Thursday, 3 November 2011

Zambia!


I'm going to finish up the 'Weirdest Gigs' list another time. Right now I must share photos, clips and stories from Zambia where my brother Paul and his partner Sitali were recently married. Afterwards we took a trip South to Livingstone to experience Africa at it's best.


The Zambezi River

Downtown Lusaka near the train station.
I haven't been face to face with expreme poverty like this since I went to Vietnam in 1995. 


In consideration of the immense poverty and callenges facing it, this is a good time for Zambia and its people which founded it's independence in 1964. We were there for independece day. The copper belt -which it once relied on (along with a impressive rail network) - isn't producing the same revenue it once had and so there is more development now in education (Lusaka hosts a large University) and the presevation of it's natural resouces. Tourism is big business. Zambians practice free elections, have a proud history of democracy and enjoy spectacular natural wonders, most famous of all is Victoria Falls (shared w Zimbabwe), the mighty Zambezi river and incredible wildlife which is protected and extremely accesible. I would know as on our first night in Livingstone me, my bro and some friends were treated to an exciting taxi ride at night on a dirt road through a family of elephants. The driver said it was important not to surprise them, then he turned on his lights and gunned it, narrowly missing the calf and running off the road. If he had made an error in judgment (since when was driving between a baby elephant and it's parents a sign of good judgement?) then we surely would have been made into puree. So glad our kids and mother weren't along for that ride. But I did admire our drivers tenacity for adventure and putting his and his passengers lives on the line. We never got as close to an elephant after that but we did feel the ground shake as a herd of them came running towards us a few days later while on safari. That safari driver turned around quite suddenly so we assumed they were coming after us. This was an amazing sight - to see them run! - and to think we may be trampled at any moment only added to the thrill.

video
After we rounded a bend in the road I got some other footage of this one towing the rear. 

The first dance
The wedding was in Lusaka October 22nd. in a stunning Anglican church. I won't talk too much about the wedding because that really is Paul and Sitali's story to tell. But I will say that I almost laid an egg when I left my soprano sax - which i was to play at the ceremony with the RINGS inside the case - in the taxi that took us to the church! Our Mum deserves kudos for keeping her cool and helping me from totally freaking out. Thankfully I was able to get someone from the church to ring the lodge, who rang the dispatch, who rang the driver, who saw the sax case in the back of his taxi but apparently did not feel it necessary to return it to it's rightful owner until given permission. After some appropriate tipping everything was simpatico. Somehow, though on the brink of collapse everything worked out fine. That's how a lot of things seem to go in Zambia: friendly folks politely wait for someone else to give them approval so stuff is often done in a delicate and thoughtful yet painstaking slow manner. For ex. watching the staff at the Livingstone lodge prepare toast was like a scene from Fawlty Towers. There's a lack of training that is kind of quaint and people are so sincere and well meaning one never gets too worked about it. Best to surrender and enjoy the long waits by reading and drinking a fine Castle lager. Although in the tradition of the Brits I drank Gin and Tonics....refreshing!

Upstream from the falls we took a cruise on the African Queen

After the wedding we flew to Livingstone. It was a small plane and a bumpy decent which the kids loved. On the day we arrived we took a river safari on the Zambezi River - on the African Queen no less - where we enjoyed the view and the open bar!


Drifting on the current





Merle relaxing with family and friends
Hippos cool off by the banks of the Zambezi








The next day we went to Victoria Falls which really was an amazing experience for all of us. Although it was extremely hot (tempertures averaged 100degrees) we took in as much as possible.

Victoria Falls in the dry season



Trying to keep the boy cheery in the intense heat

It worked!
Paul and Davita are brave enough to sit at the precipice of this massive gorge 


This is as close to the edge as I would go

Years of erosion created these fascinating fractal like shapes in the riverbed. Although the falls wasn't at it's glory we were thrilled to hike the riverbed and bath in the pools. You can see the Zambezi Bridge in the background. That's Zimbabwe on the other side. 




Another view of the bridge. No bunge jumpers today





Our greatest adventure still lay ahead of us: A safari through the bush in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park!

We hiked into this restricted territory where the guards protect the white rhinos from poachers 

Perhaps my favorite picture of the trip was of this Boabab Tree

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Zebras 



Our beautiful journey comes to an end but the memories will live forever!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cutting to the chase. Top 10 Weirdest Gigs Ever

5. 1987, working with an Elvis impersonator out of Surrey, BC. This guy had pipes! And was a super nice dude. Every week I'd drive out to the burbs to this pub to play with him and his band. They rocked and I had a great time. About 3 weeks into it I noticed he would always disappear on breaks and one day I noticed him in the parking lot sitting in a Honda Civic. Just the sight of a guy dressed like 70's Elvis in a little car was weird enough. Then he invited me in to partake in a little of BC's finest export. I didn't want  to seem rude so I partook and then went into a a 'Big Lebowski-ish' dream sequence while Elvis talked to me about stuff, in his Honda Civic.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Top 10 Weirdest Gigs I Ever Played

10. My first gig as a professional Union card carrying member was for the Sikh Parade in Vancouver, Canada. I was 19 years old. We were hired to lead the parade but why they asked for a jazz band I'll never know. As we took off for the route in the back of a pick up truck it became clear people were as surprised as we were. Turbaned and Saried parade goers lined the street and we crawled by playing... St Thomas. Not exactly a Raga. Perhaps a few jazz classics were also explored. I believe I thought John Coltrane's India was appropriate but I can't remember if we played it. After about 2 hrs we stopped for a while and the bassist and I were desperate to pee so we put down our instruments and ducked into the closest diner. When we returned the parade had commensed and we couldn't even see the front so we had to run to catch up with our friends. They were on the floor laughing while we were out of breath and sweating with anxiety. Well at least I was! It was my first 'real' gig and I didn't want to blow it. I believe the band was with Ken Lister (bass), Ron Samworth (gtr and leader) and there was a drummer too. Now I'm sure Ron would have better sense to hire a brass band instead.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Louis CK on TV

Ever since I was a kid I loved watching TV. I started out watching the classic 70's sitcoms like MTM, All In the Family, Bob Newhart and MASH. When i was about 10 we lived with my Grandparents for a bit and my Grandpa set up a big comfy chair in the basement (in the storage room) with a b&w TV so he could watch what he wanted without me bothering him. Oh the joys I had eating pepperroni sticks, cheesies, and drinking way to much OJ while watching classic crap like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. I could also watch pretty much whatever I wanted and sometimes - if i could stay up late enough - the odd program would be broadcast in which I would get to see (oh joy for a pubescent lad) breasts! Sometimes there was also B movie violence and cool stuff that the Canadian censors would miss.

Recently I think 30Rock and a few other shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation have come up with some pretty funny stuff but nothing has really grabbed me like Louis CK's new show Louis

About a year ago I watched his standup special and laughed alot. OK there's some gross stuff and as with most comedians he is pretty crude. He is also incredibly honest and revealing about things in life that are hard to swallow. But in line with one of my favorite comedians of all time - George Carlin - there's an intelligence and bitter snap that really captures the frustrations of life while tickling the funny bone. Like him, I miss my kids when I'm on the road but I never have enough work....etc. It's all so close to home. The guy hit the BULLSEYE with me. 

The thing about the show I really dig is that it is so NYC. For ex. the episode Subway/Pamela in which at the beginning he captures a few moments in the subway - the beauty and the beast - and then he ties that same experience into a skit in which he confesses his love for his friend Pamela who shoots him down. Then - on a whim  after a very awkward spell - she invites him to take a bath. But he is so caught up in feeling bad from being shot down he misses the invitation and totally blows any chance at hooking up with this woman, who he really loves. It is a really funny yet heartwrenching true to life story and some of the best TV comedy I've seen in a long time. The scenes are highlighted with good music - mostly jazz - and it's thrown in, not just to add lightness but to frame the scenes. Unlike Sienfeld I actually like the characters on this show and respect Louis' efforts to rise above his failures and find contentment despite being a somewhat broken man. Without loosing its edge it still has heart and it is also smart. Impressive for a one man show as Louis is both writer and director.

This article in the NY Times seems pretty right on to me. Check it out on FX, Hulu or rent/stream it on Netflix. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Sunday, 10 April 2011

My Vigil

Like many musicians, I have spent a better part of my life playing my own music, striving for an unimaginable goal - it's not the ends, it's the means. sometimes I get caught up in the politics and bizarre ebb and flow that the artform we call Jazz fuels. If you are involved in improvised music it is almost impossible to avoid the frustrations of this business. Understandably there's lots of sour grapes out there and it's unbecoming to air them in public. But this isn't about that. Let's face it, all of the jazz folk are really in the same boat thinking the same thing - let's keep this thing from sinking! But sometimes I feel like Howard Beals in Network (RIP Sidney Lumet) and I wanna open my window and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!".  I will let him do the ranting for me. 

I saw this clip last night and I realized a couple of things. First of all, as much as I love the John Coltrane Quartet and each and every member of his band, by this time, they were not able to keep up with their leader. And don't get me wrong, they are playing really well here. It's not just his band. After this, all musicians trying to play jazz were forever going to be revisitng the same material in one way or another. The shear devoutness present in his playing is a message to everyone: It's all over. The music is now in the hands of 'The Universe". How can this be the same guy who honked the blues on 'Castle Rock' for Johnny Hodges or made up Giant Steps? It's beyond everything that came before it.

I was 17 years old when I discovered him and I was convinced Trane's music was a personal message from him to me. I thought I had a responsibility to express this message throughout my life. I know that sounds crazy but I was only 17 and very influenced by what I was hearing. I thought Giant Steps was a fun exercise that JC had to experiment with in order to discover his true potential. By 1965 - only 6 years later - it is asymilated into his ideas but it's only a particle; the bigger picture has eclipsed harmonic exercises and something else is going on. Something beyond what Charlie Parker ever imagined and only 10 years after his death! Bird's efforts didn't fall on deaf ears. His pupil John Coltrane took his innovations and in his own manner he took these ideas to another dimension. I think there is a very clear and simple message here: This is music of the Universe. Even Elvin and McCoy look a little stunned. Now what? Where is he taking us? Coltrane blasted off and he never looked back. Are you ready for this? Sounds to me like Mr Coltrane new his time on this planet was short and after 20 years of messing around he wasn't gonna waste any more of it by playing through exercises, over tin pan alley ballads or even his own famous compositions. Although Naima comes up every so often. He is 38yrs old and he has scerosis of the liver. He's probably already feeling pretty sick but this performance is super human. Is he telling us all to move on? If so, why didn't we?

I wanted to discuss the incredible spiritual and emotional impact from this era of Trane's music. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but when I hear fellow musicians talk about the classic years like 1956-60 I gotta wonder what the hell they are hearing from that period that compares to this? This is my opinion but as much as i enjoy his post bop edge and that development into 'sheets of sound', i think he really found his groove in the early 60's. OK, he wasn't exactly hung out to dry by Sonny Rollins on Tenor Madness but it seems (hindsight is 20/20) that Sonny has more to say at that particular time. As long as Coltrane played music that was an extension of earlier traditions, I don't think anyone would have taken nearly as much notice of him. But he didn't stick to the rules and thankfully he went way beyond what any 'jazz is swing and the blues, without that you don't have jazz' idealist can comprehend. I subscribe to that philosphy too. I love Jazz and the history. I love the artists who sealed the cracks and blew 2nd alto for 30years in some band and was never acknowledged by the media. Jazz is great. Don't get me wrong, I love Jazz.

But this isn't Jazz. It's a shame that creative music hasn't been properly displayed to the public in a manner that would have separated it from its' sister artform of Jazz.  I will avoid the word 'market'. Because this is creative music  - for the creator - and not an easy sell. We were given a gift. And what a gift he gave us! It is as clear and profound today as it was 45 years ago.

Friday, 21 January 2011

No One Will Miss Hearing Me Scream

Recently I have been exploring a synthetic reed made by a Canadian Company called Legere. The science behind this reed is amazing and in the last few years I've hardly ever gone back to cane. Yesterday I was asked to endorse their reeds which I can with absolute conviction. I played their product on Hellbent and Ben Allison's recent album and pretty much every gig I've done since 2007.

How is it possible to convey to the average joe how frustrating, time consuming, financially crushing but ultimately rewarding the search for a good reed is. Fortunately my days of freaking out over lost income being spent on  pieces of wood, no larger than a stick of gum but worth anywhere between 50cents and $5 each, is over. Before I rave and rant about the challenges involved, let's give you a little history about the reed.

The Brown Box
Rico has got  to be the most common reed in most of our lives. Those of us who grew up playing a sax or clarinet in band will remember this brand. And many jazz greats played (and still play) this reed. The way it was packaged in the old days (and i believe it was like this for decades) was a simple brown box w 25 reeds that were separated by paper dividers. It was easy to open and sift through. The thing I liked the most was the artificial woodgrain graphic on the box. The strengths were inconsistent but at such a  cheap price it didn't matter. Most of them played and the ones that didn't made for excellent tongue depressors. But for those who required a higher end product there's the Rico 'Royal'. Made for the fancy pants who can't hang with the rough cut. Here's what we sound like while we wet our reed and talk about the musical selection at hand, "Yu shoun gud buh ma nintonation isha liddle hoff."

Too Much Packaging
But seriously, after rico switched packaging their original product took a nose dive and it was never the same. And like the dreaded CD wrapping, the packaging made it harder to access the product. Eventually almost everyone started making individually packaged reeds. The damn reeds were entombed and segregated from each other. How is it that a beautiful, organic product made from giant cane plants that grow in tepid climates, ends up in a non recyclable, plastic case which is then wrapped in a plastic wrapper before being shrink wrapped in a box?  So we have to get through 4 layers of shit to get the freaking reed out!

Survival of the Fittest
When you finally do find a great reed it's a challenge to keep it 'alive'. The tip needs to stay wet and the body of the reed can't warp or it's game over. So you learn tricks. Some guys soak them in water for a while before they play them. Some leave them in water when they aren't playing them. I know a guy who spent hours cutting his own reeds. My father once told me that oboe players were all a little crazy because of the back pressure from their reeds. Now all of us clarinet and saxophone players know we have it easy next to those double reed players. In most cases they have to make their own reeds. For any of you who don't know what a double reed is, you're reading way to much of this blog. Just kidding, it's when you take a reed and tie it to another reed so instead of the reed vibrating against a mouthpiece, the cane vibrates against each other. It's for instruments like the oboe, bassoon, english horn, shenai, etc...Some people collect their unused reeds and build a sculpture which is then put to much better use as a magazine stand or some such thing. I've left some reeds in a dark cool place for years and like a good bottle of wine, as they age, they improve.

Origins of a Reedman
I started on clarinet when I was about 14. I got completely hooked on playing the clarinet as often as i could. Despite private lessons and school band classes, i was learning more about music by playing along to records than I was from books. I had taken piano lessons but I sucked and never practiced. Why were there so many keys and clefs and rhythms? When i heard music it didn't sound as complicated as it looked...and I was just trying to play me some Billy Joel! Well, Don't Go Changing is in Bmajor which, when you're 11yrs old, is not a great key to learn pop harmony in. But once I got that clarinet in my face (oral fixation in affect) I didn't want  to put it down. The only problem was, when the reed chipped and got too soft, I had to dig into my pocket and buy more reeds. Then, as I struggled to find one that played, I would go through a personality change somewhat similar to Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Imagine my Mum getting home from work: A single mother, paying for clarinet lessons to keep her son happy (and off the pipe - another oral fixation) but instead she hears another sound coming from his bedroom. It's not Mozart or Brahms. No, it's not even Benny Goodman. It's more like toot, toot, tweet, SQUEEK!...and again and again. Until....from the dark recesses of her pubescent son's room, she would hear,

"F*!K THESE CRAPPY REEDS, I'M GOING TO LOOSE MY MIND!!!"

So, Legere, thank you for making my life and so many other woodwind players, a little easier. No longer will I be heard cursing out my reeds on stage. No longer will I be flinging them on the floor in disgust at rehearsal. And no longer will I be the butt of another 'How many saxophonists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" joke.

Answer: just one but he has to go through 10 boxes to find one that works.