Category Archives: music

A little venting about a little movie

I know where and when I was hit broadside by the realization that I was a bass player. I was taking bass guitar lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, CT. It was a big deal for me. Bass was the only instrument that I enjoyed playing. I had washed out of playing both guitar and drums, but it was pointed out to me that I played guitar like a bass. After taking some local lessons with a guitar player/teacher I got a chance to take a block of lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, CT, which was where you wanted to study if you were into jazz, and especially electric jazz. I had been playing a bad P-Bass copy for a year or so, and had a loaner double bass from the school system. Creative was a great shop with great teachers, but next-door was Integrity ‘n Music, an amazing record shop. It was there, waiting for my lesson slot, that I saw the self-titled Jaco Pastorius album. I knew his name because he was on the credits for my favorite Weather Report album “Black Market”. That album blew the top of my head off.

Within a month I had ripped the frets out of my bass, filled the slots with glue (aided by the use of a heatlamp), and I have been playing fretless bass ever since. That was about 1979 and was as close to my predecessor’s “saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan” apocrypha as I will ever get. I had a similar experience with Mingus’ music but I had neither the skill or the patience to do more than listen to those compositions. But Jaco, there was a cat you could get down with. I still have not a single Jaco-like lick in my bag. I never learned PoT, I never developed a harmonics workout… but I knew that you could play fretless electric bass and make it somehow your own.

Lately there is news afoot that bassist Robert Trujillo is producing a biographical film about the life of Jaco Pastorius. I am totally behind that concept. Recent movies like Standing in the Shadows of Motown have been heavily influential on both me and the music world at large. I just saw the HBO film about James Brown, Mr. Dynamite, and it was as good a 2-hour course in funkology as you will find. If a Jaco movie does nearly as well it would be a huge success. Jaco is undeniably a one-man genre and deserves this kind of recognition in spades.

My issue is not with the movie, but with Robert Trujillo’s place in the pantheon of bassists. He has been remarkably successful as a musician. He has played with the top names in heavy rock, and is immediately identifiable by look of not by sound. But he was at the center of one of the great scandals of modern rock history, and I can’t help thinking that it damages the concept of a homage to Jaco.

In 2002 Trujillo was the bassist for Ozzy Osbourne, and the event was the 20th anniversary of the Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman albums that put Ozzy back on the map after leaving Black Sabbath and then not having much to say. Ozzy was never much of a songwriter. He may have had a few lyrics to his name but he was a rock frontman first and forever. While the Sabs were inventing the power-ballad with Ian Gillian as vocalist (Born Again, underrated jewel), Ozzy was looking for a new band. What he had was guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads, and bassist Bob Daisley who were working on writing songs and finding a drummer. They found Lee Kerslake, a journeyman who fit like a glove.  The albums they produced are still staples of rock-radio airplay. Randy Rhoads became a guitar superstar. Ozzy was back, with albums that were successful beyond his wildest dreams. You would think that he would have been kissing Bob Daisley’s feet…

No. When the 20th anniversary of those albums came out, Ozzy, with his wife Sharon holding the whip, decided to photoshop Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake out of the picture in both artistic and financial terms. Robert Trujillo along with drummer Mike Bordin recorded new bass and drum parts for both albums, effectively eliminating the contribution of Daisley and Kerslake, and with Randy Rhoads dead, left all the credit and royalties to Ozzy/Sharon. Unsurprisingly the oblivious Ozzy can’t even decide if he knew about the decision. Sharon Arden Osbourne thinks she was at the Blizzard recording sessions, when she wasn’t, and denies making the decision to do this while everyone else says it was her idea/mandate. Her father was rock promoter/magnate Don Arden, so you can be forgiven for thinking that she has a feel for the darker regions of the music business.

I am not a huge fan of that genre, and have never been a big fan of Ozzy, but I feel like I know a good rhythm section when I hear one. Those albums had the power and swing to match heads with any Iron Maiden track or any Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc… That band had a great sound. It was due to some excellent songwriting and excellent execution by the band. For Trujillo to have knowingly taken part in shanking a fellow bassist is, to me, unforgivable. In what should have been a victory lap for the songwriter behind two of the biggest selling rock albums of all time, it was a deeply shameful episode in a business full of shameful episodes.

SO while I think a Jaco movie is a great idea and hope for the best, I can’t help feeling that the project is tainted by this backstory. I have had feedback that Trujillo was just doing his job, just earning a paycheck, just a sideman, just, just, just… But he had a decision to make. He took the paycheck at the expense of the original artist. It makes me queasy just typing that. I hope the project succeeds, but while Trujillo is out looking for crowdfunding dollars to float the project, he won’t be getting penny-one from me. I should be breaking my wrist getting my wallet out of my pocket to help fund this, in the same way that I have for other projects ranging from the recent Wrecking Crew movie to a time many years ago when I contributed to a fund for Rocco Prestia’s health care (a situation that is re-appearing after many years, and I am sure I will help again). But I am reluctant, actually refusing, to support the producer of a project I would otherwise be all-in for, and it is not a good feeling. Jaco deserves the recognition, but I still think he deserves better than this.

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Fuchsprellen Colog-nuh

A quick update on the adventures of Fuchsprellen. If this band is wrong I don’t wanna be right…

We secured a date at Cafe Nine in New Haven, on very short notice, and played a double bill with Light Upon Blight on November 9. LUB is Jeff Cedrone’s project, and I have been playing bass along with Peter Riccio on drums. Normally we would have Neil McCarthy on alto sax but he couldn’t make it for this gig. This means that the Fuchsprellen rhythm section opened as a trio under Jeff’s direction, then we switch back to Fuchsprellen mode with the Fuchsprellen Horns. This could go horribly wrong, but so far it has not. Jeff’s concept with LUB is heavier, darker, and more brutal than 90% of anything Fuchsprellen does. The result is improvised “doom jazz” in power trio format.

Note: this is an expanded version of the “Mother’s Day Debacle” show where LUB and Fuchsprellen played trio sets in the same way: LUB trio, followed by Fuchsprellen trio. Just as a musician can train for sight reading, or chord chart reading, or soloing over set forms, there is a strong New Haven area improvisational tradition that has New Haven Improvisor’s Collective at its core. All of the musicians I have been involved with through NHIC have improvisation backgrounds and ambitions, but the formalized work done at NHIC has helped with both vocabulary/skill building as well as providing context for musicians to launch their own projects, like LUB, and Fuchsprellen, among many. But I Digress…

We had a trio of reeds for the Fuchsprellen set: John Venter on tenor sax, Richard Brown on Alto, and Steve Chillemi on bass clarinet. The rhythm section is there to provide support for the horns, and keep them flying for the entirety of the set. One thing is for sure, these guys are ready to rock from the downbeat. The hardest thing we face is giving the rhythm section a chance to settle in before the horns get down to bid-nezzzzz. We did a great job at finding balance at this gig (audio to come, real soon now, and maybe video too).

Huge thanks to Michelle and the good folks at Cafe Nine, and all the people who turned out for the gig. We had an excellent crowd for a Sunday , and I expect that we will be back at the Nine over the winter. Hooo-Yeahhhhh!!!!

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Light Upon Blight – photo by Hank Hoffman

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The Fuchsprellen Horns – photo by Hank Hoffman

Fuchsprellen makes a small jump sideways

One of the things I push for in Fuchsprellen is to avoid having too much predictability. I want to be surprised by what the band members play, and be surprised by what I play. What started out as a few duo gigs with Peter Riccio morphed into a four-piece ensemble with Steve Chillemi and Richard Brown. That gave the band two multi-instrumentalists in front of a flexible rhythm section. For the August 28, 2014 gig I made a few changes. Steve and Richard were only playing reeds, we added John Venter on tenor sax, and Jeff Cedrone joined us on guitar and synth. I played an acoustic bass guitar, which sounds very similar to a double bass. Not identical, but similar.

These musicians have all taken part in some of the NHIC workshops (Richard, maybe not), and that has proven to be a very good place to build a foundation as an improvising musician. I spent over five years playing in NHIC workshops and ensembles, and have played in many NHIC “satellite” bands where the members can be traced back to NHIC projects. While the musicians are all very individualistic they have learned a type of common language. This can not be overstated: it makes a huge difference in the final product. You don’t need to know how to read, but you must be able to listen and play at the same time.

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Without much in the way of warning, this performance turned into a freewheeling sextet with a pulsing Mingus-style backbone. Everyone jumped right onboard and we put together a propulsive performance.

After the gig I was doing my usual post-mortem and it was apparent that as good as the gig was, it was a proof of concept. We added another dimension to the Fuchsprellen palette. I wish I had been better prepared for an evening playing bass, but I know that wasn’t possible. I have not played a complete gig on bass in a while, and the best way to get back into shape is to jump into the pool and swim.

I can see this format progressing over the next few dates. It might even clear the bar for the “Fuchsprellen Rehearsal Rule”, aka the Prime Directive: If you call a rehearsal, it has to be for one hell of a good reason. I think we could use a rehearsal session to nail down a few themes, and lend a smidgen of organization to the proceedings. Wish us luck.

While you do that, here is a link to the second set from that show. The full set will be released soon, and the audio should be better. Until then, enjoy:

Eric Dolphy Was Punk Rock

  • Peter Riccio – drums
  • Jeff Cedrone – guitar, synth
  • Steve Chillemi – alto sax, bass clarinet
  • Richard Brown – alto sax
  • John Venter – tenor sax
  • Pete Brunelli – acoustic bass guitar, electronics

A little background on Fuchsprellen, wrapped in a Rochefort Recap!

There is an origin story for my band Fuchsprellen, but there is a longer, weirder story behind the work that went into building the band concept.

I’ll link back to those earlier posts, but I blogged a bit about my experiences at Rochefort en Accords 2011. I was asked to play this gig on short notice, as a sub for an artist who could not make the date. Seems simple. Go to France, they said. Play Beefheart in France! They said… We have an airline ticket and accomodations for you. They said. No question, I am going.

Fine Print (not read): You might be the only person to ever be the only electric bass player at a festival in France. What are the odds of that? Ever. Zero. Like Brave Sir Robin I was figuring I was in for a bit of spanking and well, “Robert, il est ton oncle”.

Job 1: Bassist du jour for Napoleon Murphy Brock. I understand that some Bongo Fury material might be played. I have no other real data except Chris Garcia passing me the code phrase “beef heart”. Chris Garcia is a no-BS cat, so what could possibly go wrong?!?! Verdict: Napoleon is one of my favorite people in a musical context, and the non-musical contexts as well. He runs the show the way I would run it: Work hard, get good, kick ass at the show. No friction, even when I blissed out through a motif change and added about 16 bars to the evening. You are welcome, Rochefort. (The members of Peach Noise took me in and treated me like a lost puppy. In the good way. The best hosts a lost bass player could hope to have)

First side job: Blues guitarist Innes Sibun, influenced by an old influence (Rory Gallagher records at times in heavy rotation) and we play two sets of originals and Hendrix tunes. EASY. I have put in the hours at open mic nights and my initial learning tool was learning every track on the Blues Brothers record… erg… Verdict: Great rhythm section, on the spot feel, great ears…

Addendum: while other folks were snacking and chatting, he was putting in the work, rounding up a band, and if he had told me that the fact that the only bass I brought to the gig was a fretless 5 is means for disqualification, I would have understood. With Bruno Bertrand and Or Solomon we had a killer backing section. Thanks for not holding my choice in basses against me.

Second Side Job: Bassist for Jeff Morris Tepper, of the last and not in any way least version of the Magic Band. Great, Great Band. As soon as I had agreed to take the gig He contacted me, I was in, but honest that I felt that his parts relied on my weakest skill set as a player. We met somewhere in the middle, and I gained a respect for and knowledge of his music.

Recap:

Anything out of place? Like “Where is the Beef?”

Oh yeah, Nicolas Mingot had a list of Beefheart tunes, and it was not a small list. Like, er… “if that is a setlist we are going to have words” kind of not small. But peace was made! A truly fitting Finalé was executed, and in good form. Only in France would you get a festival finalé consisting entirely of Beefheart. Wow.

The Payoff:

About that clam / brainfart in the final performance. Through days of rehearsal Napoleon kept giving me this odd vibe, like a question in vibe form. And when he told me what the problem was, it was a blunt: “Pete, do you see how these other guys have notes?” (See Footnote 1). … Point taken. I can play it and rehearse it, and keep my parts together, and not need notes, charts or cheatsheets… However carrying that information back to the stage, in my head, without losing a piece or two along the way, while dealing with multiple jobs and arrangement changes is not in my skill set. I lost a small piece of the arrangement to The Torture Never Stops on the way to the stage. It was not a train wreck, but my no-notes approach failed me and my bandmates. Not the end of the world, but unacceptable nonetheless.

As much as I love the music of Zappa and Hendrix, and Beefheart for that matter, it was apparent to me that I needed to be “playing in clean sand” for a while. Playing where there were no established lines, no expectations. With his simple statement/question Napi kicked off a line leading from playing hard-ass arranged music with no “net”, to the free approach of my band Fuchsprellen. We don’t really do the “notes” thing. While I could stand to be more organized, I decided to let my music flow from my process instead of flowing my process around some other music.

Post Mortem:

My partially successful and wholly unintended attempt to bring a free music approach to a festival setting was complete and I ran back to the States like a scalded dog. The finalé was truly final. The dancing harmonica solo, selfie-free. My restraint in savaging the local huitre population, regrettable. The cognac! Mon dieu! The Pineau! (No. The other, other, Pinot), transcendant. I saw the Eiffel from the back of a car driven by my new favorite French trumpeter (which means my favorite trumpeter) Nicolas Genest, on the way into Montreuil. It was awful.

Footnote – 1 Er, no. It never occured to me. At heart I am an improviser with some basic reading and arranging skills. I will chart pieces if I am recording, and even then it is rare. So yeah, I was making a hard job harder. But almost all of my playing has been in improvised or some kind of modal concept. And I was suddenly aware that yeah, everyone else had these killer notes. I talked drummer Charlie Doll into letting me have one of his. He creates these brilliant sets of arrangement-notes with cues, bar counts, rhythms charted-ish… Genius.

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.

An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.

Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit 🙂

I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.

As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90’s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.

I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.

As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.

That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.

Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.

My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.

Electric Bass Baggage

Back in 2011 I had what I saw as an “apex moment” as a bassist. My weird little network of connections in the freak music, Zappa, and Beefheart world led to me getting asked to play at a festival in France. The primary motivator in this was the unavailability of former Zappa/Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, and my limited but real connection to former Zappa frontman Napoleon Murhpy Brock and his band The Grandmothers. Two weeks after being asked, I was preparing for Rochefort en Accords 2011 at a house outside Paris.

I have already blogged about the while experience, but this little post is about what I feel now that I have some time, distance, and perspective on the situation. The short of it is that I paid a price for not having strong reading and transcription skills. My forte of having a voice and an ear of my own was trumped by me not being very good at playing like someone else. My ability to play Zappa and Beefheart music is based on my ear, and at times it was clear that my ear was not true enough. The way I hear the part was not going to cut it, especially standing next to people like Napoleon, or Beefheart alums like Jeff Tepper and Eric Drew Feldman. Add in my somewhat odd take on blues standards, due to not having played that stuff in a while, or my inability to play note-for-note off Jeff Tepper’s solo efforts, and the reslt was some competent playing, some fun playing, and one train wreck that I could have avoided by saying my least-favorite word: “no”.

The eventual result was me taking a break from bass, and putting time into synth and electronics. One big reason was to let the bass “rest” for a bit. But the thing that became clear with some time away was that there is a huge amount of baggage that comes with an instrument. When you play bass there is a feeling among other musicians, and other bassists, that the “easy” stuff must be easy for you, when in fact the easy stuff is not easy. If I walked on stage at your typical blues/rock open mic, I couldn’t get through Angie, or Wild Horses, because I don’t practice it, never have, and the intervals and harmony are alien to me. OTOH, play enough Zappa and you learn certain things that keep you on track and make it look “easy”. If someone called “Bamboozled By Love” I might very well nail it. Like most things in life it isn’t easy, but practice is one way to reduce the appearance of effort.

I have taken a hiatus from my instrument of choice before. Variously to play guitar, mandolin, harmonica, synth, dulcimer… or to focus on recording and composition. This time it is the same , but different. I feel that I may have run afoul of the bass-gods by not holding up my end on the basics. The road back from that can be hard, as I know, and it will involve some work that I have avoided for a long time. I expect that I will come back stronger and more versatile, but even if I don’t, I will come back wiser and more willing to put my foot down for myself and my muse. Bass is a cruel mistress. People expect you to hold down the bottom and stay out of the way. The depths to which that offends me are considerable, and I realize that I have to abandon much of what I have done in the past to achieve a clean break from some of those expectations.

I wont go as far as calling my Rochefort gig “Pyrrhic” since I don’t consider the aftermath to be devastating. To the contrary. It was what I said it was: “apex”. It was the apex of a journey started more than 10 years earlier when I put my bass up for consignment and took off on a vacation to Italy with my wife. I have learned many times that you might have to divest of everything before getting a clean start. You might have to say “never again” to have the opportunity present itself, again.

The new journey began much like the last one: a project with my friend Peter Riccio, with a goofy band name and no particular expectations. I don’t expect this journey to be easier, harder, better, or more fruitious. But it will be a journey, and with any luck it generates something I can look back upon with pride, and maybe it has an apex on par with that week in France, and maybe I will have learned enough not to worry about apexes by then.

HEBBY ROTAYSHUM!!!

fuchsprellen update:

Fuchsprellen Fever! Catch It!  Our friend Ernst shot a video at the January 3, 2013 Best Video show and it is currently experiencing “hebby rotayshum” on New Haven Cable Access…

Two videos up, and a few more in the pipeline:

https://www.youtube.com/user/fuchsprellen3000

Audio from 3 January, 2013 at Best Video now free, or best offer at:

http://fuchsprellen.bandcamp.com/

And one track from best Video, plus some archival stuff, free for the streaming at:

Coming soon: bandcamp album from 13 January at the Outer Space, Comp of the first two fuchsprellen recordings, reboot of some material from early 2012 “proto-fuchsprellen”, and perhaps a new studio/ambient piece.