Thursday, December 25, 2014

Whiplash

My father was a jazz aficionado. Big band jazz. He knew all the songs, all the players. Put on a track, he'd call it out within a bar or two, say who was playing on the track, and give details. While not being a player himself, he had spent hours upon hours upon hours listening to the music, studying it, breathing it, learning every detail. His favorite stories were of his time in the Army: the 19 times he saw Benny Goodman play, and of the one time at Fort Ord when he was the only person in a dining hall where Lester Young was practicing. When dad was 80, an old record would make him 20 again. That was the power of the best music.

Today, my 17- year old son is becoming a player. Not yet breathing it, really, not yet really studying it, but passionate enough. Big band jazz has long faded from being this country's pop music, it's still fairly standard for kids learning to play in high school combos. Aaron plays drums and double bass. His bass teacher recently had a recommendation: Check out the new movie Whiplash.

Yesterday, we saw the movie. It has a 96% rating over at rotten-tomatoes. JK Simmons will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the sadistic teacher Terence Fletcher, and Miles Teller is wonderful as the young conservatory drumming student Andrew Neiman, even though at age 27 he doesn't quite pass for 19. There are certainly many things to like in this movie: Its intensity; its colorful -- maybe too colorful -- use of language; that it doesn't tie up every loose end or give a clear sense of what's next for any of the characters, that its focus seems clearly on the making of music. To the extent that technology seems almost forcefully kept out: Sure, there are cell phones and headsets, but there's no electronic music, and a near-total absence of computers. When young Andrew listens to Buddy Rich, it's from a CD. On a boombox.

Whiplash also required a few suspensions of disbelief: Plot twists that made no sense at all, including the seemingly obligatory crash scene (didn't I see that in Not Fade Away?); an absurdly passive-aggressive sequence in the closing scene; a romance that never even gets to first base before the inevitable teary break-up.

I've read that writer / director Damien Chazelle based the story at least in part on his own experiences in high school. And it's great as story telling, fantastic as psychological drama.

But then I start thinking about the music and how it gets presented. I wonder why, in a music form historically dominated by African-Americans, this story is of a titanic struggle among white guys. (Yes, many of the musicians are black, but not the two principals, nor any of the drummers.) This is hardly anything new, of course; wasn't the big climax of The Cotton Club a scene in which Richard Gere committed a crime against Louis Armstrong's solo for Big Butter and Egg Manonly to have it presented as some kind of "triumph"? I wonder about what it means to be a young musician, today: is the goal really to make an astounding version of Caravan, a standard from the 1930's? I wonder about defining jazz: My father's jazz, I don't think was about playing faster or harder or "at my tempo." It was more about feel, it was about swinging the beat.

I watched the performances in the movie, admittedly with first-rate players throughout and a must-see version of Caravan to close. Then I came home and watched a youtube of a 1952 performance of Caravan by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, featuring the song's composer Juan Tizol on valve trombone. About midway through the song, the video shows Ellington at the piano, clearly enjoying himself during the performance (joy being noticeably absent from the musical performances in Whiplash). Then the camera pans over the the incomparable Louie Bellson on drums. Bellson was just 27 at the time -- the same age as Teller now. He seems barely to move. No blood on the skins, no sweat flying from his brow. Not that Bellson couldn't pound the living hell out of the drums, there are plenty of youtubes of that, too. But, mu does this 62-year old video swing like nothing at all in Whiplash.

I'm interested to know what my friends from college band think, especially those who went beyond the concert band (my personal limit) to play in various stage bands or competition outfits. Aaron's teacher said he'd had teachers somewhat like the movie's Terence Fletcher, if not quite so exaggerated. He's not going for a conservatory, he's not at that level. But still best to be prepared?

One time, maybe 30 years ago, I gave my dad a Glenn Miller record. Miller had served during WWII like my dad, and while stationed at Yale he had played on the same stages where I'd played. My dad turned up his nose. "I never liked Glenn Miller," he told me. When I asked him why, his answer was simple: "They never missed a note."

If they never made a mistake, it was too easy, my dad explained. But there was more to it than that: The best performances weren't about technical perfection or athletic prowess. When Louis Armstrong sang, just before his famous Big Butter and Egg Man solo, "and if you say it's necessary, baby, why I'll even hit high C," he laughed; it was play, played for the music and also played for love and for joy. The solo that follows is pure genius, but I suspect that no amount of pushing from a loveless taskmaster could have created it. The movie repeats the story of Jo Jones throwing the cymbal at Charlie Parker's head, but in the end my feeling is that cymbal had little to do with Parker's musical achievements.
I liked this movie, more than not. I even liked the closing sequence, for all of its passive-aggressive ambiguity (or maybe because of it) and despite the nagging sense that the ending is a Cotton Club style "triumph." For Aaron, it's an interesting study, an exaggeration of what could be if he becomes more serious. But I also wondered whether my dad the big band jazz aficionado would have liked it. My suspicion is that he might have liked that a movie presented "his" music at all, and then... rejecting the whole thing after the final performance.

After all, Whiplash didn't miss a beat.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Joy and a Lot of Wonder -- Stevie Wonder, November 20, 2014

Playing Sir DukeL Stevie Wonder at The Palace of Auburn Hills, November 20, 2014
Songs in the Key of Life has always been, to me, the perfect album. An album of astonishing breadth, both topically and musically. An album in which every note, every utterance, seemed perfectly placed. The album that taught me why a great double album might have side one on a different disc than side 2, because of course I'd want to hear all 4 sides in order without having to get up so often to flip the disc. The album in which the "bonus" EP - though played far less often - was still superb.

I've seen Stevie play before, including once in Malmö, Sweden. But never behind this album. This tour, this short tour of just 11 dates, had "don't you dare miss this" all over it. Never mind the ticket price, this was a treat.

Thursday's snow storm resulted in a very late arriving crowd, and Stevie didn't take the stage until almost 9:15pm, more than an hour after the scheduled start time. Aided to the front of the stage by the luminous India Arie, Stevie gave a short introductory talk to his home area crowd, saying he was "keeping it real" before settling down to the keyboards for Love's In Need Of Love Today. Were there missed notes? Uhhh... no. Are you kidding? He didn't miss a note all night.


For Have A Talk With God, Stevie brought out India Arie for their first singing duet, and also Frédéric Yonnet to play harmonica. Village Ghetto Land featured the string section -- a major improvement to me over the synthesized sound on the album -- with Stevie inserting "still in 2014" in to the final line of the final verse, just to drive home the point that in too many ways nothing has really changed. On Contusion, he allowed the band to cut loose, and the audience for the first time really got to experience just how good his ensemble is (I counted 21 on stage in all, not counting Stevie, Yonnet, India Arie or the string section assembled locally just for this performance). Then, of course, the two blockbuster singles, with a totally joyous Sir Duke and a version of I Wish that just about blew the roof off the building.

Stevie didn't quite follow the album script precisely (not that there'd be anything wrong with that); after Knocks Me Off My Feet he seemed to improvise a 15-minute jam session, principally engaging Keith John (son of Little Willie John) in an astonishing vocal call-and-response, sandwiched around something, a middle-eastern melody of sorts, that Stevie said might become a new song. I'm told he didn't do that in New York, or at least didn't do that for 15-minutes. All that, leading to Pastime Paradise, engaging the strings again and now with the singers now singing "We Shall Overcome" in place of the album's Hare Krishna chant.
A little saxophone right here! Ebony Eyes,

After Ordinary Pain - in which his daughter Aisha (the subject of Isn't She Lovely) - played a major role, Stevie inserted the first two tracks from the EP. An excellent decision, as those tracks deserved a hearing other than as a postscript. It was always hard to put on that EP after side 4, and anyway the EP never played right unless I took off the LPs first. While listening to Saturn a couple days before the show, the lyrics "We can't trust you when you take a stand / with a gun and bible in your hand" stood out to me in a way I hadn't really noticed before. Before playing the song, Stevie gave an impassioned plea regarding gun violence (this being the evening after yet another school shooting), asking those audience members who agreed with him to stand. Most -- not all -- stood. Stevie pledged love for those who disagreed with him.

By this point it was intermission. At nearly 11pm, it was intermission. Enough time for us all to stand, get a beer, and say, more or less, this is a really good day to be alive, and here.

The emotional highlight of the 2nd set was Joy Inside My Tears. Stevie wiped away tears while playing it, and was openly sobbing at its end.

The late start did not mean a shorter show; just the opposite. It seemed Stevie wanted to honor the fans who "weathered the snow" (yes, he said that, I'm pretty sure) by just playing longer and longer.

Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing. Stevie Wonder and India Arie
About those encores, which didn't even start until after midnight: They were an exercise in joyous sadism. Stevie adopted an alternate persona. "My other name, is 'DJ Tick Tick Boom.' The way is works in this: You pay, we stay. If the price is right we'll jam all night." In which he'd land on one of his many hits, dial it up for a few second or maybe a verse or two with the band, and then... blow it up. Part-Time Lover? ok!! Boom! Uptight (Everything's Alright)? Yeah!!! Boom!!! Too High? Wow! Boom!!! Higher Ground? YES!! BOOM!!! And now, let's stop the DJ thing and bring on the live band: Do I Do??? Amazing, let's hear that Dizzy Gillespie solo!!! Boom!!! All I Do??? Sounds great, India Arie can do Michael Jackson's harmonies any time!!! Boom!!! If he'd had any more "I Do" songs, he might've spun those, too.  Master Blaster (Jammin')? Yeah!!! And that band can cook those songs. And... Boom!!!

Finally, Stevie issued one more challenge: If the audience could pick out the song based on the first two notes, he'd play the whole thing. No problem at all, we got a gorgeous version of My Cherie Amour, a song that's probably older than most of those in attendance. Superstition rocked the house and closed the show, sometime around a quarter to one. Stevie also said that he'd like to bring the band back to Detroit after the tour for a holiday charity show.

If you have a chance to see this tour, don't hesitate. See it. It's as good now as the album was then. Better, in fact.
Rocking out at the Palace. Part of Stevie Wonder's band.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

I'm With the Band

September 19: Full house for homecoming.
Today is recovery day.

Yesterday the West Bloomfield High School Marching Band, including both kids, performed at The Michigan Competing Bands Association (MCBA) State Finals at Ford Field in Detroit. The band finished in 9th place in Flight I, with a score of 88.125. Two years ago, that might as well have been written in Greek, but today I can translate every word of it.
August 22: At band camp.September 5: For the first half of the first game, the dress stayed casual.
Two years ago, I would never have expected to become a band dad. Aaron's school didn't even have a marching band, just a loose-knit ensemble of a few kids in a quasi-rock band that played various school events. They did ok, we had no complaints. Aaron played guitar, but with the encouragement of the group's advisor, he also tried electric bass, and it stuck. He started private lessons.

Then he decided to transfer to WBHS.

WBHS didn't have an ensemble, but they had a marching band. And the marching band had a pit section. And the pit section had a spot for an electric bass. Aaron had a new musical home.

A competing marching band in Michigan bears little resemblance to the high school bands of my youth in New Jersey. WBHS starts practicing in July. Once the school year starts, they practice for 3 hours after school, 3 days a week. Then there are competitions: two in September and then 3 more on October Saturdays, leading up to the state finals.
October 11. Final run-through for pit 
and battery before the Plymouth-Canton invitational.
October 11. The show was called "Rise and Fall."
This was the rise.
After playing in the pit last year, Aaron decided he wanted to march. So he quickly learned drums and tried out for tenor. Along the way, he talked Elianna in to trying out for vibraphone; she'd never played an instrument and she wasn't even a high school student or at one of the district's middle schools, but somehow she made it in. Being the right age and being resident in the school district is sufficient.

My involvement started in September. The band was heading to a competition in Dayton, Ohio. They needed more parent chaperones. They sent out an email. I looked at my calendar. I could do this. So I signed up to be with the band.

27 bands from 8 states showed up at Dayton's Welcome Stadium. For WBHS, it would be a chance to see some of the better regional bands, and to gauge our progress. My job was basically to make sure the kids didn't get lost during dinner, that they got to bed by the 11pm curfew, and that they were up the next morning in time for 6:30am breakfast at the hotel before playing at 9:45am. As long as I was there, I worked the pit crew, too. My assignment was to get a speaker stack on to the field for the performance, and off the field within 2 minutes after the performance. WBHS finished 24th place. But everyone seemed to have a good time.

October's 3 MCBA competitions would determine our seeding for state finals. We went as spectators twice and got to see the competition. For the other one, I looked at my calendar and realized I could work pit crew. I pushed a ramp up the hill to Clarkston's football stadium, and then out to the 10 yard line where the band used it in the show.

The rise. October 18th. Clarkston Invitational.
October 25th. Waiting to begin the show at Huron Valley.The fall. October 25th.
Huron Valley Invitational, where the wind scored points.
The pit crew is responsible for ensuring the band's equipment makes it to and from the field. The band has an 18-wheel truck, and before every performance it is loaded with the props and the larger instruments. Before departure, the volunteers -- usually with a lot of help from band members -- load the truck in a specified order, led by a couple senior volunteers who have been around and can direct matters. Upon arrival, it's time to unload the truck and to assemble the various props. This year the band used 5 ramps that were acquired from an Akron-based band earlier this year; for each show the ramps had to be re-assembled, taped, and put on wheels to get them to the field. In exchange for the work, the pit crew is excused from paying the admission fee to the show (though typically the unloading/loading activities prevent seeing most of the other bands), and the pit crew can join the band for whatever pre-show food is offered by other parent volunteers.

After the 2nd competition in October, WBHS had settled in to 9th place in the Flight I standings. Flight I consists of the largest schools in the state. At 83 band members, WBHS can't realistically produce as much sound as bands of 150-200 or more kids, so we need other factors -- visuals, precision, etc. -- to work well. But there are also internal goals: can the band improve each week? There are inevitably mishaps along the way: missed notes, dropped flag tosses, bad weather (during the last competition in Huron Valley, a strong wind led to both prop walls and performers falling over). But, we hoped, it would all work out for state finals.
November 1: It's 8:30 am and freezing. Time to rehearse!!November 1: Loading the truck. Destination Detroit.
State finals day started with rehearsal at 7am in blustery icy conditions on the WBHS football
field. By 9am the truck was loaded, and after a quick breakfast we headed down to Ford Field for a last warm-up and assembly of the props.

Getting down to the field at the stadium required a traverse down a very long, steep ramp. So steep that the MCBA provided wood blocks along the way to rest equipment during the frequent stops.

Bands play at 15 minute intervals, in reverse order of the standings. We started down the ramp at 12pm, while the 12th-place band was playing. We were not allowed to assemble in the end zone until half an hour later, when 10th-place Clarkston was playing.
Ford Field. At the end of the ramp, waiting to take the field.
Finally, it was WBHS's turn. I pushed the speaker stack I'd be assigned to the 30-yard line where the guitar player plugged in. The kids played their hearts out. Not that there weren't mishaps: in part due to the morning's wind, one streamer wasn't where Aaron was expecting, and he ended up running around the field holding air. An excellent acting job, I thought. The band scored its highest point total in 3 years.

After packing up the truck, everyone went back in to the stadium to watch the final 4 bands in Flight I. Pit crew normally aren't supposed to re-enter, but a few of us just played chaperone (the band needed a few, anyway). We're with the band.

Finally, the band had one last return and dismissal by 5pm, with complete exhaustion on all sides.
Elianna liked playing vibraphone. But she might want to try Color Guard next.
This is the only year that Aaron and Elianna could play together. Aaron will be off to whatever is next, next year. Elianna says she wants to try color guard.

For now, they get their afternoons back. Next week is the annual banquet. They'll get their patches for varsity jackets -- something Elianna won't even be eligible for until she enters high school next year. And they can say, "we played at Ford Field. We were in the band."
Running with air: At the state finals. Ford Field, Detroit. (photo: Cindy Lou Semrau)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tambourines and Elephants: John Fogerty at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, July 30, 2014

John Fogerty at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater (photo: John Fogerty facebook page)
Growing up, I had 3 musical heroes. First, there were the Beatles. And eventually there was Bruce. But along the way, there was also Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR released just 7 studio albums. Six of those albums were crammed in to an amazing 30 month period, as John Fogerty cranked out 3-minute masterpiece after 3-minute masterpiece.

Being too young to see CCR play, I waited... a long time. I didn't see John play live until the 1990s, and last night was still just my 4th show -- and two of the other 3 weren't full length performances.

In recent years, John has come around as an opening act for performers like John Mellencamp and Jimmy Buffett. No offense to those guys, but... really? I couldn't bring myself to pay money to see Fogerty in that role, not for artists I didn't especially want to see otherwise, not even this past Saturday when Fogerty opened for Buffett in Detroit and groupon was selling $150 tickets at an 80% discount. I'll stand being stuck in Porterville or Lodi with John any time, but oh Lord keep me away from Margaritaville. So it was a blessing when I saw a Fogerty date for Toledo, just 4 days afterwards, and more so when 2nd row center seats opened up online the night before the show.

John Fogerty and band onstage at the Toledo Zoo amphitheater
The Toledo Zoo is barely an hour from home. Its amphitheater holds 4500 people and feels more intimate than that. The biggest problem is getting to the beautiful venue: there's only one main route from home to get there, and all it took was one car fire on the highway to make us late for the show. By the time we parked the car in one of the many free lots, we could hear Born on the Bayou coming up from the stage; recent setlists suggest that was the already the 4th song of the evening. At least someone had stopped the rain.

After missing -- and nearly not recognizing -- Lodi during the walk up Broadway Street, we finally made it to will-call (our tickets ended up being hand-scrawled notes on a piece of paper) as John and the band started up Lookin' Out My Back Door. Such a fitting song for a zoo! Especially for a zoo that actually has elephants.

Though I hadn't seen Fogerty in nearly a decade and hadn't been following recent setlists, I pretty much knew what to expect: most (if not all) of the Creedence hits, a few Creedence album tracks (often, the hidden gems), a few songs from John's 1985 comeback Centerfield album, and a scattering of more recent songs. After Lookin' Out My Back Door, the band played Hot Rod Heart, a sentimental cruising track off the 1997 album Blue Moon Swamp. At this point, anyone who hadn't noticed yet, and who wasn't paying too much attention to the various hotrods being flashed up on the video screen, would surely realize that yes, Kenny Aronoff is playing the drums of God. Besides Doug "Cosmo" Clifford, there is no one alive I'd rather see backing up Fogerty; Aronoff's very big beat suits Fogerty's songs that well.

John Fogerty, Kenny Aronoff and James Lomenzo on stage in Toledo.
At age 69, John has lost much of the rasp in his voice, but he still has much of the upper register intact, which he demonstrated especially on slower numbers such as Long As I Can See the Light. He also demonstrated prowess on lead guitar, extending several solos. At various points during the 2-hour set, John stepped aside to allow the other band members (Bob Malone, James Lomenzo, Devon Pangle and John's son Shane Fogerty) have the spotlight as well. Fogerty had fun with the audience, even engaging in occasional banter with friendly hecklers. The mostly older crowd surprisingly adhered reasonably well to a "no photographs" policy for much of the show.

Though in a sense the evening's centerpiece was its one new song, the reflective Mystic Highway ("Lately I begin to wonder / How it's all going to end / After all the flash and thunder / Then it's gone with the wind"), the show was mostly a romp through the hits, closing with the completely predictable -- and just as satisfying -- sequence of Fortunate Son, Bad Moon Rising, and Proud Mary. More than half of last night's 25 songs can be found on the Chronicle compilation. Better yet, all of last night's performances will be available for download from Fogerty's website by this time tomorrow.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fourth of July, Lake Walloon

July 3, 2014
One of the few vacations we take is a trip to Michigania Family camp. This is a one week camp on Lake Walloon in Northern Michigan. For us, this has meant celebrating July 4th at camp. Sometimes the camp celebration is on July 3rd or July 5th due to details of the camp schedule. This post is a retrospective of some pictures from July 4th celebrations at camp.

July 4, 1999
1999
Our first year camping as a family, and July 4th was our first full day of camp. It was very hot, and Aaron -- then 2 years old -- was already a ball of sweat when I took this photo of him trying on my sunglasses. In the background is the old dining hall.

July 4, 2002
2002
Elianna was 14 months old. The heat broke just in time for the parade.

July 4, 2006
2006
Elianna, now age 5, at Ceramics, Arts and Crafts, working on a project.

July 4, 2008
2008
July 4th was the last day of camp in 2008. This is Elianna at the closing ceremony, overlooking the lake.

July 4, 2010
2010
Aaron doesn't usually get his face painted, but when he does it's probably July 4th.

July 4, 2012
2012
Elianna in The Hat.

Michigania just passed its 50th anniversary and has been collecting memories from campers. These are some of our memories.