Thursday, November 10, 2011

No, I'm not dead

Wow, it has been a long time since I have posted anything here. My apologies to any of you who were expecting more regular output from me over the last five months or so.

My silence has not been spiteful or petulant, I assure you. I will admit that I have been struggling with the need to go off the grid for a while, however. I have always been ambivalent about my addiction to social media (though perhaps not quite this ambivalent), and I occasionally crave a respite from the visibility it compels. Not without some professional risk: it is becoming more and more impossible to have the sort of music career that willfully ignores the online environment. But I reached some kind of breaking point back in the Spring, and I dealt with the resulting tension by maintaining a haphazard presence on the "big two" platforms (Facebook and Twitter), while neglecting the blog for a bit. In retrospect, I feel like I should have done it the other way round.

In other words, I discovered that I truly missed blogging. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand -- don't know if I would miss them if I could somehow break free. I participate, but participation takes energy -- and not always "good energy." Often it is the energy of shallow distraction, the energy of trying to keep up with all of the excellent things my musical friends and associates are doing -- a worthy enough endeavor, but one that, given its scale, comes at the cost of focusing on what I want to be doing, and maybe even one that threatens to undercut my own integrity as an artist. I worry about speaking just to speak, about becoming just another strident voice added to the self-aggrandizing din. (After all, who am I to distract you from the things you want to be doing?) But mostly, I worry about priorities, and time.

Of course, there have also been technical reasons for my silence here. The biggest is that I am still not finished with my damned book. Yes, I am very close, and yes, I expect to have it completed by the end of the year. But I have been saying similar things for some time now, n'est-ce pas?

The issue is this: in the process of revising the original manuscript over the last year and a half, and passing it around to various people, who have been giving me useful (at times brutally useful) feedback, I feel like I have brought the thing within striking distance of being a much better, more thorough, more compelling book than I ever imagined was possible in the first place.

That revelation has proved to be a heady wine, but it has also forced me to be patient. Indeed, the kind of excellence I am after has required more motherfucking patience than I thought was humanly possible. (Thankfully, my agent has even more patience than that.)

Patience is new territory for me. While I have always tried to be thorough and exacting in my work, I have also tended to give in to the impulse to move a composition (whether it be prose or music) through the pipeline, rather than lingering over it for too long. There was always something more important about the overall flow, about the collective statement of a body of work, than about any one piece in particular. I still think there is a basic value in that approach, but something about writing a book -- 300 pages or so that need to hang together in a single coherent line of thought -- has led me to obsess about this work more, and, perhaps, to give in to the agony of self-criticism more. Not so much that it leads to writer's block. But enough to extend my timeline a bit.

December. I think I will finish this by December.

* * * * *

What about the IJG? Well, I'd be lying if I said it hadn't become a bit of a struggle to keep it going in recent months. Let me be clear: like me, the band is not dead, we are just lying low for a bit. Aside from the energy it is taking me to write the book, there is a bit of a background here, a psychic melodrama that extends back a few years. After the disappointing "Rocktober" tour in 2009 (as I said, psychic melodrama: other people tell me it wasn't that bad), I made a pact with myself that when it came to the IJG I would no longer seek out or accept the kind of endearing but ineffective gigs I had grown too accustomed to over the years. No more cafe gigs for a percentage of the door. No more art galleries that couldn't guarantee a crowd. No more cramped stages with crappy acoustics. No more bullshit. I had put up with that kind of thing for too long, because I loved the music. But in 2009 the equation changed. The bullshit threatened to make me love the music less, and that scared me.

For a while, my newfound purist self-righteousness seemed to work nicely. We gigged less, but the gigs were better. Highlights included performances at LA's Hammer Museum, an always-enjoyable annual jaunt to San Diego, and a trip to Milan that was one of the best performance experiences of my life. (That last is a tale I have yet to tell, I know.) But for the last six months or so, the telephone has been pretty quiet. To make the situation more complicated, there has been a new IJG album in the queue for two years now. I have discovered an exquisite talent for belaboring the mix on that one. I'm still not quite sure I want to release it.

In short, every time I sit down to work on IJG stuff, I am put in mind of this Berlioz quote:

I dreamed one night that I was composing a symphony, and heard it in my dream. On waking next morning I could recall nearly the whole of the first movement, which was an allegro in A minor in two-four time. . . I was going to my desk to begin writing it down, when I suddenly thought: If I do, I shall be led on to compose the rest. My ideas always tend to expand nowadays, this symphony could well be on an enormous scale. I shall spend perhaps three or four months on the work [. . .] during which time I shall do no articles, or very few, and my income will diminish accordingly. When the symphony is written I shall be weak enough to let myself be persuaded by my copyist to have it copied, which will immediately put me a thousand or twelve hundred francs in debt. Once the parts exist, I shall be plagued by the temptation to have the work performed. I shall give a concert, the receipts of which will barely cover one half of the costs -- that is inevitable these days. I shall lose what I haven't got.

These thoughts made me shudder, and I threw down my pen, thinking: What of it? I shall have forgotten it by tomorrow! That night the symphony again appeared and obstinately resounded in my head. [. . .] I woke in state of feverish excitement. I sang the theme to myself; its form and character pleased me exceedingly. I was on the point of getting up. Then my previous thoughts recurred and held me fast. I lay still, steeling myself against temptation, clinging to the hope I would forget. At last I fell asleep, and when I next awoke all recollection had vanished for ever.

That's a weird place to be -- to be in touch with your own talents, to have the artistic self-confidence that comes from experience and maturity, and yet to feel a sense of dread about actually bringing a work to fruition, or to even bother with the first steps. Part of you wants to destroy each composition in the womb, because you know the agony that will attend its realization process somewhere down the road. Writing itself is no problem -- it's the same joy it always was, and melodies come to you in your dreams, while walking the dog, during dinner. You know each piece can be something beautiful, maybe even something astonishing. But what a pain in the ass it will be to actually get it performed! What a pain in the ass it will be to actually get anyone to hear it!

It's hard to write about this sort of thing without sounding self-indulgent. But honestly, these are the realities that all independent composers must face -- I'm just articulating them, not arguing for apathy in the face of them. (Of course the challenge is particularly acute when it comes to large ensemble music.)

My own way out of this dilemma, for the time being, has been to create a parallel experience while I quietly scan the horizon for the IJG's next adventure. In other words, to start another band. Even in the face of the realities I just outlined, the urge to write never goes away, and I have realized that if it doesn't have an outlet, that in itself is a risk factor for depression (for me). In fact, being technically band-less since March is probably one of the reasons I have been over-thinking all of the things I have been over-thinking. I'm worried about where that might take me if I'm not careful.

Starting a Portland band is something I have been pondering for a while. It's a little absurd how long it has taken me, given the fact that I have been living in this town since 2006. But this year, for the first time, I have actually tried to make it happen. The process itself has been a struggle. There have been many close calls and false starts, with potential new project after potential new project dying upon the rocks of scheduling difficulties and incompatible chemistry.

But now that the year is drawing to a close, I'm in rehearsals with a thing that seems to be cohering into an actual entity, and actual ensemble. At the very least it's nice to have some new music of mine raise its head and blink at the world for the first time.

The players may be known to you: David Valdez on alto, Scott Hall on tenor, Andrew Jones on bass, Todd Bishop on drums, Justin Morrell on guitar. I am playing keys, as best as I am able.

I'll have more to say about this soon, I hope.

What's next? I don't know yet, but I promise not to keep you in the dark for another five months.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Some things never stay the same

Supposedly, Duke Ellington once said this:

By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.

Assuming that was ever true, is it still true?

I suppose one could argue that it is still true in the sense that most jazz musicians still tend not to be very materially successful, and most parents still generally don't want their daughters to associate with freeloaders.

(One way in which it is certainly not true, or at least not complete, is that it doesn't take note of the fact that many daughters are now playing jazz too.)

But I'm pretty sure that the material interpretation is not what Ellington meant. I think, in his suave and elegant way, he was trying to say something about how jazz is connected to illicit pleasure, to rebellion, to the social underbelly, to life as an outsider. I think he was saying that jazz is the music of cool weirdos who are vaguely threatening in some way.

Is THAT still true?

[Photo credit: "KFC Taco Bell Wedding" by Macrofarm]

Monday, May 09, 2011

I know what you mean

This post will end with a quote for the ages, taken from Exit Through the Gift Shop, a fascinating street art documentary.

If you don't know Exit, here's the Wikipedia summary:

Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film is a film directed by Banksy that tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles, and his obsession with street art. The film charts Guetta's constant documenting of his every waking moment on film, from a chance encounter with his cousin, the artist Invader, to his introduction to a host of street artists with a focus on Shepard Fairey and Banksy, whose anonymity is preserved by obscuring his face and altering his voice, to Guetta's eventual fame as a street artist himself.

"Fame," in its most negative sense, is the key word here. Guetta, who through the course of the film becomes more and more unhinged, eventually succumbs to the temptation to make art. But as far as I can tell, it is all flash and nonsense, his work, all hipness unto death, without substance. (A key measure of Guetta's "success" as an artist is that Madonna asks him to design the cover for a "Greatest Hits" album. Of course she does.) "Artist," like "documentary filmmaker," or "clothing store owner" (the other things Guetta does in this film) seems like just another mask to try on. And frankly, it also seems like another way for Guetta to avoid his wife and three young kids.

Whatever. Some have speculated that the story of Guetta is an elaborate hoax, a joke by Banksy, but I dunno. I knew people like this when I lived in Los Angeles. It was hard to avoid them. If the film is a satire, its details are spot-on, and it is more depressing than funny.

Anyway, when Guetta finally succumbs to his artistic impulses, he puts together a huge exhibition, under the ridiculous moniker "Mr. Brainwash," and (surprise), the Los Angeles art cogniscenti fall for it, making his exhibition (the stupidly titled "Life is Beautiful") an instant hit. Banksy (the more interesting artist, though not immune to bombast himself) is left scratching his head, wondering how this ne'er-do-well could have ended up raking in millions of dollars simply by turning out tedious nonsense like this. Or at least that's the vibe I got toward the end of the film, when Banksy utters these words:

I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art.


I don't do that so much anymore.

Go watch, and let me know if you see his point.

[photo credit: 416Style]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More rebellious than thou

Recently had the pleasure of watching Until the Light Takes Us, a fascinating documentary about the Norweigian Black Metal scene. I knew pretty much nothing about this music going in -- I wouldn't say I came out of the experience as a full-on fan, but my curiosity has definitely been piqued.

In some ways, the movie gets at the same old conundrum the avant-garde has been grappling with ever since the triple whammy of serialism, punk, and free jazz. Specifically: if your aesthetic is driven by rule-breaking, where do you go once you have broken all the rules?

(I realize of course that serialism in particular has a lot of rules--but note that they all seem designed to break the old rules about how music should be made, or about what sounds beautiful.)

Anyway, for evidence of this conundrum in Light, see, for instance, this fascinating interview exchange with Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell (of the band Darkthrone). (Disclaimer: English is clearly not Fenriz's first language.)

Interviewer: For me, I have the impression when I read your interviews and also when I listen to your lyrics that you've now become a little less provocative than you were maybe eight or nine years ago...

Nagell: Wow! Wow! You think so? That is so interesting, because I think. like, eight years ago, I didn't really do, like, provoking shit, I did... because Christian people were not going to read my lyrics, right? So they're not going to be provocative. What I wrote then was, I see now in hindsight, I see that this is what people that were into occult, or obscure, or anti-Christian things, that was the sort of lyrics they wanted to read. It maybe give them strength, but it was also sort of fiction and maybe it created an outlet for my fucking head. What I've been doing the last two albums is what should drive people to suicide and it's really taking out the strength because you can't really get strength from the lyrics in the last two albums [...] So I'm thinking, I'm really just pleasing, and I'm caressing the dog with its hairs, you know, as we speak, "dogs" being the fans or whatever, that want to listen to the album, I'm just, it turns out, I was writing just what they wanted, okay, and now I'm writing what no one wants, because that is to be really fucking depressed if you really understand it, and then, wanting to take your fucking life. At least I do. Because looking at my lyrics for the last two albums, I'm seeing my fucking world in hell.

(A pause.)

Interviewer: Okay, thanks for taking the time.

Nagell: Okay, thanks for your time.

Interviewer: And I wish you a nice evening.

Nagell: Oh, have a beautiful evening. Alright! See ya later, hey hey!

It's hard to convey through the transcript, but as I listened, I could have sworn I detected a bit of disappointment in Fenriz's voice. And where he goes from there -- one could paraphrase it as "I'm so provocative that I'll make you want to kill yourself" -- is an almost perfect illustration of the trap some artists find themselves in when they subscribe to the rule-breaking model of creativity.

And yet the rule-breaking model of creativity is where the fun is, isn't it?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Little Black Dress

A feature written for saxophonist Mary-Sue Tobin, who takes a wicked solo at around the 1:50 minute point. If you ever needed proof that I love old-school, blues-inflected large ensemble jazz, here it is.

Recorded March 3 at Royal/T in Culver City, CA, a few hours before we got on a plane for Milan.

Featuring Damon Zick (soprano sax), Evan Francis (alto sax), Brian Walsh (tenor sax), Mary-Sue Tobin (tenor sax), Cory Wright (baritone sax), Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), Josh Aguiar (trumpet), Ian Carroll (bone), Mike Richardson (bone), Sam Bevan (bass), Dan Schnelle (drums), Jill Knapp (vocals), Tany Ling (vocals), Andrew Durkin (composition, conducting). (Sadly, trumpeter Kris Tiner was not at this show, because of severe family complications. More on that in my Milan write-up.)

You probably can't hear it in this clip (the audio is fairly lo-fi, and the venue was rather live), but the band is sounding better than ever. I cannot fucking wait to get a good studio recording of us so that I can prove it to you.

Video helpfully provided by Tany Ling.

(By the way, Jill Knapp just posted a brief Milan retrospective here. Mine is coming soon, I swear.)

Monday, March 21, 2011


This, via Ballon Juice's DougJ, cracked me up today:

Although I am very hostile to the Catholic Church, I still have some fondness for Catholics and Catholicism. Certainly, I think Catholicism has a stronger cultural tradition than the other Christian religions. You’ve got the Italian Renaissance, you’ve got James Joyce (I know he stopped believing and stuff, but he was influenced). What have the Protestants got? “Amazing Grace” is the only thing that comes to mind.

It’s the same way I feel about heroin and cocaine. With heroin, you’ve got Charlie Parker, Exile On Main Street, and Edgar Allen Poe. With cocaine, once you get past Lawrence Taylor’s 1985 season and a few episodes of “Mork and Mindy”, there’s very little that anyone will remember a hundred years from now.

Though I was raised Catholic, I have long been an apostate. Still, after seeing Il Duomo in Milan, I'd say Mr. J has a point.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Get what's needed

This image was taken by my beautiful wife. It's a misplaced "to do" list that she found in a shopping cart at the local Fred Meyer store. Is there a name for this genre?

"Get what's needed": isn't that pretty much the upshot of everything? The meaning of life, even?

Ah, the flotsam and jetsam that we leave in the world, often without even realizing it. I sometimes wonder about the confusion I would inflict upon an unsuspecting reader if they were to happen upon one of my lost notebooks.

Monday, March 14, 2011

La vie d'un chien

A few days ago, I saw this charming little film about a scientist who figures out how to change himself into a dog. I thought I would share.

A passing truck captures his attention. He feels the strong urge to chase it. The compulsion is overwhelming. He runs for blocks, barking ceaselessly. The pursuit is pointless. Fruitless. Even if he could catch the truck, what would he do? Such questions are irrelevant. The pursuit itself is the point, and in this solitary moment his obsession is total. Mind, body, heart, and soul sing in unison, in singular commitment to the chase. Every goal, plan, or belief he has ever devised in three decades of life as a human is revealed as hollow, a travesty, forgotten or ignored in the passion of this moment.

Watch the whole thing; it's only about 14 minutes.

(And yes, for those of you who have been asking, a post about the IJG's recent Italian trip is coming soon. Here's a preview: it was AWESOME.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

The most important lesson from Esperanza Spalding's upset Grammy win over Justin Bieber?

I think it is encapsulated in this statement from Peter Hum:

If Spalding’s only tweeted seven times and has only 9,000 or so followers, she’s probably only been delinquent with her social networking because she’s more focused on making music.

As we all should be!

I don't know Spalding's music very well, and I don't know Bieber's music at all. (Lucky for me, my six year old doesn't know Bieber's music either.) Plus, it's silly to pretend that the Grammys are a true barometer of musical value. But even from a distance, this was a pleasant turn of events, and it should make us all smile a little bit.

[Photo credit: Pennello]

Friday, February 11, 2011


"I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There's so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world."

Barack Obama, speaking in Cairo, June 2009

[Photo credit: Steve Rhodes]

Friday, January 14, 2011


Is it me, or is this kind of an unusual photo of Ellington?

Wow, I like it.

[source: Wikimedia Commons]

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Writing a book is hard

Probably the hardest thing I've ever done, it turns out. Writing a blog is much easier. Hell, writing weird big band music is much easier.

With blogging, at least, you don't have to plan for every contingency. You throw some opinion out into the ether, and if people disagree with it, they say so, and (wonder of wonders!) there is a "comment" function that allows you to engage in a discussion. (That is, it allows you to engage in a discussion when you're not too busy writing a book.) You can gradually tease out the nuances of the subject by posting variations on a theme. Everything is in flux, because, well, it's the Internet. Nothing is "permanent" (even though nothing ever really disappears). Sure, sometimes the responses and ensuing arguments can get a little mean-spirited and rough (though hardly ever on this particular blog, and I thank you for that). But there's a sense that all can be forgiven, amended, improved... because, again, it's the Internet. The whole thing almost has the dynamic of an "oral culture."

A book feels much more "cast iron," much more "this-text-will-represent-you-for-all-time." (It's not really either of those things, of course, but it sure feels as if it is.) It's easy to become obsessed with the futile task of anticipating every criticism (as if that is even possible), following through on every "but what if?" and every "on the other hand." It's one thing to spin that sort of stuff out in an actual conversation. But in a book? A real book? A book I want to be a knock-out, because it may be the only book I ever write? It's the most elaborate dance I've ever done.

Anyway, I'll leave you with this provocative observation from Christopher Small, one of the many writers whose work I am visiting and revisiting as I near the completion of this project. (It's a blog post! I can veer over to a new subject any time I want!) This bit is from his Music of the Common Tongue:

Thus the participants in a symphony concert are bringing into existence, for the duration of the performance, an ideal industrial society, in which each individual is solitary and autonomous, tidy, disciplined and stable, punctual and reliable, the division of labour is clear, the relationships are impersonal and functional, and the whole is under the control of a charismatic figure armed with clearly defined authority. The music played is drawn from a repertory which, like the ideal industrial culture, is standardized the whole world over and played in a standard manner; it is a repertory of musical works which themselves either celebrate the individualist values of western industrial culture or can be forced into that mould: it consists of abstract dramas of the individual soul through which performers and listeners alike can participate vicariously in the processes of becoming and overcoming, or else of abstract dances, many of them hijacked from more dancing cultures, in which the performance invites us implicitly to do what the concert-hall conventions prohibit us from doing, or else of abstract landscapes, of fantasy Espanas, Americas, Hebridean Islands or pastoral Englands of nostalgia or of the tourist imagination. Above all, it is a society in which producers and consumers of the commodity, music, fulfill clearly defined and separate roles. In the ceremony called a symphony concert, which brings this ideal society into existence, the values of performers and listeners, and their sense of who they are, are explored, affirmed and celebrated. It need hardly be said that, for those who do not share these values, neither the concert-hall ritual not the symphonic drama is likely to be of much interest.

I often wonder about the parallels between the symphony orchestra and the big band. (And how to avoid them.) But that's a subject that will have to wait for another post.

[photo credit: Foxtongue]