Friday, April 29, 2005

Pat Martino, Eric Johnson... and Radiohead?

Hello all you happy people. Right off the bat I want to extend a huge "thank you" to Pat Martino for the class. It is always helpful to be able to see familiar information through fresh eyes, which is exactly what the class did for me. If he is teaching his class anywhere near you, I highly recommend checking it out.

His approach to the guitar was something novel - something I never would have thought of but makes perfect sense. As any guitarist will tell you, one of the most daunting tasks you can undertake is the commitment to memory of all the vast numbers of chord inversions, especially when you include the 4- 5- and 6- note chords, their suspensions, alterations, and accompanying modes. It is a lot to learn, and knowing the theory behind it all helps a bit, in that if you know a chord's spelling, or a mode's intervals, you can always fabricate the appropriate inversion at position X - it just takes some time.

The approach taught in the class was to look at a couple of interesting peculiarities involving the augmented (1 - 3 - #5) and diminished 7 (1 b3 b5 bb7) chords. If you break up an octave in to 3 maj 3rd intervals, you have an augmented triad. If you break up an octave into 4 min 3rd intervals, you have a diminished 7. Therefore, each inversion of an augmented inversion can serve as 3 different augmented chords and each diminished 7th inversion can serve as 4 different diminished 7th chords. For example, G - B - D# can be a Gaug, Baug, or D# aug.

Now the interesting thing is this - raise one note in an augmented triad and that becomes the root of a minor triad. Lower one note in an augmented triad and that becomes the 5th of a major triad. Lower one note in an diminished 7th chord and it becomes the root of a dominant 7th chord. So, by learning this one trick in one position, you have a whole bunch of inversions at your disposal. Apply the same logic to melodic lines and you can play anything anywhere easily - with a minimum of translation time. There's much more information at Pat Martino's web site.

(image used without permission, but not hotlinked to )

What Pat Martino and Eric Johnson have in common is that they were both very close to making my list of influences. In the end I decided not to include them not because I don't have respect for their work, but because the things I learned from their work, I learned first from somewhere else, and I don't know that "respect for their approach" is the same as "influence".

In any event, I find myself listening the Eric Johnson's first album Tones quite a lot these days, for no real reason I can define. The songs all sound very dated (except perhaps "Zap"). The guitar work is good, but not exceptional; and after I saw Eric Johnson live for his "Ah Via Musicom" tour in the early nineties, I became largely disillusioned with him, as he seemed much more show-offish than I would have expected. The only thing I can think of is that I discovered "Tones" when I was still in high school and perhaps it reminds me of a particularly happy and intense time in my life. Music as nostalgia - I'm guilty too. Anyway, I've heard lots of good things about his work recently, starting with the live album he released a year or so ago, so when he swings through Atlanta this summer, I may go check it out.

One final thing. Everywhere I look these days I see some writer or critic or musician or other touting the greatness of Radiohead. Seriously. Even at the John Scofield show, the first act, the Brad Mehldau Trio (fantastic piano jazz trio) played a Radiohead song. So, when a colleague of my told me he wanted to learn to play guitar so that he could play Pink Floyd and Radiohead, I finally asked him, are they really that great?

Well, he lent me a couple of their albums, Amnisiac and Hail to the thief. I listened to them both twice but I still have to say I don't get it. I don't think the music is bad by any stretch, there are definitely some clever things going on with meter (what I like to call "rhythmic algebra" - solve for 1), tambre and instrument choices - easily facilitated through triggering, loops, and MIDI these days. It almost seemed to me that Radiohead is trying to incorporate Brian Eno style ambient music with mid-70s progressive - only using the studio as their primary instrument.

To my ears, the cumulative effect was that the music struck me as cold, impersonal and distant. There was no emotive stature to their work, in my opinion, outside of maybe serving as the soundtrack to a neo-goth horror / sci-fi / adventure flick - something with Keanu Reeves in it. I guess that has its place, but I don't understand the source of the abundant praise for their music. Why is it that most critics put Radiohead somewhere between The Beatles and god? Did I hear the wrong albums? Seriously, I want to know.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Science, Scofield, and Schoolin'

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." - Arthur C. Clarke
I like this quote because it is indicative of my philosophy when it comes to improvising. Basically I see thing like this: when you're are in the middle of an improvisation (either solo or group) you can approach it safely, play things you know you can play, and try not to venture too closely to the edge of your ability. This ensures that you won't make any major mistakes or cause any train wrecks, but it also ensures that each performance will be more or less exactly like the last one. Alternately, you can check your inhibitions and attempt things you would never have thought possible - thereby allowing your own inner sense of composition be the final arbiter of what is or is not played. This comes with risks, obviously, but with risks come rewards. Many times, after a performance, people will come to me and compliment my playing, but I seldom feel as if I am deserving of it, mainly because I know that there were several things I attempted that night that I could not pull off cleanly. Perhaps this is the very definition of the phrase "my own worst critic."

A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from someone who was looking for additional musicians for a project and when I indicated that I might be interested, he checked out our site and my writings here. When he called me, the first thing he asked my was why a particular artist was not listed among my influences. I won't mention the artist specifically other than to say he is one of the more well-known of the "jam band" guitarists. My response was that, rather than making things happen, musically, he tends to lay back and LET the music happen. To put that in the context of this discussion: this particular guitarist is not a risk-taker. You know what he's going to play before he plays it, because he plays the same kind of stuff all the time. As a listener, I have no CLUE about where his limits of possibility lie because he never goes anywhere near them. Obviously, the other problem I have with any improvisational artist who "lets the music happen" rather than making it happen is: what if nothing happens?

Now, on the other hand, I went to see John Scofield on Sunday. THERE is a guy who is constantly playing right at the edge of his ability (and beyond), and his ability is considerable! He was playing with Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow, which, in my opinion, is the perfect band for him. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the stuff he has been doing for the past 5 years with MMW and some of the other jam band elite, but when he's playing compositions which allow for greater improv and more complexity, like the hard bop flavored stuff on his new album EnRoute, you really get a feel for what a monster this guy is. If this trio comes anywhere near you, I highly recommend checking it out.

Perhaps here I need to insert a point of clarification about what I mean by "playing at the limits of possibility". This could be misinterpreted as "play as many notes as you can all the time." This is not what I mean. Like any other artistic endeavor, improvisational music is a product not only of technical ability but also of artistic vision and insight. So, aside from the technical aspect of playing a bunch of notes, there are other more subtle technical aspects, such as use of passing tones, chord substitutions, motif and variation, etc. In addition there are the choices of spacing, phrasing, harmony, etc. which constitute the artistic or musical portion. You could be improvising in whole notes over "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and still play at the limits of possibility, provided you are making the effort to make it interesting through your note choices.

One final thing to mention here. This Friday I will be attending a "master jazz workshop" with none other than Pat Martino! I'm very excited about this - I'll post again this weekend and let know what I've learned.