Monday, January 19, 2015

Classic Albums: "Birds of Fire" By the Mahavishnu Orchestra

Warning: if you hate jazz fusion, this blog won't be much fun for you. Many of my personal favorite albums are in this somewhat maligned, often misunderstood category.

This is one of the all time best.

Pretty much everyone enters the Jazz Fusion "world" via some fairly toe tapping, easier listening entry point. Mine was Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow,* yours might have been a Herbie Hancock album, or even stuff on the absolute borderline of the genre, such as early Chicago. Some are happy to camp out here, in the margins, confined to relatively simple harmonies and steady, medium funky tempos (no shame in that, it's still more demanding music than any Train album). Others, though, go a little deeper.

And it doesn't get any deeper than the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Birds of Fire is probably their most famous album; and maybe their best, although at times I've gone back and forth between that and The Inner Mounting Flame. But for personal influence, Birds of Fire wins the day, as it was my first exposure to the band.

The album starts out with that famous gong - boooooooosh, BOOOOOOOOSH, then John McLaughlin starts up with that incredible distorted electric twelve string guitar... then, a watershed moment for fusion fans- that odd time signature riff on the violin and bass repeating again and again - then the lead guitar just EXPLODES- it's a shot fired from a cannon, played with fiery conviction at maximum volume. And oh yeah, melodically it also makes NO SENSE AT ALL.

The melody just builds and builds over top this spacey, bizarre chord progression, until finally at 2:50 or so the composition breaks into something resembling normalcy- the little resolution of the section. This track is followed by a bluesy and completely conventional "Miles Beyond," but my favorite cut is "One Word," which captures a Mahavishnu trademark- letting a groove sit and build, and build, and build, and build... until finally coalescing into an epic climax at the end. The trick with this though is you can't bore the listener during all the building- you somehow have to maintain interest, which of course they accomplish easily (greatly aided by the drumming of Billy Cobham, whose work on the toms in particular sounds like its own composition that could stand completely on its own).

The music overall is strange, weird, other worldy... but also very, very awesome. At age 19ish, this was pretty mind bending stuff. It also set the gold standard for how awesome jazz fusion, when practiced as an art and not some commercial endeavor, could be.

As far as my own playing, McLaughlin's electric guitar playing was, for a long time, second only to Jeff Beck in terms of influence. Unfortunately, my ability to play those ferocious tremelo picked lines has vanished along with my college era 4+ hour per day practicing regimen. But that's OK- I rarely have use for them anymore, even when I'm playing jazz rock by myself, I don't necessarily find myself wanting to play that way (I'd also really want a true Les Paul style guitar for it as well). You can hear me play this way mostly on the Paragon albums, What Is Paragon and Patience, and a bit on Zeitgeber. But even on those recordings I didn't do this type of playing as much as I did during live shows.

I can recall one college guitar ensemble chart, kicking on a distortion pedal (direct to the board! Yuck!) and playing a bunch of those tremelo picked McLaughlin lines, and the audience going nuts- probably one of the best reactions my playing ever received- and getting the requisite slight resentment from folks in the jazz program (you aren't allowed to play badass rock licks and get attention! It must be bebop stuff that nobody cares about!**). Something similar occurred at one of my gigs at the Easy Street Cafe on Main Street Bowling Green.

It was that type of response that tricked me into thinking that maybe more than ten people actually liked this type of music enough to pay a cover charge to see it- a foolhardy mistake that led me to pursue Paragon as a band (a really wonderful, fun, positive mistake that I'd happily make a million times over if I had to do it again, by the way).

In the early to mid 1970s, however, it was indeed possible to not only fill small clubs, but even large stadiums by playing this oddball music. After all, Jeff Beck toured in SUPPORT of Mahavishnu in the 70s, which is really hard to believe but absolutely true! People want to immediately assume drugs, as if that is the only reason why people would like music that isn't just three chords "and the truth." As I love this stuff while only high on caffeine, I would bet at least a portion of the original 1970s audience felt likewise.


*Which isn't to knock, at all, Blow by Blow - my favorite album *of all time, in any category.*
**To be fair, "they," being other students and other professors, rightly focused on the kinds of playing that you went to school for, and not impressed with the type of stuff you did on your own before you got there, a totally fair critique of my playing at the time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Classic Albums: Lawrence of Arabia Original Soundtrack

You learn a lot about yourself when spending late evenings with an infant child, particularly when aided by Amazon's Instant Video service. When browsing this late one night while gently bouncing my youngest to sleep, I noticed "Lawrence of Arabia" in the freebie list. So I started watching it.

If you haven't watched this movie before, you might think your streaming service of choice has become broken, because the movie starts with an extended overture sequence; the screen is completely black as the soundtrack plays.

The soundtrack is the absolute standard of Western rendering of middle east music. The melodic content is sumptuous, romantic yet driving. It'll say locked in your head forever after the first hearing, and the classic film doesn't have to do any heavy lifting whatsoever- this music would be just as epic without Peter O'Toole. That Maurice Jarre also composed the music to Ghost is one of those bizarre aspects of a film scoring career, I suppose.

My recent watching of this movie reminded me not only of my love of the score, but how extremely influential it was on my own composing afterward. Much of my musical output afterward was just restatements of the main theme in various colors. I'm not ashamed to admit that- it's freaking terrific music.

And, of course, there were times I did this on purpose instead of accidentally. This was a tune called "A Lament for TE," which is obvious enough. It's a simple medium swinger (I have a lovely recorded version of it with Jason Gahler and Ben Wolkins) that was a staple of my non-jazz rock gigs in the early to mid 2000's, particularly when I played at Manhattan's in Toledo.

But the influence pops up in many other places. It's all over the place on Zeitgeber- The Big Hello and The Big Goodbye both have that moorish by way of Hollywood thing. It was and is a part of my improvisations as well.

That said, I got to lean on this inspiration in a big way when I was contracted to compose a video game score for an unreleased game called "The Broken Hourglass." The game took place in a fictionalized place but it was modeled after the middle east, so I basically got to compose my own "Lawrence of Arabia" score. It was great fun, though getting that music to you all is a little complicated in that it is technically Planewalker Games LLC's music, though I think if I pushed a bit I could convince the stake holders of that project to allow me to throw it up somewhere.

In closing, Jarre's score is perhaps the pinnacle of the operatic style of Hollywood film scoring, with big melodies you'd leave the cinema humming. Today underscoring and atmosphere is the rage, perhaps best personified with the "BLAHHHHHHHHHHHHHRGGG" of "Inception" - scores that are more kaleidoscopes of sound than stand alone musical compositions. I like some of that- it can be very effective, but I'm a creature of melodies, ultimately. Very occasionally, a series of films comes out the revives the Lawrence of Arabia style, most notably the Lord of the Rings movies with their fantastic scores by Howard Shore. But as great as Shore's Rings music is, it doesn't hold to the delicious depth and emotive content of Lawrence of Arabia.

*Note: if you are interesting in acquiring this music, here is a case where tracking down the original vinyl LP would be worth it. I did find a pretty cheap mp3 reissuing of the original, and it is OK, but ultimately this would sound best on a turntable with good speakers. Barring that, you should probably give one of the re-recordings a try. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Classic Albums: John Abercrombie's Timeless

I'm pretty sure I picked up Timeless like I did many of the Jazz recordings I purchased while studying at BGSU for a performance major in guitar: from Finder's Music on mainstreet Bowling Green. I bought ridiculous amounts of music back then- it was my version of retail therapy. Have a great day, maybe a good performance on a Friday afternoon recital? Buy some music. Get shot down by the gal who worked at the gas station down the street? Buy more music. Bored and no gigs? More music.

I can't really remember why I bought Timeless, but it was probably because I had heard the upperclassmen play some of Abercrombie's music in a recital performance, music from the Gateway album.

Right away I was taken by the rapid fire nature of the opening track, "Lungs." I was still at a stage in my appreciation of improvised music that I needed a bit of rock n' roll to keep my attention, and the hot electric guitar that Abercrombie played hooked me in. This was fortunate, as this kept me involved as a listener, allowing me to appreciate the finer points of the interaction between musicians during later listenings.

It was also my introduction to the "ECM Sound," and no, I don't mean the writer for Gamefan magazine- I mean the label that would kind of define 1970s jazz - austere album covers (I loved the album design for Timeless so much that I essentially copied this for Zeitgeber) combined with music that sounded like it was recorded in large concert halls as opposed to tiny recording studio rooms with foam padding.

I'm one of those people who see music in colors, and Timeless to me always evokes a black void, with dancing lines of color exploding forth- the expansiveness of the "ECM Sound" fully at work. And oh, the sounds of Jan Hammer! Like so many things Jan plays on, he tends to chew scenery, but everyone is up to the task of matching him. "Red and Orange" is my second favorite track, which features Jan's organ work, which almost sounds like something from Rick Wakeman.

But to me, the thing that makes Timeless special is that it is unusually aggressive for Abercrombie. His style is pretty understated and after getting "spoiled" by the burning of Timeless, I went on a fruitless quest to find more of his work that was in that style- and was sadly disappointed (only "Gateway" would come close). It isn't to say that his playing isn't very good- but I wanted to hear him burn, and he just doesn't do that on recordings (though I did like his standards album with Scofield).

As for its influence on me, I think the constant ostinato droning and long form interaction had a huge impact. You probably hear it most on things like "Short Expedition #2" and "Short Expedition #1" on the Paragon albums, and you hear it all over the place on Zeitgeber, which in many ways was my attempt to do the ECM thing, though with much more of a rock edge. When I would play with guys at the Easy Street Cafe, we'd often to these long form jams just like on Timeless- trying to do those interesting interactions with each other- group conversations, not hampered by "changes" like in Bebop, but not throwing all the tonality out the window either- Free jazz with some rules to make it somewhat listenable.

Of course my friends and I couldn't really approach what these legends were doing, but it helped us grow as players to try. Later, when I did my brief attempt at grad school in jazz studies, I was really turned off by the student's attempts to "play free-" it just came off as aggressive chaos; I'd like to think that spinning this record a few times for them would have gotten them back down to earth.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It is finally here! Pitch to Pixel Volume 2!

FINALLY the page went live on CDBaby this morning!

So please do check it out! I spent some time listening to PtP 1 and 2 back to back, to compare. PtP 1 has some great moments, for sure, but I think I write with a lot less "fat" on PtP 2, as I've gained a bit more focus and discipline to my writing since 2010. Anyway, as any long time readers of the blog know, now begins the quest of "making back the money I spent to make it," which took something like 8 months or whatever last time. Here's hoping for a quicker turnaround!

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/robhoward3

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pitch to Pixel Song Profiles: Fantastical Prelude

Fantastical Prelude was actually the very first song I completed. I had, of course, a certain JRPG series in mind (a "Final" sort of fantasy, if you will!), and I worried that I would be a little too imitative.

But after finishing this, I was really happy with it. Then something funny happened. The melody stuck in my head FOREVER. Just repeated itself over and over again. Which is exactly what you want (but you can't predict which melodies will do that).

Part of it is a particular VST (virtual instrument) I used: "monomate," a monochromatic synth that has a mini-moog type of sound: deep and rich. It also doesn't process faster passages very well, creating charming processing errors that actually sound cool!

For some reason, I got it in my head that somewhere somebody would want to use this track to highlight some powerful scene in a romance/drama type of movie, and I would get this massive royalty from it (hah!). I guess I thought that because of the pretty, but melancholy flavor that it has.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pitch to Pixel Song Profiles: Open Dragon and Lightning Force

I open PtP 2 with a couple of tracks that signal the album's most distinctive feature from PtP 1: using 16 bit, Sega Genesis style FM synthesis. This was one of my "top requests" so I wanted to honor it.

Open Dragon is actually a homage to a new game, Capcom's Dragon's Dogma. The inspiration is a song they used for the title screen, called "Into Free" by a metal duo called B'z, a Japanese group. It starts slow, then speeds up, which is a simple musical device I like to use.

Lightning Force is, as you might suppose, based on the Thunder Force space shooter series from the Genesis "era" (roughly). These soundtracks had pretty amazing, synthesized heavy metal guitars. But, here is were I kinda go off the "chip" track: while the metal crunchy guitars are the appropriate FM synth sound, the drums are not downsampled here... and that's me playing that guitar solo. I felt an urge to lay down a old fashioned rock guitar solo, so, you know, why not? :-)


Friday, July 12, 2013

Finishing touches

So tomorrow, well, technically later today, I make the final touches, and upload this thing to CDBaby. It takes some time to process after that, so I don't think it'll be available until perhaps Saturday, or maybe Monday even, depending on how automated CDBaby's process is. Of course, I'll be uploading high quality .wav files, not mp3's, so it'll take some time.

I did a quick check on the mixes, putting it on some different speaker setups (with the car being most important to me, personally!), and tonight I'll be figuring out what my track order should be. This is important: even in the .99 cent a track "singles" era, having a logical album order is still important.