Monday, October 11, 2010

More Zappa

Apostrophe Zoot Allures

Time for some more Zappa! In my previous blog post I did an in-depth appreciation of the man and his work. Now it's time to dig into the archives for more Frank goodies.
Guitar Player magazine, the longest running guitar magazine still in existence, has give Frank plenty of ink over the years. They took him seriously as a guitarist, composer and thinker, and gave him great latitude to air his opinions with his usual wicked, unforgiving, sarcastic wit. In return he gave them some great interviews and wrote some fantastic articles and columns for the magazine.
I first started getting Guitar Player in 1976; my collection of monthly issues has been for the most part unbroken, right up to the present day. So from my collection, here's some Zappa memories. Clikc on images for larger view.

January 1977 - Zappa was the cover story, billed as "Rock Guitar Vanguard." All hail! On the cover he is posing with a Fender Stratocaster guitar that belonged to Jimi Hendrix. He explains in the article that it was played (and burned) by Hendrix at the Miami Pop Festival, not Monterey as one would guess. After having it for years hanging it on the wall, Frank decided to have it refurbished and made playable. In the photo you can see signs of the extensive customization that he typically did to his guitars, but he left the burned and blistered pickup covers, just for show, apparently. In addition to an excellent, long and wide ranging interview, Frank also contributed an essay called "Good Guitar Stuff or Stereotypifications? The Evolution of the Guitar's Use In Pop Music: Brief Version." Classic Zappa - insightful, witty, sarcastic.

For about a year, Frank wrote a (usually) monthly column for GP called "Absolutely Frank," then changed to "Non-Foods." Above is a sample from the Dec. 82 issue. The column is entitled "Putting Some Garlic In Your Playing," In every column he goes into some very practical discussions on how he thinks about writing and playing, and there is plenty of Frank's philosophy about the business, art and science of making music.

In Feb. 1983, FZ was on the cover again, sporting a mini Strat. A very long, interesting interview, plus a sidebar interview with a 22-year-old Steve Vai.

January 1987 - For the magazine's 20th anniversary issue, Frank contributed a recording for their flexi-disc Soundpage insert (remember them?) - a recording of the first time Frank brought his son Dweezil onstage to jam together live, on the song "Sharleena" - Dweezil was 14 at the time. The issue also includes a reprint of Frank's essay from the Jan. 1977 issue, updated with some discussion about the state of guitar in the 80's. The article was re-titled "The 80's Guitar Clone," so you know where he's heading.

1992 - Zappa! - a Guitar Player magazine special publication, entirely devoted to FZ. Includes a huge new interview with Frank, plus interviews with wife Gail,  all four of his kids, the staff of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, guitarist Warren DiMartini, and Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, who declared that Zappa was "my Elvis."

 In December 1993, Frank succumbed to prostate cancer at age 53. After his passing, the March 1994 issue paid tribute to Frank by simply letting him speak for himself, via quotes from his various interviews over the years.

 Musician Magazine, February 1994 did a great tribute piece featuring recollections and thoughts from friends and fellow musicians, and included these incredible shots.

The October 1995 issue of GP included an outstanding in-depth analysis of Frank's guitar style by James Rotondi, Frank's solo on "Penguins In Bondage," transcribed by Mike Keneally, and some bits from his "Non-Foods" lesson/columns from the 80's, featuring excerpts and ideas from the Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar series. That should keep you busy for a few years!

In 2006, Dweezil launched Zappa Plays Zappa, and shared the cover of the August 2006 GP with Steve Vai and the ghost of Frank. Features a great interview with Dweezil, plus a sidebar with Vai and a feature on Joe Travers, who is drummer and co-director of the Zappa Plays Zappa show, as well as manager of the huge archive of Zappa recordings.

Finally, just out this month is the December 2010 issue of GP, in which Dweezil, at long last, gets the cover all to himself, albeit with the headline "Prodigal Son." Includes an interview, plus a feature on the Dweezilla Music Boot Camp, a four day event featuring classes, lessons and performances by the musicians and crew of the Zappa Plays Zappa tour.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Frank Zappa

photography by Crystal Visions Art
On September 19, 2010, Baltimore MD hosted a tremendous event to pay tribute to musical legend Frank Zappa. A monument was dedicated, a bust unveiled, Frank's widow Gail gave a talk, and son Dweezil brought the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute band, a top notch assembly of excellent young musicians, to play an incredible set of Zappa music. Several thousand people filled the streets of Highlandtown for a celebration of all things Frank.

Crystal and I were there; for a detailed account of our experience, including a bunch of her usual superb photography, visit her Painting Queen blog.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

It was uplifting and inspiring to see such a huge turnout. I feel like everyone knew that they were not just there to hear some cool music, or recall their favorite bawdy Zappa lyrics. Zappa's musical career was intertwined with a lifelong commitment to freedom of expression, not just for himself, but for all people. He was unflinching and uncompromising in his dedication to first amendment rights. Zappa's musical career was one of total integrity, to the very end. You can't enjoy his music and not get a glimmer of that.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

The serious fan of Zappa also knows that he had boundless creative energy and an astounding work ethic. His official discography lists a whopping 90 albums! This includes 62 albums released in his lifetime, plus a growing number of posthumous releases. This vast quantity also reflects his insatiable curiosity about the recording process itself. He became well known as someone who pushed  technology to the limits in pursuit of the highest quality sound and most innovative productions.

ApostropheOvernite Sensation
Frank left a vast archive of live and studio recordings. His son Dweezil has taken on the job of converting this wealth of material to digital form; here's a link to an excellent article about that. The point is, Frank wasn't just spouting platitudes and getting away with foul language. He was constantly developing and expanding his creative ideas, and manifesting them into the best possible recorded form as fast and as often as he possibly could.

And then there's the fact that he was most certainly a musical genius. How else can one explain the fact that by the time he graduated high school he had taught himself about contemporary avante-garde classical music and was composing, arranging and conducting pieces for his own high school's orchestra?
Here he is at age 22 on the Steve Allen show (the video is in four short parts; it is well worth it to watch the whole sequence):

Frank gained the respect and appreciation of musicians everywhere for the sophistication of his compositions and his amazing stylistic range. The music he wrote was so challenging it could only be played by highly trained, educated musicians with top notch technical skills. He was known for pushing them to their limits and beyond.

Here's Steve Vai telling what it was like to audition for Frank:

Frank was renowned as a guitar player with prodigious skills and an utterly unique style. Again, self-taught, he didn't even pick it up until he was 18, after he had already been a drummer and composer for four years. He approached guitar with the same attitude of pushing the limits of what he could do, and also of the sounds the guitar could make. Here's a link to a survey of Frank's guitars and the extensive modifications he made to them.

In the 1980's, Congress was considering legislation to put labels on records warning of possibly objectionable content. This of course pushed Frank's buttons because to him it was a clear cut infringement of free speech, and even worse, it was phony. It was a distraction, meant to divert people's attention from other legislation being pushed through that would benefit the big record companies. So Frank came and testified before Congress, fully armed with his usual wit, intelligence and blistering sarcasm. Here's a clip:

He also appeared on a number of talk shows to promote his views, and always showed great intelligence and consideration, as well as a clear disdain for those who would pretend virtuousness as they pursued their own self-serving agendas.

Photography by Crystal Visions Art.

For me, Zappa has always held a special place as as someone who could rock hard, groove deeply, jam intensely, create insanely complex musical structures, and be a funny sarcastic smart-ass, often all in the same song. It's hard to imagine that as normal, but there it was, displayed in song after song, album after album. Apostrophe, Overnite Sensation, One Size Fits All, Zoot Allures, Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage were big influences and all-time favorites.

Without doubt, Frank seemed to achieve three or four lifetime's worth of accomplishments in his 53 years. But now my thoughts turn with much appreciation to his son Dweezil. The Dweez has spent a considerable part of his life devoting himself to understanding and promoting Frank's work, to the extent of taking a year just to prepare to play guitar in the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute band. Dweezil is obviously a man with considerable intelligence, talent and will. Having seen him play live, I also think he has a lot of heart and soul. I am looking forward with great anticipation to discover what the future holds for him, beyond Frank.

Check out my other blog post about FZ, as I venture into my extensive magazine collection for a survey of articles about and by Frank:

And here's a few more references on FZ:
  • Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore - a very well written review of the Zappa Day festivities by veteran Baltimore journalist Rafael Alvarez.  
  • Classic Albums: Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation DVD - a great documentary about the making of these two essential Zappa albums, featuring insights from musicians who played on the albums, and Dweezil breaking down tracks from the original master tapes.
  • Wikipedia entry (quite extensive)
  • Interview from 1977 - favorite quote: “There’s no school in the U.S. that has a hall for amplified music. They’re all designed for tennis shoes, not rock and rollers. Everything for sports, f---  rock and roll.” 
  • Dub Room Special DVD review
  • Essay and interview: "The Evolution Of The Guitar's Use In Pop Music: Short Version" from Guitar Player Magazine, 1987. Favorite quote: "You see very few truly original guitarists and a whole bunch of people who wish they were Eddie Van Halen.  The aesthetic norm for guitar playing viewed as an ongoing trend seems to be: If Eddie can do it, why, I can certainly do it, and maybe if I practice, I can do it faster.  That seems to be the motivating aesthetic for most of the guitar players who get recorded today."
Last word goes to the man himself - 
rare live video of "I'm The Slime" on Saturday Night Live, 1976:

Frank Zappa - I`m The Slime - 1976 by gyrgyl25

Your thoughts and questions are are always welcome. Please leave a comment below. You can comment anonymously as a guest, but if you take a moment to register, you'll be able to exchange comments with Ben or others, and be notified when people respond to your comment.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

John McLaughlin

UPDATED, 9/26/10

Live at the Royal Festival HallRemember Shakti: The Way of Beauty

John McLaughlin has been a true master and at the same time a genuine seeker, for all of his 40+ years in music. For many years I have admired his adventurous spirit- pushing jazz to new heights by blending it with a wide range of other styles and multi-cultural influences.  His technique is phenomenal, his phrasing endlessly inventive, and his spiritual commitment is deep. It is McLaughlin (along with Carlos Santana) who made me see that playing music can be a path to spiritual discovery. He balances stunning virtuosity with passionate emotion, reminding me to strive for excellence, but allow myself to get lost in the moment. His amazingly diverse body of work sends a message that there is no need to be limited by definitions or categories. Jazz, rock, acoustic, electric, Western, Eastern - all mingle and interact in his work, with tremendous positive energy and joyous spirit. This again reflects the spiritual quest, in which one aims to drop the illusion of boundaries between one's self and everything else.
Here's a great interview (audio only) done in 2009 by Andy Ellis:
It includes wonderful insights from John on a wide range of subjects, and a superb selection of diverse song excerpts.
I wrote a review of his album "Live At The Royal Festival Hall" for my website; you can read it here.

Essential listening:
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Inner Mounting Flame 
Shakti, Natural Elements 
Friday Night In San Francisco
Live At The Royal Festival Hall
Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans
To The One

Also essential is the DVD: Remember Shakti: The Way of Beauty, which offers a full concert of his most Indian influenced music, along with documentary footage on the history of the band Shakti, and John's remarkable lifelong friendship and collaboration with the amazing tabla player Zakir Hussain.

It is so hard to pick one video clip to share. Here's one that's not like anything else you'll hear him do, but isn't that just like him...

Here's some links to some excellent recent articles/interviews:
Barry Cleveland: Lunch With John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin: Musical and Spiritual Connection
John McLaughlin - To The One

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mike Stern

Jazz guitarist Mike Stern was in Washington D.C. recently, for some gigs at Blues Alley. Word traveled through the grapevine that he would be coming up to Westminster to do a clinic in the afternoon before the first night's show. I was among 20 or 30 people who were lucky enough to get the word and headed over to McDaniel College on a lovely spring day to learn from Mike.

Mike is a world-class player and has produced many albums of music labelled jazz, but really cover a very wide range of styles.  He has toured the world many times and plays with the best musicians. But it was not always so. Part of his clinic was simply telling his personal story. He came to jazz after growing up on rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. He got excited about jazz but had no particular talent for it and he found it extraordinarily difficult. It was sheer will power, driven by an all consuming passion, that drove him to overcome the many hurdles to becoming a great jazz musician. I explain this sort of thing to my students all the time, but still it was encouraging for me to hear it from Mike Stern.

During the clinic, he played some amazing extended improvisations on standard tunes, first "Autumn Leaves," then "Body and Soul." Like many other jazz players, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his instrument and can access the most complex harmonic and melodic ideas off the top of his head. What sets him apart, and was plainly evident, was his ability to express his own character, thoughts and emotions through his playing. It's the holy grail of all of us who strive to be great improvisers: to know you can call up any technique you desire, but to let that all take a back seat to pure expressiveness. Mike Stern has the whole package, and it was a privilege to witness it up close and personal.

His solos were incredibly sophisticated, employing some concepts I try to teach my more advanced students, but going way beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. It was great to hear someone who has mastered the art of creating musical phrases and turning them into motifs that develop and change as the solo continues; and having a sense of contour and trajectory to the phrases, and the solo as a whole.

Playing with rhythm is also something I stress, and Stern proved his mastery by playing with only a bass player for accompaniment, no drummer. His solos got pretty adventurous, yet his time was always absolutely perfect, and beyond that, he played with an incredible sense of jazz swing style rhythm.

To top it off, he was a very warm, generous and funny guy. He answered questions and did his best to provide useful information, but mainly I think he came to provide some inspiration, and I got a lot of that from his clinic.

Photos courtesy of Frank McCreary.

Learn more about Mike Stern at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Five Gigs in Four Days

It happens once in a while: every different kind of gig I do gets scheduled for the same week. This time I did five very different gigs in four days between April 22 and April 25. Here's how it went down:

April 22, Thursday afternoon - Classical guitar for kids at Forest Park Library. Unexpected tons of fun! For details, see my previous post, Playing Music For The Kids.

April 23, Friday night - Solo acoustic and vocals at a large Baltimore area restaurant with a huge patio and covered outdoor bar. Lots of young adults drinking heavily, talking loudly, and only marginally interested in the live musician performing a few feet in front of them. Well, some people do stop and listen, and it's cool to see a few people getting into some Hendrix, Zeppelin and Beatles along with their more modern favorite singers like Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson. But overall, not much involvement with the music. Things have changed since I was young. Check my recent post, Spectrum Reunion, to get an idea of how important live music was to young people in the late 1970's when I was in my teens and early 20's. Nevertheless, I am grateful to this venue for supporting live music and maintaining their commitment to providing live entertainment seven nights a week.

April 24, Saturday day - Acoustic duo with Elena, afternoon wedding reception. I had never been asked to do acoustic music at a reception before, so I was a little concerned about how well it would work, but it turned out fine. Elena and I learned a few requests from the client, and drew on our experience playing in variety bands, and from there figured out what we could do acoustically. We covered everything from Stevie Wonder to Brad Paisley, from Nancy Sinatra to Sheryl Crow. It worked out nicely and we may have some new songs to add to our regular repertoire. Elena is a great talent and a total pro. She did her usual outstanding job, despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time!

April 24, Saturday night - Hectic Red, nightclub gig. After the reception, I rushed home, re-packed the car and headed out to play a club date with Hectic Red, the classic rock band I've been with for over 22 years. The band still sounds tremendous after all this time and we are blessed with a great number of terrific fans and friends. We played a lot of Steely Dan, Yes, Rush, Beatles, Billy Joel, Genesis and so many other cool classic rock tunes you just don't hear bands do. Tremendous energy and good vibes were felt all around.

April 25, Sunday afternoon - solo guitar for a wedding ceremony and cocktails. Sunday morning I got up, put on the suit and tie and drove to a nearby historic mansion/restaurant for a wedding gig.
As I usually do when hired as a solo guitarist, I played classical music for the ceremony, including Pachelbel and Vivaldi for the processional and recessional.  The cocktail hour was much less typical. The client was very specific about wanting solo guitar versions of classic rock tunes, including the Beatles, lots of Led Zeppelin, and a special request for Duran Duran! It took some thought to get my head around the idea, but the more I worked on it, the more I liked it. And to be honest, I did bring a looping pedal, but only used it a couple of times to create overlaid parts.

By Sunday afternoon it was all over. Well, not quite, there was still a neighbor's birthday party to attend. But eventually I was back home relaxing and watching a movie with Mrs. Sherman. Life is good, but I'm glad every week is not like this one.

Pictures by Crystal, aka The Painting Queen. Be sure to read her blog entry about my week of musical adventures. She is my biggest supporter and fan, and she means the world to me. Well, she is Mrs. Sherman, after all.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Playing Music For The Kids

I was hired recently to play classical music for a children's program at a Baltimore City public library. It was part of a series the Enoch Pratt library is doing to give city pre-schoolers a chance to see and hear real musicians playing classical music. I was warned that the last event didn't go too well and the musicians, a string trio, were, shall we say, not well received. Nevertheless I was encouraged by the fact that some other musician friends of mine had done similar things, and I thought it was well worth the effort, even with the outcome less than certain. I could never have guessed how much fun it was going to turn out be.

The staff at the Forest Park library were great. They obviously had plenty of experience managing kids. They had a prepared a fairy tale theme with costumes for the kids to wear, activities, and story time. Everybody made crowns for themselves, and I got one too. I got busy with my assignment: to provide music and entertain the kids while keeping it in a classical style. It didn't take long before a number of little boys and girls came closer and started looking at the guitar and the music. Some started asking questions: how did you learn how to do that? How do you know what those notes on the paper mean?

One guy wanted a little more. He was one of the oldest, maybe five or six years old. He watched me intently for several minutes before coming up and telling me that he'd been rocking out since he was three years old. I invited him to strum the strings while I formed chords with my left hand. He obviously had no experience at all, but nevertheless, in a few moments we were rocking out together. Eventually he moved over and tried to do the left hand, which he quickly found was much harder.

I was throwing in classical ditties in between encounters with the kids; it was all good. The point was obvious, one I have seen many times in my years of teaching guitar: you simply have to let kids know that there are possibilities, things that they can do too, if they want. The level of difficulty doesn't seem to matter. You simply show them that it is being done, and they will simply accept it as possible. Not all will achieve it, but some will, and they will do so more easily with the knowledge that they have already seen someone do it.
Thanks to Petra and PW Feats for providing this opportunity for me.

Be sure to read Painting Queen's blog entry about this very special gig!