Friday, February 20, 2009

MMW Master Class 2/19/09

I left last night with lots of questions, since I couldn't see that well and I couldn't figure out where some of the sounds were coming from. I also always knew I wanted to go to the Master Class, I'm just busy at work. I realized I already had a dr's appt at lunchtime and taking 1/2 a day isn't going to make or break whether I get my work done, so I decided to go for it.

I am so very glad I did. I got there at 3:05, and they came on stage about 1 minute after, just enough time for me to get comfy. The audience was sitting in front of the stage with a curtain drawn behind us to separate us from the regular people wining and dining in the big room. I suspect the curtain won't be used tonight, but I don't really know.

They came out and Billy told us they hadn't done a soundcheck yet, and they aren't going to use the PA, so they were going to play something acoustic to begin. OK! I think it was about 15 minutes of awesome music.

Then they sat in the front of the stage and talked about their history.

Billy started. He comes from a musical family and his brother plays the drums and helped get him started and interested. He grew up listening to rock and later was playing in Broadway shows. Somewhere along the way he got interested in jazz and that's when he started meeting jazz artists. I think the guy he mentioned who brought him together with John and Chris is named Bob Moses. He also talked about how a life-altering moment, I think before the jazz, was when he took a Brazilian Samba class at Drummer's Collective. That pointed him toward a whole other world of African, etc. He later brought that influence to MMW when they formed.

Chris went to the New England Conservatory because he wanted a stepping stone to NYC. He's from CO and got interested in jazz out there. He knew he needed to be in NYC, but it was easier for him to go via Boston. He studied under someone I know of but can't remember at the moment, one of the greats. It sounds like what made a huge impact was the stories of touring his great teacher would tell. He toured with Herbie Hancock and Jack de Johnette. Those stories got Chris further interested. He did end up quitting school early and moved to NYC where he found the downtown music scene and got immersed.

He was a sideman for Marc Ribot for a number of years. Later he told us a little about what that was like. There was one tour where Ribot had him play guitar. Chris said it was because Ribot didn't want a regular guitar player because it was too likely they would play cliche and he wanted someone fresh. Chris also told us Ribot would sometimes make his drummers play standing up, so they wouldn't play so cliche.

John started more in classical. He brought the modern classical influence to MMW. They used to tour around in the RV listening to an eclectic mix of music, between the modern classical, Billy's world stuff, and then the regular stuff like Led Zep and James Brown, etc. It sounds like that is how it kind of all came together.

John spent some time showing us the Hammond B-3. He was a piano guy, but started playing the organ at the New England Conservatory. Later, he needed something to tour with. They were touring the college circuit a lot in the early days and there often wasn't a piano or it wasn't up to par. He found he didn't like playing the digital piano. Over time, he discovered more and more keyboards, like the clavinet, Wurlitzer, and something else. His cache of instruments grew accordingly. He plays a mellatrone, but it started smoking last night, so he didn't have it that day.

Ahh, someone asked what that one instrument he was playing last night was. I was very curious. It's an electric koto and someone gave it to him. It sounded great and I loved the song that they played with it.

John was showing us a lot about the B-3 and Leslie speakers. He was telling us how Hammond and Leslie didn't get along and Hammond would continually make plugs that didn't fit the Leslie speakers. Yet, no one wants to play the Hammond with the Leslie. I don't have time, but here's a link to check out later. When Medeski was talking about the stops on the organ and showing us stuff, I realized that the phrase “pulling out all of the stops” probably comes from the organ. Sure enough, it does.

I didn’t quite get it, but there are many variables for the organ in how playing a particular key can sound. Of course, Chris also mentioned that’s how he has his own techniques to vary the sound of playing one string, just like Billy does in hitting a percussion.

Medeski didn’t get a chance to tell us about the clavinet, but I got some idea of the differences when they played the final short piece. They were already out of time, but they gave us a nice 5-7 minute jam before ending. It sounded similar to the organ, but funkier and deeper.

Billy showed us some of his toys and explained how he got some of them. Like, the pipe he found under the Manhattan bridge that had been run over. He also showed us his newest. It was a very large cowbell. He had a mechanic cut a large rectangular hole and he inserted a rod so he could scrape the rod. Now I know the things I wasn't sure if they were gongs or bells, he referred to as "gong bells". I was calling them "congs" because Ches Smith uses them a lot and he has a solo cd called "Congs for Brahms".

Someone asked Chris something to the effect of why he didn't stretch out more with his instruments. I thought that was a little weird. But, it worked out because Chris didn't mind the question and ended up showing us some of his range of what he can do with those 3 instruments. That was awesome. He showed us how he gets the bass to sound like a theremin by putting a drum stick in a certain place and playing the strings with the bow. He explained how he likes his acoustic to have gut strings and for the strings to lay a little higher. He showed us how he can use the bass as a drum and how he can put something under the strings of his fender to make a poofy sound. While Chris was showing us his basses he started getting funky with the Fender with those strings under the strings (I’m not exactly sure what they were). That’s when John joined in and Billy followed suit and we got this awesome funky jam I guess a little more than ½ way through the 2 hours.

There was something about how Scofield called them and told them he loved their work. He just wanted to do anything with them. It evolved into Sco would write the music and they would be his backup band and arrange it. That’s how the first album came about.

They told us how Chris and John used to play at The Village Gate on a night where they had duos playing for people who wanted to talk with live jazz in the background. At some point, they started allowing those gigs to have drummers, and that’s when they hooked up with Billy. I guess some things never change, I'm talking about the talkers during the jazz shows.

We got a little insight into the different types of crowds in different parts of the country and the world. There's one country where People are beating each other up as a sign of affection and that they are enjoying themselves. It sounded crazy. It might have been Norway, which is I think where I the story of people ramming each other on the sidewalk as they pass is the local custom. I'm not sure about any of that, though.

They also talked about how some of the tracks on some of the CDs are really just improvised in the studio on the spot.

I got a sense that a lot of what they do happens organically, and some is structured with some kind of plan.

They wanted to have a group with no leader, and it works well for them. I got the sense it isn’t challenge-free, but it works really well. They organically fell into roles while playing and while not playing. They said Billy became the team mechanic and Chris took care of keeping track of the money and I can’t remember what John’s example role was. In the beginning, their headquarters was basically in Bill’s father’s basement, where there was a good computer and photocopier and other tools. That’s where the mailing list started.

I left very happy. There was so much left to learn about, but then again, you can’t really absorb it all at once. I think it was perfect. I’m sure I’m misremembering a little, and I must have forgotten some stuff, but that’s the essence. I hope I get a chance to attend something like that again. It would make a good night at The Stone, a lecture from MMW. I guess even that would bring too many people to fit. I really would love it if Chris would play in the downtown scene more.

No comments: