Cross Pollenization in Music: Enrichment in Action

This morning as I perused my Facebook feed I saw that a steel guitar player, Mike Neer, just released an album called “Steelonius.” It appeared on my feed because a gentleman who plays slide, Rob Anderlick, who is a Facebook friend, liked it and exposure to things such as this are one of the things that ensure that I continue as a Facebook user. Neer has done an entire album of T. Monk tunes and evidently done them true justice. The article I read about it mentioned a new John Scofield album, “Country for Old Men,” which appears to be a play upon the book “No Country for Old Men,” by Cormac McCarthy. On this album Sco, along with Steve Swallow and a couple of other heavy hitters does a bunch of real country tunes, but does their thing with them. It’s currently on in the background as I’m writing and they’re killing it, in the best way possible.

I find this type of cross-genre pollenization to be incredibly vibrant and alluring and have been a fan of it for years. I also firmly believe that it’s something that needs to happen in order to save some types of music from stagnation. I love jazz, have studied it, but really don’t play it. For one thing, the old jazz standard catalogue doesn’t really speak to me as a performer. Despite hearing tons of it as I was growing up due to my father’s love of it, the catalogue of standards doesn’t resonate, but the conceptual aspect of it does very deeply, particularly the part about taking an existing tune and creating something from it. This is very appealing to me on so many levels.

If we really take a look at many of the jazz standards, they were the popular music of the day. Many were show tunes from musicals that became the starting point for the players. Granted, they do tend have more complex harmonic content than most current popular music, but then they’ve also been the core repertoire of the jazz idiom for sixty years in some cases, if not more. Many jazz musicians have added to the repertoire along the way, but there is still a reliance upon these standards that has a tendency to wear on many listeners, particularly the younger ones.

There are players out there who are crossing the boundaries and in the process creating their own idioms and genres. Bela Fleck has been doing this for years in his work with The Flecktones. The blended music his group presents could very easily be presented argumentatively as a form of jazz. He’s been a pioneer in boundary pushing and expanding into other areas for years, even pairing Bach with banjo. Other players like Jimmy Herring of The Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead have also been moving rock idioms closer to a jazz train of thought, or an application of a jazz approach to rock to create something that has more punch than a stereotypical “jam band.”

Even with the jam band genre there has been an uprising of cross genre creativity with folks like The String Cheese Incident bringing together elements of folk, country, rock, and jazz into a glorious creative expression. The Dave Matthews Band has performed in a similar manner, as has Bruce Hornsby in his many explorations and cross genre quests. Hornsby has worked jazz, rock, bluegrass and whatever he can get his hands on into his own genre that at times seems to defy categorization. This type of hopping around, mixing, and assimilating brings a fresh perspective to the old while bringing in the new as well. It also forces musical growth in ways that repetitively working within the same framework doesn’t.

I once saw an instructional video where the focus was John Scofield’s guitar style. The interviewer asked Scofield to show the audience some of his licks. His response was that he didn’t use licks, and if he found himself creating one he’d write it into the head of a tune so he couldn’t use it. I think this was in “John Scofield Jazz and Funk Guitar.” While learning the solos of greats that have preceded us is a valid and very useful way to learn how to speak the language, I really appreciate his perspective because he is forcing himself to constantly create something new each time he approaches a piece of music, which is the very soul of jazz and most forms of improvisational music.

Scofield has been doing his thing in the background throughout this reflection and opinion piece, so if you want a soundtrack for the essay go ahead and hit him up for it. What he has done with this recording is clearly jazz, because first and foremost he is a jazz player. It undeniably and unapologetically uses classic country tunes and at least one modern country tune for material. And it shouldn’t be apologetic. Miles Davis once said, “It’s all blues.” I’m not going to argue with the master on that one, but I think that when we get down to all really good improvised music, it might be all jazz.

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Creative Music: Making the Old New

Last night at rehearsal, the newest group I’m with started working on a new tune. We decided to do The Beatles’ tune “Taxman” but wanted to come up with our own version that presented a different take on it. We’d talked about Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version, as well as shooting our own recorded ideas back and forth through the modern marvel known as the internet before actually meeting up for rehearsal and working out an entirely different take. What we eventually went with was copping the feel of another tune from the same era but a different group, mashing it together over a fairly simple I IV V blues progression, while essentially maintaining the melody line pretty close to intact. Voila, we had our own version of a “cover” tune that we’re pretty pleased with and that really works within the stylistic palette the band is attempting to focus on, a funky blues-rock combination.

Working with covers is the meat and potatoes of most bar band combos, as well as wedding bands and various other local professional groups. All too often if you want to make money playing on the local circuit these tunes are what is needed for repertoire in order to get the gigs and build a following. It has also come to be a major source of contention between musicians, dividing them into two primary camps and spawning endless debates over originals vs. covers. Many of the cover bands do their best to make a product that is as close to the original version of the chosen piece of music as possible, becoming essentially live juke boxes that copy solos and approach the music in pretty much the same manner as a traditional classical musician does. A smaller number of the bands deal with covers but deal with them as standards, in the same manner that jazz musicians have for decades. Yes, it’s a cover but they make it their own through their own solos and small deviations from the recorded versions. Then there are the covers that border on originals, which might seem like an odd thing to say.

Often the groups or individuals who break down and rebuild covers are also heavily vested in their own originals. They straddle the original vs. cover band divide by doing some altered covers, some originals and maybe some close to straight covers. These folks love their craft/art, and don’t sneer at the concept of getting paid at the end of the night for their work; they expect to be paid. They also tend to step outside of the debate between the integrity of doing either or. Interestingly enough, if we really dig in and take a look at what bands that “made it” have done, we’ll often see that they got their start working with covers, then gradually came up with their own material to work with. There are even many high profile folks out there who have recorded hit records using other peoples’ materials, either as is or creating their own version, as the Atlanta Rhythm Section did with “Spooky.”

Personally I really enjoy the process of rebuilding a cover, particularly in a collaborative situation such as last night’s, and last night’s was a true collaborative effort the whole way around. The guitarist kicked out an idea early in the week. I’m playing bass in the band, but sent out my own recorded idea on guitar. The drummer tossed out a suggestion at rehearsal, which really kicked us into a solid direction in terms of a feel that was different from the guitarist’s and mine. No egos got in the way; we simply ran with it, creating the progression quickly along with guitar and bass parts. The melody just synced right in with it all. We spent close to two hours on the process, locking things in and getting it squared in our memories as well as doing some on the fly recordings to help keep the concept intact. All in all, it was a very satisfying creative experience for all four of us before we went on to work on a few closer to the original version covers.

Making music should always be a creative venture, regardless of the format, genre or process. Whether you’re writing your own pieces, performing ones created by others or revamping an existing arrangement, there is always going to be a creative spark present, and when that spark is missing the music dies. Sometimes the creativity rests in the presentation of a pre-existing line, the interpretation of the feel, phrasing, or purely emotional content. Other times it is creating the actual line itself, writing the piece, and making it make sense to the listener as well as the musician. Regardless of the approach you choose to take, remember to do more than just play the notes.

The Working Band: The Importance of a Large and Varied Repertoire

One of the difficult things about being in a working band is coming up with a variety of repertoire that can serve you well regardless of the situation, particularly when your band is very genre specific. Artistic integrity is great, but quite frankly it doesn’t necessarily build a band following, and the inability to stretch outward to engage your current audience can be detrimental to future booking possibilities. This doesn’t mean that all bands have to be essentially live juke boxes; it just means that there needs to be give and take between the performers and the audience. Usually this means that the band needs to have a catalogue of tunes they can draw from that exceeds the three 45 minute sets standard, sometimes significantly. The deeper you can go with your repertoire, the better off you’re going to be when it comes to keeping your audience engaged and better your chances of being rehired at a potentially better rate in the future.

Bands that have an extensive catalogue of music to draw from have a definite leg up when it comes to building a following. For one thing it encourages varying the material present in the set lists. If your band has enough tunes for four sets, and plays those tunes at every gig, chances are you will end up losing people from their following because your band has become predictable, particularly when it gets to the point where the fans could even tell you what tune was charted next. When you have a deep pocket of tunes to draw from, this becomes a non-issue because you can program changes in material from gig to gig, and if it seems like the right thing to do, step outside of the current set list for something that the night’s current crowd might respond better to.

Having more repertoire that you “need” also has the benefit of enabling the band to be able to handle taking requests, something that is a major plus in building a following. This is a major form of interaction between the audience and the performers and if your band can’t, or won’t, take requests from the audience you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. If you’re dedicated to your particular genre, that’s not a big deal, just make sure that you can draw a large number of standard tunes out of your hat as needed. You don’t have to dedicate yourself to the top 40 of your area, but you need to be able to trot them out on an as needed/requested basis. It might offend your sense of artistic purity, but let’s face it if you’re going to get paid then you need to deal with being an entertainer and entertain your audience. So you have to trot out a few tunes that you’ve played more than you ever wanted to, it’s a small price to pay for being able to do the ones you really care about and it’s going to make the audience much more receptive to your personal indulgences.

Another benefit of a large catalogue to draw from is that it keeps things interesting for the performers as well. Playing the same thing, night after night and often in the same order, is a real interest killer not just for the audience but also for the band members. The broader the catalogue, the less you’re going to suffer from a lack of personal stimulus. If you find yourself so familiar with the same thing that you’re watching the bar TVs while you’re performing, it’s a bad sign. For one thing, you’re on auto-pilot which means that you might be playing everything right, but you have disconnected from what you have been hired to do, perform. For another, you have reached the point of boredom with what you are doing. It’s no longer fresh and you are simply not interested in it anymore. If you aren’t interested, then your audience isn’t going to be either, and if they aren’t then you’re going to have a hard time rebooking the band. And why are you doing this anyway?   One of the reasons we have chosen the path we’re on is a love of music. Performing in these situations sucks the life out of what we do, and can kill our relationship with our work faster than a team of athletes can wipe out a buffet after practice.

Variety is something that should be embraced. It keeps people interested in what we do, both as performers and as audience members. As musicians it is very important to realize that what we do involves a symbiotic relationship with our audiences, and it’s a relationship that needs to be nurtured just like any other; particularly if we want to encourage growth and a mutually beneficial outcome.   We need our audiences, and while we might not want to admit it, we need them more than they need us. Part of convincing them that they do indeed need us is giving them what they want: a good show, interaction, and the chance to forget about all of the crap they’ve had to deal with over the past few days, at least for awhile. One of the ways we can ensure that we’re doing so is by having a catalogue to draw from that keeps things interesting for everyone involved and also allows the audience to have a feeling of belonging. Being able to take a request from an audience member gives them that while showing that you care about them, and that you have an active interest in their happiness. Build your repertoire and broaden it on a regular basis. It’s a win win situation for everyone!

Choosing and Arranging Solo Guitar Material

When it comes to choosing and arranging material for solo guitar I’m quite eclectic in my tastes. Some folks have lines that they adhere to and seldom stray from a fixed perspective or type of musical genre. However, from my perspective anything and everything is fair game. In fact the genre in itself is rarely a consideration. I love and listen to all sorts of different styles of music from roots to classical, blues to jazz, from alt rock, to glam to prog rock, folk to a veritable a to z of musical genres. It’s all fair game.

Recently in addition to dusting off Villa-Lobos’ Preludes 3 & 4, I have started working on a new arrangement of a pop tune, while concurrently working through a couple others that have been under development for some time. I used to do this by sitting down with an instrument, some staff paper and a pencil, but I have moved away from this in favor of building gradual muscle memory, as well as a more improvisational approach. My memory starts keeping what seems to work best as I work through things, particularly since I’m working with tunes that I can essentially listen to in my head due to familiarity with them. Currently I’m working developing fingerstyle arrangements of “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, and “Reelin’ In the Years” from Steely Dan. I’m also working out “Birdland” by Joe Zawinul, which I had done a solo bass version of some time ago in E major, but am now working out in drop D on the guitar. I also have “Tom Sawyer” by Rush on the back burner, which I keep going back and forth on.

I seem to work best with this sort of thing when I’m working on multiple tunes at a time. While it might seem counterproductive in terms of time to completion, it keeps the process fresh for me and the reality of it is that even if I deem a piece to be performance ready today, it’ll probably be a bit different in a performance six months down the road. What I end up focusing on primarily is the structure of each piece, building a skeleton for the details to fill in later. It’s a gradual process that allows the pieces to develop and fill out as they may. I’ve found that if I lay out the essentials of the form, I will get from the beginning to the end with the bulk of what happens in between making sense. I’m also not necessarily a stickler when it comes to working note for note arrangements. I take liberties, sometimes cutting parts, other times adding things in, and sometimes playing it somewhat straight.

Some of the tunes I’ve worked with end up becoming pretty stabile and almost scripted from start to finish. My version of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” by Steely Dan is one of these. I’ve run this piece for several years now and it’s pretty much settled into what it’s going to be from here on, with a few minor variations. Others are set up to be more of on the spot improvisational bases, like what I’ve been working on with a theme “It’s a Gift to be Simple” which I sometimes run into a brief rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” These types of arrangements leave a lot of room to play around with some portions clearly planned and others open to spontaneity. The plus side is that it can sometimes work very well; the negative, if you’re going to crash and burn this is where it’ll happen.

The most important things that I consider when I choose material to work with are that it must speak to me, and it must end up being something that I’m going to be happy working with for an extended period of time. If these two criteria don’t work then I won’t pursue the piece. I’d rather invest the time on something that is going to run the distance. The next thing that matters is can I work it into something that will stand on its own primarily as a solo guitar piece. I like to sing, and I will sing, but it’s not my strongest ability, so it needs to be something that can work as an instrumental. After that, the last questions are can I make it work physically on the instrument, and can I make it be music and not simply a flashy technical exercise.

This approach suits me well, holds my interest and keeps me focused. Some arrangements fall together easily and take a surprisingly short amount of time to do so. Others take quite a bit longer while some simply don’t work out. If it’s something that I really want to do but I can’t seem to figure out how to, it goes on the back burner and gets cycled in and out for fresh attempts. If I work out an arrangement but lose the groove, it gets recycled until the groove works. If I can’t make it move, I don’t do it. While this approach might seem too gradual to some folks, and too scattered to others, it works well for me because for one thing it lowers my frustration levels with the process to almost nil, thus helping me stay relaxed and receptive to working with the tunes. It also suits my ability to concentrate. I end up with short bursts of hyper-focus that play out over a longer period than I can pull off focusing on only one thing.

One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that everyone has his or her own process that works. The one thing that they do have in common, however, is that these processes only work when they are applied. It might seem like a no shit statement, but you have to put in the time to make things work. Inspiration is great, but it’s more likely to happen when you have the instrument in hand, building something already. This is why I prefer to do arrangements of pieces that I already have some sort of relationship with, or find new pieces to build a relationship with before actually creating the arrangement. Half the battle in producing repertoire is figuring out what the process is that suits you best in choosing, creating and arranging the pieces you’re going to perform. Once you have a clear understanding of how this works best for you, your workflow on your project can be optimized, getting you up and running to your next gig with your new material much more efficiently, and with a whole lot less suffering to boot.