Monday, March 20, 2017

Joy Spring, Bach and Brown, Trumpets

Today is the first day of Spring. I first discovered jazz in the Spring... many years ago. This season always reminds me of my discovery and exploration of what was then a very new and exciting form of music for me. I was fully immersed in classical music at that time, but I had very recently discovered the Beatles and started down the path of rock music discovery. Jazz was right on it's heals. I played the violin in my high school orchestra. Our Music Director was a wonderful, charismatic man named Dr. Stephen Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence saw something in me that led him to believe that when the bass player for the jazz band graduated, I could step in and become the new bass player. Huh? Why me? I don't know ANYTHING about jazz. I don't play the bass. Dr. Lawrence said, "You play the violin right? Well, the bass is just like the violin...four strings, except upside down, and lower."
So my journey as a jazz bassist began in earnest. Along the way, I went to a record store (yes, VINYL 33 1/3 records) and picked out 2 records quite randomly. But as if by a miracle, both were quintessential jazz records that I still love to this day.
This all happened in early Spring of that year...1982. The records were "That Bop Thing" by Howard McGhee (1948)  and "Joy Spring" (1954) by Clifford Brown. Both were trumpet players.
"Joy Spring" will forever capture the feelings I had during that exciting time of my life. This song still feels like Spring to me.

Last year, I read an interesting essay called "Clifford Brown: The Bach of Jazz." This was published the The Art of Music Lounge: An Online Journal of Jazz and Classical Music by Lynn Rene Bayley.

I will admit, I did not sense "Bach" when listening to Clifford Brown. But I could tell he was something special. But this essay really got me thinking.

Howard McGhee's record also means a great deal to me. This song also feels like Spring.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Trio of Trios

I "discovered" three new works that I thought you should know about. They are all piano trios. A piano trio is a composition for piano, violin, and cello. I think an apt comparison in contemporary music would be the "power trio" from the rock world...guitar, bass and drums. The Police, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush, and Cream are good examples of power trios. Most bands going back to the beginning of rock 'n roll were 4 or more pieces with a vocalist. The power trio offered a much more sparse sound. The voices of the instruments and the vocals were more defined and clear. This resulted in greater clarity and power of sound. The same is true for a trio in the classical genre. Piano, violin and cello together create a unique structure and balance of sound. Harmony, rhythm, phrasing and melody share a huge space for development and ideas.

The first piano trio I stumbled across was Cesar Franck's Piano Trio in F sharp minor, composed in 1840 when he was 18 years old. This was one of his first published works. He wrote 4 such trios but this one stands out to me as the most exceptional. My first "love" for a Franck composition was his very famous Symphony in D minor (1888). I first heard this as a young child...probably 6 or 7 years old. It was one of the first records my dad gave me to listen to on my little record player. It had a pretty big scratch in it, which is probably why he gave it to me, but I didn't care. This huge orchestral piece became Franck's most recognizable and famous work. His piano trios are much lesser known. It took me 52 years to find them. I hope you take to it like I did.

Soon after I discovered the Franck Piano Trio, I stumbled upon the Piano Trio in C minor by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yes, the same Rimsky-Korsakov who gave us Scheherazade, Flight of the Bumblebee and The Russian Easter Overture. RK wrote his trio in 1897, but was not happy with it. He didn't think it was very good. He did not publish it and it remained unheard for more than 30 years after his death in 1908. His son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, finally brought it to light, completed it and published it. As with Cesar Franck, we have an opportunity to hear a composer known best for his orchestral works write for a very intimate ensemble, and the result is stunning. I don't understand why RK didn't think this was worthy of being heard. He obviously did not recognize how great it was. Here is the stunning third movement of the Piano Trio in C minor. When I first heard it, I could not believe it was does not sound anything like him. The opening 12 bars of this movement are incredible.

Lastly, I want to share the Piano Trio in C minor of Dimitri Shostakovich (1923). Unlike Franck and Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich was well known for his works for solo instruments and small ensembles, as well as his symphonic works. But his genius shines in the smaller setting of a trio. He was only 17 years old when he wrote this...a student at the Leningrad Conservatory....such a young age to be able to express such rich musical ideas. I found a citation in a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that said "there are plenty of hints in this piece of the late Shostakovich we all know, hints that did not please all of his instructors. One of Shostakovich's professors in the conservatory expressed his displeasure with the young composer's "obsession with the Grotesque," a comment which Shostakovich apparently took with some satisfaction." This work, despite coming from such a young person, is very complex and dynamic. It is beautiful, haunting, unnerving, and breathtaking.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Beethoven as SEEN at the KC Symphony

"A lot is going on at once allowing you to direct your attention where best you see fit in a given moment. It's like life that way." - Colin Fleming, referring to Beethoven's 8th Symphony

The program for the Kansas City Symphony last weekend (I was there Sunday Feb 16th) included Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. As is always the case at a KC Symphony concert, the sound was incredible. No surprise there. But what stood out for me was the visual nature of Beethoven's music. Just as our eye follows a basketball or tennis ball in said sporting events, one can also "follow the ball" of a Beethoven Symphony.  Unlike the previous piece on the program, a wonderful, ethereal work by young composer David Hertzberg called "for none shall gaze upon the Father and live" which requires utter silence to begin (made difficult due to Amber Alerts blowing up every one's phones and the multitude of chronic tuberculosis sufferers in attendance) the 8th blasts off without warning. Maestro Stern hopped up on the podium for the Beethoven and immediately "served" the ball to the strings...the opening fifteen note phrase. Then, with confident ground strokes and and pinpoint volleys, he guided the ball from section to section as musical themes and phrases developed and were passed around the stage. Maestro Stern really seemed to be having fun. He did not use a score and he moved all around the podium to get as close as he could to the musicians, who also seemed to be having a blast playing this amazing symphony.  In doing so, it helped the listener...or viewer I should say... see where the music "was." It really was fascinating. Another great reason classical music should be experienced in a concert hall whenever possible...especially in Kansas City!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Artist's Profile: Guitar Great Paul Gilbert talks about Classical Music

I confess that as of a few months ago, I had never heard of Paul Gilbert. One of his videos popped up on my YouTube suggestions list and so clicked it. It was a short clip of him playing Bach on an electric guitar at a guitar clinic here in Kansas City a few years ago. I was impressed and explored more of his work, which goes back 25 years now with several pretty big time rock bands, Racer X and Mr. Big. As I have written many times, I love the intersection of musical this case classical and rock. As I immersed myself in his interviews, tutorials and performances, it was obvious that Paul Gilbert is first, exceptionally talented, and second, a very humble, well adjusted artist...the kind of person you'd love to sit down with and have a cup of coffee and just talk about music. I was not able to coordinate a call with him, but he agreed to answer my questions via e-mail. Here you go.

1)      Did you hear classical music growing up?

PG: Yeah. My parents had a lot classical albums and listened to classical radio stations. They also had almost all the Beatles records, and lots of Rolling Stones. My dad listened to blues, a lot as well. And my mom played Carole King records quite a bit.

      2)      If so, do you remember what piece of music or composers you first connected with?

PG: At first, I didn’t like classical music at all. I immediately connected to the Beatles, and I would endlessly play air guitar along with the “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” albums. But my younger sister started taking ballet lessons, and one day she was dancing at home to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and it just hit me, that this was a great melody. I got my guitar and started figuring out how to play the main parts on guitar. That opened the door.

        3)    What is it about classical music that “grabs” you the most? 

PG: I like different things about different pieces. When I first started paying attention to Bach keyboard inventions, it was just exciting to hear so many 16th notes! And they were played so cleanly. The music had an athletic appeal, but at the same time the melodic patterns were beautiful and interesting. It’s a challenge on any instrument to be able to crank out two minutes of accurate 16th notes, and learning Bach keyboard music is such a good place to work on this kind of thing.
After my initial fascination with faster playing, I also discovered pieces like Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. The first time I heard that was on my car radio. I had to pull the car over! It was some of the scariest, most dramatic, and most beautiful music I had ever heard. I wish I could play that one on guitar, but a big orchestra is really better suited to the task.

        4)      I have enjoyed seeing the videos of you on YouTube playing music of Bach, Haydn, and other classical composers on the electric guitar….very cool. This may seem like a silly question, but why are you playing classical music on electric guitar? (lol)

PG: Some of my motivation is like climbing a mountain… “Because it’s there.” I like to challenge myself to see if I can do it. And I always learn so much. The problem is that I can never remember the pieces. It’s just too much to mentally retain. Like many rock guitarists, my sight reading skills are horrible, so I have to rely on memory.

        5)      When you play Bach or Haydn, for example, is it well received?

PG: At guitar clinics, it’s fine. The audience is there to listen and learn, and not looking to “rock out” like at a concert. I’m actually doing a long medley of songs from my whole career on my current tour, and I play a couple classical sections in there. I think they work really well, but they are short, so the audience doesn’t get upset that they are not rocking out. At a rock show, I don’t think I’ve ever played a complete classical piece. Oh wait, I did attempt a Bach Cello Suite during my unaccompanied solo years ago in Japan. I got nervous about halfway through and screwed it up, but I’m glad to at least have tried it.

We also used to play ELP’s version of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” with 
           Mr. Big. That had rock drums and worked really well.

        6)      I have talked to many professional musicians who have told me they don’t listen to music for enjoyment anymore…they want to get away from music since it’s what they do for a living. Do you still find time to listen to music for enjoyment? If so, is some of it classical music?

PG: I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I have significant hearing loss, so I mainly like to listen to music when there’s not much background noise. Also, even though music is more portable now “in theory” because you can fit a zillion mp3s into a small device. There is something about music on computers that I don’t like. Maybe it’s just iTunes. I hate iTunes so much. I’ve been so frustrated just trying to do the simplest things with iTunes, that I finally decided, I will NEVER use it again for anything. It’s not easy to remove it from your computer. But I researched and got rid of it. I want it gone. Seriously, that @#$Q#$%$% program has traumatized me. Whew, sorry. I’ve got to calm myself down. But I think a lot of the reason I don’t listen to music is because of the interface on computers. I bought a turntable the other day, and LOVED the experience of it. I had sold most of my vinyl collection years ago, but I still had a few that I couldn’t part with… including J.C. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A. That one I played with all guitars on my “Flying Dog” album. I re-titled it “Gilberto Concerto,” and one of the sections in the middle was the inspiration for part of the Racer X instrumental “Scarified.”
Soon after I got my new turntable, I wanted to get some more records. So I went to a local record shop and bought an armful of records. As I was driving away from the store, I got the weirdest feeling. I realized, “I just paid money for music.” How odd! I’m used to ripping it from YouTube videos, and then listening to it with The Amazing Slow Downer, so I can figure out sections that I’m interested in. But that’s not listening for enjoyment. For that, I know it’s a cliché, but I prefer vinyl.

          7)      I heard Steve Vai say that he had all of Gustav Mahler’s music on his playlist. He worked with Frank Zappa of course, who was very much into classical music. Along with Vai, do other musicians you work with or whom you are friends with, also listen to classical music?

PG: Well, my wife studied classical piano since she was three years old. Once in a while she’ll tackle some Rachmaninoff. Billy Sheehan, who plays bass in Mr. Big, likes a lot of classical stuff, and has worked out pieces before. We were driving in his car the other day, and he had a classical radio station on. Yngwie Malmsteen is the rock guitarist who is probably most associated with playing with a classical style. I love a lot of his early stuff. It’s both face-melting and beautiful.

          8)      In your travels and touring, do you feel today’s younger generations are open to the idea of classical music?
PG: Sure! Everybody gets excited about those 16th notes. When you’re first learning to play an instrument, technique is something that everyone wants, and classical music is a great place to develop it.

          9)      I recently interviewed Matt Palmer, a well-known classical guitarist. As a youngster, he started out as a metal “shredder” a la Randy Rhoads, but heard a Christopher Parkening CD as a teenager and was transformed by the sounds he heard. He switched to classical guitar, went to college to study and now has PhD in classical guitar, as well as a career. How about you? …do you play classical guitar, or do you want to? You obviously have the chops to play whatever you want!

PG: When I play classical music, I’m really still using a rock “grip” on the guitar and the sort of vibrato that you hear from blues and rs. A big part of playing rock guitar is controlling the potential noise that can happen when you use a loud, overdriven guitar sound. When I play one note, I’m working hard to control the other five strings, so they don’t ring, or feedback, or create other noises. I use very specific techniques to do this, and it requires that I hold the guitar and shape my hands very differently than what you see in traditional classical guitar. These rock techniques are so important for how I play that it hard to make the jump into playing traditional classical guitar. Even if all those noises are a non-issue, I still have the fear that the guitar could start howling and making noise. So if someone puts a classical guitar in my hands, I’m still going to play it like a rock guitar. That really doesn’t do justice to the instrument, and because the strings are made of different material my usual vibrato and bending don’t work very well. Mostly, it feels like all my superpowers are gone! So I tend to stick to electric.

          10)  Have you been to a symphony concert recently?

PG: No, not for a long time. With my hearing loss, I don’t go and see live music as much as I used to. I did see a classical pianist years ago that I really enjoyed. The ad for the show was something like, “His playing will make you cry in three notes.” And of course… he did.

          11)   If you were stranded on a desert island (but could still listen to music) what 3 classical composers’ music would you want to have with you? And why?

PG: Well, Bach is the obvious one. Bach isn’t necessarily my favorite composer to listen to now, but as a musical resource, it’s just such good stuff. If I some need melodic or rhythmic patterns to work on, I can always find some good ideas by figuring out a Bach piece. For listening, I might bring Scarlatti. His keyboard music isn’t as “heavy” as Bach’s music can be. If I wanted to put something on while cooking and eating dinner, Scarlatti could be good. And there are some ferocious licks in there too. Finally, I’d pick Silvius Weiss. He played and composed for the lute, and to my ear is similar to Bach, but still has his own flavor. Also, the lute is similar to guitar, but as an acoustic instrument, I prefer that way the lute resonates.

Thank you,


Here is Paul's website if you want to learn more about him:

Here is a video of him playing Bach on electric guitar:

 And as Paul referred to in Question 6 above, here is "Scarified." I'm not sure what's up with the orange spacesuits, but the you can clearly hear the classical influences of Johann Christian Bach. And like I told you above, he is a brilliant rock guitarist.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Classics in Commercials: Bach meets David Ortiz

Baseball fans will probably love the new Turbo Tax commercial that features David Ortiz, also known as "Big Papi". Ortiz retired in 2016 season after a great career, mostly with the Boston Red Sox. He will likely be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In this commercial, Ortiz has started a new career as a tennis instructor. As a hitter, he was famous for hitting home runs, after which he would drop his bat a admire his work. As a tennis instructor, he waits for the ball machine to fire the tennis ball over net, just as a pitcher would throw to the plate, He takes a huge two-handed baseball swing at the ball and knocks it out of the court, only to have it land hundreds of feet away somewhere in the tennis club causing destruction and chaos. Take a look.

Pretty hilarious I think. The music is Bach's "Air" from his Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major. It is one of the most recognizable and beautiful pieces of music ever written. I am usually always happy when classical music is used in commercials, films, TV programs, etc....But the producers of this commercial got it wrong if you ask me. I understand what they were attempting to do....Big Papi is at a snooty country club. They needed music to reflect this atmosphere, so they defaulted to classical, right? That's unfortunate. I have been saying all along in this blog that classical music need not be cast in that light. But even if you go along with it, THIS is not the piece to use. It does not fit that stereotype at all. The "Air" conveys...and this is my opinion of course...grace, understanding, peace, hope, redemption, and love. It is not stuffy and pretentious in any way, shape or form.
A swing and a miss for Initiative (Agency), and Wieden+Kennedy (Creative Agency).

Monday, January 2, 2017

Glenn Gould in Kansas City 1962

I have this beautiful album from CBS Masterworks, part of a four volume set released in the mid-1980's. Glenn Gould died in 1982. He had just completed recording the Bach Goldberg Variations for a second time. His first recording of these was released in 1956 and catapulted him to fame. So much has been written and debated about Gould as a pianist, performer and person. It is interesting to hear so many different opinions about him. Was Gould crazy? Or just eccentric? Or both? I love the quote from conductor George Szell about Gould: "that nut's a genius." Funny....but maybe more than just funny.
Gould detested touring and performing. He, like the Beatles, finally just stopped. He gave his last concert in 1964. But fortunately for those living in Kansas City, he did make one appearance here, on November 23, 1962. Here is the review in the Kansas City Star from 11/24/62.

Pianist Appears Here in Program of Byrd, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Berg
Intense Canadian Performs Before 2,400 Persons at Music Hall

By Clyde Neibarger
(The Star Music Editor)

    As many critics have already commented, Glenn Gould is an extraordinary pianist. For an audience of about 2,400 last night at the Music Hall, the Canadian played, in turn, works of William Byrd, J.S.Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Alban Berg, and a Brahms encore number in a manner that already is marking him as a legendary keyboard figure.
    His intense concentration is a thing to behold, as well as to listen to. Gould caresses the keyboard, except for the fortissimo passages, as in the Beethoven Sonata in E major, Opus 109, one of the composer's less-played numbers.
    Members of the audience felt, evidently, that his choice of music represented the classical masters but in there lesser known works. One felt that the listeners would have accorded him bravos and a real ovation, had he played a number or two that they recognized and could identify without consulting the program.
    Gould has a beautiful tone, especially in the softer passages, of which there were many. With a score before him at all times, he was an artist of remarkable gifts. His manner was somewhat eccentric, compared with the formal platform manner of most concert performers.
    His program opened with a composition by the early Englishman, William Byrd (1543-1623) that sounded much like Bach, except that it had especially melodious passages. It was evident at once that Gould has modified his keyboard mannerisms since this this reviewer heard him in 1961 in Vancouver. Gould uses little pedal, which makes the effect cleancut. His left hand bounces off the keys in climatic episodes. 
    The Bach Partita was given some of his warmest intensity. One pedal foot was always forward, but he often had one foot or the other drawn backward as a part of the interpretive drive. As he played the faster passages, his body had a sidewise rocking motion.
    The Haydn sonata, written about 1789, is in pure classical style, and Gould succeeded in making the Steinway's sound resemble that of the harpsichord of Haydn's time.
    After intermission came Beethoven's sonata, then the one-movement Sonata, Opus 1, by Alan Berg, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Berg's use of chords built on fourths was treated by him so that they were completely absorbed by the tonal structure.
    An enthusiastic round of applause brought the artist back for an extra number, in the classical-romantic vein, the Brahms Intermezzo No. 3, Opus 117.
    There had been times during the concert when people down front could hear Gould humming, and there were times when he seemed to be supplying words. He sat in a low chair, which made necessary arched wrists to level off with the keyboard from the lowered elbows.
    Gould has talked of plans to give all his time eventually to composing, where he believes he could get the best results. This reviewer urges him to keep on playing, and as time permits, compose, too.



Friday, December 16, 2016

Great Chords: Taras Bulba

I was very fortunate as a child to have access to formal musical training as a violinist. The program I studied in was called the University of Texas String Project in Austin, Texas (I'm happy to say this program is still going strong forty-four years later!). Along with violin lessons, I also had classes in music literature and music theory. The part of music theory class I enjoyed the most was chord analysis...there are many ways to play or "voice," for example, a C major chord. Expanding on that, there are multiple groupings of notes that can be hard to determine just what they "add up to." I wish I was more proficient at diagnosing chords, so I supplement my lack of knowledge by asking Dr. Reynold Simpson, associate professor of music theory at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, for help.
As I have stated in other "Great Chords" entries in this blog, when I listen to music, I am always on the lookout for cool chords....chords that stand out or have a particularly bold impact on me. Even just one chord has the power to shape or elevate a piece of music. This week, I re-listened to one of my all-time favorite pieces of music; Taras Bulba by Leos Janacek. This is an orchestral suite in three movements based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol. I have the score for this piece so I followed it as I listened. The chord I want to mention occurs in the third to last measure of the piece, following a large build and crescendo.(This awesome work also includes an organ which reappears for this finale.)

Here is what Dr. Simpson says about this chord: "You might think of this as a poly-chord, almost like Strauss' Elecktra Chord, except this combines an F-sharp dominant with an E-flat minor. The B-flat and G-flat of the E-flat minor chord are the same as the F-sharp and A-sharp in the F-sharp dominant, but the E-flat has a strong clash with the E-natural of the F-sharp dominant. The contrast of the chord is almost as odd as its placement in the harmonic progression as it inserts itself between the A-flat dominant and the D-flat tonic. Interesting sound."
If you have a piano, play an E and an E-flat at the same time. This will give you a simple idea of how this chord sounds.

American conductor Kenneth Woods wrote a great essay called "Janacek's blood-stained hands" published on August 10, 2010. Mr. Woods had just conducted a workshop in North Wales about Taras Bulba. His insights are fascinating. To quote Mr. Woods, "In Janacek, again and again we find chords and melodies that in other hands would simply be memorable-in his they become iconic and awe-inspiring."
And from this same essay, Mr. Woods lists several quotes from Janacek himself, including this:

"For me, the chord is a being full of life; a flower of blood in musical art."

Here is Taras Bulba performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Ancerl (1961). In my opinion, this is the finest recording of this work, ever.