Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

The Skills of Expression

For the last year or so my workouts and long car rides have been accompanied by Marc Maron, Terry Gross, Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis. Nothing passes time like a good interview, and yesterday while huffing and puffing on a stationary bicycle I heard a doozy of a conversation on Sound Opinions with multi-talented Esperanza Spalding, just another of the seemingly endless blind spots I have in my musical repertoire. I only knew Spalding as the bass player with big hair who beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy some years ago, but after this interview I’m next in line to purchase her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution. (Yes, that’s right, if you like a piece of art, you should buy it, not stream it on youtube.) This gal can not only play, she can express herself, think deeply, push boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom. If you haven’t heard the interview, I highly recommend it.

But it was the interesting juxtaposition of something Spalding said and a quote from a character in the Mike Mills film 20th Century Women that prompted me to write this blog.

20th Century Women is if nothing else a love song to punk music, and while I’ve never been a fan of the genre, I was taken with the following exchange as Dorothea – played by Annette Bening – challenges Abbie – played by Greta Gerwig – about the music she’s listening to (thanks to Wikiquote for making this easy):

Dorothea: What is that?

Abbie: It's The Raincoats.

Dorothea: Can't things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

Dorothea: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

There’s something to this, I think, and it really made me consider punk music in a new way.  There is something very powerful in expressing oneself in a raw, uninhibited way despite not having tools to do so eloquently. It happens at nearly every outdoor festival I play at. There’s always that one guy – usually shirtless – who stands near the side of the stage and dances. Dances like there’s no tomorrow, like he’s offering a primitive prayer to the heavens, arms and legs flailing, torso gyrating, eyes closed. This man is dancing despite not knowing how to pirouette or jeté, and there’s something very freeing and very pure about this, like when a three year-old joyously shakes and stomps to music. I wish I could express myself as uninhibitedly.

But in the Sound Opinions interview Spalding offers another way to consider things:

“You need technical prowess to express yourself freely. You don’t need to use all of it all of the time, but it really helps to have technical facility.” She goes on to mention dance troops who hire ballet dancers, not because they’re performing ballet, but because they need the technical skills to pull off the dance moves the troop requires. “Music is the same. Jazz music, whatever music. It’s just having more vocabulary, like you want to be a great writer and you discover that your vocabulary is limited, like you feel the crunch, like I want to have a place out here, I need to work on my vocabulary.”

And she is, of course, spot on. I think of the multitude of times that I wanted to get my point across in a sharp, succinct way, but couldn’t find the one word that would have allowed me to do so, instead leaning on very basic vocabulary that diluted my message. Similarly, when I play piano, there have been times when I wanted to take my playing to a new place, and although I could visualize exactly what I’d like to do, I didn’t have the technical skills to take me there.

It’s important that Spalding added the following caveat, “You don’t need to use all of it all of the time.” When my son was just learning drums and starting to come up with his own fills, I played for him the tom fills in Toto’s song, “Africa.” You know it well, but in case you need reminding, go to 1:10, 2:20 and 3:15 of the following video. 

These are three of the simplest tom fills you’ll ever hear, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any more effective. It’s important to note that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was among the most talented and most sought after drummers in the music industry at the time, and while he could have overcomplicated things (probably in a very tasteful and interesting way), he opted to offer simply what the song required. I imagine it’s the same in any art form. Ernest Hemmingway wrote relatively simply, but I suspect he could have rivaled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s word wizardly if he’d chosen to or needed to.

And that’s the ultimate aim of any musician, any artist or really any human being: to have the skills to express yourself in any way you see fit. If simplicity is required to express raw emotion like that of punk music, great. But if something more extravagant is needed, you can go into your bag of technical skills and do what’s required.

Keyboard Rig for the Aging Rocker

When I started gigging again back in 2011 I was using a heavy, inflexible beast from the 1990s, a 60 pound Roland A-90 that – along with its sonic limitations – virtually guaranteed regular chiropractic visits. When it died two years later, its replacements offered other problems. The Korg SV-1 was 15 pounds lighter, though still cumbersome, and it was functionally limited. It offered zero layering and splitting capabilities and its organ sounds were simply terrible. I added a second keyboard – a 31 pound Kurzweil PC3LE6 – that really shined in some areas, but now I was lugging around two heavy-ish keyboards that still didn’t do everything I wanted. Add to that a QSC K12 for my keyboard amp, and at the end of an evening my back was ready to cry uncle, not to mention my ringing ears. I considered purchasing a Nord, but in additional to the exceedingly high price, these keyboards also have imitations. I was looking for something to offer me flexibility without breaking the bank or my back.

A year ago I started to seriously consider updating my gear to a laptop based system, and after months of research, several purchases, a steep learning curve and countless hours of frustration, I am now playing live with a new setup that’s got one foot in the 21st Century while still offering the stability and simplicity of a 20th Century rig. Here are the specifics:

Nektar Panorama P6 61 key controller keyboard (used)

Casio PX-5S 88 weighted keyboard (used)

MacBook Pro (used)

Mainstage 3 software

IK Media Sample Tank software

Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen) audio interface

USB port (used)

2U Rack mount case

Rack mount Power Supply (used)

3 keyboard pedals

Shure SE 215 headphones with self-made in ears molds using Radians custom molds

Call it a keyboard rig for the aging rocker who still wants to stay relevant. The price? I purchased both keyboards, the MacBook, the USB port and power supply secondhand, saving me around $1000. All told, my new gear cost somewhere around the price I would have spent on a new Nord keyboard.

A couple of points:

The Casio PX-5S is the best-kept secret in the keyboarding world. It sounds great, it’s flexible and I can carry it under one arm. It’s staggering light – only 23 pounds – and I personally love the feel of the keys. The Nektar Panorama P6 only weighs 17 pounds. So in essence I went from carrying 76 pounds of keyboards to 40 pounds. Nice.

I no longer take an amp with me when I gig. Instead, I use my Shure headphone and directly monitor my keys along with a PA vocal feed through my audio interface. No more heavy amps and I’m guaranteed to be able to hear myself without subjecting my ears to deafening sounds.

I use soft synths for my top controller keyboard only. I use the internal Casio sounds (while still programming patch changes with Mainstage), partly because I like the sounds and partly because it provides me with a backup in case of catastrophic computer failure. No matter what, I'll be able to get through a gig. I basically use the Casio for pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, clavs, Vox Continental, Farfisa and some pads and strings, but it can do a lot more in a pinch.

I run both the Casio and the softsyths through the Focusrite and out the back in mono - each panned hard right or left - so that the audio engineer still has flexibility to change volumes. I've learned that this is a better way to go (for me, at least) because sometimes the volumes I set during rehearsals need tweaking when playing live.

My rack mount contains my audio interface, mult-USB port, Power supply and all the cables I need to set up, which I can complete in about seven minutes. I use Velcro strips to adhere my rack mount onto a music stand, and I use additional strips to adhere my MacBook to my rack mount. Easy, cheap, flexible and – to date – accident free.

Similarly, I adhered all three keyboard pedals onto a 11” x 14” canvas board (painted black) with Velcro strips. This keeps my pedals from sliding around, and it’s light and easy to carry.

 

All you Apple lovers out there who told me that MacBooks are the best and I would wonder why I didn’t switch to Apple years ago, I cry bullshit. My MacBook freezes and crashes at inopportune times just like my PCs do. It’s a computer, and an inflexible and overpriced computer at that, but I wanted to use Mainstage to play live so I had no choice. Fortunately the most significant problems have occurred during rehearsals and not during live performances.

Speaking of which, Mainstage is an amazing value but also amazingly frustrating to use. Yes, everything can be configured if you have enough hours in the day, but it could be oh so much better. I am not a MIDI guru – I know just enough to be dangerous – and this is no doubt the source of much of my frustration, but Mainstage makes me work very hard to do some very simple tasks. Still, once you get things set, there’s nothing as wonderful as pressing a button and having all of your song settings appear. I no longer spend my time on stage trying to select the correct patch at the correct time, and I enjoy performing live much more as a result. 

Mainstage is impossible to learn well without help, and I found two on-line sources to be invaluable: http://brian-nagel.com/ and https://brianli.com/.  I owe them big time.

The sounds that come with Mainstage – particularly the organs and synths – are amazing and allow for endless tweaking to get the sound you need. I purchased SampleTank to help supplement some of Mainstage’s shortcomings, particularly the horns and strings, and for piano, Rhodes, etc. I use my Casio’s internal sounds, and although they’re not as strong as my SV-1’s patches, they’re certainly sufficient and enjoyable to play, and they're much better than Mainstage's pianos.

I have odd ear canal sizes and I wasn’t able to get my Shure headphones to stay in place consistently and block out enough room noise. Rather than having proper in-ear molds created, I purchased Radians ear molds and created my own based on some youtube videos I watched. Cheap and effective.

All in all, the switch to a laptop based system has achieved what I’d hoped for: a lighter rig with better sounds and more flexibility. It’s been a source of frustration to be sure, and I don’t even want to think about how many hours it took me to learn how to use the gear properly and to program patches for my bands, but ultimately it was a challenging and rewarding experience. In a way, it helped me to reengage with music that had become a bore to play and allowed me to examine each song’s potential, challenging me to make the song sound as good as possible. Performing is much more fulfilling as a result, not to mention less back-breaking, and I also feel like this is a rig that can grow with me rather than being bogged down with a expensive keyboards that only do certain things well. 

Who's to Blame for our Topsy Turvy World?

In a recent article by Kadeen Griffiths regarding the upcoming HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, actor Courtney B. Vance says, “The world is topsy turvy, and everyone is out for themselves. It shouldn’t be like that.” This phrase, topsy turvy, has been coming up a lot in conversation lately, because it seems as if our world has truly been turned on its head, and it’s easy to see who’s to blame.

Number 1 seeds are losing to number 8 seeds (the Blackhawks are the first NHL or NBA number one seed to ever be swept in the first round).

Fox News is now holding its hosts to a higher standard than the American public holds its elected officials.

Oscars winners are announced and then withdrawn.

The White House has gone from hosting Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to Ted Nugent and Kid Rock.

Superbowl leads of 25 points are forfeited in a quarter and a half.

Alternative truth has become a phrase in our lexicon.

And who set the wheels in motions for this topsy turvy world? No, not Trump. He was merely a by-product. Instead, turn your attention to six days earlier during the waning minutes of November 2 when the Earth shifted slightly from its axis and allowed a little rain to fall onto Cleveland, Ohio. I’d gone to bed early that night (just as I would on November 8) and when I awoke after a brief nap, I thought to myself, “Holy shit! I don’t hear fireworks. The Cubs must have actually lost!” The lovable losers had been up 6-3 in the 7th when I called it a night feeling mildly depressed because without the Cubs, Red Sox and White Sox to make fun of, who was left except my lowly Brewers?   

And then I heard it. The sound of fireworks. Yes, the Indians had come back, ready to claim their first World Series since 1948, but a rain delay turned the fate of the world upside down that evening.

Now, my depression that night and following morning can’t compare to the sick, festering depression that much of America has felt since November 8 and will continue to feel as the country unravels, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Cubs set the wheels in motion. 

Thanks a fricking lot, Cubbies. Enjoy your little victory dance as defending World Champions while the world crumbles all around you. You’re expected to make another playoff run this year, but hey, in this topsy turvy world you started, don’t get your hopes up.

In fact, in this topsy turvy world, my Brewers might actually have a shot.

Danny Green Trio: Jazz Plus

When I attended Berklee College of Music in the 80s, students engaged in an adolescent turf war, a sort of whimpified version of West Side Story sans knives or anything else involving danger. Instead of the Sharks and the Jets, it was the Rockheads and the Jazzheads, the former perceived as buffoons by the latter, and the latter perceived as smug elitists by the former. I was somewhere in the middle, having been raised on rock and roll though very open to learning about jazz, but the jazz tradition at Berklee made it hard not to side with my rock brethren. So smug were the Jazzheads that they gleefully rode the coattails of Wynton Marsalis’s criticism of his brother Branford for his joining Sting’s band, and they were downright incredulous at how Sting ruined his otherwise legitimate song “Englishman In New York” with a rock beat breakdown (right after a swing section, which the Jazzheads natural approved of).

I may still be a rock guy at heart, but my favorite musical discovery of 2016 came not from one of the dozen rock stations of Chicago but from the jazz frequencies of 90.9 WDCB.  While driving in my car, I heard a piano jazz trio playing an odd-metered song with a stellar melody backed by – of all things – a string quartet. It blew me away. I rushed home, went on-line to check the name of the song – “Porcupine Dreams” – and purchased the Danny Green Trio album, Altered Narratives. It’s a gem.

Altered Narratives showcases a wide spectrum of jazz styles, and with Green’s flair for odd rhythms and the addition of strings on a handful of tunes, the album offers a listening experience that’s far more interesting, varied and fulfilling than any other jazz album I’ve heard in a long, long time. The addition of strings is a stroke of genius as it completely changes the musical palate.  As much as I love the sound of a traditional piano-bass-drums combo, the strings fill out the sound when the band plays percussively, and offers accents at other times, each unit balancing the other to lift the song to an entirely new level.

Some songs stand out in a big way. After a few more traditional pieces to open the album (still original and still excellent), the trio dives into the haunting “October Ballad,” a tune in three-four whose tensions and changing tonal center keep the song moving forward and avoid getting too settled. In addition to his piano chops, Green’s gift is melody, and this song is exhibit A. 

After a solid Latin-based “6 A.M.” the band switches gears yet again with “Second Chance,” opening as a sort of romantic piano piece with the first string accompaniment on the album and reminiscent of some of the cinematic themes of Ennio Morricone. It’s a lovely piece that seemingly concludes, pauses, and then begins again with the full band in a different key and a different time signature, now with the reprised melody offering a compelling 4 on 3 motif that gives the piece its momentum. The next tune, “Katabasis” also sounds cinematic, and its 12/8 rhythm would feel right at home in a tension filled montage of a mystery film. Once again, the feel changes a third of the way through the song, becoming a more staccato piece and giving the song a welcome lift.

Next on the CD is the piece that started it all for me, the wonderful “Porcupine Dreams,” offering another haunting melody with strings punctuating the 7/8 rhythm before the band breaks with a frantic conclusion that alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 and keeps the listener desperate to find the down beat, like a thrill rider’s anticipation of the next stomach-churning drop.

The short piano solo “Benji’s Song” once again stresses Green’s mastery of melody, and the chromatic changes would fit right in with a Randy Newman instrumental album.

Here ends the more experimental side of the album, with the last three songs completing things on a more traditional jazz-trio note, though “Friday At the Thursday Club” offers yet again some very interesting chord changes beneath a melody whose accents are unfamiliar in a 6/8 time signature (a 4 on 3 is once again employed – wonderful!). But for me, tracks 3-8 are among the best six I’ve ever heard on a jazz recording. If the bookends are a bit more on the traditional side, they’re still excellent.

Bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm hold down the rhythm fort nicely, particularly in the odd-metered moments. If there’s one criticism I’d make of the album, it’s the inclusion of so many bass solos. I suspect jazz purists will crucify me for saying so, but I never understood the allure of the bass solo. To me it’s an instrument that should stay in its supporting role and allow other instruments to handle the highlights.

Whatever. The Danny Green trio is a stunning group that’s willing to push the boundaries and explore interesting territory. That may be what’s expected of all jazz musicians, but this is a band that is equal to the task.

Siskel and Ebert

A few days ago a friend of mine and I were discussing movies – what makes a good one and whether a well-executed movie that aims low is better than a poorly-executed movie that aims high – and I recalled a movie review of Siskel and Ebert. As I told it, Ebert was reviewing a Heather Locklear monster movie of some kind - Swamp-something-or-other – and Ebert gave it thumbs up, only to be challenged by Siskel for having given a thumbs down just a moment before for a drama that didn’t quite hit the mark.

And since time travel is possible through the magic of youtube, I can rest easy knowing that although I may not remember someone’s name a minute after he introduces himself, I can recall with stunning accuracy a twenty-eight year-old memory involving two people I never met discussing movies I’ve never seen.

Man, I miss these guys. Some of my most indelible memories are of their movie reviews. I vividly recall their reviews for “Once,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and on and on. Very often what they said was as interesting or entertaining as the film itself. Sometimes more. 

Last night my wife and I watched “Baby Boom,” which I had never seen before, and after it was over I gave her four reasons why I thought it was a bad film. She humored me, and then humored me more when I said, “We gotta see what Siskel and Ebert said about this.” Sure enough, there it was on the internet. Siskel surprisingly liked the film. Ebert did not. Score one for Roger on that one.

But there were many reviews of both Gene’s and Roger’s that I disagreed with. Ebert put “Minority Report” at the very top of his list of best movies of 2001 – I’m still scratching my head over that one. But that was half the fun. They had opinions, but more importantly, they had personalities behind the opinions, and I genuinely liked both of them whether or not I agreed with them.

By coincidence, I just finished reading Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, and I highly recommend the read, if for no other reason than the short chapter in which he espouses the virtues of the eatery Steak and Shake. That alone is worth the price of admission. But what I’m really going to take away from the book is a list of art that I haven’t yet explored and that is sure to be thought-provoking: certain movies by Altman and Scorsese, any movie by Bergman or Fellini, and writings by Studs Terkel and Thomas Wolfe. These will keep me busy for a while, and when I need a little break I can go to http://siskelandebert.org/ and take in a few reviews. I could spend a whole week doing nothing but.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved