Concerto from the far side

This comic is like a Steve Mackey concerto.

Tonight, my girlfriend Julia and I get to see our badass cello-playing-fiend-friend Francesca McNeeley play with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. As an added bonus, the orchestra will be playing a piece by one of my old teachers, Steve Mackey—his 2008 violin concerto Beautiful Passing. I’ve never heard the piece before and want to have a fresh experience with it, but have been listening to one of my favorite pieces of his to get pumped up—his electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll.

Steve is really, really good at writing concertos. What makes these work really exciting for me is how he writes truly virtuosic solo parts without falling into tropes of the grand, Romantic concerto tradition. He reconfigures the relationship between soloist and orchestra in an almost theatrical way, sometimes pitting the two as adversaries, sometimes making them equal partners in shaping the musical form. Mackey’s concertos are full of surprises, wrong turns, and humorous non-sequitirs. In that way, Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to a classic piece like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as…



How about Steve Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as the comic The Far Side is to Tintin. I mean, I’m listening to Tuck and Roll now and am imagining a windmilling Pete Townshend in a tuxedo in front of the NYPhil and you really can’t get any more cartoonish than that.

So let’s first think of this analogy in terms of the general sound world and color palette of each work. Far Side and Tuck and Roll have much wider and brighter color palettes than their predecessors. I hear Mackey’s industrial timbres—from the huge assortment of percussion instruments to the blazing guitar itself—as Gary Larson’s eye-popping Crayola shades in his Sunday panels. The rich, vintage-velvet sounds of the Tchaikovsky are then a proper analogue to the muted colors of Tintin panels, aged by the decaying newsprint.

The analogy holds for the form of each piece as well. Tintin is an adventure novel in graphic form, with single characters sustained through an extended plot line. The Far Side comics are generally single-paneled, pithy non-sequitir observations, with occasional characters and themes popping up here and there. Like Tintin, the Tchaikovsky concerto is structured like an adventure story. The virtuosic hero-soloist is pitted against the grand orchestra. Single themes are stated, transformed, and returned, creating a linear sense of drama. Tuck and Roll on the other hand is made up different, more loosely connected episodes. The musical kernels are generally shorter—like the 7-beat rhythmic ostinato vs. the famous Tchaikovsky tune—and transformed timbrally rather than tonally. While the episodes in Tuck and Roll are certainly related by their sound world and rhythmic definition, they don’t sustain a single dramatic story like the violin line in the Tchaikovsky. There’s just enough disjunction between the sections to know that Mackey is more concerned with single panel images rather than a traditional musical narrative.

Thirdly, the analogy illuminates the relationship between the communicative styles of the pairs of artworks. Both the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and The Adventures of Tintin engage listeners in a very direct way. They seek to bring the audience safely from point A to point B, while creating the illusion of danger. They speak in common languages that are familiar to the audience. They are exciting to experience, but the adventures are contained within the works themselves. They don’t jump out of the medium to challenge the very reality of the audience. The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are much more subversive in that respect. Gary Larson’s surrealist take on the world, with his peculiar images (like God looking at a piano falling on a man on His computer screen) and obsession with anthropomorphism, isn’t that far removed with Mackey’s surrealist take on musical styles. Tuck and Roll isn’t quite darkly comic like many Far Side panels, but it certainly entertains some wild musical possibilities, like using car parts as percussion instruments and combining electric and acoustic sound sources. The sense of playful surrealism in both works cannot be contained by the works themselves, as the works make it clear to their audiences that the world they know may not always be what it seems. In this regard, The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are gleefully mind-bending.


So thinking about concertos in this analogous way certainly creates some tenuous connections between the artworks, but also leads to a more lively set of possible interpretations. In a way, this gets to the heart of writing about music—trying to communicate non-semantic sound in an analogous semantic way. Listening to a piece as an analogy helps with the translation of the music into words, but has the possibility of distorting the meaning: Mackey may not think of Tuck and Roll as humorously surreal, and Tchaikovsky may not think of his violin concerto as an archetypal adventure story.

However, at a concert of music that is all under 35 years old, this kind of curious, analogous thinking is what can make unfamiliar music come alive. When music is more abstract, it suggests fewer direct musical comparisons and more complicated musical emotions. However, it also allows for a wider range of comparisons and experiences, including imagining the pieces as comic strips. Perhaps then at a concert of contemporary music the audience should be encouraged to think creatively and playfully, rather than being told what to think by detailed program notes and on-stage explanations.


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Sonnet 73: Chorale & Explication

Especially when compared to the author’s great tragedies, William Shakespeare’s sonnets always appeared to me to be the runts of the Bard’s poetic litter. I’d read the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and my mind would draw up images of butterflies and roses and tacky Hallmark cards, not deep thoughts on the struggles of human experience. It turned out I was not alone in that thought either: In the two centuries after Shakespeare’s death, the sonnets had little lasting impact on English poetry, as great poets like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope looked to Milton as the pinnacle of English sonneteering.

Yet when I first read these poems closely, and really got to know their ins and outs, they turned from sweet, fourteen-line morsels to something much darker and more mysterious. For instance, most of the sonnets center on the relationship between the poems’ speaker and a male “fair youth.” Is their relationship romantic and sensual? Just platonic? Not quite either? Does it matter? Once I followed the sonnets down the rabbit hole, I discovered that they lead to endless questions rather than simple answers.

In a course on Shakespeare that I took in college, my professor encouraged us to dig into the sonnets by trying to write an analysis of a favorite one using only the words in that sonnet. I chose Sonnet 73, a meditation on lost youth.¹ By playing with and rearranging the words from this poem, I got a new insight into how it worked. No longer was I just struck with the asymmetrical beauty of lines like, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Instead, I noticed just how obsessed the speaker is with explaining his or her station in metaphor. As opposed to a person aging gracefully and imparting wisdom on a young friend, the speaker appears extremely frightened of the future, using every bit of poetic skill to express what he or she is feeling. Even the final couplet directed toward the fair youth feels more like a passive-aggressive command than a statement of fact.

In this piece, I am hoping to convey both the ambiguities of the sonnet itself and the sense of discovery one gets when digging deeply into such a rich piece of literature. The poem itself is set as a chorale. Like a love sonnet, a chorale has a very strong archetypal emotional connotation—we immediately associate it with church services and solemn events. But just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 subverts our concept of what a sonnet is meant to do, my hope is that the mysterious oddities of this chorale push against your own sense of what a chorale is supposed to evoke. After the chorale, the singers pull the sonnet apart, creating a new texture based on single words from the poem. At the same time, a reader puts the sonnet back together in a new way, using that old assignment from college to attempt to explain the poem in Shakespeare’s language. Just as it takes more than one reading to really understand a poem, it takes more than one musical setting to tease out the sonic possibilities of a poem’s words.


That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


This piece was premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists on June 8, 2014, in Palo Alto, California. It was subsequently performed on June 14 in San Francisco, and June 15 in Oakland. It won second prize in the San Francisco Choral Artists’ annual “New Voices Project” call for scores.


1. This may have been a symptom of the classic senior year “what’s next” ennui.


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The hidden secret that makes a musical great

Orchestration is fun!

In light of recent posts, I know you’re probably asking, “What’s with all these theater posts, Kevin? Have you stopped doing all things musical?” Well, it is true that writing about music has gotten short shrift on this blog recently (I’m still writing for The Jazz Gallery, so check out their blog), but I’ve in no way hung up my music cleats this spring.

In addition to my regular composing, drumming, and teaching duties, I got to embark on a fun new project in March: teaching studio orchestration to undergrads of the Princeton Triangle Club.

Studio whah?

Oh. You don’t know what studio orchestration is. I see.


Well, I might be exaggerating on that point. But I will say that it is quite an underappreciated aspect of any film or musical. There are advantages to that of course. Nobody blamed the orchestrator for the flops of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark or The Lone Ranger. However, the orchestrations for a musical or movie score can have a vital subconscious impact on how you take in the whole work.

Oh. So I still haven’t told you what orchestrations are? Let’s rectify that.

The music you hear during a film or musical doesn’t magically stem from the mind of a single person. For various reasons, a team of musicians creates the score for a film or musical. In the case of film scoring, the reasons have mostly to do with time—composers usually have an extremely limited timeframe in which to complete the score. This means that the main composer will write what’s called a short score, where the all the melodies and harmonies of each scene are worked out, but not assigned to particular instruments of the orchestra. It is the job of the orchestrator (yes, that’s me and my students) to make those assignments. It’s as if the composer drew black and white outlines of figures and the orchestrator colors them in. This isn’t to say that film composers can’t orchestrate. Many composers like Howard Shore do like to orchestrate their own work when possible, and many others, including this year’s Oscar-winner Steven Price, begin their careers as orchestrators. Continue reading

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For Best Actor in an Historical Role

Art imitated life at last night’s Tony Awards, and no, it had nothing to do with Hugh Jackman being a kangaroo. Three out of the four winners for best lead actor honors—Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald, and Jessie Mueller—not only portrayed real people (Lyndon Johnson, Billie Holliday, Carole King, respectively), but real people from recent historical memory. Most of us know what these figures looked and sounded like. It’s not like these actors brought long-lost figure to life in a way that we could only imagine.

I’m not here to comment on the relative merits of each actor’s performance (I’ve only seen Cranston’s as LBJ). Instead, I’m wondering why it’s easier to give a prize to an actor portraying a person that we’ve heard and seen, rather than a purely fictional one?

Depictions of contemporary public figures have recently been extremely well-represented in the Oscar lead actor and actress categories as well as the Tonys. Just in the past 10 years, actors have won the top Oscars for depictions of Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Harvey Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and Idi Amin. Playing this kind of role carries more weight with awards voters—all but two of the winners above have only won the top prize by playing these kinds of characters.

One potential reason for this trend is what I’ll call the Fantasy Baseball Quotient. As an audience, we usually only know the public personas of the characters portrayed on stage or screen, but not what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, or the stage lights went out. We get excited by the fact that we’re let into these people’s worlds, that we get to be acquaintances, not just a throng of fans. These performances allow us to fantasize about being a part of an important, historical moment. Continue reading

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A quick thought on NBC’s proposed “Music Man” TV special

The news has moved faster than Harold Hill running from Illinois: buoyed by the success of this past December’s Sound of Music TV special, NBC has not only planned a Peter Pan followup for this year, but a production of The Music Man as well, slated for December 2015. This has made quite a number of people, including myself, pretty happy, and as such, there has been plenty of fantasy casting.

These are wildly different casts that would result in wildly different productions. Yet it is interesting that both Mondello and Lyons would like to see African-American actors in the lead roles. The 1962 film version that so many (including me) grew up with has an all-white cast, and even the Broadway revival from the year 2000 featured white actors in those lead roles. The Music Man is very much etched in the American public consciousness as a fantasy of turn-of-the-century midwestern life, one that keeps minority characters singing songs like “Old Man River” below decks and out of view.

But while the musical does not explicitly deal with issues of race, the many conflicts that define the town’s social dynamic could be enhanced by setting the musical in a racially-divided town. Firstly, let’s imagine that Tommy Djilas, the miscreant from the wrong side of town, is black. He’s secretly seeing Zaneeta Shinn, the eldest daughter of the white mayor. Mayor Shinn’s distaste for her daughter’s secreat beau goes from being a punchline showing how out of touch he is to elucidating the complex racial dynamics in the town.

Secondly, let’s imagine librarian Marian Paroo is white, but is well-educated and has liberal social views, as was Miser Madison, the old man she befriended/benefactor of the River City library. Let’s also imagine Harold Hill is black, but speaks and dresses in a way that allows him to interact with whites more easily than other blacks. When Marian sees Harold Hill begin to unite the racially-divided town with the idea of a brass band, it appeals to her socially progressive views, giving her more motivation to rip the incriminating evidence out of the Indiana State Education Journal that reveals Hill as a fraud. Marian’s liberal social views also give greater motivation for her separation from and disdain for the high-class ladies of the town—the mayor’s wife and her friends.

Individual songs and even specific lines gain greater meaning in a mixed-race Music Man. “Shipoopi,” from the musical’s latter half, is basically an excuse for a big dance number (in the movie, it is given slightly more dramatic motivation by covering Harold Hill’s escape from the big ice cream social). While the original tune has some snatches of early Jazz and a Charleston-like tempo, this aspects could be heightened in a new orchestration, suggesting the song and dance’s African-American origins. The fact that the teens of River City are so into it while their parents are not show how musical styles like Swing and Rhythm & Blues were so popular among American teens due to their sense of the exotic, or “otherness.” Earlier in the musical, when African-American Harold Hill mentions both WC Handy and John Phillip Sousa in his pitch to lead a boy’s band, this line isn’t a reflection of his lack of musical training (who would group Handy and Sousa together?), but a truly subversive line that he sees music of black and white origins on more or less the same terms. It now suggests that while Hill is a huckster, his love for music is real, giving his conducting reverie in the second act more poignancy.

In his review of the original 1957 production, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “If Mark Twain could have collaborated with Vachel Lindsay, they might have devised a rhythmic lark like The Music Man, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration.” Because of the Twain-like humor powering the show, it is not stretch to imagine Twain-like social commentary infiltrating it as well. A mixed-race cast is perhaps just what this new Music Man needs to keep it fresh, and not a dull rehash like the 2003 Disney made-for-TV version. A serious approach to dealing with racial issues in Music Man shouldn’t drive down ratings—the music will still be catchy and fun, the book snappy and barbed. This serious treatment of race sits below the surface, clear enough for a thoughtful viewer to catch, but not preachy in a way that would turn away someone watching for pure entertainment value.

I’d love to see Will Smith dust off his rap chops and take on numbers like “Trouble.” Maybe he’ll be paired with a big time Broadway voice like Kelli O’Hara, or maybe Anne Hathaway if NBC desperately wants higher ratings in the 18-35 demographic. While we’re at it, wouldn’t Donald Glover be a fun Marcellus Washburn?

By December 2015, NBC’s attempts of doing live musicals on air will have lost their novelty. If the network wants to keep the idea fresh and interesting, they should highly consider reimagining The Music Man to suit the social realities of our time, rather than continuing to whitewash the past.

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A World Jazz Day Freebie!

Today is UNESCO World Jazz Day! Woohoo! While there have been many celebratory concerts all over the world, there’s probably a good chance that your day has not been sufficiently jazzy. So to rectify that, listen to this brand new tune that I wrote called “Bones.”

The title refers to the old-school percussion instruments most commonly found in minstrel music (they’re a relative of the spoons and the washboard). While listening to recreated minstrel music in a folk music class taught by Peter Winkler that I’m TA-ing this semester, I thought about how the rhythms of the bones didn’t sound all that far removed from New Orleans second line snare playing, or Elvin Jones’s brush work. So if contemporary folk styles and post bop jazz have the same rhythmic roots, could a sprawling vehicle for contemporary improvisation be built on southern shape note hymn harmony? I decided to find out.


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What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?


1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

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March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

A New Tune

Without going into too much detail, I present a brand new big band arrangement of “Where or When,” the lovely earworm from the Rodgers & Hart show Babes in Arms. Enjoy!

The track is performed by the Stony Brook University Blowage under the direction of Ray Anderson, and features Tzvia Pinkhasov on voice and Peter Gustafson on trombone.

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A new year’s catchup (and some thoughts on producing)

Like the poor old man from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this blog ain’t dead yet.¹

Yes, posting has been quite sporadic. This year has been filled with much flux and change. There’s been the grad school application racket, the teaching of 40-plus students a week out of a big box store, the adjusting to life in the alternate universe known as Long Island.² But that certainly hasn’t meant that I’ve stopped writing.

For those who haven’t followed, I am now writing for Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery, whom I think is one of the most important venues for new improvised music in New York. They’ve been a real incubator for a lot of great young talent from across the aesthetic spectrum, helping musicians go from “talent deserving wider recognition” to actually getting that recognition. I interview a couple of musicians each month about their upcoming shows and current projects, attempting to illuminate the experience of being a maker of art in today’s highly-connected world. I just posted an interview with the clarinetist and composer Mike McGinnis today and he’s doing some fantastic work in the cracks between jazz and contemporary concert music. Update your bookmarks and keep your heads up for more in the new year.

Some of you may now be looking for a top 10 list, like what any self-respecting music writer puts out at this time of year. However, now that I am far away from the large giveaway stacks at NPR headquarters and the regular stream of promo CDs popping up at the Princeton Record Exchange, I don’t feel I’ve listened to enough new music to really make a list of albums that have honestly affected me in a major way this year. But as I’ve looked at the end-of-year lists and listened to some of the tracks and albums that have made their way to the top of the heap, I’ve heard something – perhaps a trend, perhaps something less than that – that has gotten me thinking:

What’s with all the gauzy production out there?

Gauzy production? What the hell does that mean anyway, Kevin?

Well first of all, production refers to how all the sound sources are mixed and organized in a recording. When a production is gauzy, all of the sounds are organized in a way that makes them seem cold and distant, that they aren’t vibrating in an actual space. Sometimes it means that there’s too much reverb, or that the reverb doesn’t mimic a real space. Let’s look at exhibit A in that department: “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by the National from their album Trouble Will Find Me.

Listen closely to both the piano sound and the pulsing strings that dart in and out. The low piano notes are suffused with high overtones, creating a very complex sound. You can only get this sound by micing the exact piano string very closely to pick up all those subtleties. However, in order to make that sound stand out in the thick mix, the recording engineer had to add artificial reverb and boost the overall level. So instead of emphasizing the unique color of that note, the production makes the piano seem artificial. We feel uneasy because we know that this sound could only be generated using a great deal of digital technology.

The string parts are recorded not with a full section, but with what sounds like a quartet (a whole section would probably be too expensive for an indie record like this, even one for a band as big as The National). While recording with a string quartet vs. a section can give a greater point to the sound, it seems the band wanted the sweep of a whole section, so they added a good deal of artificial reverb. However, the reverb doesn’t feel natural. The sound of the strings tends to decay quickly after each articulation, and then the tail of the note is held for longer than one would expect.

The effect of these production choices undermines what I think makes The National a good band. There are very few rock performers out there who are as technically proficient on their instruments as the members of The National are. For instance, guitarist Bryce Dessner can shred with the contemporary classical crowd (see his other group Clogs and his work with Bang on a Can/Steve Reich) and drummer Bryan Devendorf comes up with the most melodic, almost chamber music-like grooves in rock. They sound terrific live – go check out their Tiny Desk concert and performance at Bonnaroo from this past year. When I listen to the great songs of “Trouble Will Find Me” from the studio album, I feel I’m almost getting a really good midi mockup of the songs, rather than an immediate, messy, and human live performance.

Another way that production can feel gauzy is if all the instruments are mixed in a way that prevents their sounds from interacting with each other like they would in an acoustic space. To see this issue in action, let’s look at the song “Man” from Neko Case’s standout album from this year.

On the surface, Tucker Martine’s production on this track is virtuosic. The arrangement is just seething with energy from a full-bodied piano, a blazing distorted guitar, and Brian Blade’s ferocious drums. Yet even with all of this sound coming out of the speakers, each instrument seems to have its own frequency band. If you listen carefully, you can pick out what each instrument is doing quite easily. And when Neko comes in on the first verse, her voice superhumanly floats over the fray. Martine’s ability to somehow both overload the listener, yet make each part clear, is uncanny, but not always in a good way. Again, during the course of the song, one gets a sense that the particular blend of instrument levels is impossible to create in a real space. The drums reverberate differently from the guitar, which reverberates differently from Neko’s voice. With this production, it sounds like all the band members could be recording in different locations and just listening to each other over an internet connection. The effect is particularly noticeable on Brian Blade’s drums. The characteristic of Blade’s drumming that I love most is the warmth he is able to coax from his instruments; how he somehow is able to create this gorgeous halo of sound around everyone else he plays with. By regulating the drums and cymbals to a narrow band of sound, Martine saps Blade’s performance of its warmth, making it sadly anonymous.

These aren’t the only examples of gauzy production on highly-touted pop albums this year. It happens on Kanye’s Yeezus and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (though the production on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is surprisingly less so, especially on the title track). Why is this the case?

Well I think part of it has to do with digital sound sources. No matter what you do to a digital synthesizer patch, it’s nearly impossible to make it sound organic and in a real space. There’s a reason why electronic music pioneers like Daria Semegen still work with analog instruments and composers like Steve Reich abandoned electronic instruments altogether.

But that’s not the only reason – there certainly aren’t very many digital sounds on Neko Case’s record, and only marginally more on The National’s. The other reason for this rise in gauzy production is a change in how we listen to music now. Despite the rise in vinyl sales, most listeners around the world don’t have fancy Hi-Fi systems. For most of us, we listen to music out of tinny earbuds and laptop speakers, or marginally-better car speakers. In order for us to get pulled in by a song, it needs to come screaming out of those inadequate speakers, pushing them as hard as they can go. If these speakers can’t do nuance, then why should there be any in production?

Case in point: let’s look at the waveform for The National’s “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 6.25.23 PM

Sorry to pick on you guys…

It’s at almost the highest sound amplitude (volume) possible for the entire song. It makes for a good first impression, but it gets a bit overwhelming on subsequent listens, as the volume gets in the way of experiencing the lovely inner parts.

However, there are some musicians who are bucking that trend and making music where the production feels immediate, tactile, and very human. One of the best examples from this year I think is from jazz/folky/poppy singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin on her album Twain. With the sonic image of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at the first track off Martin’s album, called “To Up and Go.”

Now that's better.

Now that’s better.

Just from looking at the waveform, we can see that the song is thinner and more delicate. But what you can’t tell from the waveform is how tactile Martin’s acoustic guitar and Larry Grenadier’s bass feel. Because the speakers aren’t overwhelmed by a huge amount of different instruments boosted too high in the mix, you can hear every plucked string, every decaying phrase as if you’re sitting right in front of them. The record was recorded in the living room of Martin’s friend Peter Rende and Rende does a phenomenal job of capturing the warmth and intimacy of that setting. Even when Dan Rieser’s drums are added to the mix, they don’t overwhelm the material – you can still hear each sweep of the brush on the snare drum head. Even with a set of only semi-decent headphones (I still use a pair of $30 Sennheisers from 2009), Martin’s songs feel natural and intimate, an oasis of calm in an over-saturated world.

So while I did love Trouble Will Find Me and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight and Yeezus, I think the albums that I’m going to keep returning to are the ones like Twain that don’t feel bound by production trends. I’m going to return to the albums that know the ultimate timeless power of humans using voices and pieces of wood and metal and animal guts to make art in whatever room they may be in.

Here are some other lovely, organic-sounding records from this year (in no particular order):

Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw: Winter Morning Walks

Sam Amidon: Bright Sunny South

Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy

Stephan Crumb’s Rosetta Trio: Thwirl

The Claudia Quintet: September

Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut: Sackbut Stomp

Michael McGinnis +9: Road*Trip

Craig Taborn Trio: Chants

Sarah Jarosz: Bring Me Up from Bones


1. Though the same can’t be said for one by a New York Times jazz columnist.

2. Seriously. Bob Moses designed it so it’s almost impossible to escape – traffic jams on the Belt, traffic jams on the Cross-Bronx, pokey train service…

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What a little producer can do…

While the “Young Lions” movement of young musicians playing swinging tunes in Brooks Brothers suits has faded into jazz history (or shall I say has become the institutional jazz status quo), I feel the jazz world still has a penchant for “Young Lions” syndrome. Every year it seems belongs to another “it” person – someone under the age of 27 who puts out a record on a major label, or just won/placed in the Thelonious Monk competition, or both. When I was getting excited about current jazz my sophomore year in high school, the “it” person was fresh-faced pianist Taylor Eigsti, with a sharp and erudite debut album on Concord. The baton has since been passed on to the likes of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ben Williams, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist Gretchen Parlatto – all of whom did 2nd or better at the Monk competition their year. These musicians get a lion-share of the limited jazz media attention (pardon the pun, I had to), and the ability to be involved with one of the few groups that can actively tour outside the New York metro area (for instance this year, Akinmusire has been criss-crossing the country with a supergroup produced by the Monterrey Jazz Festival. Parlatto toured with Herbie Hancock. Clayton with trumpeter Roy Hargrove). While all of these musicians are prodigiously talented – there’s a reason they stood out from their peers – I usually find the music that gets made during this “it” person period feels labored and easily categorized. It almost always is produced to remove any rough edges and risk, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of listeners who still get their jazz from local radio stations and bigger label albums, rather than the basement clubs where new ideas develop.

However, the spotlight always moves on to new people, and it’s always curious to see what kind of music these artists produce after their 15 minutes. Some players fade into careers as steady sidemen and teachers, never stealing the headlines again. Others use their new anonymity to break new artistic ground, reemerging as a mature and unique voice a couple years down the road. Mr. Eigsti, for instance, moved to New York and instead of acting like the big man on campus, sought new collaborations and riskier projects. Instead of being the big-name solo artist, he’s a vital member of the young jazz sub-community that is searching for new sounds through engagement with hip-hop and indie rock. When Eigsti gets written about, it’s not because he’s the wunderkind of the moment, it’s because his music itself is worth writing about.

So as I am wont to do, I have once again buried the lede – this post is not about Mr. Eigsti or any of the other aforementioned players. It is about this year’s “it” person, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and yes she is a Monk Competition winner and has a new record called “WomanChild” out this year on Mack Avenue (which is pretty big as jazz labels go). She’s gotten tons of press and now has quite the busy touring schedule over the next several months with both her own group and with bigger names like Jacky Terrasson and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

So what is her music actually like you say? Well the esteemed New York Times jazz writer Ben Ratliff compared her to pianist Jason Moran in his “WomanChild” review, and I think that’s a good jumping-off point. Like Moran, Salvant would never be mistaken for a “crossover” musician – her style is firmly rooted in the jazz vocal tradition of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and so forth. The pure timbre of her voice is quite close to Holiday, which makes her success in capturing the attention of traditional jazz listeners understandable. But while her tone is quite traditional, Salvant has a vocal flexibility much more reminiscent of boundary-pushing singers like Jeanne Lee and Jay Clayton. She pulls and prods phrases to their breaking point, sculpting her vowels into multidimensional oblong shapes. Salvant, like Moran, likes to push the boundaries of the tradition, not necessarily through bringing in sounds and performance practices from other genres, but by abstracting sound, form, and song material, attempting to reclaim old music for her modern purposes. On “WomanChild,” she has the guts to take a song whose lyrics are long past politically correct (“You Bring out the Savage in Me”) and turn it into a bravura performance of re-appropriation. And she has the pure vocal chops to turn the simple “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” into sonic fireworks, the words abstracted into shimmering tones from a previously-unheard instrument.

It’s an ambitious and impressive debut to be sure, but it’s also all over the place aesthetically. There are unadorned blues duets with guitarist James Chirillo, followed by pristine and measured songbook material, followed by blazing, abstract post-bop, followed by funkified folk tunes. While the band, spearheaded by young pianist Aaron Diehl (man can he play stride), admirably follows Salvant through every twist and turn, there were more than a few times when I wanted to hear some riskier and more idiosyncratic accompaniment.

Because Salvant’s interests are so wide-ranging, I felt that this record was the “best of” of several different albums, all thrown together out of economic necessity. But after this year of being the “it” person, after the tours and the press and the major label albums, Salvant will be able to try new things, explore her different personalities with musicians perfectly suited to the task. Below, I have played a bit of fantasy jazz producing and have planned out Salvant’s next five albums based on tracks I heard on her debut. 

1. Inspired by “Baby Have Pity on Me,” a spare and jangly blues album with Marc Ribot

I’m thinking Marc Ribot’s stunning solo album “Saints,” now with some singing. Salvant has shown a great affinity for the repertoire of Bessie Smith, but pairing her with an iconoclast like Ribot will stretch the material in some hair-raising directions. In the meantime, you can listen to Fay Victor’s “Exposed Blues Duo” with guitarist Anders Nilsson.

2. Inspired by “You Bring out the Savage in Me,” an exploration of African exotica and blaxploitation with Don Byron

Byron is the king of jazz concept albums – he’s explored everything from klezmer, to motown, to gospel, to Raymond Scott’s Looney Tunes jazz, to German lieder, to… you get the point. With Salvant in the mix, a potent singer and risk-taker after his own heart, certainly sparks will fly. There will be curious and uncomfortable source material, but the assuredness of the performance (I’m thinking Uri Caine on piano/keyboards, David Gilmore on guitar, Brad Jones on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) will make it impossible to turn away.

3. Inspired by “John Henry,” a folk-jazz hybrid album with lots of big names from the Americana world

The past few years have seen some really great jazz and folk hybrids – Jeremy Udden’s “Plainville,” Dave Douglas’ “Be Still” with Aoife O’Donovan, and the work of Becca Stevens. Working from a list of Old Time tunes, Salvant teams up with a rotating cast of folk and jazz virtuosos to bring them new life. I’m thinking Bill Frisell, Chris Thile, Michael Davies, Brandon Seabrook, Abigail Washburn, Dave Easley, Brian Blade, Jenny Scheinman, Doveman… Let’s stop before I get carried away here. Oh, and it would be produced by Hal Wilner and/or Tucker Martine. It might be a bit bloated yes, but isn’t that the point of fantasy music?

4. Inspired by “Jitterbug Waltz,” an album of songbook standards with a rotating cast of piano accompanists

One of the current musical projects of any genre that I’ve been digging most right now is this project “Liaisons” by the classical pianist Anthony DaMare. He’s commissioned a ton of great contemporary composers to write arrangements of favorite Sondheim songs and the results have been quite fascinating – Steve Reich’s minimalism works surprisingly well on “Finishing the Hat” for instance.

The idea for this album would be to pair Salvant up with several different pianists, who would arrange a favorite standard in their own way. There would be no rehearsal, just a quick and dirty session to see what would happen. My preliminary list includes Fred Hersch doing “So In Love,” ” Ethan Iverson doing “All the Things You Are,” Aaron Diehl doing “Let Yourself Go,” Gerald Clayton doing “Where or When,” Vijay Iyer doing “But Beautiful,” Craig Taborn doing “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Joey Calderazzo doing “Pennies from Heaven,” and Myra Melford doing “I Loves You Porgy.” Matt Mitchell and Dan Tepfer will likely also end up in there somewhere. Two volumes may be in order. Think of it as a reverse “Piano Jazz” with Marian McPartland.

5. Inspired by “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a free-wheeling album featuring Jason Moran’s Bandwagon

Come on. This one was too easy. I think everyone’s been thinking it since Ben Ratliff made the comparison. I have no other concept in mind than to just get Salvant, Moran, Taurus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits in the same room together for a few days. And maybe JD Allen or Mark Turner to sit in on a couple of tracks. Good things will happen.

Have any better ideas? Let’s start a Fantasy Jazz league in the comments section.

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