Saturday, September 14, 2002

Didn't practice at all during the week... part was getting back to work, and 9/11 aftereffects, and baseball pennant, but part was cleansing myself after being around so many people this summer... thinking things through, finding what's important for me.

I listened to some Django-influenced stuff (more the oldtimers like the Ferret Brothers than newer followers), but got more enjoyment out of Rembetika, Balkan, and Hungarian reissues. I remembered how, when I started playing again, I listened to a wider variety of music than I have over the last year. Percussion and vocals were also more important to me before I started practicing for the local Irish and "bluegrass" communities... over the last year I don't think I've done any work at all for vocalizing along with a lead.

This morning I had a bit of time with the accordion... started with some son montuno, polyrhythms, then played Viseur's "Swing Waltz" as a vehicle for melodic improvisation rather than as just a set piece, and then tried to transcribe Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman" from the guitar to the box. The latter started morphing into a Clifton Chenier style, and I realized it would be easy to play too much right now. I've got to listen and think... I'll lose some chops, sure, but I can regain those. The important thing is to get untainted from other people's expectations.

At Strawberry, Chris Gramps and I were talking about "identity music"... like identity politics, where the label people slap on you is supposed to control everything you think and do. Bluegrass and Irish sessions are both post-WWII innovations. If someone is blathering to me about the one true way and whether something is authentic, I'll instead be looking at whether they can be authentically in the moment, themselves, in that musical conversation with me, or whether they're in their head and not listening.

... but when I write the above line, I think about the failures I've had trying to locally lead tunes I've played for decades, like "Deep River Blues" and "Sittin' On Top of the World". I know I want an easy, behind-the-beat lope on it, and I'm tired of people hijacking the tune to increase the tempo, play on top or in front of the beat, even change the changes. They're in their own head, sure, but so am I, because I want to hear something particular. No, scratch, that, I want to be *heard*. I wouldn't call up those tunes unless it was a contrast to the previous music, and could add something to the session. I follow them, but have difficulty in introducing something else and getting it actually heard.

I was thinking this morning of the way Marcus Roberts handles Scott Joplin tunes... he respects them, for sure, but he just kicks the butt of those people who say "it should be played this way" "no it should be played that way". Right now I suspect I'll follow a similar path with similar tunes (rags, musette, choro, tango, klezmer), but suspect that my level of improvisation will not be constant from piece to piece... some will be set pieces, some will be conversations.

This week I realized that I crave *surprise* in music. If I can predict the bulk of it, then it feels sorta disgusting. They may be fine craftsmen, but it's like listening to a well-toned voice read the phonebook. I want to hear something interesting, something surprising.

Two years ago I was listening to a lot of African music, Cape Verde, fado from Portugal, tango and gaucho music, old and new recordings from Madagascar, gypsy field recordings. I was playing Bach each morning. But over the last year I even let my musette tunes slip, trying to meet the expectations of local irish and "bluegrass" musicians. I'm tired of formula. I want to hear what's true.

Anyway, I'm still a little cranky, tired of being told what to do. The 9/11 media instructions don't help much, and I'm particularly tired of people who "know" the motivations of others. Just listen, observe, and think for yourself, and respect how others think for themselves and try to learn from them, that's all I'm asking.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Got a short session on box this morning, and it was more satisfying that the attempts this weekend. I think common themes in the way I *want* to play include: moderate tempo with greater subdivision of the measure... general reliance on swing rhythm with occassional straight-eighths to emphasize a phrase... use of 12-tone harmony... reliance on repeating and varying motifs as a long unit of construction... using larger intervals in addition to scalar motion and arpeggios.

Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train" would be played fast and straight at a session. I like it more with a New Orleans feel in the rhythm, and wackier things happening on top. I played two favorite old jigs, "Rose in the Heather" and "Saddle the Pony", in a way that would not have been possible at last night's session. After playing Pixinguinha's "Segura Ele" I realized that that extended choro playing and percussion work has likely influenced what I want to hear rhythmically... may be a key factor. Am now listening to "Paris Musette" series and it too is righteous.

Monday, September 09, 2002

Left another session early this evening, the "slow irish" session on Geary St. There were a half-dozen friends who dropped in for the first time: 2-3 bazoukis, two flutes, a new guitar, and a mandolin or two. The first few tunes were typically stiff... straight time even on the jigs... the Giants were playing the Dodgers anyway. I walked back home.

I was listening to rembetika classics today... that music was more satisfying, offering more surprises, than what I've been playing with others recently.

Things I liked over the summer:

-- A "sanity playing" session that Dick Gimble came in on... he picked up on "Basin St Blues" without changing the underlying rhythm, cool.

-- Learning six choro tunes by heart (and a dozen "sorta") after realizing the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp was a washout.

-- Getting turned on listening to oldtimey sessions at FiddleTunes.

-- Learning that Joe Derrane is actually a very sharp, hardworking guy.

-- Learning I'm a pretty good singer, and can hear harmonies better than before.

-- Finding the positive response to my percussion approach.

-- Taking my first steps on Dobro again.

-- Getting asked by Barbara Hansen to sit in on an oldtimey session, even though I was playing accordion.

-- Playing rembetika at Lark... watching how top Irish musicians played with each other at Lark.

-- Hearing Pete Grant in his element at Strawberry.

-- Learning that even someone with wonderful tone, like Laura Risk, may be at sea when playing swing standards, but learning that she found swing interesting and desirable regardless.

-- Seeing how a Scoth session can open up, with spontaneous parts being played... that big crossover jam at Rocky Mountain was an eyeopener, watching how Alan Jabbour, Brian Conway and others could cross over into something outside their identity music.

It's a period of digestion now. I'm not playing or listening much, but I think I have to figure out what I find important. Overall, I think two emphases over the autumn will be building my solo repertoire on accordion, and getting my basic Irish vocabulary on Dobro.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Been back for awhile, hadn't felt like blogging here. Today's the final day of my sabbatical. I realized on BART today that, throughout the summer, I hadn't had a chance to sound like me. I was always trying to fit into other people's music. There were a few times I was able to express myself within those constraints, but in retrospect it still felt artificial. Even when doing some sanity playing solo I still felt constrained to pleasing potential listeners.

I went to an East Bay pickin' potluck today but left early, after having realized the above, after having sat through "Soldier's Joy" and other overplayed least-common-denominator tunes, after being bracketed by stereo guitars in different stages of tuning drowning out even a banjo four feet away.

It was good to learn about other musicians this summer, but now I realize that isn't really the thing I have to learn about.