to understand the motivation behind his “sacred geometry” mathematics. I don’t know if it’ll change the way I play or not, but I hope so.
One more thought: There’s a reason why “music theory” is called “theory”, and not “music fact”. The conventional take on music theory, which may begin with the concept of understanding a major scale and the chord forms generated by its notes, is just a commonly accepted “theory” of how to organize information, and that organization leads in certain directions. Pat Martino has a totally different way of organizing information, beginning with understanding the nature and permutations of the augmented triad and the diminished 7th chord. These lead in totally different directions from the commonly used system of organization. Take it for what you will, but, for me, the Martino viewpoint opens up a lot of interesting possibilities!
In the mid-80s, I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with the great jazz guitarist George Van Eps. This came about through the auspices of my friend Cary Brosius, who had some connection with the Van Eps family. George was coming east to do a concert in Syracuse NY. I was on the road in Maine, but had access to recording facilities through a local radio station there. At that time, I was producing a weekly feature show on WXPN-FM in Philly entitled “Guitar Wizards”, and it was my intention to air the interview there. Here’s the interview. It’s of special interest to guitarists, of course, but George was a fascinating guy, and anyone might enjoy listening to his ideas.
George was very gracious about the interview, and asked me to let him know when it aired. That’s when everything went wrong. It was about this time that WXPN, which had been a community-run radio station, got some grant money. Rather than hire the capable crew who had made the station’s reputation, they brought in The Professionals and gave everyone else the boot, including Mary Armstrong, who had allowed my show to be featured during hers. So…no airing of the interview.
A couple years went by. George came east to play a couple nights for the Allegheny Jazz Society, and I drove across the state to meet him in person and hear his performances. Again, he was very gracious, but, while we sat over lunch, he obliquely criticized people who might take advantage of his generosity for their own selfish purposes. It was so subtle that I didn’t realize until afterwards that he was probably referring to me. (Arrrgh!).
More years went by…my attempts to digitize the interview with my shabby equipment failed miserably, and it eventually ended up on the back burner. George passed away in 1998, and I was reminded of what a miserable worm I had been. It has remained as one of those things in life that I’ve felt ashamed of. Further attempts also failed. The old audio cassette languished in my dresser drawer.
Yesterday, after purchasing a new USB mic pre-amp, I dug out my antique Marantz cassette deck and was able to digitize another long ago interview with the wonderful Gamble Rogers. That’ll show up here soon!
Then I thought of George. So here you have it. If you’re reading this, I sincerely hope you enjoy the interview, but I didn’t do this for you. I did it for George. If he’s up there in the clouds somewhere, I hope he’ll forgive me for the delay.
Give him a listen, too:
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!
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!
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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!