Archive for February, 2017


When last we met, I promised to continue my music series this week with my favorite pop/rock performers. That was written before I spent a week camping in Arizona at one of our big historical events. It was a lovely week and we had a good time, and now I am tired and brain dead. So, please to make do with some video instead:


Not Only Fashion Caffe’



Not Only Fashion Caffe’

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When last we saw our intrepid explorer…



So last week I talked about my favorite classical music (generic usage regarding music from a long time ago, as opposed to the specific music period known as Classical, being generally the years 1750-1820 CE). It will always be my first love, but there are a lot more genres of music out there, all with their own unique beauty and quirks.

As I grew in my skill as a musician, I also grew in my repertoire. My junior year of high school I took up tenor saxophone as an official second woodwind, and auditioned for the jazz band. In high school and college that equates to pretty much the standard big band format popularized by Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington during the swing era of the 1930’s. Much to my surprise (and the frustration of others) I landed lead tenor.

Now, let me explain some things about me and jazz. I’m a solid work-up musician, meaning hand me a piece of music a few days ahead of when you need it played and I’ll give you a professional rendition ready for performance or recording. But two things are my bane, and kept me from being a regular session musician. The first is my problem sight-reading. It’s not a technique issue – I’ve been told my technique is better than most. No, it’s largely a mental issue. And it’s probably the same reason I suck at chess and other strategy/tactics things – I just can’t pay attention far enough ahead to figure it out.

My second Achilles’ is my pure suckage at improvisation, AKA: ad libbing. When you mention jazz to most people, they envision a smoky club somewhere with a small combo backing a lone musician sending forth seemingly random walls of sound. Most of that sound isn’t actually written down anywhere. It’s using the chord structure of that particular tune to make up a new section within the piece, unique and original, yet somehow related. My little brain has a hard time with that. Again, because I can’t seem to think fast enough ahead of things to make my improvisation sound little better than a beginning student playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

So me being lead tenor in the jazz band was a little weird because – you guessed it – lead tenor has a lot of improvisational moments in jazz. But I got away with it because we had weeks between performances, and that meant I could go home and figure out some cool riffs to play when it was my turn to stand up and wow the world. That worked at my first high school in Texas, where the jazz band was pretty average, and nobody really cared anyway because it wasn’t related to football. Not so much at my second high school in California.

I came to Eureka High in the middle of my junior year being a big fish from my big Texas pond, and found myself hitting a brick wall when it came to the jazz band. I wasn’t even allowed to audition to see if I could beat someone out of their seat. I was furious for weeks. And then I heard them play. And I knew why I couldn’t audition. And I became okay with that, because they were one of the hottest high school jazz bands in the nation. Their lead tenor was a guy named Sheldon Brown[1], who – as a senior in high school – could put most professionals to shame. Unlike some of us, he actually has made a successful musical career for himself, and I’m glad for him and hate him at the same time.

I did make it to lead tenor the next year, after Sheldon (and about 2/3 of the rest of the band) graduated. We weren’t as good as the previous batch, but we were still better than a lot of high school bands out there. And – most importantly – we had fun. The highlight of that experience was when we were invited to play at Humboldt State University as part of a weekend of jazz, which included “opening” for the college jazz band and their guest drummer, Buddy Rich. He had done a workshop there and was topping it off with a performance. Notorious in the industry for being difficult[2], he was nothing but cordial to us lowly high schoolers as we watched him rehearse. He was very particular about how his drums were tuned, and went through drumsticks like they were candy. And he was just mesmerizing to watch.

So I give you my first pick from jazz history, Buddy Rich and his big band at the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival:





The Year of Hellish Evil and Wanton Stupidity, AKA: 2016, cost us a bucket-load of talent from music, film, and television. Among the jazz casualties were clarinetist Pete Fountain[3], sax man Gato Barbieri[4], and consummate poet/vocalist Leonard Cohen[5]. All of them hurt, but a more recent loss really hit home.

Last week saw the passing of arguably one of the greatest artists of his generation, Al Jarreau. Known for his impressive vocalizations (a modernization of scat singing) and his versatile range, he came to the attention of most people when his album Breakin’ Away (1981) crossed into the pop charts for, like, the rest of the 1980’s. It was certified platinum and spawned the hits “We’re in This Love Together” and “Breakin’ Away.” He also sang the theme for the biggest TV show of the same decade, Moonlighting[6], starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Sheppard. His voice was so unique and versatile, and I was hooked for life. And while I followed him on and off through the years, always enjoying what he had to offer, my absolute favorite is his “Teach Me Tonight.” It never fails to give me a warm blush, even after all these listens.

So here’s Al Jarreau and band at the Leverkusener Jazztage 1996:






Now, before you go thinking I’m stuck in the ’80’s musically (okay, I might be a little), let me move on to the next person who has constantly inspired me, and not just in jazz. Though born in New Orleans the same year I landed on this planet, and from a line of jazz musicians, he has crossed between jazz, classical, and avant-garde with equal ease. Let me introduce you to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, probably the best brass player in the world today. He has nine Grammy’s covering both jazz and classical forms, a Peabody award for his PBS and NPR shows on music from the mid-‘90’s, and is the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music, for his composition Blood on the Fields[7].

His brother Branford Marsalis[8] is also frequently on my playlist because of the ease in which he plays the saxophone. Plus I was able to see him play with Sting[9], live, when I lived in LA back in the day. Both of the brothers bring a transcendent tone and ability to their respective instruments, which makes it hard to pick between them. But I discovered Wynton first, so I’ll make him the top choice (for now…).

As such, let me present Wynton Marsalis and friends at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2005:





Finally, no jazz list would be complete without John Coltrane. Especially a list bandied about by a so-called saxophonist. Born in North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane’s life was sadly cut short at age 40 from liver cancer exacerbated by heroin use. But in that relatively brief period, he left an indelible mark on the jazz world. Playing along side the likes of Dizzy Gillespie[10], Miles Davis[11], and Thelonious Monk[12], he became known for his “sheets of sound” playing style. His seminal album Giant Steps[13] is essentially a master class in technique and improvisation for any musician worth their salt, and on my regular listening rotation. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve just sat and tried to absorb his music. To this day, I discover something new each time I listen.

So to send us out for this week, here’s John Coltrane live in Germany, 1960:





When next we meet, I’ll bring us back to the modern era with my favorites of rock/pop. Until then, happy listening!


[1]   Here he is playing in the Silvestre Martinez Quintet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wrbsgPtsHU


[2]   Though proved he had a sense of humor on the Muppet show, in what is the greatest drum-off ever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJh9W3Gcpmo


[3]   Where I was introduced to jazz clarinet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGV0DjYXBLk


[4]   He won a Grammy for scoring Last Tango In Paris, and I loved his Latin fire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XHjGyNcbYs


[5]   Everyone knows his Hallelujah, so how about this one instead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuCpTi0EtbU


[6]   Here’s a reminder for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZxLXuFfPvM


[7] The full composition is over three hours longs, so here’s just a taste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OH8qpvLDt4


[8]   Here he is with his quartet in 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_X_1r1PojY


[9] The two of them at Sting’s 60th birthday concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLl3SSt-qoo


[10] With his trademark trumpet at the Lincoln Center in 1982: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nxthSkRT6g


[11]   An audio excerpt from his 1959 album Kind of Blue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoPL7BExSQU


[12]   The title cut from his ground-breaking 1956 album Brilliant Corners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zBhOrOQeFU


[13]   Hang on to your hats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30FTr6G53VU

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In the last post I talked about my life as a musician and what I accomplished (and didn’t) in those years. Even though I don’t actually perform anymore, music is still a huge part of my life. I listen to something everyday as I trundle about the house doing stuff. I have an iPod Classic filled to capacity with a wide variety that sits in a Bose SoundDock for when I’m sewing or otherwise working in my (tiny) craft room. My iPhone is also stuffed full and gets regular use when at the grocery store because there’s inevitably a shrieking child somewhere. And of course there’s iTunes on my computer, where every CD/DVD I can possibly get my hands on gets loaded. Yes, I know most of the world is going to digital downloads for most entertainment things these days. But (insert multi-media content provider of choice here) can’t come into my home and take my physical copies. Unlike what they can do with the digital versions.[1]

I have everything from Aerosmith to Zamfir[2] in my library. About the only genres not represented are rap and hip-hop. Though I do occasionally listen to some artists in those categories because there are exceptions to every rule. Like Chance the Rapper[3] and Usher[4]. I’d probably have a lot more music and films in my possession if that little thing called extra money weren’t so rare around here.

But I always seem to come back to my classical roots. So this week I thought I’d give you a sampling of my favorites in that genre, and maybe educate you a little in the process. I don’t have the capability to actually embed videos here, because I’m too poor to have anything but the free version of WordPress, so I’ll be giving you YouTube links. Go forth and listen up!

As you may already know, Stravinsky is my favorite composer. His Rite of Spring still sends chills through me whenever I listen to it, and I have to be coming up on a couple hundred times by now. Since I’m pretty sure I’ve already linked to a rendition of it several times over the duration of this blog, I’ll give you another one I’m particularly fond of: The Firebird. I’ve played both band and orchestra arrangements of it, and survived to tell the tale. Like all of Stravinsky’s music, it is a challenging play, and a passionate listen. Written in 1910 to accompany Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, it was an instant success and led to several more collaborations between the composer and Diaghilev.

Here is the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Valery Gergiev at the Salzburg Festival 2000:





While our friend Igor is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th Century, he has his roots deep in the Romantic (c. 1820 – 1900)[5] period of music. He was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, the latter of which was considered part of The Five, a group of Russian composers that included Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Borodin. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23[6] has been on my regular playlist since college, foisted on me by my piano major roommate who practiced it about 27 hours a day. But Rimsky-Korsakov has been part of my life as long as I can remember because my mother had (and probably still has) an album of what is arguably his most successful composition, Scheherazade.

Inspired by the heroic storyteller of the One Thousand and One Nights, the suite was finished in 1888 and debuted as a ballet in 1910 as part of the above-mentioned Ballet Russes. It has been a performance staple around the world since.

The Philadelphia Orchestra led by the inimitable Eugene Ormandy does one of the best versions here:





I can probably blame my mother for my musical habit, as not only did she introduce me to some of my life-long favorites, but also supported my desire to become a musician myself, despite many reservations (largely unspoken). For a while all three of us kids were bleating and banging around the house (my brother had to choose the drums, of course, though that was blessedly short-lived), and my parents quietly tolerated our explorations.

One of the other albums played regularly around our house was composed by Antonin Dvorák. A Czech artist whose first performance was in 1872 in Prague, he made an international name of himself with his Slavonic Dances[7], Op. 46. That reputation carried him through several years and countries until he found himself director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While there the New York Philharmonic commissioned him for what is probably his most recognizable work, Symphony No.9, “From the New World.” It premiered in 1893 to ecstatic reviews.

Fittingly, the New York Philharmonic is celebrating its 175th season with a performance of the symphony here:





By now you’ve probably realized that I have a thing for the Romantic period of music, especially from eastern European composers. Given that I really love orchestral film scores (i.e., Star Wars[8], Braveheart[9], Gladiator[10]), it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Movie music is basically a descendant of opera and ballet, and the composers behind it deserve as much recognition as “classical” composers. Of course, John Williams did just pick up his 23rd (that’s right, TWENTY-THREE) Grammy for his score of Star Wars: A Force Awakens, which also has given him his 50th nomination for an Academy Award (yup, FIFTY). Take that, Beethoven.

Last up is my favorite piece of solo music for oboe, my main instrument. I performed this at the senior recital in college, sweating bullets the whole time. I both love and hate this thing. I worked with my teacher and accompanist for the better part of six months to get it to a level we felt was satisfactory. I managed to not totally blow it out my ass. Decades later, I still hear it in my head at random moments. And you’ll probably be surprised to note, it’s NOT from the Romantic period, but Classical (with shades of Baroque). The composer is Domenico Cimarosa, an Italian born in 1749 who studied at the Santa Maria de Loreto in Naples, and is mostly known for his work in opera.

Here is his Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra as performed by oboist Francois Leleux, with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong conducted by Jean Thorel:





I hope this article has given you some enjoyment and a little education, and helped you to maybe not hate classical music so much. Next time, in Part II, I’ll be going over my favorite jazz pieces. Don’t worry; we’ll eventually get back to the 21st Century. 😉


[1] Amazon: http://gizmodo.com/amazon-can-take-away-your-digital-books-and-movies-when-1484152908

Apple: https://9to5mac.com/2014/12/03/apple-deleted-songs/


[2] Here he is performing in Bucharest in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mczwsV-Wz-Q


[3] I blame Stephen Colbert: https://vimeo.com/150254860


[4] Don’t think today’s kids have any talent? Try Usher making like Gene Kelly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJBOZqZGNhk


[5]   Here is a break down of the different music periods: http://www.ipl.org/div/mushist/


[6]   Seen here with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the great Zubin Mehta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH3OOM70cp0


[7]   Performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with
Zoltán Kocsis, conductor, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJt9mExwBG8


[8]   Or, rather, just about anything by John Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd2rpLzrBsE


[9]   And just about anything by James Horner, who I had the pleasure of meeting while at AFI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH7vyTv8C20


[10] Plus pretty much anything by Hans Zimmer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1-uzsfFjss

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I was a professional musician. Professional in that I was paid to perform and/or teach, but don’t think I actually made great money at it. Most playing gigs pay little more than gas money to get there, and teaching – while very satisfying on several levels – is rarely enough to pay all the bills. It’s a vagabond lifestyle of constant stress as you hunt for the next job, wherever that may be. I’m not good at the gypsy life to begin with. Coupled with the fact that I’m not really a top tier musician and a lousy sight-reader, and you get lots of free time on your hands.

Music has been part of my life as long as I can remember. There was always something on in the background at home. Usually classical. Sometimes musicals. Occasionally the Beatles. Being that my mom wasn’t quite nineteen when she had me, it should be no surprise she was swooning over Tom Jones while I was crushing on the Monkees. Hell, Tom is still swoon-worthy at 76, and still has those amazing pipes, too. And I still crush on the Monkees.

Mom says I started plinking out songs by ear on a neighbor’s piano when I was two. In elementary school music we sang a lot (I was told I probably shouldn’t consider that as a career), and banged around on various small percussion instruments and the occasional recorder. The other kids just wanted to make the recorder shriek like a pissed off cockatiel, while I actually tried to make it sound like something musical. Of course, that just made me weird (er…).



… but not as weird as a space hippie playing a bicycle wheel… (Star Trek: Vulcanology)


Fifth grade is when I began my “formal” music education, picking up the violin pretty quickly and racing to first chair within a few weeks. First chair in the beginner’s strings class in fifth grade, so don’t make too much of it. But I pretty much stayed there for the next three years as I transitioned from elementary school into junior high school (AKA: middle school). We actually had a nice little string ensemble in seventh grade. Can’t call it an orchestra, really, because there were only about a dozen of us. But we were decent enough.

Being that I was in Texas in the ‘70’s, you can probably imagine that classical music wasn’t high on most people’s lists. Texas is football country. It might as well be a religion there. And with football come twirlers, flag corps, dance corps, and marching band. All the “cool” musicians were in the band. We orchestra people were just dorks and not even worth the effort to acknowledge. I was already on the torture list for being a straight-A student who was a head taller than everybody else, wore glasses and braces, and wrote sci-fi stories. And of the few friends I had, most of them were in the band. So in eighth grade I decided to switch my musical leanings to fight songs, Sousa marches, and the theme from S.W.A.T.

I went to the band director for suggestions on which instrument might be best for me. Initially, and because of my braces, he suggested flute or clarinet because they would be easiest on my mouth. But what he really needed, he added, was French horns and oboes. Those were both tough instruments to master and would be hard on my metal-clad mouth. There were already three or four French horn players, but only one other oboe player in the school. And I do like a challenge.

So I spent fall semester of eighth grade in beginning band fighting a temperamental wind instrument that makes a catfight sound positively pleasant. But I did well enough that by spring semester I was moved into the regular symphonic band (marching band without the football and the marching), playing 2nd chair to the other oboist, who was a little snotty about it and thus fueled my ire. By the time we got to our freshman year at the high school, I took first chair from her AND the other two who were in upper grades already, and never looked back.



Because that’s real love, man. (FunnyAnd)


It was that and my domination of the local and regional music competitions that led to my first paying gig, at the ripe old age of fourteen. The local theater was putting on a production of Carousel, to include an actual pit orchestra. They had most of their musicians – all adults – from their usual pool of performers, but couldn’t find anyone who could play the (rather important) oboe/English horn part. Enter this doe-eyed high school freshman, who thought being paid $60 for the entirety of the gig (rehearsals and performances included) was totally dope. Hey, for a teenager in the ‘70’s, sixty bucks was pretty awesome. I suspect the adults were paid a little more, though, as I technically wasn’t supposed to be working at that age at all, let alone in a theater until after midnight watching naked cast members rushing about between costume changes.

And, BTW, Carousel may have some absolutely gorgeous music, but it’s also a tearjerker, so I wouldn’t rush to recommend it to the uninitiated. Try A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum instead. Can’t go wrong with Sondheim and farce.

I did several other musicals through high school and college, teaching myself other instruments on the way. As a junior I picked up the tenor saxophone and made it into jazz band, much to the chagrin of some others who tried. My sister was playing clarinet at the time, so I doodled on it occasionally, too. In college I had classes in strings, where I played cello and bass (actually like cello more than violin now); brass, where trombone came to haunt me but French horn was a willing puppy; percussion, where I learned that there is indeed a definitive technique to playing the triangle, and that I would never be coordinated enough to play a drum set; and woodwinds, where I came in for the first day of class and was excused until the final, which I smoked, of course. In there was also piano class, weekly private lessons for oboe and bassoon, and many performances in all sorts of venues, both paid and unpaid but mostly just for fun.

I received a Bachelors degree in Music Education, with a single-subject teaching credential in instrumental music. I was supposed to be a high school band teacher, running the kids through their paces during football season, conducting them through concerts in the spring, and writing my novels over the summer. ‘Course, we all know that the minute the gods hear your plans, they laugh. So my teaching career consists of about five months as an actual music director, a few days as a substitute, a year as an itinerate music teacher spreading the gospel of piano and guitar to Catholic school kids, and a scattering of private students over the span of a decade. And you all know what’s (not) happening with my writing.



The keys are especially crunchy this time of year. (Daily Fail Center)


Save for a rare bout of noodling to myself here and there, it’s been over twenty years since I played or taught. My instruments sit forlornly in my office, not five feet from where I write this blog, wanting for attention. There’s my faithful oboe, Michael. Not top-of-the-line, but I was able to do better than most despite his pitchy A5 and stiff action. With him sits the 1918 Bradford upright grand piano with the lovely dark wood and beautiful scrollwork. It needs some restoration, but it’s still plunking away after two major moves and I forget how many minor ones, just with me. Below that hides a lovely Celtic harp a friend gave me as a wedding present. Used once as background noise for a SCA gathering, where I received compliments for my beautiful playing. Proving that any monkey can plink randomly at the strings of a harp and still sound good, because not once did I actually play anything close to a real tune.

Also in the “music corner” is a 1940’s era silver alto saxophone, a metal clarinet from roughly the same time which I had reconditioned by an interesting character from the Bay area, an old flute in need of reconditioning that I bought at an antique store, a couple recorders (both plastic and wood), drum sticks, and a guitar my husband wanted to try and learn but who swiftly (and sadly) discovered that blacksmith’s hands don’t work on tiny fret boards. Somewhere I also have an odd Maori nose flute from New Zealand brought back by a friend and which I have yet to figure out. Lastly, there’s the Casio electronic piano in the spare bedroom, holding hundreds of digitally sampled instruments, percussion riffs, chord progressions, touch sensitive, and MIDI ready. And fighting off the dust like everything else in the house.

We all have things from our past that we may not be presently doing/using/being, but which are still very deep and important parts of us. Giving things up that represent such parts translates to giving up the parts themselves. And when something brings back so many good memories, such positive emotions, and has the potential for doing so again, surrendering it would be like ripping your very bones from your chest.

So that’s why I still consider myself a musician. Dormant though I may be, I still have the knowledge and the (albeit rusty) ability, and I will noodle away on one of my instruments again. Maybe even tomorrow…




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