Tag Archives: beefheart

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.

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Rochefort Festival Wrap Up – Finale

I will be looking over the previous posts and inserting images, and cleaning up text, fixing typos and misspelled names, and maybe editing some dupe info and omissions.  Otherwise, that is the story from beautiful Rochefort, France.  Some really amazing and dedicated people run a very ambitious festival, the artists are treated very well, and the results are very enjoyable for both the audience and the artists.

What I have tried to relate is my experience, my reality, and my observations during a week where I made a point to stay open and positive at every moment.  That is probably the thing I am proudest of.  Many bass players could have done a better job with the music, would have had an easier time, and been able to contribute more.  I am what I am: a person in love with music and the bass, who has had the good fortune to be able to express that in some very interesting venues.  Whether that is the intimate “Never Open Books” of New Haven, or Cafe Nine, or an outdoor festival stage in France, I try to bring the same ethic.  I owe my friends from New Haven Improvisors Collective a huge debt of gratitude, and maybe none more than drummer Steve Zieminski.  Playing bass alongside him for the past two years has allowed me to grow as a bassist, and trust my instincts more than ever.  As I approach 50 years old, that is not an easy thing to do.

From the beginning of this trip I have focused on the concept of being open, in the way that one opens their heart to the opportunity and does not try to mold the experience to their will.  My work with NHIC, or DOOT!, or the Sawtelles, or Lys Guillorn…. and others has been a fantastic training ground for that approach.  An experience like the one I just had at Rochefort is a type of validation.  Likewise, it was dependent on encountering other with the same generosity of spirit, the same patience, and the same willingness to set out on a journey and trust that you will work as hard as they will to reach the destination.  I was fortunate to encounter those people at every step of the way, in circumstances where it would have been easy to cop an attitude or cede to some negative element.  It simply never happened.

I would be remiss to not mention, again, what a pleasure it was to work with Napoleon Murphy Brock.  The timing of this event was very opportune, as the time that has elapsed since Zappanale 20 in 2009 has allowed me to make some observations and allow my cynical voice to recede.  Napoleon is a world class performer, educator, musician and person.  He does that on his terms, and I can’t say that I would want to be tied to those terms, but in an instance like this it was his stability and patience and focus that created a safe haven when other situations were spiraling into disarray.  And hell… I held down a flimsy canopy in a driving storm on an electrified stage in hopes of him not being speared through the neck with a broken piece of aluminum!  So there is always that 🙂

With hopes for continued musical adventure,

Bon Journee’

Rochefort Festival Wrap Up – 5

The Festival

The actual performances were scheduled for Thursday August 25 through Saturday August 27.  After three days of prep and rehearsals I was now balancing rehearsal schedules with performance schedules.  On Thursday I had one gig with Innes Sibun at the Corderie Stage.  This is at the west end of the historical Corderie building, a restored rope making factory that was the center of the Rochefort naval base.  Rochefort is a true Garrison Town, built as an alternative to La Rochelle which was not suitable controlled by the French crown.  but I digress…

Innes had run the band through some song forms back at the Clos, and from the get go we had a really good feel and the audience was enjoying the show.  Innes took a trip out into the crowd for a solo, and Bruno Bertrand, Or Solomon and I made up a good rhythm section, with Or taking some sweet solos.  This was where things kinda got blurry.  Esra Mowhawk played before Innes, and then Vic Moan played, and then I left to get back to the Clos for either a rehearsal or food or both… I’m pretty sure it ended with a late rehearsal with Moris.  The demands of the highly-proscriptive arrangements in Napoleon’s, Moris’ and the Beefheart sets meant that I needed to be interlacing rehearsal time with performance time and had very little availability to either sit in or to just watch a performance.

The next day we started as usual… Shiatsu at 9:30 (Caroline, to the rescue), then working on material in the headphones until I was needed at a rehearsal.  This was where things got ugly because of conflicts between Moris, Napoleon, and Moris’ sleep schedule… I had not been so much running my own schedule as being run on other musician’s schedules.  So it was hard for me to switch gears, and that was even harder because by Friday morning I was not able to remember who asked me to rehearse when. Add in the fact that rehearsal schedules kept changing and needed to be interlaced with actual performance schedules, and it was borderline mayhem.  As a musician who has been working in the format of improvisation and experimentation, all of this rehearsal and tight arrangement demands took some adjustment.  It certainly didn’t seem to be in the true spirit of the festival.  But those are the cards that I got dealt.  Anyhow… Mother Nature had a solution:

The Friday schedule had a break of about 3-4 hours between the early performances and the evening schedule.  During this time I was scheduled for soundchecks on the main stage with Moris, then napoleon.  For some reason Moris decided not to soundcheck, so it became a combo soundcheck and last-minute tweak session with Napoleon.  As I stood on stage I was noticing some very dark clouds bowing by, but the locals didn’t seem nervous, so why should I be?  About halfway through the wind picked up, and up, and up… and I heard this sound like a tearing bedsheet behind me… It was a wall of rain, accompanied by 40-50+ knot winds and hail, blowing onto the stage from the rear at the stage-left corner.  This proceeded to blow Benoit’s marimba off the riser, sent 70kg road cases scurrying toward the lip of the stage, and put down about an inch of water and ice on an electrically live stage.  This drenched Nicolas’ effects rig, and had me wondering what the odds of being electrocuted were.  I was also having a memory of the recent stage collapse tragedies, and i didn’t want to be next.  All of this was happening while holding on to a portable metal-frame canopy by one of the legs, while two road crew held two other legs, and napoleon crouched in the middle holding his flute and music, while deflecting the rapidly disintegrating metal frame of the canopy… It was like rounding the fucking Horn on a soundstage.

Finally we persuaded Napoleon to make a run for it, and the storm began to subside.  It looked 50/50 that the show was going to be either cancelled or postponed.  About 30 minutes later, while I was getting a ride back to the Hotel Roca Fortis for a quick break before what was supposed to be my second gig with Innes at the Place Colbert, a second storm hit, trashing the canopy over the main stage mixing desk and then dumping the mixing desk itself.  That effectively ended the performance portion of Day 2. The same kind of wind and water damage impacted all the stages, and everything was going to be moved to Saturday.  There was a feeling that the whole thing might be compromised if they couldn’t get the sound gear back together.

Back at the Clos there was a simultaneous feeling of shock and relief.  Another great dinner at the hands of the Rochefort crew, and the relief turned into a party.  As it got later I started looking for a beer (don’t get me started on French beer) and that led me to the beer tent, where I did the sensible thing and had a cognac.  That twist led to the most fun I had at the festival, hanging in the little beer concession tent with the volunteers, drinking and passing around iPods and headphones.   Tomorrow will bring whatever it brings, but for now we drink, and dance, and sing, and converse.

Saturday was the “big one”… I had been waking up at about 0800 like clockwork, getting cleaned up, and having a light breakfast at the Roca Fortis.  The crew there was Eric Longsworth, his wife Pascale, Eric Drew Feldman, Laurie Hall, Rob Laufer, Moris Tepper, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Nicolas Mignot, his wife Pascale, Declan DeBarra, and Emmanuelle Parrenin… I hope I have not forgotten anyone.  The Roca Fortis makes fantastic coffee (Illy, the best! as Jean Marc told us with great conviction, and the results proved it), and fresh juice.  The Apple-Kiwi was the star, and I used the excellent orange juice on my cereal.  The long coffee was great, but when I found the double espresso… the deal was sealed.  Jean Marc was right… The Best.

It was raining at first, but by 0900 the sun was out and we had a beautiful day on our hands.  The deal now was that I had a 1000 soundcheck at the Place Colbert (outdoor stage in the town square), then a set with Innes at about 1330, then back to the Clos for a meal, and then the afternoon’s schedule which I hadn’t seen yet.  I was able to walk the weekend market after soundcheck, with Innes and Celia, and that was my first and only actual touristy activity.  The Innes gig was lightly attended but we had a ball, again.  And I was ravenous after having nothing more than juice and coffee all day.  The lunch at the Clos was awesome, as always, and I got about 30 minutes to get horizontal while listening to Karen Mantler’s set.  That featured Nico (not a bass player) and Jeff (not a bass player) on bass and guitar… and that band sounded awesome.  My work was to come at the end of the night.  The last three sets of the festival were Napoleon, Moris, and the Beefheart Hommage.

Napoleon’s set was the big challenge for me because I knew all the songs by ear, but had only played a few of them, and had to get up to speed on some that required the bass to be in specific places at specific times.  Advance Romance, Pygmy Twilight, and Inc Roads were the ones that I needed the most work on.  The routine in Advance, and Pygmy, and Torture, and Willy… is that each section may be similar, but there are small tweaks each time.  If the band isn’t coordinated it sounds awful.  Inca Roads, which is alternately easy and ball busting, involbed having a good feel in the solo sections and being accurate in the hard sections.  Watching Charly, Benoit, and Nicolas drill those parts all week was inspirational.  I may have been the weakest member on that tune, but I was not going to let them down.  Luckily Napoleon let me simplify some parts, and I was able to get through just fine.  I found myself leaning on the sense of timing and funk/soul that I have been working with since the beginning, so even if there are less notes, it will still sound like me getting funky and trying to nail that timing.  Napoleon complimented me on my work and performance, so no matter what the playback sounds like, it worked in the moment.

I only played on three songs with Moris, and I had said from the beginning that I have no ego about that kind of thing.  If he wants to work with me I am fine with that, but I won’t bitch if he wants to go in another direction.  He did, and I think the set had good energy, though there was a lot of frustration evident as some of the fine points had not been worked out.  A pro-co rat would have solved the problems with bass distortion…  I stood on the side of the stage and watched the show, and I would be lying if I didn’t think about what it could have been like.  The most surprising thing was how huge the sound was Moris was pushing for.  The recordings have this very detailed and often delicate sensibility, but the target for the live show was borderline manic.

The Beefheart Hommage was a triumph, but the actual set list was about a third of the prospective (24 tune) set list, and with songs being cut from the set right up to the opening piece, well, that was that.  I said it before: a more accurate set list would have meant higher quality and less wasted rehearsal and preparation.  I will probably have an audience recording to review to get the song list right, but IIRC:

  • Hair Pie (solo)
  • Love Lies
  • Party of Special Things to Do
  • Ice Rose
  • Orange Claw Hammer
  • Observatory Crest
  • Carrot is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond
  • Sue Egypt
  • When I see Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy
  • Floppy Boot Stomp
  • Tropical Hot Dog Night
  • Suction Prints

Whew!  Nice Set!

And with that there was a bow to the audience and a feeling that we had all thrived, as much as we survived.  The after-party was filled with photos and back slapping, but then a dance event broke out, with drumming and singing and Leo on Saxophone, and it sounded like an echo of an American field-holler washed through the European and the Nautical.  Fantastic night.  I dropped into bed at about 0600, Skyped Sandy to get the latest on Hurricane Irene and then got two hours of sleep before making revolutions to return to Paris, and then Home……..

Rochefort Festival Wrap Up – 2

Music

The invitation to this festival came almost exactly two years after my last festival experience, Zappanale 20.  I came back from Zappanale 20 drained, disgusted, disillusioned, and thinking that I was done playing covers of Zappa.  When I returned from Zappanale I received the invitation to play bass in Mayhem Circus Electric, and that has defined my playing for the past two years.  These past two years were among the most fulfilling, if not the most productive, I have had as a musician.  Working with MCE and the other New Haven Improvisors Collective events gives me the opportunity to play the way I like to play (instinctively), with people I like to play with.  It is also notable that the last time I played any of the music of Captain Beefheart was the last gig I played with Doctor Dark… at Zappanale 16 in 2005!  In that context the invite to play Rochefort, which came via Zappa frontman Napoleon Murphy Brock, and was pitched as me playing Beefheart music, was in one way a large step backward.  But I also know that I value the connections I made through Zappanale, and still deeply love the music of both Zappa and Van Vliet.

So that is the framework of the “grand bargain” that keeps cropping up with me and festival performances.  My hope is that gigs like Rochefort lead me toward opportunities to play experimental, improvisational, and world-style music.  Meanwhile, when I get an opportunity that involves playing “inside the lines” in the way that this one did, I just put my nose to the grindstone and do my best.  I *can* play this way, it is just that I don’t play this way naturally.  And no mistake, the gigs I was asked to participate in at Rochefort were very inside the lines affairs.  I thought I was doing one set of Beefheart music, with a few tunes involving Napoleon… uh, no.  The Rochefort gig turned out to be a complete set with Napoleon, and no hacking the corners off the music there.  Play the piece correctly, and play it well as an ensemble.  Then came participating in a Beefheart tribute with ex-Magic Band members.  Beefheart music is hard to play correctly.  Even though it sounds improvised it is not, and the parts are very specific.  I think that I have some very good bass parts for Beefheart music, but they are not exact to the reference recordings.  Next, Moris Tepper wanted his bass parts played very tightly, and that would have involved me reading chord charts, which he didn’t want me to (but happened anyway, just not by me).  Oddly, the closest thing to carte blanche was given to me by blues guitarist Innes Sibun.  I had never heard of him before, but now I have and am thankful for that opportunity.  In a way it was just slinging blues shuffles and Hendrix tunes.  But I was also able to work with timing and dynamics and feel and all the things that I can do when not replicating someone else’s bass parts. The blues shall set you free!

Napoleon was a real pleasure to work with.

Napoleon, holding court at Louatre

He and I are very different, and in the past I have not been able to square-up that difference.  I met him for the first time at a Paul Green School/Doctor Dark gig at the Knitting Factory NYC back in 2004.  After that I met him when we were at Zappanale, or he was on the road with project/object.  The main difference I feel is that Napoleon takes himself very seriously, and has no self deprecation at all.  That is rare, and maybe so rare that I did not know how to interface with it.  I have had some time to reflect on what he does, who he is, and how he works.  He is a professional and a showman.  There is no shoegazing, ennui, or artifice.  What you see is who he is.  Very serious, very consistent, very funny, very giving, and in a way very patient.  Being able to work directly with him, as part of the challenge of bonding with new bandmates, and playing some music I have never played before, was just amazing.  The core of the band was Charly Doll, Nicolas Mignot, and Benoit Moerlen from the band Peach Noise (among other credits).  Suffice it to say that they are all top-shelf players, hard working to the brink of mania, and I can now count them as my friends.  Working with that unit was pure pleasure.

The Beefheart tribute was a different story, but not a bad one.

Eric Drew Feldman chats with Charly Doll, Rochefort, France

Eric Drew Feldman ended up playing a lot of the bass parts on keyboard, and in the end the Magic Band alums did a lot of the heavy lifting.  I played bass on a few things and was more than happy to let Eric take the bass chair.  In the end the huge setlist of over 24 songs never materialized, and the setlist was being cut down on the side stage before the hommage/finale. I got to watch Eric play the bass solo “Hair Pie” to open the hommage set, and damn did it send shivers down my spine.  It was a real honor to watch him work.  Same with Moris.  I believe that the Beefheart tribute was a triumph, and the credit goes foremost to Eric and Moris for making sure the pieces were done in the form and spirit that was intended.

Innes Sibun was one of the nicest people I have played with, maybe ever.

Innes, Jamming at the Clos, Rochefort, France

He is also a real-deal guitar strangler and Rory Gallagher freak!  I think back to that Rory album I got out of the cut-out bin back in the late 70’s and this encounter takes on a deeper significance.  I love the blues, and love playing it and immersing myself in it.  At Rochefort we made a 4-piece with Bruno Bertrand on drums and Or Solomon on keys. That was a pretty rockin combo, and it seemed that Innes was pleasantly surprised that his mutant “pickup band” worked so well together.  Bruno and I got on great, and the same with Or.  At our first gig at the Corderie park Innes created a “secret word” moment by blurting out “Giggity”, in reference to Glenn Quagmire from the show Family Guy.  That led to a running joke and a lot of unintentional hilarity.  WOOT!

Moris Tepper was the wild card for me.

Moris at Louatre, France

He had contacted me early and asked me to play bass with him.  He sent me MP3’s and my impression from our conversations was “get the feel right, don’t worry so much about the notes”, but the more I listened and played along to his songs the more I knew that this wasn’t a person who was going to let anyone freelance on his material.  So I worked my ass off, but what I should have done is asked for charts.  I believe that on Moris’ side of the table he wishes he had just delivered charts along with the MP3’s.  On a personal level we got along fine, and shared some really fine moments together.  Musically what he wanted was so far outside of my comfort zone that I had to scramble, the stress got a bit much, and a compromise was reached.  French bass/guitar player Jeff (name soon) played on most of the set.  I played three songs that has 2-bass-2-drum arrangements.

Moris’ set was, I believe, one of the most ambitious at Rochefort.  He had Rob Laufer with him, writing horn arrangements, playing drums, directing sidemen, and even writing out a few chord charts for me.  That ambition, combined with the lack of rigid rehearsal scheduling, shifting priorities, and some tricky set changes, made it a very gripping experience.  My feeling is: I could have played his set and done it well, but there would have been compromises on my need for charts, and to a lesser degree on intonation.  Fretless bass is cruel mistress, and if you need super strong fundamental pitches and are used to keyboards and fretted Fender bass, then fretless will always come up short.  And not being the best (I have good pitch, not perfect) I was never going to nail it the way he wanted it.  Moris wasn’t willing to make those compromises in rehearsal, but IMO ended up with a compromised live performance.  Still, the audience dug what he did, and I got to be part of a really cool set by an artist I now have a deep respect for.

Moris, on the Main Stage, Rochefort en Accords festival

For the festival program in general: In hindsight it would have been better if I knew what pieces I was playing, and could practice them without working on a load of extra pieces that I never got to play live.  As it was I busted my ass learning a lot of material that I never got to play and as a result I was spread a bit thin.  I also never got to see a few of the sights around the town of Rochefort that I wanted to see.  That is in hindsight.  In the moment I was having a ton of fun and would not have changed anything.