Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2009 - Empire State of Mind

It was supposed to be "Boom Boom Pow" today, but after 5 minutes at the piano I gave it up as a poor use of my time.  Not because I don't like the song - in fact, last year when Nat and I did our kids' show, Nat and Kat's Adventures with the Time-Traveling Piano (shameless plug), I used it as a basis for the tune that got us back to 2009 (we were stuck in 1939 due to a faulty time machine, you see, and we needed a song about 2009 to help direct us back to the present).

So I really like the song.  It is not meant to be played on the piano.  I considered spending my time studying the track like I've done with some of the other recent songs that don't lend themselves well to piano.  I decided, however, that since my days as a producer are so far in the future, I am better served by choosing a song that I could actually sort of learn to play on the thing I actually sort of know how to play now, today. 

This is a huge victory in the logic department for me.  I am not known for my patience, especially with myself.   I'm always leaping ahead, in work and in life.  I have a dating condition I call Fast-Forward Brain.  It's almost universal to girls, and actually more common than you might think among guys.  It's a syndrome where, on the first date, your brain fast forwards through a lifetime with your date/potential mate.  Either a half dozen red flags are raised, or all systems are go for a second date, and possibly a wedding date.  Whoa, Nellie.  Similar thing with work - my brain leaps ahead to some nebulous place I'd like to be in five years and tries to get there now, without all the backtracking and baby steps that come in between.  That all has to change now.  My survival in both these arenas depends on me learning to slow my ass down and take the next step, instead of trying to cross to a distant shore without a bridge or canoe. 

My first taste of jazz was in college in a jazz combo directed by a great doctoral student (he is now Dr. Bob Knop), and he said something that has stuck with me, about practicing and about comparing oneself to one's musical heroes and colleagues: "Put on the blinders and get back to work."  I've realized recently that that doesn't just apply to the side (comparing yourself to colleagues) or above (despairing of ever being able to play like Brecker, or Wonder, or fill-in-the-musical-blank), but ahead as well.  I wanna be the musician I'm going to be in five years right now.  

If only I could time travel...

When I allow the Doubts to talk to me, that's the number one most frustrating thing for me as a professional musician: the inability to time travel - feeling like I am behind the curve and I'll never be good enough no matter how hard I work, because I can't change my background.  Growing up in a small town in Southwest Buttf***, New Mexico, I didn't have access to the performing arts (nearest "real" city: Phoenix, 5.5 hour drive) or teachers who knew the biz.  Combine that with the fact that I was a big fish in a small pond and accustomed to being the best at everything I tried to do, with very little effort...  Now here I am in the concrete jungle where all the big fish come to realize their dreams, and I'm gasping for air because, even when I'm trying really hard, there are hundreds of other musicians within a 5-mile radius who can wipe the floor with my ass. 

I do this because I want to.  Never forget that, Kat, never forget that.  But there are times, and a lot of times recently, when a little voice inside me goes, "Really, Kat?"  This is the voice - let's call him Cleatus Doubt - that would like more sleep, and more money, and doesn't really give a hoot about my creative success.  He says, "Don't you think if this were what you're supposed to be doing, it would come a little easier?  You don't want to waste your life doing the wrong thing, do you?  Especially if doing the right thing would lead to more sleep and maybe even a dishwasher.  What's all this hard work for if you're not really gonna make it?"

Yesterday, I was semi-watching an Alison Krauss DVD, and I caught the lyric "the next best thing to playin' and winnin' is playin' and losin'".   I stopped whatever else I was doing and backed it up to listen to the song, which is "The Lucky One".  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Sometimes life has the answers for music (as has been the case with my playing in the past year), and sometimes music has the answers for life.  One of the lyrics in the Jay-Z rap of "Empire" is "8 million stories out there and they're naked/city it's a pity half of y'all won't make it".   When I'm philosophical, which is approximately 26% of the time, I have to put myself in the making-it half - I mean, I'm making a living doing what I love.

On that note, I am going to go spend a little time on the Alicia Keys solo version of the song that I just remembered exists - more melody for me, and now I basically know what happens in the Jay-Z version enough to back up a rapper in an emergency.  And, Cleatus Doubt, you can take it and shove it where the sun don't shine. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

1991 - Rush, Rush

I'm trying really hard to write every day this month, and it's so hard!  There just isn't time!

Yesterday I learned "It Must've Been Love", which became a hit single for Roxette in 1990.  I didn't remember who recorded it, and I didn't know they were Swedish.  My Swedish friend tells me that Sweden is the world's 3rd largest exporter of music, after te U.S. and U.K. 

Today's song was "Rush, Rush".  I discovered the internet is full of veiled insults of Paula Abdul.  Poor thing, she never says anything bad about anyone... at least not on air. 

When I chose to do a project on "standards", I intended to stick more closely to the 32-bar musical-comedy-turned-jazz-standard variety than I actually have.  But it did occur to me that learning a song a day would raise the standard of my playing, and that I might have a chance to mull over what makes a song become a standard.  Who decides these things?

"Rush, Rush" was at the top of Billboard Hot 100 during my birthday week in 1991, and now Itunes review of Paula Abdul's greatest hits album starts with words to the effect of "the only Paula Abdul album you'll need".  Food for thought. 

1989 - If You Don't Know Me By Now

My second Simply Red song in less than a week.   The phrase "If You Don't Know Me By Now" sometimes feels like a taunt from jazz and pop and other forms of music I didn't grow up with, but lately I'm feeling like I might actually be ok at playing them... someday, one day.

So here's my chance to write what I started to write about "Holding Back the Years": structurally, both songs are really simple, which leaves me time to pay attention to exactly what notes and rhythms are being played (as opposed to having to spend most of the time just figuring out the chords, the form, etc).

A number of times throughout my quest to become a better, more well-rounded musician, other, more masterful musicians who are helping me have invited me to stray from the notes on the page (remember talking about "the Ink" a while back?).  It's as if they think suddenly I'll know what to play, having been given permission to "comp" rather than play exactly what's written (and remember me bitching about bad piano arrangements? on several occasions?). 

And it is a great gift these musicians have given me - permission, and a clue.  A clue that I'm only starting to understand.  Until recently my reaction would generally be:

Blank stare.


ummmm...ok =

"I don't know this musical style.  Using the written notes as a "guideline" but not playing them exactly? That's like filling in a mad lib in a language I don't speak: I might be able to fake some of the pronunciation, but no native speaker would be able to understand what I'm saying.  Or, it's like trying to speak a language you can only read.  Yes, that's a better analogy.  You do fine, and can even get the gist of what's going on as long as there's something in front of your face, but try and form sentences from your own brain and you're toast.  So it is with me and most contemporary styles of music.  If not the written notes, then Whattt?!"

So it took me forever to start, but now I try to learn it like a language - a word, a phrase at a time, and every day I strap on my headphones and listen to the grown-ups (ie recording artists) talk, and I babble my pianistic baby gibberish.  I think I can say "mama" and "dada" now, and I can even say "where is the bathroom" with a really thick classical accent.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

1988 - Together Forever

 I love this song!  I love the melody of the chorus!  That is a fun melody!  I love the chord progression, especially the Dmaj7-F/G-Cmaj7 progression of the prechorus (or bridge?  Or second half of the verse?  Not sure what to call that.).  At least I think that's what the chords are - I did this song on Tuesday, and I'm writing this in Starbucks where I'm killing time between things. 

This was one of the songs I was surprised to like.  I'm pretty bad at playing - this style is not my strong suit.  But I'm having fun jamming to the recording. 

1988: I don't remember much specifically about this year.  I had a really nice second grade teacher, Mrs. Silva, and was also in the enrichment class with Mrs. Giese, who had us make papier mache whales and coyotes.  You can probably give her credit for any small personal actions I take on behalf of the environment.  In that class, I wrote for an esteemed newspaper, The Noodle Times, which sold for a dime at our school, Jose Barrios Elementary.  I kicked ass at Oregon Trail and Logo.  We had music class about once a week.  I recall learning rhythms and folk songs and stuff like that, but I have to admit, my most vivid memory of music class was our teacher showing us her earlobe and how it was split in two from a long-ago earring accident. 

Ah, small-town life!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

1986 - Holding Back the Years

Today's song goes out to Sarah, my best friend from childhood.  She is 13 days older than I am, and we have known each other since we were 6.  She is 29 today, and upon my request, she chose "Holding Back the Years" from the 1986 list of Billboard Hot 100 number 1's. 

So is this song about regret, or about no having any regrets?  Sometimes I like to find out what the songwriter's intention is, other times I like to make up my own interpretation based on the lyrics alone.  The online song-meaning-comment community doesn't seem to have much of a consensus (granted, these are people who have time to go online and write comments about what they thing songs are about - there but for the Grace of God and facebook go I).  In any case, the narrator in the song is looking back on his life with some sort of deep emotion. 

Again with the nostalgia.  This month's project makes me feel sort of like I'm watching a sped-up film of my life.  1986 was the year my family went to Japan for the first time, to visit my family near Tokyo where my uncle was stationed with the civil service.  My sister could not remember ever having been illiterate, because she learned to read very young, so she got a little pissed at the impenetrable Japanese language and decided to learn it.  Now she has formidable Japanese language skills, a masters in simultaneous interpretation, a career in patent translation (meaning she knows how to say "widget" and "doohickey" in Japanese), a Japanese husband, and two cute little boys their aunt doesn't get to see often enough. 

Then tomorrow, in 1987, my family will move from a tiny mining town in Arizona to Silver City, a slightly larger mining town in New Mexico, and I will meet Sarah, whose dad teacher photography and pottery at the local university and whose mother works several part-time jobs, including that of organist at the church my family chooses to attend. 

Sarah towers over me at age 6.  This is why she can - and does - tell me that my part's not straight.  I can't remember if she fixed it, or just told me it was crooked.  She has always had more style than I!

Age 12: because my hometown is so small, we drive 2 hours each way to the orthodontist.  Sarah and I usually go down together with our moms to have our braces tightened, and for the slightly less torturous activities of mall-shopping and TCBY.  Sarah and I both play wind instruments in band during the braces years; wax is an important fact of life. 

Age 18?: Don't remember exactly, but it was some summer right before or during college.  Sarah worked at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, which is 44 very hilly, very curvy miles from Silver.  I just looked at the website for the monument, and it states travel time as two hours.


Ha ha. 

Don't tell our parents how fast we used to get there. 

Well, we lived through that to age 22 - Sarah went to Argentina to do some volunteer work; I went to London for a 6-month work program.  Around the time I was having my heart broken by a classist British boy, she was falling in love with Sabino, who is now her husband (if you are a loyal reader, you have already met Sarah and Sabino at least once). 

Age 25: I make a trip to Buenos Aires for Sarah and Sabino's wedding.  Sarah and Sabino and I jam late at night - I think Sarah's little brother joined us too.  I call him my Otherbrother (even though I don't have a brother for which he could be other), and Sarah's mom and dad are my Othermother and Otherfather.  Their civil wedding (which everyone does down there) is casual and fun, and their big family wedding is beautiful.  All of us eat more meat than I ever knew existed at the asado at their wedding - Argentina: not a vegetarian's paradise - and most of us stay up all night dancing.  Bedtime is about 9 a.m., after we've taken charted buses back to the family home. 

Age 26: Sarah and Sabino finally have paperwork for Sabino to enter the United States.  They discover that the cheapest way to get to New Mexico from Argentina is actually through New York, which is a huge bonus for me. 

Age 28: I visit Sarah, Sabino, and the new addition to their family in Albuquerque.  My first opportunity to corrupt my Othernephew (I am NOT calling him my Otherson!  Don't get your hopes up, Tamara!) comes in the form of a musical mobile.

I wrote a really rough draft of some musical thoughts about "Holding..." and the past few songs, but I am out of writing time for now.  It's time for social time - I sometimes have to remind my Inner Crazy Artist Person that that's important, but clearly, from the above list of selected memories from a 23-year friendship, important it is.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

1981 - Bette Davis Eyes

I'm going to try an experiment: learning my song as early as possible in the day, instead of allotting a time slot at the end of the day. It's only happened early in the day of its own accord a handful of times, and I like the frame of mind it leaves me in for the rest of the day: alert, observant, satisfied that I have both crossed something off the to-do list and given myself a little present in the form of a song I now know.

Speaking of presents, it's my birthday month! Ok, so my birthday isn't until the 19th, but I've had an emotionally arduous year, and it's the first of what I hope will be many 29th birthdays, so I plan to celebrate all month. For this project, I have chosen to learn a song from each year of my life. In most cases, I chose the song that was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on or around my birthday. I've made a few exceptions for songs I hate or that really don't lend themselves to piano. The song for June 6th...

P.M. (well, to be more precise, very early A.M.)
...sometimes I get interrupted mid-sentence.  I was writing that last bit on my phone on the subway, and I had to get off the train at that point.

So anyway, as I was saying, the song for June 6th will be chosen by my best friend Sarah, who is thirteen days older than I and whom I have known since we were six years old. 

1981, the year I was born.  "Bette Davis Eyes" was actually written in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, but it was 1981 when Kim Carnes' version became a hit. 

Perhaps because I would love to know just what it takes to make a pro blush (or even what that means), perhaps because I've been told I have Bette Davis eyes, I really like the lyrics to this song.  Not particularly clever in terms of wordplay, but they do contain some nice imagery, eg "pure as New York snow", "she'll take a tumble on you/roll you like you were dice" ...


Ahem.  So, phrase lengths!  Debbie (of Monday night's jam session) came over today and played through some of her original music with me so I can work on arranging it.  I need a little, low-stakes arranging project to build my chops, she would like some arrangements for her songs.  Debbie lamented that her songs are "the same thing over and over again", and then, a little later, that she wrote this "weird, random part" near the end of one song.  So basically you wrote a great pop song, I told her.  We talked about how the hooks - the really basic, catchy parts -  are what draw us in and give us something to hang onto, but it's that quirky bit that's different and tasty that makes us go back and listen to a song over and over again.  Well, actually, it's the combination of hook and quirk that is so delightful.  Quirky hook.  Hooky quirk?  (No.) ...Kind of like sugar and butter - wasn't there some sort of scientific study a while back about the irresistibility of a certain ratio of sugar and butter?  I must be hungry. 

Anyway (running out of consciousness and brainpower) - in "Bette Davis Eyes", the songwriters do us a favor by eliding some of the cadences to keep the momentum going in this bridgeless, refrain-happy song - that is, the end of one musical phrase and the beginning of the next sort of overlap.  This happens in the middle of each verse, eg "She'll lay you on the throne/She got Bette Davis eyes/She'll take a tumble on you..." - if one is used to counting in 4- or 8-bar phrases, one would expect another measure between "Bette Davis eyes" and "she'll take a tumble..."  But we hear "Bette Davis eyes" so many times in the song, we don't really care if it lands with room to spare every single time we hear it. 

I don't have a clever conclusion to this entry, so I will just fade out, like this song and so many others from the 80s...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Lovely weekend, topped off by a jam session with several friends, pictured here, hot & sticky even in my air-conditioned living room: Matt (percussion), Jessica (percussion and vocals), Joshua (vocals, piano), Debbie (vocals), and me.  We played/sang a bluesy version of "Eleanor Rigby", "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)", a samba version of "When You Say Nothing At All"... actually, a lot of the songs ended up with a Brazilian flavor to them, because Matt and Jessica brought their Brazilian percussion instruments with them. 

Let's see, what else did we play... "Sweet Home Alabama"... I don't even remember.  I had a panicky moment just before the jam when I realized I hadn't had the time to formulate or execute a plan of any sort for the evening.  No charts or even lyric sheets printed up, no song list aside from the one of all the songs I've "learned" this year, nothing.  I knew it would be ok because they are all my friends (also, because I made guacamole, and I make a really good guac for which people are willing to forgive me most of my sins), but I wanted to have a method, a plan, based on the personnel of the evening, and perhaps algorithms and stuff as well!  Conquerors don't go around without plans!  Arghh!

Again with the perfectionism.  I'm learning to treat it like a really annoying neighbor who talks a lot of shit but doesn't have any real power unless I listen to him, and actually has some really good ideas buried underneath all that flagellation (like, maybe I'll plan ahead next time if I have time).  He's not going to go away, but I can usually recognize him now, and ignore him.  Or, even better, make fun of him.  So, I'll keep having jam sessions.  It will still scare the crap out of me to host them and to participate in other ones.  I'll get better at planning them (or not) through trial and error.  With any luck, I'll get better at playing, too. 

A Note on Getting Out of My Head:
The past few weeks have been an interesting study in not over-thinking things.  I haven't had time to obsess about the music I've had to perform.  I've clicked my heels together and sent up a little prayer to the gods of accuracy and soul that what little time I've had to practice is enough to ensure that this octave passage, that 16th-note run, that groove, is there when I need it.  This is partly a function of me being able to trust my technique more in the past few months, and partly a function of not having any other choice.  Mostly, things landed really well in performance, and when they didn't, I recovered like a pro.  But when I wasn't practicing, rehearsing or performing, I wasn't sitting there worrying either.  That's a new feeling, scary and liberating at the same time - not obsess!?!?  What the hell should I be doing instead?  I think adding this song-a-day thing has tipped me into the volume of music - amount, not decibels - necessary to force me out of my head, and the urge to have jam sessions is the latest manifestation of that non-stuck-ness (that, and coining new words, apparently). 

Recent songs and quick thoughts about them:
"Amanda" (Boston): chosen because I asked my friend Amanda for suggestions.  Typical epic 80s ballad with the kind of soaring male vocals that make baritones bleed with tenor envy.  I like where it goes for the bridge: they've gotten us accustomed to hearing D resolve to E-minor during the chorus (Em / Am /, D / / / and repeat...), so it's not so much of a stretch to go to E major chord instead for the bridge.  Neat. 

"A Thousand Miles": a great piano-based song for me to use to work on solidifying the new technique.  I've been looking for a pop song to use, because, for some reason, when I learn things primarily by ear, the old, bad technical habits creep in.  But it's the same keys, and the same fingers playing them, so I need to find a way around that roadblock.  I love the drums on this song. 

Off to learn "Sweet Dreams" (Joshua started jamming on piano on this one, and I sang with Debbie and Jess, but I want to learn to play it too), and, if I have any juice left after that, "When I Fall In Love" - pre-1960, so a bending of my post-March-8 rules, but definitely an uber-standard.  Also, kind of a cheater song, given that I'm already quite familiar with it.  But, as Jess and I were discussing tonight, some of the fake books put in the alternate chords for you, which kind of takes the fun out of the chord substitution process.  So I'd like to play around with the harmony in addition to committing the song to memory.