Friday, February 29, 2008

WHAT-o-rama?! Overheard at Real Records

Dear readers (of the ABEL class and elsewhere),
Early this evening I visited Iowa City's Real Records (on Market and North Linn St., for you Iowans who haven't made the trip) for the purposes of collecting albums that might pertain to this blog and to an understanding of the financial side of brass playing. I picked up (cheaply) a reviewer's used CD of Herb Alpert's "South of the Border," and a fascinating LP: a 1978 A&M Records release entitled "Herb Alpert*Hugh Masekela." For those of you who don't know South African flugelhornists Hugh Masekela, he probably has the best-selling flugelhorn instrumental in history with the 1968 smash-hit "Grazing in the Grass." (Eat your heart out, Chuck Mangione.) The single sold 4 million copies. (Imagine me saying that in a Dr. Evil voice, and it's pretty funny.)

Recipe for success, ya think? If you haven't heard "Grazin'" check out this interesting little NPR piece on him a few years ago, that covers his anti-apartheid heroics as well as his commercial success and later artistic collaborations.

Both will generate future posts, as will a two CD set by trumpeter Dave Douglas, on cornet actually, in Dave Douglas Quintet: Live at the Jazz Standard. That link will send you to Greenleaf Music, a label Douglas founded to release his own music. During a week at the jazz club, his quintet would release that night's entire set via download the next day from his label's website, so that there were six straight days of absolutely new content with "no carbon footprint." In all there are 44 tracks, from which Douglas chose two CDs worth for Koch Records (who distributed the two-CD set). Douglas has been self-producing for a few years following a stint at RCA records, where his albums were uncommercial as ever. In a future post, though, I will examine his liner note essay in this album that is almost an apology for the album itself! He talks about the conflicts of being a 44 year-old lost in the shuffle of the download age and wanting to catch up.

But when I first walked in the store, I walked into a hilarious conversation. A hipster girl was categorizing CDs, and told the grizzled white-haired owner,
"That's so tacky! That's a really disgusting name!"
to which he replied
"What?! It's the name of the instrument! They're an amazing instrumental funk band."
"But still..."

to which I chimed in, not having heard the group but having heard the name from the other ABEL folks,
"Hey, are you talking about Bonearama? They're really amazing. It's seriously intense music."
The owner almost smiled, and I established, through my virtual ESP, some totally unearned hipster cred.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

NY Phil in North Korea upload (off-topic)

Dear readers,
Here in sick land (I just downed a heaping helping of Chicken Noodle soup that I actually burned because I started to fall asleep when I put it on the oven!) I turned to PBS accidentally between the Daily Show and the local news and forgot that the NY Phil concert in North Korea was going to be re/broadcast. Unfortunately, the fine folks and Mediacom and Iowa Public Television broadcast picture without sound. It is funny, though, that I could tell they were playing "An American in Paris" from the car horns and, later, from the tuba solo and the sly smile on Lorin Maazel's face.

After shaking my fist at the TV off and on for ten minutes, I then remembered about the internets and found this PBS upload.
(Trumpeters take note: "the" solo is at 11:45 on the track, and it's about as boozy as you could ever hope for. If Phil Smith does it, we have carte blanche. The tuba solo comes in at 19:53. If you were watching from outer space, you'd be hard pressed to figure out if air speed, eyebrow level, or shoulder movement changes pitches. You'll see.)

22:25 is a frac for the ages, but it really works in context. You'll see.

Also check out Lorin Maazel, who is older than dirt, around the 16 minute mark. This guy, who is very young for being so not young, just sparks to life and is having the time of his life, even if his lower body doesn't really move all that much. His stately reserve cracks into a smile, and it is literally infectious. There was such gravity on the faces of the North Korean crowd as well as the Americans in the audience, as if it was

You can see many in the audience start to crack smiles, in spite of themselves almost, and the interview footage is also interesting, although I haven't checked all of it. Maazel, though, insists on being an ambassador between people and people, more than between states and states. Can't the American people befriend the North Korean people without forgiving, condoning, or even considering Kim Jong Il?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Intervie with Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert has always balanced being a musician and an "impresario," or smart capitalist, in equal parts. Even if we are not going to make an instrumental pop record (the genre has hit its ebb, it seems, except for Chris Botti, who is quite a good player), we can learn alot from someone who seized opportunities to play the music he wanted to play and build an audience for it.

Herb Alpert is now a theater producer who has put on high-art productions, among other things, of the Pulitzer Prize winning AIDS drama "Angels in America." He still uses his fortune to bankroll art and other products on his own terms.

Read a 1979 interview with him here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Challenge

Would a group of friends like to join me in learning the "Tijuana Taxi" dance and performing both, Mnozil Brass-style, at an upcoming concert?


The IPTV debate was from last fall, because I didn't get video clips from tonight. But the point is the same.

Can NAFTA protect us from "Tijuana Taxi?"

Listening to tonight's presidential debate, I was struck by how hostile Clinton and Obama are to NAFTA (the link is taken from the Iowa Public Television debate), and they want to make sure that the United States is not importing too much.

Well, I'd like to ask the senators if they would do anything to stop Mexican imports like this from littering second-hand stores across the United States.

Any future trade agreement must address the issue of bad pop music spreading unchecked across borders.

Can we build a musical fence that would keep out just this song?

The Lonely Bull, Side One

Listening to The Lonely Bull--Herb Alpert's first record and the first release by his label A & M--links simplicity to concept. We start in the middle of Tijuana, with Carmen fanfares and crowd noise. We are at a bullfight! The two trumpeters play simple, hummable melodies played in thirds, and they match perfectly. (They are both Alpert via overdub.) Guitars, bass, and understated percussion (mostly tamborine with gentle snare and bass drum) stay out of the way but add classy touches. The first two songs, "El Solo Toro" and "El Lobo (The Wolf)" follow this formula.

Dripping with vibrato, of course.

Then comes "Tijuana Sauerkraut." What happens when tuba-heavy polka meets gentle mariachi? Don't drink the water.

But "Desafinado," the classic bossa nova, is every bit as sexy and groovin' as Stan Getz's classic reading. A more "American" attitude towards straight tone, vibrato and bends for emphasis, underscore Alpert's really tasteful solos. Listen, if you hear the album, for the squarest vibe solo that ever was.

The track "Mexico" begins with a whistle, and then busts into a tuba-trombone-two trumpet-guitar statement of a slow two-step. Every sixteen bars, this attractive AABA melody is reorchestrated sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, always cheesily. But by the time that Alpert's trumpet (overdub) floats over the ensemble, the melody has endeared itself to us. This is eminently untroubled music. It is happy being camp, and its fun is unending unless you approach it with hostility.

LIstening to the last track of the first side, "Never On Sunday," prompts me to ask: whenever did wordless choirs go out of style in pop music?

Not soon enough.

Monday, February 18, 2008

...and Grow your audience

If classical and jazz music occupy such a small chunk of the recording pie--and, within that, trumpeters, trombonists, hornists, tubists, and (especially) euphonimists occupy an infinitessimal portion of that market compared to saxophonists, strings, and pianists--how do we reach out to audiences? It behooves all of us to meet audiences where they are in order to take them where we want them to go.

And you can't start with Elliot Carter.

In my last post, I mentioned an illuminating conversation with jazz professor Tony Garcia on the cultural location of jazz, in particular. The corollary to his realistic (and bleak) assessment of market share was a concept that we normally associate with the oh-so-grave sin of "selling out." Garcia, however, phrased the concept more neutrally: that of "gateway artists," musicians marketed to a broader audience that nonetheless introduces art music styles to a particular target market.

For instance, Andrea Bocelli may not have the artistic integrity of Caruso and Phish's jams may not stand up next to Miles Davis's fusion; but one introduces classical song forms, instrumenation, and vocal styles, and the other expands the attention span and prepares the way for an appreciation of spontaneous, nuanced musical interaction through improvisation.

The next phenomenon, then, is "the crossover." Herbie Hancock's recent catalogue is riddled with such collaborations, as is Tony Bennett's. In both cases, intergenerational performers reinterpret familiar songs in the hopes that instead of one artist's fan base, you might attract more sales from ten performers' fan base. I bought Hancock's recent Starbucks-marketed "Possibilities" after being intrigued by Hancock's collaboration with Paul Simon--I wish I had just downloaded that track and saved the rest of the money! But recently, on Showtime, I saw a documentary about the sessions. Rather than being embarassed or ashamed by the marketing aspect of his music, Hancock (a Grinnell College alum, for you Iowa readers) cited the premium his Buddhist faith places on treating all things as one as well as alleviating the most sadness and suffering as possible with one's gifts. It doesn't sound so cynical that way, does it?

Renee Fleming sings pop songs
accompanied Fred Hersch's avant-garde jazz piano (trying to consolidate that six percent of record buyers beyond opera listeners. Allegedly, Radiohead cover-pianist Christopher O'Riley still plays "classical music," but the gimmick lets him stand out. The San Francisco Symphony hardly sounds like a back-up band on the burly, menacing brass tuttis that puncuate their passionate collaboration with Metallica on the live album S&M. Crossovers are neither good nor bad, and can often put a group in somewhat disorienting or bewidlering territory. In the brass quintet world, the Meridian Arts Ensemble has picked up a cult of Zappa-ites, and the Empire Brass explored the shared territory of the electronic New Age and broad impressions of early melismatic chant. The Empire album is quite bizarre, and it seems intended to be a challenge to the group and to the listener, even while it can serve as unchallenging background music to someone totally unfamiliar to the group's other catalog. Says "Only 1 left in stock--order soon (more on the way)."

Remember that American Brass Quintet album linked off of "Elliot Carter" above? Amazon sales rank=155,041. "Passage"'s sales rank=31,252, beating out the Canadian Brass's "All You Need is Love," slouching in at 55,900. However, the CD reissue of the classic Columbia "Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli" obliterates them all, at a lean, fighting 12,512 ranking. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's greatest hits collection splits the difference with a 17,653 ranking.

Get this. GET THIS. The 2005 40th anniversary reissue of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights recieves a ranking of FOUR-HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIX! Does that surprise you? It surprised me. Didn't you all think that its only sales were at third-hand record stores? People still buy it, even though the young woman on the cover is quite hard to see given the relative size of a CD to a record.

Clearly, perhaps inexplicably, Alpert's music still speaks to the kitsch fan in all of us.

Side note: the #1 Amazon bestseller? Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell crossover album.

Don't laugh, I bought it two weeks ago, before I even thought about this post. And you know what? It's fantastic. The lesson here: know what part of the pie you're going for. Then eat up.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Return--Know your audience

Greetings, all. A confluence of maddening factors removed me entirely from the computer age. Leaving one internet provider and moving to the new one, the modem was broken. Meanwhile, in stealing-wireless-from-distant-neighbors land, my laptop took one too many tumbles off the ledge of the couch. For three days I was able to use the screen while I literally held my left hand on the bottom left edge of the screen, but alas things fall apart. Now, I'm back, and plotting a way to get my four saved blog posts (in Word, that is) off of the harddrive. In the meantime, cutting to the chase:

What was with the Tijuana Brass?

I mentioned in my last posted post that there really is no money in the brass quintet when compared to the musical money universe. In high school for a research project, I interviewed the renowned jazz educator Tony Garcia for a broad interview on "defining jazz" that I used for my required senior research project. (I since have seen the error of my ways in our post-Wynton age. Read as little or as much sarcasm as you wish into this.) While Garcia--now a jazz professor at Virgina Commonwealth University, then at nearby Northwestern University--dutifully put in his two cents on "what jazz is," as I naively asked. A certain beat, forms, improvisation, placement in a historical context, yada yada.

As with so many things, though, the line between jazz (or, in the even snobbier world, classical) and other music is defined by what the "inferior" music does not have. Complex rhythms, harmonic interest, "artistic commitment." Too listenable! And of course some of this is necessary for discernment and the growth of a defined taste in order to navigate between the sound-stimuli that bombards us.

What stuck with me the most with Garcia, however, was his realistic attitude to that "not-jazz," and to the murky, often cheesy genre of music that falls between the cracks. Think of it like a pie, he said. The world of music (recordings) sales is the entire pie. Country takes up a surprisingly (to a yank like me) large chunk, and pop/rock, rap/R&B racks up sales. Classical and jazz, however, each comprise only between 2 and 3 percent of the sales pie. 5 percent total of highbrow music, perhaps. (These are rough estimates made during the year 2000.)

Out of classical music, brass quintets compete with thousands of albums of orchestral warhorses, operatic superstars, well-promoted piano and string virtuosi, and "...for a [Rainy/Sensual/Sunday/Relaxing/Brooding] Afternoon" compilations. One can only imagine how miniscule, say, the American Brass Quintet's sales are in comparison with the Julliard String Quartet, their better-promoted counterpart. And as an old teacher told me, strings will win every time because they don't empty their spit onstage!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Who cares about the Etler? Is there money in brass art music?

In March of 2005, I checked out some grad schools. Since I was (for a terrible 6-month period) carless, I visited the University of Iowa and some schools in the NYC area in an absurd whirlwind of red-eye flights and, yes, Greyhound bus. Appleton , WIàMinneapolisàDes Moines, IAàIowa City (via Greyhound bus) àDes Moines (with seven hours overnight in the airport in lieu of a hotel) àMinneapolisàNewark (via turbulence, and—once on the ground—flak jacket) àLaguardiaàDetroitàAppleton.

An awful trip, and my auditions were, well… Let’s just say the highlight of my trip was the sightseeing. I had only been to New York once, a few months earlier, and—sleep deprived or not—I was going to experience Capital-C-Culture. On the flight into Newark, I bought a New York Times and a New Yorker magazine, scouring the arts section for monumentous events. The Meridian Arts Ensemble! One of my friends spoke the praises, endlessly, of Brian McWhorter and the MAE, so I resolved to check it out—it was one of only a large handful of classical music events going on that night, New York or not. In New York, I was staying with a couple of wonderfully fun, talented brass freelancers I knew from growing up in the Chicagoland area. They called me Friday night after my audition, asking me if I wanted to see a brass group with them. I told them I was already going—wow, it was going to be packed. Word-of-mouth was happening!

The show didn’t disappoint, not one bit. Their performances and style are almost always edge-of-your-seat and in-your-face in the wittiest way, and the repertoire was close enough to left field to make it a gem of a program. But the crowd, in a hip, dry converted theater… well, it wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big. I suppose I expected that somehow New York would be different. That “New Music,” brass music, there—well, how many millions of people live within a 30-minute subway ride? How many gigging musicians? How many hundreds of thousands of people read the New York Times each day? The crowd was comprised primarily of aficionados: just like in Iowa, just like in Wisconsin, dedicatees following the progress of one of their own. And while the program (starting with the Etler, standard rep. notwithstanding) would have been challenging to the man-on-the-street, the visceral style could have won more than a few converts, who may have been especially charmed by the straightforward Piazolla and Gershwin transcriptions. Who cares, though, about a brass quintet unless it’s Easter Sunday or an outdoor wedding?

While American Brass Quintet concerts—the brass equivalent of the Julliard String Quartet—may draw a slightly bigger crowd, how restless do audiences (even informed ones) grow upon hearing new works by composers other than David del Tredici, John Adams, John Corigliano, lately Osvald Golijov, maybe even Berio, Boulez, or Babbitt? These are composers that educated audiences—even if they may not like—at least understand that they ought to tolerate. There is a contemporary canon of music worth respecting that your average subscription-goer will be aware of. Who is this David Sampson? What of Gilbert Amis, or even—it’s hard to believe—Eugene Bozza? Are their works “irrelevant” to the orchestral or opera fan? If these composers were worth performing, wouldn’t the New York Phil be playing their symphony tonight? Where is Bozza’s opera? Ewald is, to us, standard repertoire. But who out there, who is not one of us, never was one of us, and never will be one of us, gives a rat’s you-know-what about Ewald? Or even, rest in peace, Malcolm Arnold.