Saturday, October 30, 2010

Porta - live at the Witte

Recently the jazz protagonists took part in the Witte Museum and KRTU Jazz Radio's "Live at the Witte" series of summer concerts. They've turned out to be a blast: the gorgeous, leafy grounds of the Witte create a casual, relaxed atmosphere that brings out the best in jazz groups.

Greg couldn't make it for the first set because of a late plane flight, so our friend Brandon Rivas came and served as special guest bassist. (When Greg arrived he persuaded Brandon to stay and we had a two bass hit.)

Fortunately, the whole thing was recorded by KRTU's engineers. Unfortunately, it wasn't caught on video. Fortunately, though, my wife brought the flip, and shot this whole song in its entirety.

The song itself is "Porta," a latin number I wrote for our 2003 CD "Blizz Blazz," which is available on iTunes, Amazon, and through our website.

If you can't see the video, click here

Monday, October 25, 2010

our freedoms

In the book A Mountain of Crumbs, Elena Gorohkova talks about how she grew up in Leningrad during the Cold War.

Disobeying her mother, she studies English, which eventually gets her out of the Soviet Union (she meets an American guy). What's arresting here is when she tells of coming across the word "privacy."

Neither she nor her tutor could translate it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

greek system

I had the biggest laugh the other day, when I finally understood a conversation that happened 15 years ago.

It was 1995, and I was on my Grand Tour, celebrating my Master's Degree with a trip from Muenster to Frankfurt to Prague to Bayreuth to Zurich to Rome to Como to London to the Cotswolds to Salisbury and back to London. On the train from Salisbury to London I spotted the only other person roughly my age and temperament, an Oxonian named Emily. She too was getting a degree in literature. We immediately launched into a lengthy conversation about books and school and travel.

I was trying to tell her something involving Phi Kappa Chi, but was aware that fraternities and sororities are uniquely American. (In England the closest thing you get is maybe the "colleges" of a university, which are much more like a fraternity house than, say, the "College of Arts and Sciences" is at Baylor U, but even then it's more a scholastic association, of which dinners and brotherhood are byproducts.) I wasn't entirely sure that I knew the situation in England or that she knew the situation in America, and I always enjoy this kind of exchange of information, so I asked her if she knew much about the Greek system at American schools.

She said she didn't know much about it but had read a bit, and was somewhat acquainted with the whole thing because of the part it plays in Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History. I exclaimed, because I'd just purchased the book about a year before, but had never gotten around to reading it. My former roommate Shawn Floyd had recommended it to me as highly enjoyable and insightful and perceptive (and also I think he had kind of a crush on Donna Tartt based on her insight and perception and back leaf photo — didn't we all). So we digressed for a moment about the book, which Emily also recommended enthusiastically. Then we went on briefly about whatever fraternity thing it was, and the conversation moved on as conversations do.

When I got back from the trip, some weeks later, I picked up the book and got a few pages into it before something distracted me, and I never picked it back up. But I caught that a main character, Bunny, whose actual name was Edmund, was killed and that this was the story of it. I thought that this would finally be a book that captured the quiddity of the fraternity experience, albeit with a dash of East Coast cliché: Bunny, really?

Years passed, and I always intended to read the dang thing, but never got around to it. Just a week or so ago, it was time. I got it off the shelf, remarked to myself that the innovative clear-plastic cover had probably seemed like a good idea in 1992 but the white lettering on the back now looked like Sanskrit and was coming off on my fingers, and began reading.

Partway through the book, I reached a phrase that reminded me of the conversation with Emily, and I laughed out loud on and off for hours. The book is about several posh students who are part of an elite Greek class, with a professor who insists that they drop all their other courses and take everything with him. The students learn Greek and Latin, and discuss philosophy and culture and the nature of beauty, as our main character, an outsider and the son of a gas-station attendant, tries like mad to fake it and fit in. Is this what she thought "the Greek system" was at American schools?

What I would give for a video of that conversation now, with me sharing some facet of my fraternity experience, and Emily nodding along — what on earth could she have been picturing in her head?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

beyond the rim of the starlight

Last night I did something I've been wanting to do since I was about 9.

Every time I hear a song, part of how I hear it is that it lands on a grid in my mind: I can hear where the melody sits, and hear what the harmony is doing. Even when I was a kid, I could hear that "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" was more interesting than "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," because I couldn't quite figure out the changes. I sat down at the piano and worked it out, finally, at about age 13, to my immense delight. (Then, at 14, I completely reharmonized it, with chord changes on every note. I was idly playing it in the choir room at school one lunch, and found out later that the choir director snuck up behind me with a tape recorder. What are the odds he still has that tape? I'd love to hear it.)

Alexander Courage's lush Post-Romantic theme music for "Star Trek" is beguiling whether or not you can hear the changes in your head. It's just a great melody, and so interestingly scored. It was always a gamble which recording you'd hear in watching reruns, because they changed it from season to season, and, in my memory, from show to show sometimes: the female vocal would be front-and-center, or sometimes she was pretty far back in the mix, with a couple of horns and maybe an electronic organ. I always liked the rummy, showy, big-bandy blast of trumpets in the final notes, just to remind you that this wasn't a cinematic epic but a TV show recorded in mono.

But, though I've messed with the theme over the years, working into jazz solos (and worship services) as countermelody, I've never sat down and really figured out what Courage's original harmonies were. I always just played the first two phrases as C - Db13(#11) - C - D13(#11), but I knew that wasn't quite right. That's more what a jazzer would do. So, last night, gosh durn it, I plunked on the headphones and listened to it several times.

It's hard to hear the bass in the original recordings because it's so ill-defined, and, like most beguines, the bass switches around from a I-V-I-V oompah to a V-I-V-I, depending on where the chord lands, to keep the bounce intact.

(By the way, I think the theme from "Star Trek" is the last beguine, bastardized though it is, to get really popular. And the biggest one before that was the theme from "I Love Lucy." Technically, a beguine has a gently oompahing bass line, with a quick percolating percussion, often bongo, and a slow, snaky melody line that characteristically swells into little staccato pauses: "bah-dah-dah-DUP! -dah-dahhhhhh." Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is a fine example, and was the first beguine many in the northern climes heard, though once Artie Shaw got to it we've rarely heard it performed as an actual beguine.)

The first two phrases of the melody are parallel, and have the iconic rollercoaster journey, not like the popular metaphor of up-and-down-and-up-and-down, but like an actual rollercoaster, which leaps up and then coasts down. The second two phrases start low and soar preposterously high, more like a rocket-ship sailing into the dark blue. Each of these two phrases begins with, surprisingly, a simple major-six chord, a D6 and an Eb6, respectively. Brilliant, because in the key of C they contain very foreign notes — D-sharp and E-flat and B-flat — but they don't sound too crazy because they're relatively consonant chords. That's important thematically for these two phrases, because they go from major-six chords to the much more complex 13(#11) chords that sizzle underneath those stratospheric melodies. Courage gets it: bold upward-and-outward exploration plus comfy-cozy familiarity plus space wackiness is what the series was all about.

So. I finally did it. Now, of course, I need to examine those gorgeous counterintuitive lines that swim through the main melody.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

crucifixion and the uses of enchantment

I was just corresponding with an acquaintance who'd just told her children the story of Jesus: the whole story, including the crucifixion, which bummed them out so much that, at least in her telling, the resurrection part didn't lift their spirits too much.

Bruno Bettelheim would point out that, even if it bummed them out, their wheels were turning, and it was a good thing.

Many of the religious stories are unbearably sad. Balder and Hoder! I weep every dang time! But they're worthy nonetheless. Disney is regularly vilified for confronting issues of parents and death and sadness and loss and all that, but they're right on the mark. They simply know how to tap into powerful currents that our current make-all-Earth-kid-friendly ethos doesn't allow for.

I remember being taught all about it in Sunday school and VBS and Mission Friends and RAs. (Oh yes, my friends.) And I don't remember that it scarred me — but it did give me a vocabulary for such things.

I remember then, as a teen, seeing "Last Temptation of Christ" when it came out, and, because of my frank religious education, coming to the opposite conclusion of some of my religious friends: no, it wasn't sexy enough. Scorsese, Italian that he is, gave us a Southern Renaissance view of the crucifixion and therefore a Southern Renaissance view of the final temptation itself (which was to come down off the cross and lead a normal life).

A Northern Renaissance guy — Vermeer, maybe — could paint a glowing portrait of everyday life, doing laundry, fixing dinner, playing with the kids. But old Scorsese just couldn't make it look as beautiful and in fact tempting as the crucifixion. After all, who wants to be an ordinary schlub with love and happiness, when you can sacrifice it all to die alone for the sins of all mankind on a windswept hilltop, bloody-faced, with an orchestral score?

That vision of the crucifixion, and in general of Jesus's death at the hands of everyone (hypocritical religious leaders, craven politicians, occupying soldiers, the fickle crowd screaming for blood — we're all there), is a vision that is central to our understanding of Western culture. It's a foundation for everything from "Harry Potter" and "His Dark Materials" to "Speed" and "24," and on and on.

All this is something that, by necessity, a child can't articulate, and wouldn't find any value in articulating, but that's Bettelheim's point: it's in there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

international top 10

Just received a note from the International Association of Independent Recording Artists that as of October 3rd "The Elephant Song," by Owen Duggan, attained the Number 4 position in its category, qualifying it as eligible for certification as an International Top 10. Congrats!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

new card

Every several years I design a new business card; this way, even if the one I have doesn't seem out of date to me, it's always fresh. Recently, I've given my card to several people who have commented that the picture on it looked young and it must be a pretty old picture.

Wow! Have I really aged that much in the past 5 years? Maybe so: if that many people are willing to cross the formidable bridge of courtesy to say that, then how many people think it but aren't saying it? My old card had a picture of me taken about 5 years ago — wait, I was married 6 years ago. 6 and a half. And the picture was taken at — wait, it was taken at my old place before Sahara, which means it must be at least 10 years old.


Anyway, time for a new card with a new picture, something that's a bit more up to date. I shot a version of it to Paul Soupiset to see if his magical eye found anything to fix; he said, "Don't change a thing." When Soupiset tells you not to change a thing, don't change a thing.

So, now I'm handing out a brand new business card.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

sweet and sour

I'd like to find, and gently correct, the person who decided that those sweet little Gypsophila flowers should be named "baby's breath."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

my bay rum shattered

One of the great pleasures of being a man is Bay Rum. I remember my uncle Howard smelled of it. I never remember knowing what it was till he was older and couldn't shop and we had to pick up some for him. Ah, that's what that fragrance is! When I moved into his house many years later, I put my Bay Rum where he had put his.

Mine was Dominica Double-Distilled Bay Rum, made by A & C Shillingford & Co., and given to me by Jeff Walker. (I believe he got it from the J. Peterman Catalogue, which indeed was very real and a delight.) I've had that same bottle all these years — 20 years?! — refilled many times, the new potion always decanted into the older, cooler bottle. (Shillingford's name no longer appears on the bottles, probably because of some depressing corporate merger.)

And now it's broken.

Another bottle had broken this summer: a few minutes after Catherine's water broke, we were both quite calm and unpanicky, getting ready for the hospital, when I reached into the cabinet to get the overnight kit, and brought down a (nearly empty) bottle of YSL, crashing on the tiles and filling the whole house with an intoxicating sweet elixir. (Gotta get some more of that stuff.) Today, I was rummaging around for something, and Greta called out in dismay and anguish, and — once again without any feeling of agitation or anything but sheer clumsiness — I hit the cork and the bottle came down.

It's one of Catherine's favorite scents, and it carries a whole civilization of meanings for me. The search begins for a new one: it's fairly common to get at the average drug store, and Dominica is easy to order online. But. No cork. No Shillingford. No more of the gathered dregs of 20 years dancing around the bottom, no more of the stained and yellowed and worn label that has accompanied me through my entire adulthood.

Looking back on what I've written here, it does seem a bit oversentimental: after all, this isn't a huge loss, not much of a loss at all. I really don't feel torn and bummed about it, like I did about the loss of our wedding gifts to ourselves. But it's a dang drag.

Monday, October 11, 2010

the filter bubble

Here's an important article by Lynn Parramore, a media writer, interviewing Eli Pariser, author of a new book that explores what he calls the filter bubble.

I've always been turned on by the internet's possibility of providing tons and tons of information, the panoply of knowledge, viewpoints from everywhere, research, learning, literature, opinion that would have been previously closed off, now freely available. "Information wants to be free," they say, and that's in both senses of the word: free of charge, and free of shackles.

It turns out that things are more complicated than that, because the very wealth of information and opinion means that one must choose, and it turns out that one generally chooses what one already pretty much agrees with. You select news and research and opinion and learning and literature that reflects your existing biases. Of course, we know that we have a tendency to reject stuff that goes counter to our biases, even when presented with it, even when it's undeniably fact. It just vaporizes, and whatever confirms our biases sticks.

But now it's possible to live in a false Eden where you don't even have to encounter much of the other stuff, the stuff that challenges your biases. The person in the house on one side of you thinks that the richest one percent of people shouldn't be taxed higher, because after all the money is theirs and to tax them too high is redistributionist and veers toward socialism; the person in the house on the other side thinks that the richest one percent of people should be taxed higher, because it is a way of giving back to the society that prospered them, often by laws and policies that subtly subsidize the rich, and to tax them too low veers toward darwinist frontierism. They each may have a point, but may never really know that the other does: in today's environment, those people can choose to make it so that neither ever has to encounter a persuasive and intelligent version of the other's view, never has to encounter anything other than a cartoon.

What kind of society does that lead to? What kind of discourse on art and politics and humanity? Look around.

Meanwhile, Pariser says it's even worse than that: his compelling message is that, now, the information is selecting itself. Or, to be fair, our conduits for the information select it invisibly for us.

For example, on Google, most people assume that if you search for BP, you'll get one set of results that are the consensus set of results in Google. Actually, that isn't true anymore. Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google "BP," one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past. If you have Google doing that, and you have Yahoo doing that, and you have Facebook doing that, and you have all of the top sites on the Web customizing themselves to you, then your information environment starts to look very different from anyone else's. ...

We thought that the Internet was going to connect us all together. As a young geek in rural Maine, I got excited about the Internet because it seemed that I could be connected to the world. What it's looking like increasingly is that the Web is connecting us back to ourselves. There's a looping going on where if you have an interest, you're going to learn a lot about that interest. But you're not going to learn about the very next thing over. [emphasis mine]

So now, your neighbors on each side of you may not even need to cherry-pick their news. Pariser compellingly casts it in terms of diet: American bodies are being swelled into ill health by salty sugary calories that they were meant to conserve in normal human times of scarcity. But there's such thing as a mental diet. You enjoy the feeling that "you have all the right ideas and all the right opinions — our brains are calibrated to love that stuff because in nature, in normal life, it's very rare." It turns out that our minds are being swelled into ill health too.

Superb interview.

Friday, October 8, 2010


We went up last night to Baylor University to see the musical Gypsy, in which my niece Hannah stars as Mama Rose. Her old friend Sarah Smith plays Louise (who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star). Wow, what a performance!! All the major characters were well fleshed-out and were pretty much everything they were supposed to be. (Some memorable minor characters too.)

Hannah and Sarah have been performing together since they were children; their ability to play off each other and build a message, already well-honed when they were doing scenes from Wicked at the church talent show, has grown into a subtle and powerful partnership. The dressing-room scene in which Gypsy confronts her mother with the built-up frustration of a lifetime was as good as theater gets, anywhere.

It takes more than just musicianship and acting talent to be great at this kind of stuff. You also need to be fearless in front of a crowd, fearless enough to withhold nothing, and it helps to have some depth of knowledge about what you're doing. On top of that, a precious few, even of the ones who become pros, have that quality that can reach out and grab an audience and hold it there right in the palm of the hand. I've been glad for a long time to see that Hannah has that elusive magical quality and uses it well.

What I liked about her performance — and what, I think, distinguishes her from even the famous interpretations of this role — is that she brought a veined humanity to the character, some softness that you didn't hear in Merman, though maybe a little in Peters.

Merman, of course, was never my favorite: in "Rose's Turn," the final monologue that does the same duty as the mad scene from Lucia, her performance was 2-dimensional (a welcome expansion for her!), but when she gets to the part where she stumbles over the word "mama," and begins to have a moment of clarity, you can tell that she's just reading in the score what she's supposed to do and it sounds like she has no idea why. Maybe it's just that she was from a more melodramatic era. Bette Midler, on the other hand, just blows through the whole thing, knowing it's a Show-Stopping Dramatic Performance, but lacks the touch that Midler had at her best.

Then listen to Brake! I love that at a few points during "Rose's Turn" (as well as at a few key moments in the show) her voice ripens into a self-pitying sob, just the tiniest bit overdone, that's perfect. Technically, it requires utter control over one's instrument; emotionally, it deepens what's written and brings to life everything that makes Rose what she is: that toxic self-regarding self-dramatizing version of love that is nonetheless love. It's a real innovation.

All in all, terrific. Even Catherine, who regularly brings along a book when we go to a Broadway show (and did last night), was truly glad we went and enjoyed it immensely. (Didn't even read once!)

Congratulations to everyone who put this on, perhaps especially the theater prof who had the insight to know what Baylor has on its hands in Hannah, and chose this show to begin with.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

night train

The Protags were invited to be guests as the season closer on KRTU's "South Texas Jazz Project," which follows bands and their stories. In the process, I discovered this old performance of "Night Train," recorded with — ready for it? — a single microphone. The microphone wasn't even a 58: it was a 58 knockoff, the equivalent of a cheap Korean clone of a Honda Civic.

But the performance is so much dang fun I had to share it.

Take a listen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

churches, churches, everywhere

Tonight I go to Alamo Heights Christian Church to lead worship for Grace Anglican Fellowship, a brand new congregation that's meeting there temporarily on Sunday evenings. It'll be my first time as their official music and worship leader: I work together with the ministers, choose the music, write up whatever charts are necessary, eventually rehearse the singers and guitarists and whatnot, and lead music in the service. I'm engaged with them till mid-January of next year; perhaps after that too. It's a spirit-filled congregation with tons of warm-hearted folks. I'm looking forward to the next few months with them.

Today I also announce to the musicians I've been working with on Sunday mornings, St Margaret's, that I've accepted a position with Holy Trinity Anglican, a brand new congregation that's meeting over in the medical center area. On November 7th I'll start as their official Sunday morning music and worship leader, with roughly the same duties as above. It's a spirit-filled congregation with tons of warm-hearted folks. These two churches, which are praying for each other, have some shared DNA but also have developed distinct identities, each with its own character.

So, for those counting, that's two newly-formed Anglican churches, two full services to plan every Sunday, two potentially wonderful spiritual experiences, morning and evening, one taking me as I say farewell to St Margaret's Episcopal, the church that took me as I said farewell to Christ (Episcopal) Church in the Hill Country, which was a plant from Christ Episcopal in SA, where I played on Sunday mornings for a few years in the early 2000s — and from which the two Anglican churches have split.

Meanwhile, next Sunday, I'm playing at a Jazz Mass at St Thomas Episcopal, where the Jazz Protagonists are Artists in Residence.

Think that's enough Episcopalians for a former Baptist Sunday school teacher and deacon?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

i built a case

I've done some play with my new Saffire unit. But I've been looking for the right kind of case for it, something like what I have for the JV, but only a single rackspace thing. Everything I saw was way too big and bulky, and just not right for the job.

So I made it.

Perfect! (Not really perfect.) It's immensely satisfying: several times now, I've looked over there and said, "I made that."

Friday, October 1, 2010

south tx jazz project

The Jazz Protagonists were featured last night on "South Texas Jazz Project," a radio show that interviews jazz bands and gets behind the scenes with them. Herewith, all you didn't really want to know about the Protags, some old performances, and some sneak previews of our newest album.


(The link will be good for the next week. Get it while you can!)