On Hiromi’s The Trio Project

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This past Sunday I went to see the jazz pianist Hiromi and her Trio Project play at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The pianist’s bandmates were Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on electric bass. The musicians’ playing was virtuosic and as an ensemble they were super tight–almost telepathically so.

I sat behind Hiromi and couldn’t see her two bandmates–until I realized that if I looked towards the mirrored far wall across the room I could see the head of Jackson and Phillips’ hands–but nothing else, obscured as the drummer was by his giant cymbals. Not bad, but who knew that seeing makes listening to live music that much better? I wanted to see what the musicians were thinking with their faces. So it goes sometimes.

Given my interests, I was particularly moved by Phillips’ drumming. Playing matched grip, his sound was at once booming and crisply articulated, moving easily and instantly from rock time feels to double time swing. His cymbal work was a highlight here. From jazz time on the rides to the symphonic crashes, the cymbals sounded pristine every time he struck them–like important events marked with panache. It was hard to imagine this trio’s music functioning at all without Phillips’ rhythmic verve and presence. It’s in this regard that good drummers are so much more than steady “timekeepers.” The good ones can slice and dice time to the point that the drumming becomes the time.

Unfamiliar with Hiromi’s music, I wondered while listening to the trio perform their airtight set just how much–if any–of their music making was improvised. It sounded composed. Most of the pieces had numerous clearly demarcated sections that dictated exactly how long anyone’s solo might last, ever-shifting odd meters marked by repeating piano riffs, as well as three-way unison flourishes, stops and starts. The grooves were without seams, and downbeat accents were never missed. Indeed, the set seemed a performance of pieces pre-worked out in their details, giving the trio a commanding ability to bring the audience on a calibrated musical trip.

A day after the show I listened the group’s recent recording, Alive, and realized that the music was exactly the set I had heard at the Blue Note. One of the standout tunes is the angular and odd-metered “Dreamer”, which begins and ends with a moody four-chord piano sequence, accompanied by a delicately brilliant drum pattern that evokes Steve Gadd’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” rudimental gear shifting. Like Hiromi’s Trio Project show at the Blue Note, “Dreamer” and many of the other pieces on their recording is an organized, fully thought through adventure that keeps changing and packs a wallop. In jazz does it even matter anymore if the music is composed or improvised?

Here is the trio performing another powerful piece, “Alive”, in the studio:

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Musical Systems And Four Tet’s Good Musical Sense

“I don’t want to sound like anybody else.” – Kieran Hebden

I have written previously on this blog about the music of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). Hebden not only has good musical taste but also a thoughtful and unique approach to using technology to create his work. In this video from Red Bull Music Academy, Hebden explains to students his electronic gear set-up and how he uses it in performance.

What is interesting here is how Hebden uses a combination of software (Ableton and Cool Edit Pro) running on two computers and other bits of hardware such as loopers and MIDI controllers to re-create his compositions live. This musical system reflects specific performance goals and also illustrates Hebden’s admission that he doesn’t even know some of his software very well (“I don’t know much about Ableton at all and the sorts of things it can do…”). This is key, because it frees him to pursue a quite unique-sounding creative path.

Here is the video:

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York

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“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
– Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose

If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.

While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played  keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.

With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.

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“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.

“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.

On Music In Its Context: Noise Musicians Improvising In The Subway

The Union Square subway station in New York City is a pretty loud place. As the N, R, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains pull into the station there’s some serious, 90-plus decibel metallic screeching happening when the cars hit their breaks and come to a stop.

Given this noisy soundscape, I was both surprised and not surprised to encounter two noise/free-improv musicians holding forth on the 4, 5, and 6 platform. One guy plays the saxophone, the other an electric guitar fed through some effects pedals. Their music is noisy, ad hoc and chaotic, the sax player ripping through atonal lines, squawks and wheezes, while the guitarist strums a constant rhythmic drone in the upper octaves of his instrument. Sometimes it’s not even quite clear how their parts relate to one another. And while there are moments of melody and space, for the most part this isn’t easy listening material. It’s intense.

Their music making is a perfect example of the importance of hearing music in its context of production. I’ve watched some listeners look at these musicians and shake their heads derisively, as if saying: “Why on earth are you making noise in this already noisy place?” But another way to listen to them is as commentators on our environment–interpreting the industrial sounds around us and transforming them into a variety of music. It’s in this way that music has always felt like a kind of alchemy.

Not everyone is buying it though–some folks just plug their ears and shake their heads as they walk by. But I gave the guys money because their music and choice of performance venue made me stop for a moment and think.

Musical Appropriation Or Just A Shoe That Fits? : Dirty Loops’ Pop Reversioning

“Hey, we’re on to so much knowledge and the music industry won’t let us use it in a creative way.”
— Aaron, drummer for Dirty Loops

“Could you please make a cover of every song in existence?”
– Dirty Loops YouTube viewer comment

There’s a lot that’s interesting going on when you watch and listen to Dirty Loops, a trio from Sweden, blaze trough their über-funky cover versions of pop songs by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Adele, and others.

First, you’re surprised to see, well, three very young-looking Swedish guys making such a funky and soulful sound that draws so heavily on the harmonic conventions of jazz and gospel. Plus, the keyboardist also sounds like Stevie Wonder. But I’m setting myself up here. I was going to say that as far as stylistic appropriation goes, Dirty Loops pulls off a virtuosic feat. This might be unfair though because why should we say that Dirty Loops are appropriating anything? Don’t their clear musical skills suggest a kind of ownership of the musical idioms and eras they’re working in? Does it matter if those idioms– like the jazz-funk fusion on display in Dirty Loops’ pop song covers–have been around since the 1970s? And does it matter that the members of Dirty Loops were not even born until well after the heyday of these musics? I think the group’s airtight playing makes such questions moot.

A second interesting thing going on when you listen to Dirty Loops is that you get to revisit some very well-known pop songs that have been transformed through re-harmonizing and intricately syncopated arrangements. Part of the pleasure here is hearing how light pop hits like Bieber’s “Baby” can be transformed to yield so many riffs, off-beat unison hits, big spacey jazz chords, spirited Wonder-esque vocal runs, Jaco Pastorious-esque bass solos, and drum clinic drum fills. But as you listen with not a little astonishment at Dirty Loops’ instrumental virtuosity, you also wonder if it’s really true that the tune is most important thing in music (the quality of the tune is what makes a song valuable), or whether what matters is what the musicians do with/to the tune (the quality of the musicianship is what makes a performance of a tune valuable). In the case of Dirty Loops, I’m not sure I know the answer.