Saturday, September 21, 2002

Session this morning focused on rags, but had some surprises. Tried Joplin's waltz "Pleasant Moments" but didn't have the reading chops first thing in the morning. Lamb's "Sensation Rag" was starting to get some nice crispness, and a first reading of his "Champagne Rag" reminded me of "Powder Rag". "Bohemia Rag" is going well, but I have to toss the score soon.

For a break tune I tried the hornpipes "Stack of Barley" and "Stack of Wheat", and had a picture in mind of Irish music on the American vaudeville stage... realized that what I was striving for was not some recreation of a sod-thatched cottage in a field of shamrocks in Clare, but was instead what Americans may have heard here, in the context of ragtime, blues, jazz, hillbilly, Cohen & Berlin & Kern and the rest of it. A lot of my friends around town may be trying to sound like Altaan or Bothy Band or whoever else they need to fit in with the local crowd... I'm not too sure how deep that tradition actually is. I know that I'm attracted to that melting pot of world musics in the first half of the last century, and by gosh I'll do what I like.


For awhile I had been thinking I should summarize so not-so-pleasant surprises from the summer, to match the pleasant surprises I blogged when I got back. Reading the political drivel on the Strawberry list spurred me... not sure if I should just unsubscribe and quit that group, or engage them, or what. (What do you do when you see someone acting stupid and self-destructive?) Anyway, here are some things I wasn't happy to learn this summer:

-- Trying to play a blues at Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp. Here were all these melody players, playing fast, playing obscure, pulling tunes out of their arse to try to stump others, and yet twice when I tried to sing a simple blues they couldn't even dare a chorus. Amazing. The only players who jumped in each time were piano players (different ones in each session), and they each changed the tempo and the chords out from under what I was singing. What are you, a parrot, or a musician? Here we are, in this moment, now respond to it... say something true, not just things you memorized.

-- I was surprised by how different get-togethers had different overplayed tunes. "Nail That Catfish to a Tree" was ridiculously overplayed at FiddleTunes and RMFC... Grisman's old "E.M.D." was trotted out relentlessly at Strawberry... of course "Faded Love" was the tune whenever someone mentioned "hey how about some western swing".

(For "Faded Love", I'm still amazed at the Strawberry session where someone called it, confirmed that he had the words, ran 15 choruses and never sang it, and then when I tried to sing it in A two people complained that it was too hard to play in A and that you shouldn't change keys! "Tell it to Bob Wills" I said, and packed my grip.)

-- Strawberry had no old-timey contingent. There sure are enough old-timey musicians in the area. Makes me realize it's not about NoCal music, but more about a certain type of approach.

-- At Lark, there was an Irish circle over here, and a Norteno circle over there, and never the twain shall meet. "Hey, why don't you guys play at least one tune in the other circle?" No dice... everything was ghettoized. It was shocking on the final day to hear a Highland Piper join in on the batucada percussion... that was about the limit of crossover I heard.

Damn it, we *don't* live in a single culture like the originators did. We live here, now. Play like yourself, not like you're trying to authentically be Michael Coleman, 'cause guess what, YOU'RE NOT HIM!!!

-- Lark and Strawberry needed more diversity... a couple of Republicans would have helped them out a whole hell of a lot.

-- At FiddleTunes I was surprised by how closed-off and cliquey it appeared. I could easily have been over-sensitive, but I don't recall all that much of a sense of exploration.

-- I was surprised by how "featured performers" didn't make it out much to the sessions. I wish I had been able to watch the Derrane & Holland sessions, even as a fly-on-the-wall... would have learned much more than during the day. I think many of the Strawberry performers were located right in the camp, but I don't recall seeing them at any of the night-time sessions. They've got their own dynamics & pressures, I know, but I was still surprised at the apparent segregation.

-- Some negative comments about "country music". I don't remember where, but I had the impression each time the speaker was likely convinced they were ensconced in the best ghetto. (There's probably someone out there who has a reasonable reason for not liking Lefty Frizzell, but I can't imagine what it might be.)

-- I was surprised that standard tunes from one genre of players were utterly unknown in other genres... each group had their own standards. "Right or Wrong", "Ain't Misbehaving", "Freliach vun der Khupe", "Swing Valse"... in each case I thought the group might know such a standard piece, but was wrong each time. Deep knowledge, yet not wide. (Makes it more valuable to cross groups, I guess.)

-- Visits were used as currency at Strawberry... it was "validate me, please validate me." (Makes it more valuable to listen, fit in and complement, I guess.)

-- At FiddleTunes there was one great session with Ray Bierl, Marty Jara, Paul Stewart (? fiddler from Seattle), Bob Schultz (? oldtimey fiddler) and others... we were listening to each other, mostly playing swing standards but also some bossa, pop and country... never knew what would happen next, on the edge, but everyone was listening. Then some guy came in, talked about how he had been recording with various people, and blasted the room with a banjo-uke on "Dinah" too fast. I later learned he did play with several good people, so he must have some good traits. How can a good musican do bad things, such as lack listening ability or awareness of his sound?

-- I was surprised at Lark to hear Jack Gilder talking about how Noel Hill would try to "assassinate" players in sessions, to drive them out, "so he could play at the level of music he wanted". If there's a particularly oblivious player in a group I could see this, but I got the impression he routinely tried to drop sessions of nine down to three. Hell, just call up "Ornithology" or "Tico Tico" or some Bulgarian to find out who the real players are... but oh no, I get it, you want perfection within your own little set of rules, "it must go so far in this direction, but not in any other direction at all". What a bunch of weenies.... cut that attitude and open your mind.

-- At the camps with classes, these often devolved into having the entire class try to learn a tune by ear. It was excruciating to listen to, and an excruciating waste of time too. You can learn tunes quickly at home, bubba. You come to meet musicians to see what makes them tick, to learn how they play. I didn't go there to listen to somebody practice on my dime. (I wanted to ask some questions of Bruce Molsky, but couldn't get a word in.)

Ah, I feel much better now, having written this crap down... now I can forget it and get on with my own work.... ;-)

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Continuing morning and evening sessions on accordion... usually start with a simple tune from memory, trying to get good definition and phrasing, then reading a series of rags, breaking it up with some choro and musette from memory. Not much singing, no Dobro or steel at all this week... Giants/Dodgers games are long and tense.

Played the Cavagnolo last night for the first time in a while. It's a great box, but I haven't found the situation to use it best yet... it's got a big tone, too big, for the apartment, and so I choke it off while playing. I know that instrument can sound intimate, but right now it's just shy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Good practice sessions, getting back in the groove. Right now it's mostly rags, marches, musette and choro, with a token warmup C&W song at the start.

Still, I remember the problem I had here before: it's difficult to maintain, polish, and explore a repertoire this way... it takes a lot of time to make progress on a single tune, and it's easy to let tunes go by the wayside. I'm hoping that, longterm, it takes incrementally less effort per tune, but man, that "so many tunes so little time" dictum really cuts deep....

(Found a web reference to Laptop Snare, a pretuned head with 1" rim and snare. I may pick this up instead of the Earth Drum... a little bulkier to transport, but won't be affected by humidity like the paper head is. That jingle-stick-in-shoe trick seems like it will work for a high hat, although I've yet to prove it live while playing brushes on my lap. I'm still trying to figure how to emulate a bass drum at little carrying cost.)

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Interesting session today... think I'm getting centered again. Played with a bunch of Gypsy Swing players met through Yahoo (, requires membership). I brought box, sang a few, and played a good deal of brushes.

I should have been clumsier than I was, considering I hadn't played all week. I did have my share of clams, but also noticed that I was building discrete lines during solos, rather than just blowing. On brushes I got to the point where I ascertained it's time to study some more.... ;-)

Played some surprising tunes... duet with Mike Mannion on Maple Leaf Rag and a few other rags & marches later on, then a duet with guitarist Marty I met at FiddleTunes on Flambee Montalbanaise (he had heard the vocalized version on the "Just a Memory" trilogy). The rest was a mix of Django tunes and swing standards. All in all, fun.

In private sessions over the weekend I've started playing to the changes on musette tunes, rather than just playing the three sections verbatim... interesting. I've resolved that Irish tunes are good for practicing crispness, and are good as part of basic vocabulary, but currently I don't have much interest in learning them solely to play with others... too religious. Anyway, I think I'm in a position to really start working again.