Category Archives: music

A Tale of Two Mothers

2019 has seen two very promising releases in the Zappa Influence/Tribute genre, and it is only March! On one hand it is Liverpool’s Finest, The Muffin Men, aka the “Flab Four”. On the other is Michel Delville and The Wrong Object, Belgium’s answer to “What if you were very good at pretty much everything?” Both groups have been working at a high level for quite some time, and they both deliver the goods.

Roddie and the boys go first:

The Muffin Men have been at this game as long as anyone I can think of. They have hosted Jimmy Carl Black, Ike Willis, Denney Walley and many other guests at their tours and live shows. I was lucky enough to see both of these bands at the Moo Ah Festival in Corby, England, and I have seen the Muffinz at Zappanale as well. Both bands deliver an excellent live experience, but what about on repeat listening?

I sent some e-cash over to Roddie Gillard (£5 plus £2 P&P for UK, £2.50 for Europe, £3 for USA. paypal roddiemuf@hotmail.com and don’t be shy to round up that conversion for international shipping. That’s a steal.) for a copy of “(It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018“. What I got back was worth it, and then some. I know the Muffinz are heavy, as their incredible Fairies Wear Boots / Brown Shoes Don’t Make It mashup has proven to me already. This rekkid is heavy business in the same way. The band is tight, powerful, and funky in the way Zappa’s 1988 band would understand. They also sound like a much larger ensemble by keeping the arrangements tight, especially between keys and horns.

Opening with a super-tight Peaches is a good sign, and the album seems to just keep geting better (is that possible, I thought). The arrangements are more direct than some of the Zappa versions you might be familiar with, delivering a little more instant gratification. That is not a bad thing. As you stick with it you get to the meat of the CD which to me is Easy Meat / Village of the Sun / The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing… If you aren’t cranking the hell out of that I can’t help you. Nobody can. This is to my mind a benchmark of how it is done. In a world where shows are often poorly paid, poorly attended, and the travel is cramped and tiring, the Muffinz hit the stage with the goal to sound like they are playing Wembley (Anfield, actually!). Jumpy, Rhino, and Roddie have been the stable core of this band for so long that I have come to expect this kind of performance. Hearing them deliver on it, as I was not in the UK in 2018 [damn], is almost like being there. Some of the nuances are straight out of the Zappa catalog, while others are nods to the classics, often winking at the greats of the UK rock scene and beyond. It makes for a great record, especially cranked up as the soundtrack for a long drive. If you are still on the fence regarding what passes for bands playing the music of Frank Zappa this should burn the fence down. Get on with it!

Next up is a Mother of a Different Color, The Wrong Object’s Zappa Jawaka (order info at link) Michel Delville is the kind of guitarist I love to listen to. He can wear his influences on his sleeve and still sound like himself. His preference is to be in the ensemble unless coming to the fore is necessary. When he does he straight-up shreds. The Wrong Object is a powerhouse group, and while I am not genre/idiom dropping, they opeerate where eagles dare. Where many bands switch gears with a magician’s flourish, the Wrong Object method is more seamless, more compositional. The stylistic shifts happen at full tempo, on the beat. This is the kind of precision and composition I have heard in this context from Corrie van Binsbergen (Look her up, do it now) and very few others. All of that is on display with Zappa Jawaka, an homage to Zappa in a very progressive and modern fashion.

The Wrongs can drop your jaw with Zappa-authenticity, but they are also free to do that in many other ways. That freedom allows the band to play to their strengths and use the compositional framework as exactly that. There is an intent and a precision to this band, without sounding stilted or over-rehearsed. Make no mistake, this album gets very heavy. Not that I should have been surprised. Michel’s work with Tony Bianco in Machine Mass is not for the soft-prog-wallpaper crowd (pro tip: Machine Mass Plays Hendrix is a great disc).

Not unlike The Muffinz “Smoke and Mirrors“, there is gold right in the heart of this disc. “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” gets the respect it deserves, which is much. And did I say Zappa Authenticity? Hell yes I did. This rendition is worth the price right there. The Wrongs gave me reason to do a double take with the spot-on vocal and arrangement. It also sets the stage for a divine and sublime Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge mashup. This recording is heavy where it needs to be, free where it needs to be, and frankly klezmer-esque where it makes all the sense in the world. While this album is a studio effort, it has the open feel and flow of a live recording. I don’t hear any telltale overdubbing or looping or effects. It is the sound I recognize from their live performances.

These two recordings display the Zappa legacy on two different stages. The Muffinz rock those small club stages across the UK and elsewhere. The recording needs to be played LOUD. It has that rock-club-recording grit to it and to my ears it just makes it better. The performances are not, however, simplistic and dumbed down. They are full of all the “eyebrows” a Zappaphile demands. There is no velvet glove, just the iron fist of power and precision. While it might sound like I am setting the Wrongs up as a more delicate Object, I am certainly not. This band delivers in a different manner, but not a less effective manner. You feel it in the way they game the Zappa system, lulling you into a feeling of comfort then dropping the hammer with something unexpected. Possibly more to the point: The Wrong Object sounds like The Wrong Object playing Zappa (I’ll be reviewing their new release Into The Herd very soon), where the Muffinz sound like Zappa and more Zappa!

You really want to see both bands live, and if that is not possible, listen to both records. [Updated for spelling and clarity on 19 March 2019. pb] Here are the lineups:

The Muffin Men – (It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018 – Ian Jump (Jumpy) guitar, vocals; Roddie Gillard – bass, vocals; Rhino – drums, vocals; Phil – keys, vocals; Michael – sax, vocals. Peaches en Regalia, Cosmik Debris, Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, City of Tiny Lights, Jones Crusher, Easy Meat, Village of the Sun, Pick Me I’m Clean, The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing, I’m The Slime, Advance Romance, Whipping Post

muffins-smoke-mirrors-back-1

The Wrong Object – Zappa Jawaka – Michel Delville – guitar; Pierre Mottet, bass; Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, samples; Marti Melià – tenor sax, clarinet, vocals; François Lourtie – tenor and soprano sax, vocals. Wonderful Wino, Mr Green Genes / King Kong, Big Swifty, This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich / The Sealed Tuna Sandwich Bolero, Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge, Sleep Dirt, Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy, I’m The Slime

wrong-object-jawaka

The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers

An Old/New Photo Gear Mashup

As I divest from my Nikon APS/DX gear there have been some moments for reflection on what I actually want to be taking pictures with. The move away from Nikon was about size, weight, and handling. The Olympus Micro Four Thirds (M43) gear is a pleasure to use. It is light and has both a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a good tilting LCD display (some models swivel). So I can shoot eye-level, waist-level and overhead. Most of my photography has me doing all three and I don’t want to have a lot of lag (Live View, I’m looking at you) or a murky display or a display that doesn’t tilt both ways. Nikon is having some serious not-growing-pains as they stake out the DSLR market and can’t put out a mirrorless system that people want. See the previous post for a pre-mortem on that subject.

I enjoy manual focus photography, though I have become so used to Aperture Priority mode with easy exposure compensation adjustment that I only shoot manual in very specific circumstances. The OM-D and PEN cameras have a good focus peaking system and make manual focus easy enough.

But what about old-school manual focus? Well, I mated up a very nice non-AI Nikkor-P 105/2.5 that I picked up for a song on eBay to my E-M10 with an el-cheapo K&F Nikon (G) to M43 adapter. That would normally be a recipe for disaster since non-AI lenses can bust the aperture feeler on modern Nikon gear, but the adapter works like a champ!

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Ben Bilello

In short: The Oly doesn’t use focus-peaking on a manual lens, but the EVF on the Oly is bright and clear enough to make manual focus a snap. It also deactivates the image stabilization, so it is really a throwback experience. On the plus side it meters in “fake aperture-priority mode”! You have to view at the aperture you want to use, and the camera sets an appropriate shutter speed. Even the exposure comp works.

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Vance Provey

I’ll probably look for a similar AI or AI-S version, plus a wide, to use on my ancient D200 body as well as with the adapter to M43. The non-AI mount may not have bodged the sub-$20 adapter guts, but it will wreck the D200’s innards.

Merry Go Round…

I have been home for a week from my trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. I m almost all the way back in terms of gastrointestinal flora and my need for a constant supply of soft, delicious, cellar temperature ales.

There was a voice in my head, and also coming from a few friends: You went 3,000 miles to spend two nights listening to some geezers play Zappa music? Well, Yes. Of course I did. First of all, for several reasons, there is nothing like that going on in the USA. Europe has been a bit of a safe haven for people who include Zappa music in their repertoire. Firstly, the audience gets it. Secondly, there is much less interference and bullying from the Zappa family. The same event, held in Connecticut, would have received threats of legal action. Not might-have. Would-have.

Additionally, I get to see old friends that I have met at Zappanale, or putting faces with people I only know from their internet presence. That is a lot of fun. Having a chat and a pint with a new friend is a special event. I don’t take it for granted.

Lastly, the performances always have a side effect. That is usually a revelation, insight, or reference that leads to an “a ha” moment. This festival was full of those. Here is one….

One of the mysteries of the tribute-band world, and I will stay specifically on the subject of Zappa tributes, is that often the best shows to be at don’t hold up when you listen to the recording. The event often trumps the content. As a musician that has often left me puzzled. This festival cleared it up for me once and for all (for now).

I will start with a stark comparison:

In the red corner: Zappa Plays Zappa is a great band, well rehearsed, all the notes in the right place, excellent arrangements, and they bore me to death. I have stated before that Dweezil has the personality of a wet ball of yarn, but then I received several delightful videos from wet yarn balls. Point taken. I will repeat: Great Band. If you are looking to hear spot-on performances, they are the best of the best. Aside from their connection to She Who Shall Not Be Named, I wish them all the best (they are on tour as I type this).

In the other corner, Acton Zappa.

Acton Zappa

They opened the Moo Ah festival. A new band that worked their asses off to play power-trio versions of some Zappa compositions, and had a lot of fun doing it. I had met their guitarist, Mike Fox, before and it was great to see him taking a band onto a stage and “cranking some Frank”. I am in no hurry to hear the audio from that set. To be honest, no more than I am to hear the audio from the set my pickup band played on the Kamp in Bad Doberan in 2009. The idea was not stunning technical performances. The idea was to have fun. Fun, dear reader, is something that Frank Zappa himself exemplified. Whether it was his constantly evolving sense of humor, sense of indignation, glee at leading his amazing bands… Fun. M-F’in FUN. Acton Zappa had fun. Well done, boys!

The Referee: Ideally you would have both. A band like the Muffin Men (Liverpool boys, aka the “Flab Four”) pulls that off beautifully. They have the music under their fingers and can play with a power and fluidity that eludes many other groups. You wouldn’t know it to look at them but the boys can crush you with a Sabbath cover as easily as a tricky Zappa passage. When they mash up Faeries Wear Boots with Brown Shoes Don’t Make It they do both at once.

Muffin Men

OK, metaphor exhausted, the Big One in terms of epiphanies was that the best acts to see are not the bands trying to recreate a specific Zappa lineup, or record, or concert.. That is impossible. You will never get it right. There is no amount of rehearsal that will do it. You are not good enough. There is no Frank to lead you through it. You are doomed to fail. Turn back now. That goes for Zappa alumni, and Zappa progeny. Your best bet is to work very hard, learn the parts as a unit, and be yourself at the end of the process. Yes, if you play St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast you will have to play the marimba lick, and play it well. Or you just bend a string like… and let the notes fall where they may. But between those poles is certain failure.

In order to be fully smacked in the head by this concept I had to take one of my favorite observations, and then actually observe it: There are more Zappa alumni playing Zappa music at this moment than at any time since 1988. With a few exceptions they are not trying to recreate any specific era. They are skilled musicians who have had time to come to grips with their own skills, desires, emotions, and the music they worked so hard to perform. Banned From Utopia, Grand Mothers: Re-Invented, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Ed Mann… even Terry Bozzio still plays the Black Page at clinics and the occasional festival (erghhhhhhhhhh, sorry). I believe that it took time for Frank to be far enough away, in all senses, for the musicians he employed to break free from his shadow. It is enough to play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart. There is a lot of that going on out there if you are interested. I think Z3 is kicking major ass at the moment, fwiw.

Whether you were in the band for one tour, twenty years, or never, that is the bar: “play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart.”. To fail at that is to fail yourself and fail The Master.

It’s About That Time

I have a gig coming up and am taking time each day to get up to speed. Prepping for a gig can be as much or as little as you make it. Want to be uber-prepared? Get busy about two weeks ahead, daily work. If it is very charty, that would be 2 months. Metronome practice, and a lot of it. Until the metronome sounds like Zig. Or Danny Richmond. and so on.

Meh. Point is: at least I have a plan.

And the improbable situation I find myself in is that I have become a person who is all about planning. Planning in the sense of structuring activity and time in a way to get things done. I also find myself at the a very weird crossroads in life. A place where I have hit a lot of strong numbers. Turning 50. 21 years on one job. Two amazing nephews turning 21. 25 years with an amazing partner who was suggestible enough to agree to marry me, baggage and all. My main man Wylee kicking ass at 11 years.

There is a rising drumbeat reminder of how tenuous it is and how things change. How much change I have seen. Who, and how, and when, and occasionally why. Rarely why.

There is a certainty that the present is a testament to how well or badly we have measured the past. The successes and mistakes form the ripples and eddys. It might be that the most important human mental tool is that we learn from mistakes. If we are especially aware we can learn from others’ mistakes. The humor in the idea that we are better off learning from the mistakes of others is that it is just not the real thing. Yes, you can learn from someone else’s mistake. But you won’t learn as much.

Nothing will get worn smooth by your mind like rehashing your very own gnarly, craggy mistake. Don’t pass up that juice. I realize that I’m a big fan of mistakes on the simple premise that mistakes are an essential tool. Throwing their value away is a monumental waste.

Mistakes are a huge part of preparing for a gig. It is all about making the mistakes before you get to the gig. My wife just sat through a week or two of me working on audio mixes for a project. Essentially it is repetitive listening to eradicate mistakes or make incremental improvements. Nobody wants to hear that except one person. And that person is always looking for ways to have to hear less of it. The continuous quest is to get more efficient. Not that inefficiency is all bad, it just is not as good. Being inefficient is its own, lesser, learning  tool.

And you would be wise to ask why someone would put themselves through all that. All those mistakes and slop and frustration… Simply: At any moment you either decide not to suck at something, or you decide something else, anything else. So the odds are stacked against that decision. To make it, and make it regularly, you have to be motivated by something.  Formal education is all about someone else providing enough structure to make that work compulsory and fairly evaluated. Otherwise you would be going all Huck F. Finn on your schedule. Without that external structure you need to do it because you want to do it. Your plan depends on it. Internal or external, that structure is essential. Huck was not going to ride that raft forever. He had a plan.

You have a plan of attack. Good. You can treat it as a formula like I did up top in the gig prep. I need two weeks to make all those mistakes. It is an inefficiency, but like friction generates heat, actions generate a voice. In music there are many variables. How you listen. How you feel time. How well you read. How well you can translate your inner voice with your instrument’s voice.Your voice becomes a product of your process. Your product will bear the fingerprints of your plan.

You decide, you act, you observe, you hopefully learn, and you apply the lesson. Done.

In a few days I play some Miles Davis, and Herbie, and Nick DeMaria (fer crissakes) and the questions all get answered. Musical questions, and some others too. And there will be more mistakes to provide the grist for the mill.

Miles’ “It’s about that time” is in the setlist, and each time I hear it I laugh at Miles playing with the words in a way James Brown or Sly Stone would immediately recognize. It is all about “that time”. Miles was always the man with the plan.

[this post is dedicated to my nephews Nick Charlton and Chris Gonzalez]

Jazz died in 1959, and I can prove it (or Nicholas Payton can)

My good friend and bandmate John Venter just shared this with me.

On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore

Read it. Read it all.

It sums up a lot of the feeling that I have had, and shared, for a long time. Sure I love the sound of a good jazz band. But the real deal is that when, in conversation, I have compared it to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, or to Civil War reenactments,  Those statements bought me plenty of hairy eyeballs, but that is what I feel. As much as I love the music I could never throw myself into the act of learning jazz standards. Lord knows I have tried. I don’t have a problem with other people doing it, but I am not the man for the job. I want to act on my musical impulses, whether they are informed by jazz or not.

There have been many efforts to adjectivize the art form. The New Thing. Electric Jazz. Hard Bop. Smooth Jazz. Euro-Jazz. Afro-Jazz… For more than 60 years the focus has been on  “modern jazz”, and I think there is a case to be made that “modern jazz” is/was a label to keep the form from truly advancing, or was instantly an extinct idea. Maybe both. I still use “jazz” and “free jazz” when tagging my music when I publish on sites like Bandcamp. I use the label cautiously, but I use it because it is a known concept and can be helpful for listeners. But when you listen to one of my tracks, brother, it ain’t jazz, free or otherwise. I am informed by Jazz, and educated by jazz. But the music is hopefully a music of the present.

My exposure to Jazz goes back to infancy, if not the womb, and much of that early exposure was crossover jazz, like Bird with Strings, or Jamal at the Penthouse. Name players in front of a string section. It was a lot safer for suburban whites to consume than something like Monk or Art Tatum. When I started to check out “jazz” I immediately gravitated to the harder-edged, bluesy, emotional music of the early 60’s. The Hard Bop scene, especially Mingus and his circle of players and composers, has been a huge influence on me. Much of that was recorded from 1960 onward, and that is at least an anecdotal support for Payton’s premise. These musicians were taking jazz forward by bringing it back to the roots of blues. Moving the forms away from the conceit of advanced european harmonic concepts (i.e. “birth of the cool”) and toward the I-IV-V, the funky cousin of the ii-V-I. This pushed open the doors for modal approaches, and other less restrictive platforms on which to improvise. Jazz was dead, but there was no stomach for a new genre or label. They would be marketed as jazz, then as now as forever.

There is an even darker side to that exposure. The more I learned about Charles Mingus, and how he was “angry” and “volcanic”… the more I was convinced that the roots of his mania were planted in being shut out of being a classical cellist as a youth. He could have been one of the greats in American classical music. Why wasn’t he? There was no place for a black classical cellist in 1940’s Los Angeles (and there was no other venue for cello, truly). He switched to bass, and focused on Jazz, because it was accepted. While he had an amazing career full of powerful music, I can’t help thinking that his stature as a “third stream” artist is a way to put a happy face on the racism that pushed him into “jazz”. Jazz may have been dead much earlier than 1959. It could have been dead in 1941 if you want to push the concept.

The argument about what, and who, is “jazz” stretches into the Jazz-purity quest of Wynton Marsalis, and the sneering of Stanley Crouch. They want the body kept alive by any means necessary. They have the right, and they have the platform, and even the funding, to pursue that goal. But the story as seen in an objective light might accurately be that they were performing CPR on a corpse. Crouch lambasting Miles for not making more Kind of Blue is an apex example. Miles was not an observer, he was a participant, and had been present at the funeral. He knew it was dead. Crouch was looking to preserve his domain at the expense of an artist. “Sell Out”, he hissed.

The deal is that the 20th century is chock full of artists who have tried to use jazz as a launchpad and not a crashpad, and they have been routinely marginalized and misunderstood on purpose. Monk. Ornette. Sun Ra. Cecil. Pharaoh,  Roland. They were all held up to the light of Pops, or the Hawk, or even Bird (who was punk to the core, trying to blast jazz free by brute force). They were never allowed to occupy the next plateau, the next “jazz”. They were tethered to a pyre no less real than Jean D’Arc. And all the while jazz has been dead.

Name the most successful “jazz” artist today. Where can you hear their music? Where can you see them play? Is it truly the fault of an entire society that jazz has lost its relevance? Can it be, in an age where music and information are more available than ever, that this American art form from the cusp of the 20th century could be so roundly ignored and unprofitable? Or is it like trying to sell crystal radios to the iPhone generation? An anachronism, as beautiful as a tintype and about as relevant.

Enjoy jazz. It isn’t going away. I spent some time digging Angelo Debarre playing gypsy jazz in his hard-hitting and direct style just last night. It was beautiful. It still is today. It still will be forever. But it isn’t new. It is a photo of a corpse. A beautiful, romantic, hard-won, photo of a corpse.