Friday, February 2, 2018

Concert Review: The Bad Plus

Who:  The Bad Plus
When:  Friday, January 26th, 2018
Where:  The Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis, IN
The (Not So) Short Take:  Man, I'm so, so glad I went.  First, take a look at my totally unobstructed view from table twenty:
I could use the stage as a foot rest if I wanted to - I was that close.  The Jazz Kitchen is, as its name insinuates, a functioning restaurant.  Food is served during the performance; in fact, I was annoyed to learn that there was a $15 purchase minimum.  I got a Coke and an $11 slice of cheese cake.  The cheese cake was almost worth that much - it was goddamned good.  I only ate half of it because I'm tubby though.

I digress.  There was no opening band, and the Bad Plus came on stage right on time.  From the minute they started, I knew this was going to be a great show.   Orrin Evans (their new pianist) plays with all the power of his predecessor Ethan Iverson; yet I found his playing slightly more accessible than Iverson's.  I'm not sure why that is - I think Evans was more prone to just pound the keys when the song called for it as opposed to playing the meandering, atonal parts that Iverson is known for.  Indeed, there were times when the piano rocked on its legs.  I began to wonder if it would fall apart.

Bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King continue to surprise me.  Just when I think King will run out of ideas to capture my interest, just when I think he's reached the edge of expressiveness that a basic drum kit can offer, he does something completely surprising.  He is a force to be reckoned with - we all knew that - but his playing is far more dynamic then I remember.  And he is equally capable of playing with a great deal of finesse.  Anderson's tone was great, as was his playing.  Playing with his eyes closed, you get the sense he's truly interpreting the song, letting it run through his body before emerging from his fingertips onto the strings of his bass.  He also served as the evening's MC, stopping every three songs or so to announce what they had just played as well as who wrote it.

The chemistry of the band seems to be coming together nicely.  Based upon the glances exchanged during songs and the smiles/laughs between songs, they gave me the sense that their communication is already pretty sharp, and that they legitimately enjoy each other's company.  They even seemed to surprise each other while they played: an occasional astonished look would go across their faces when a song shifted gears in an unexpected way.  It was absolutely delightful to watch.

At first, I was pretty disappointed that they played only an hour and fifteen minutes with no encore.  I sort of took it personally; as though they were interested in showering back at the hotel and moving onto a more interesting, more cosmopolitan city.  (I'd call that standard issue Midwestern damage.)  It later occurred to me that the show may have been short because they didn't play any covers, and because they didn't play any compositions by Ethan Iverson.  If that's the case, I think it's a good call.  It's better to have a short, killer show than to play the tunes of a band member who left under acrimonious circumstances.  That would certainly put a damper on some of the joy I witnessed onstage.

I apologize for not having more photos to post.  The dude that works at the Jazz Kitchen and introduced the band asked us not to take photos.  I planned on ignoring that; but when I saw during the performance that everyone was abiding by the request, I chickened out.  It also would've been very hard for me to snap photos unnoticed.  I was right in the front; there was no way to conceal it.

After first checking with the band's management and the venue itself, I had also taken my four track recorder to record the show, but left it in the car.  I decided I just wanted to "live in the moment"; I figured I try to track down a bootleg after the show.  I'm not sure if it was a good call or not.  It may have been a great recording given my unobstructed proximity to the band.  On the other hand, it might have been dominated by the piano and the woman at the table behind me who was loudly pouting because her date kept shushing her between songs/during quiet moments in the songs.  I guess I'll never know for sure if the recording would have turned out.  C'est la vie.

Conclusion:  As much as I love the Bad Plus's studio recordings, this band was clearly meant to be seen live.  They rely on absolutely no gimmickry to get their songs over - no zany stage banter, no crowd participation, no light show, no instrument effects, etc. -  and yet they still blow me away.  The unbridled, pure energy and absolute musicianship of the band can't be overstated.  I can't wait to see them again.  And I can't wait for their next album.  If they continue on their current trajectory, the humdrum recordings of "Made Possible" and "The Inevitable Western" are long gone.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Freak Basses: The World Beyond Fender

To call the Fender basses (or Fender-styled basses) ubiquitous might be the understatement of the century.  While there are thousands of custom bass shops out there making amazing instruments, the Fender Precision and Jazz basses are what most folks imagine when they think of bass guitars.  And there are a multitude of these basses that are variations on the basic Fender theme, changing only in building materials, electronics, and finishes.  Despite the galaxy of options, The Fender basses have remained essentially unchanged since their creation in the mid 1950s/early 1960s, and not without good reason:  these basses are design masterpieces.

But there is a whole different world of crazy basses out there to explore.  I thought it would be fun to check out some of the ones on the fringe.

The Ashbory Bass
About:  This is arguably the first freak bass.  I've owned two; and to some extent, I regret getting rid of them.  Originally distributed by Guild guitars, they were eventually branded/sold under the DeArmond name, which is in turn owned by Fender.  They are no longer made; and so far, I haven't found any used ones for sale online.  The strings available for this bass now are much better than the silicon strings that are typically found on an Ashbory bass.  They would probably would sound better, feel better, and wouldn't stretch as much.  Without the Ashbory bass, there would be no Kala U-Bass, Gold Tone Microbass, or any other of a whole host of rubber stringed travel basses.
  • Portability.  This thing is only slightly longer than my forearm.  You could literally put this in the sleeve of your coat to transport it.
  • Unique look.
  • Innovative design - learn more about it here.
  • Solid sound with a little knob tweaking to boost the bass a bit.
  • Affordable.  If you pay $200 or over for this bass, you're paying too much.
Don't Like:
  • Silicon strings.  Some users had to put baby powder on their hands before playing due to the tacky, somewhat sticky surface of the strings.  And because the strings stretch and stretch and stretch and stretch, it was pretty hard to tune.  Like I say, this might be a moot point since there seem to be better strings on the market these days.
  • Even with better strings on it, this thing is going to be a pain in the neck to tune at first.
Conclusion:  A fun bass if you don't mind working with it a little to get the sound.  One primary motivator for me getting rid of mine was I always wanted it to work right out of the box.  Instead, I spent a ton of time trying to tune it and mess with the tone controls on the bass and on my amp, trying to get more bottom end.  The piezo pickup is not awesome, but you can get this to sound the way you want if you have even just a little patience.

Stash Bass:
About: Look at this thing.  Do you really need to ask why it made the list?  Not only is the body shape outlandish, not only is it made of stainless steel, but the goddamned neck is a broom stick.  But when you watch the demos, it sounds pretty traditional.  This is good. 
  • It's probably durable as fuck.  I bet you could drive nails with this thing.
  • It eschews all traditional styling and building materials.
  • In a weird way, the neck would seem to make ergonomic sense.  It looks like the action is really low.  Don't know for sure - would have to play it.
  • I suspect the sustain is outstanding on this due to the once piece metal neck.
  • If you've ever rocked out with a broom or rake, this probably won't feel that weird to you.
Don't Like:
  • I'm not sure you can justify the price tag on these basses.  I'm guessing the parts are made through some automated process and then it's assembled by hand.  It seems like producing it would be relatively cheap.
  • It's sort of ugly.  I guess I like it mostly, but I think I would've styled it a bit differently, so this isn't a major complaint.
  • In watching some of the demo videos, it seems that the strings hit the body a lot, making this "ting" sound of metal hitting metal.  If that can't be addressed, this seems like a major oversight.
  • I bet if you played this while naked, you'd freeze your balls/vagina off.
Conclusion:  Obviously, I can't write too much about this without having played it.  One thing's for sure, if you want to be noticed, play this bass.  Then hang it on your wall next to your modern art.  It won't look out of place out of all.

Gittler Bass:
About:  The Gittler bass makes the Stash bass look positively conservative.  I mean, at least the Stash bass has a fingerboard (sort of).  The website touts the Gittler's "minimal" design, and they're not kidding.  There's not much to this bass, and it's unusual building materials and appearance demand attention.
  •  I'm getting a bit repetitive, but it's different, and different is good.  I mean, how many interpretations of a Fender Jazz bass do you really need to see before they all look the same?
  • LED lights for markers.
  • Light and portable.
  • Easy to care for.
  • Probably pretty durable.
  • They're coming out with an upright bass soon.  If you've hauled an upright bass to a gig in an economy car, you'll know why this is exciting.
  • If you look closely in the Police's "Synchonicity 2" music video, you can see Andy Summers playing the guitar version of this bass.
Don't Like:
  • This seems like design just for design's sake.  I really can't think of a practical reason for this bass's design at all.
  • The cheapest bass on their website is slightly less than $8,000.  You'd think with all the money they saved by being "minimal" that they'd pass the savings on to us.
  • If you look closely in the Police's "Synchonicity 2" music video, you can see Andy Summers playing the guitar version of this bass.  And it looks sort of stupid.
Conclusion:  This bass makes me curious.  I'd love to play one, but maybe when no one is looking (see "Synchronicity 2" video).

Wing Bass:
About:  The wing bass is a cutting board with strings designed for working musicians to take with them anywhere to practice.  It does away with the bottom eleven frets of the bass, allowing the player to essentially play on the high part of the neck.

  • Portable as hell.  This makes my U-Bass look like an upright bass.
  • I think this instrument would live up to it's billing as a great tool for practice.  I seldom play the upper registers of the neck, so this would be a good way to familiarize myself with that relatively unknown territory.  I think it would also make my playing more precise.
  • The build quality and electronics seem top notch.
  • Some of the testimonials I've read find some players mentioning that they bought this instrument for practicing, but ended up liking it so much that they record and/or gig with it.
Don't Like:
  • The fact that you're essentially playing the top half of the neck means the bottom end isn't awesome.  You can't get terribly horribly deep, at least not on the classic model.  (Another version of the Wing has a little bit of a neck, so it might be a bit better.)
  • The $800 price tag would be hard to justify unless you really were travelling a ton.
Conclusion:  This is a pretty cool bass.  The lack of the lower notes sort of bugs me; but if I had one, it would indeed get used.

The Czech Ease Travel Bass:
About:  This is essentially an upright bass with the bottom cut off.  This allows it to maintain that distinctive, natural upright bass tone while making it easier to travel with.

  • Very pretty and traditionally styled.
  • Lots of build options, high quality build.
  • Endorsers include people like Esperanza Spalding and Chris Wood - people that you actually know, people that have a great sound.
  • Keeps the great looks and sound of an upright bass without maintaining the size.
  • This bass now comes with a lot more options (like a plywood bass) than it used to.
Don't Like:
  • Nothing that I can think of.
Conclusion:  One day, when I have the money, I may have to make one of these things mine.  There are a ton of cool electric uprights that would fill the need for a more transportable, tough upright.  But few of them sound as good as the Czech Ease.

Other interesting basses:

Monday, January 22, 2018

This And That

Hey y'all!  There's been some cool sonic stuff going on in my life to help me get through these cold, dark months.  I figured I'd share them with you because I'm pretty excited.

  • My beloved Bushman "Jenny Pineapple" ukulele has been repaired.  My wife gave me this ukulele for my 38th birthday; I've had it for eight years.  I play it almost everyday and have come to really appreciate its sound, playability, and appearance.  And because it was from my wife, it has become a deeply cherished item.  (Photos of the uke can be found in this old blog entry.)  I don't recall exactly when - we'll say five years ago - a crack appeared mysteriously in the top.  I was pretty sure that one of the kids did it, but neither child fessed up to it.  It is possible one of the cats knocked it off its perch on our piano; but not very likely.  It could be a crack from humidity, but for some reason, this also seems unlikely.  Whatever the cause was, I always got a little sad every time I saw it; and though the string tension of ukuleles are very low, I always worried that the string tension would eventually pull the bridge off the top of the uke.  It was something I've been meaning to get fixed for years.  Well, I recently pulled the trigger on those repairs, sending it to Bloomington String Instruments for repair.  I'll level with you:  the cost of the repair ($60) probably exceeds the value of the instrument, but you don't choose the ukes you love, they choose you.  And I love this ukulele.  I've gotten it back, and Lucas at BSI did a phenomenal job and he had it back to me the day after I gave it to him.  You can't detect the crack unless you're looking for it; same if you run your hand over the top.  This is something I've wanted to get fixed ever since it happened, so I'm delighted to scratch it off the "to fix" list.  Not a moment too soon, either:  Lucas told me that the brace under the bridge (on the inside of the uke) had come off.  This means that indeed, at some point, the bridge would have separated from the top, rendering the ukulele useless.  Glad to have my baby back, glad she's still singing.
  • One of my favorite bands is coming to town, and I'll be thereThe Bad Plus seldom stop in Indiana, but they'll be at the warm, intimate Jazz Kitchen this coming Friday, and I'm stoked.  Reid Anderson is a monster on bass, and the group is touring to support a new album with a new piano player (Orrin Evans).  Their new album ("Never Stop II") is the best one since "Prog" which is saying something since that's such a great album.  Evans' playing still manages to be cerebral (that's music writer speak for noisy and abstract) without being inaccessible.  There's a warmth to his tone that I really like as well.  While I'd like to see the bands compositions and Anderson's bass playing to return to its former in-your-face aggressiveness, there's time for that later.  I don't see how this show could not rock.  Can't.  Wait.
  • Bessie's getting a strange new bridge.  In December of 2017, my daughter accidentally rolled my upright bass onto its face; a traumatic event that seemed to happen in slow motion as I watched helplessly from the kitchen.  The loud "POP" of the bridge breaking brought me back to the tragic "now" of that moment.  She was sufficiently contrite and I forgave her quickly; but the fact remained:  Bessie was out of commission.  After getting the go ahead from my accountant (read: my wife), I began researching a little on adjustable bridges.  I had been interested for a very long time in bridges made from non-traditional materials, and I narrowed my search to the Arcotech Fiberlight graphite bridge and the Deuce Bridge.  Both bridges were light, but tough; and both bridges promise to make my bass louder and cleaner by more efficiently transferring the energy from the string vibrations to the top of the bass.  Both bridges were reviewed favorably in bass forums and gear websites I checked into.  Ultimately, I went with the Deuce because of its unique footing which makes it much more stable than a traditional bass bridge.  Because it has wood feet and the part that supports the strings is wooden, it is a bit easier for a luthier to work with as opposed to graphite.  Additionally, the Deuce has a pretty nifty system for securing a piezo pickup should I ever buy one.  After first hearing from Deuce that they were out of business, I later heard back from the owner - he had decided to do another limited run in February. I know - this sounds like a scam, but everything checks out.  So Bessie should be back in action sometime in March.  I'll keep you posted on how she feels and sounds. . . 
  • New in the stable: the Kala U-Bass.  The Kala U-bass is the third travel bass I've owned; the last one was the Gold Tone Microbass.  After messing with a Kala in a local music shop, I was smitten.  It combines two of my favorite things in the world: ukulele and bass.  It's portable, which means I can take it on vacation or hell, even in my bike pannier.  To get it, all I had to do was trade the Mircobass and a classical guitar I had sitting around, then pay the sales tax (which worked out to $25).  It was a steal.  So why get rid of the Microbass, which is a pretty decent bass as well?  Well, I think it's better to tell you why the Kala is a nicer bass:
    • It's acoustic (as opposed to the solid body Microbass).  Though it's not super loud, I can jump right in on acoustic jam sessions.  
    • The action is better.  Though I might have been able to address it by messing with the bridge and truss rod, the Gold Tone always buzzed when notes were fretted.  It sorta drove me crazy.
    • The sound of the U-Bass when plugged in is infinitely better. The bottom end is large and clear; it's nice and "bassy".  The Microbass had an awful pickup; I could never get enough bass out of it.  It had paper-thin tone.
    • The fit and finish is better on the Kala.
    • Onboard tuner - woo hoo!  No more misplacing tuners.
She's a beauty.  I'm taking suggestions for names, btw.

So lots of good stuff going on!  I'll have some more to report on the U-Bass and the upright after she's repaired.  But for right now, I'm pretty happy with the sonic happenings in my life.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Fat Friday Feature: Louis Johnson On Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'"

The Fat Friday Feature is a semi-regular post that showcases a great bass part.  Today, I'm going to explore Louis Johnson's bass on Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'". 

Louis Johnson is one of the giants in the bass world, yet it is criminal how few people (including bass players) actually know him by name.  For better or for worse, he's one of the fathers of the very popular slap bass method.  You've definitely heard his work - "Strawberry Letter #23", "Get On The Floor", "Billy Jean" - because he was the go-to bass player for producer/composer Quincy Jones. Louis was earning a steady pay check.  Like a lot of players showcased in the Fat Friday Feature, there's probably a hunnert bass lines I could showcase by him.  But I like how this one snuck up on me - he definitely and anonymously got on my radar backing the guy with the second best beard* in rock n' roll:  Michael McDonald.

"I Keep Forgettin'" has a groove that creeps up on you.  I love how the bass line is so tightly locked in with the bass drum.  And because he was an early adopter of the now legendary Musicman Sting Ray bass, he cast a particular well worn tonal mold that is still quite popular today.  Indeed, it is one that I'm quite familiar with - I own a 1977 Sting Ray, which was only the second year they were made.

I also love that there are all sorts of little bass "Easter eggs" - nimble fills that sneak up here and there when you least expect it.  But Louis Johnson's playing, helped in part from the drumming from that guy from Toto, takes a song that otherwise is pretty sucky and makes it memorable.

 *-The best beard award going to fellow yacht rocker Kenny Loggins.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Songwriting 101: Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'"

Tom Petty's death has (rightly) spawned lots of coverage and tributes.  I've listened to some interviews, read some factoids, and even put a highly recommended Tom Petty documentary in our Netflix queue.  Honestly, I felt sort of bad when he died.  What struck me about Tom Petty is how utterly normal he seemed; from the simplicity of his tunes to his outlook on life.  In the interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air", he talked about how the tour he just completed was likely his last because he wanted to spend more time with his grandkids.  That is SO not rock n' roll, man.  Even is death was kind of normal - he died of a heart attack.  Also not rock n' roll at all.

As his songs flood the airwaves this week, it has made me think about my relationship with his music.  I've concluded that it's sort of a funny relationship because I don't think of myself as a Tom Petty fan at all, and yet he actually has a lot of songs I really like.  Even more interestingly, I seem to like each song for a different reason.  For example,  "The Waiting" (one of my faves) features that Rickenbacker twelve string sound I love so much.  Apparently Tom did too - he cites the Byrds and the Beatles as two bands he had hope to emulate, and both used Rickenbackers to great effect.  I'm also a huge Byrds fan, so that song was a natural fit for me.  "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" has a sort of ass kicking vibe to it, helped in large part by the loud chorus, which contrasts with the cool, Hammond B3 laden verses.  Doing the duet with Stevie Nicks was a brilliant choice as her voice is perfect for that song (never thought I'd type that), and that fact that it lends itself to amazing covers is also a tribute to that song.  [Edit:  I guess since it is on Stevie's record, she invited him to sing, not vice versa.  Still. . .]  We played "Don't Do Me Like That" at the 4th Street Art Festival last month and, though it's not a favorite for me to listen to, it's damned fun to play.  His brilliant use of the music video medium made "Don't Come Around Here No More" even more appealing to me.  That and the cool sitar-sounding guitar.  I could keep going, actually, which is sort of surprising to me, especially since I don't own a own a single Tom Petty tune.

"Free Fallin'" isn't a particularly interesting song to me - except for the lyrics.  It's one of those songs that makes me envious that I hadn't thought of it.  I am absolutely captivated by the vivid, evocative imagery of this song.  We all knew the "good girl" in the song; we've seen her with her heart broken by the "bad boys" and "vampires".  I also like the "fuck it" desperation that the last verse alludes to; this idea of going out in a (romantic) blaze of glory.  As the Stranger says, I've done innerduced this song enough.  Have a gander at the lyrics yourself and see what you think.

She's a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She's a good girl, crazy 'bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too
It's a long day livin' in Reseda
There's a freeway runnin' through the yard
And I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her
I'm a bad boy for breakin' her heart
And I'm free, free fallin
'Yeah I'm free, free fallin'
All the vampires walkin' through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd.
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts
And I'm free, free fallin'
Yeah I'm free, free fallin'Free fallin', now I'm free fallin'
Now I'm,Free fallin', now I'm free fallin
'I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I'm gonna free fall out into nothin'
Gonna leave this world for awhile
And I'm free, free fallin'Yeah I'm free, free fallin'
Yeah I'm free, free fallin'Oh! Free fallin'
Now I'm free
Oh!Free fallin'

The More You Know: That Soft Cell Song Is A Cover

I watched a movie trailer this morning that used Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" to great effect.  You know this song - it's a great song, and it is mandatory playing at any American wedding reception:

 But did you know that that song is actually a cover from a version that was released in 1964?  It also is very good, but totally not what you're used to.  Check out Gloria Jones' version (the original version) of "Tainted Love":

I didn't know Soft Cell's version was a cover until about five years ago.  But now you know and can enjoy them both!


Friday, September 22, 2017

MB On The "Earth Eats" Podcast

I've totally forgotten about this - the annual salsa planning party that my wife Mary Beth attends every year was showcased on the "Earth Eats" podcast.  I had hoped to embed it, but I don't think I can.  So go check it out!  It's great stuff.