Wednesday, March 21, 2012

DBQ Tour #2

I'm sitting in a condo in Santa Cruz, having just finished all of the “Dillon Baiocchi Quintet” gigs. It was another great California experience, despite the WORST weather in my California history.

Alcatraz in horrible California weather

The band was/is:
Dillon Baiocchi – alto sax/compositions
Samuel Bronowski – tenor sax
Douglas Marriner – drums
Matt Rousseau – bass
Me - guitar

Here's a quick overview of what happened:

We arrived from NY to San Francisco on March 9th and drove to Santa Cruz. The weather was perfect and we beached it up. Little did we know this would be the only time in 10 days...

The following morning we rehearsed in a studio owned by a local drummer to get ready for a radio show on KSCO. Although Santa Cruz is known to be a very liberal county, they have this really right-wing radio station somehow affiliated with Rush Limbaugh. We had played there before, but with a different host. I managed to mess up at least one section to every piece, including the first chords of the entire show. Pure radio gold. In between performances either Dillon would get interviewed or the host would take a few minutes to share his opinions to the panel of women he had as “guests”. He told a joke that was completely irrelevant to his “program”, which was tasteless and insulting, leaving the band silent in response...  He asked me if I could get him great Yankee tickets with my "connections" (I have zero baseball tickets connections, just for the record) in exchange for booze. Not my kind of guy. We grabbed a quick bite and headed over to play a house party, hosted by Nikki Mokover, who we found out was a friend of some of our musician friends in NY. We were originally supposed to share the bill with “Sammy Miller and the Congregation” but Sammy had to take a later flight than planned (he had an audition for the Jazz Drumming Master's program at Juilliard). We decided to improvise groove music as opposed to playing Dillon's music for the sake of keeping the vibe of the party, which was a packed room of attentive dancing college students. I don't know what it is about east coast folk that make them more likely to ignore music at parties... The people in Santa Cruz are incredibly welcoming, generous, helpful, and caring, which are attributes I don't usually give to New Yorkers (and Montreal some of the time). Nikki's hip-hop band “Joomanji” played their set after us, which was a lot of fun (I sat in for a tune). They were followed by a great young electronic artist from LA called “Juj”.

Molly and Sami at the East Village Coffee House in Monterey

The next day we had another rehearsal with Dillon's band, then met with Sammy and Molly Miller who had driven up from LA to play a couple of gigs with us. We headed over to “The Crepe Place” in downtown Santa Cruz to play that night's gig. I was confronted with the noisiest amp buzz I've ever heard in my life (horrible downside to my Tele), which made the gig really uncomfortable. Dillon's band played first; not our finest performance. Sammy then went up, played a couple of tunes duo with Molly, then we joined them for the rest of their set. The following day we went to Monterey to play at “The East Village Coffee House”. Monterey is oddly known for it's jazz festival, military schools, and it's aquarium. We played our sets to a small audience, and I struck up a conversation with a local who told me that Monterey has never been so musically stagnant...

Nikki at work

The Millers returned home the day after. We met with Nikki at KZSC at the top of the UC Santa Cruz campus where he hosts a radio show called “The Next Step” every Tuesday from 2-4pm. He had told us to bring some music, and upon arriving we learned that we would be featured guests for the 2 hour show. Sami felt compelled to tell the listeners that although Vijay Ayer is one of Doug's favourite musicians, he hates his music and that it does nothing for him... This is the kind of back and forth that made up most of the dialogue between the Englishman and the Frenchman for the entire trip. I shared a rough mix of the 1st movement of “Hope”, as well as Tigran Hamasyan's “Vardavar” off of his newest release, “Ep #1” (to be checked out ASAP by everyone...)

Inside KZSC with Bronowski

During a couple of days off we listened back to the performances and attempted to adjust certain things about the music. We got to take a day trip to San Francisco to meet with our friend Sara and Doug's family friend Anita, the funniest 72 year old woman I've ever met. Anita took us around San Francisco from her perspective (she's been there for 30 years).

Doug on the Golden Gate

The next couple of days were spent at Cabrillo college for the “Santa Cruz Jazz Festival”, the major gigs of our trip. We gave two performances and two masterclasses over two days, one about “The Future of Jazz” and the other about composition. We tried to speak broadly with our musical terms, assuming that most of the high school students in attendance listened to very little jazz. Apparently we were wrong... Kids who like jazz = rare.

At Cabrillo College

I got invited to sit in with Nikki's group at “The Abbey” in downtown Santa Cruz which was a blast, a really great turnout and cool music. I played with members of “Joomanji” James Levine on drums, Kevin Cameron on bass, and Robert Finucane on rhodes. Nikki's band for the night was Tobin Chodos on keys, Kevin Cameron on bass, and Evan Williams on drums.

I'm now back in NY, about to play a few gigs and senior recitals in the coming weeks. My partner in crime Arthur Hnatek has managed to book a gig at the “Fête de la musique 2012 à Genève” in Switzerland, which is one of about 5 gigs in June that I'm trying to put together with the help of my European friends.

Music that I've listened to recently:

Darius Milhaud – La Creation Du Monde
Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself  (I don't know why it's taken me this long to hear this...)
Tigran Hamasyan – EP #1
Adam Guettel – A Light In The Piazza (Original Cast Recording)
Stephen Sondheim – A Little Night Music (2009 Broadway Cast)
Joni Mitchell - Both Sides Now (Vince Mendoza is king)

Mixes of my recordings are still being worked on, still shooting for a mid-April release!

Friday, March 09, 2012

Snarky Puppy

March 2nd 2011

Core Members of SP

I'm currently in a van, getting a ride from New York to Montreal with "Snarky Puppy". I had originally intended on taking a night bus this weekend when I realized they were heading north to do two gigs in Montreal, and then two in Toronto. By hopping on board, I'm saving 70$ and having a much better time than the normal Greyhound experience. The reason for my trip is that I'm meeting with Matt Baltrucki on the 6th to hopefully come up with the final mix of the McGill session.

I've briefly written about Snarky before, and the people who know me well certainly know that I respect them a lot. Being on this van ride has inspired me to write a little about my relationship with this amazing group of musicians.


I frequently get people enthusiastically asking me if I've heard of this band (sometimes its "is that you in the Snarky Puppy video?”) The funny thing is that the question has come from people I know EVERYWHERE! Friends have told me their music has made the rounds in Iceland, Portugal, France, all over the US and Canada, Australia, etc etc... I've been fortunate to have witnessed the last 2 recordings of their albums (they now have 5, plus an additional DVD.)

I first encountered their music very much in the style that continues to fuel the wunderkind Michael League's engine that is Snarky: a friend (Corey Armstrong) told me about them and word quickly got around to our friends. I had bought their most recent album (back then their second, "The World Is Getting Smaller") and listened to it for weeks. I was all the more impressionable to their sound as I was just getting into "jazz" at the time but completely uninitiated to its traditions and trying to make sense of it all. Snarky was the most exciting sound of improvised music I had ever heard, it made sense to me, I felt an immediate connection to the writing and playing. I give them credit for being a gateway to a deeper love of jazz in a confusing time and setting for someone to discover it, which I have come to realize has a lot to do with my current musical being.

After these subsequent weeks of listening, I found out they were scheduled to play in Toronto. A group of 5 of me and my peers decided to take a day trip to go see them. I still remember the first few notes of the gig, realizing my enthusiasm for the album was more than matched by their live show; these guys were the SHIT! I also distinctly remember the fact that we were the only people in the room that knew their music (as far as I could tell). We'd stumbled on their first Canadian performance without knowing it.

We met Mike (who plays bass and leads the band) and some of the other members in between sets and told them about our mini road trip, which obviously surprised them. Sput (the drummer) was on keyboards on that gig, as were 3 members that no longer regularly perform with SP.


Since I'm writing in real time, I can update the events of this trip... Everyone's trying to convince Bob (guitar) to shave his head and grow a fancy moustache, while giving him a hard time about being the only member without an iPhone, prompting an onslaught of iMessage trash talk.


Four months after that gig, we found out they were set to play in Toronto again. We planned another day trip. At the gig, Mike made some comment about accidentally driving towards Montreal for a few hours and we cheered. They were excited we had come so far to check them out AGAIN. We convinced them to come to Montreal the next time they were touring.

By the time they got to the next round of traveling, they'd released their third album (“Bring Us The Bright”). We managed to set up a clinic at our school (after a lot of convincing and pleading) and started to promote their gig with every resource we had. I remember the same feeling of the first few notes at the clinic, where everyone in the room sat up a little straighter and started to smile. The show was the next night. My group at the time (Pocket Change) opened for them. The show went over well, and began a solid enough foundation for Mike to come back for every tour thereafter.


Justin is now "moustache shopping on Wikipedia" for Bob.


I moved to New York at the same time that a lot of the SP musicians. I got to go see their gigs in the city frequently, including many smaller sideman gigs. In January of 2010, Mike sent out an invitation to the people that had helped out the band over the last few years to attend the recording of their 4th album (appropriately titled "Tell Your Friends" in Louisiana. 5 of us decided to take the 22 hour drive down south. Part of our road-trip legacy laid in the fact that it had become a friendly ritual to make each successive Snarky Puppy gathering a little more absurd.

Snapshot of me and two friends at Dockside Studios

I'd continued to see the guys sporadically in New York over the next couple of years, and have recently attended one of their sets for their latest album: “Ground Up”.

Besides being musically important for me, but Mike League has been one of the most influential people in my life, and I wouldn't be surprised if hundreds of others say the same. He is THE model for 21st century post downfall-of-the-record-industry-as-big-business-knew-it musicians. Tim Lefebvre calls him the hardest working person in show-business on the planet. I've gotten to hang with him enough to see the way he works, and it's jaw-dropping. Not only is he the core of the band, he does everything. Booking, press, drives the van, takes care of lodging, books flights, the list goes on and on. The most striking part about him is that he brings people together like no one I've ever met. He gives everyone that reaches out to him more than required attention, never forgets a name or a face, brings all of his being to every gig. I know this sounds like a giant man-crush, but it's really something spectacular, and I think it would be near impossible to find someone who says otherwise.

For instance, he's driving right now, trying to figure out a connecting flight/drive in Chicago next week, while reviewing the itinerary for the West Coast part of the tour with the rest of the band. He mentions an option for LA and the other guys are quick on their phones to get an opening band, reaching out to friends. His brain can move from this sort of planning, to responding to a menial conversation about an asteroid hitting earth in 28 years, to thinking about when he should replace a tire on the trailer that recently had a flat. This would be impressive enough on its own, but he manages to still be one of the worlds greatest electric bass players. This is daily. Sput is on the phone with Erykah Badu. The others are playing “Words with Friends” vigorously.


I'm on Nate Werth's (percussion) phone with some friends trying to line up people to take gear in for them when we get in, as well as sleeping arrangements for the night (my keyboardist Colin Fairbank has agreed to put half of them up.) We get to the border and Mike mentions that no matter how prepared he is for a crossing, he feels like they've done something wrong. Everything is declared (merch, gigs, gear, etc) and we spend 20 minutes in secondary inspection while the border patrol reviews the paperwork. Mike has to pay 0.00$ for the customs, they must feel that he's not selling enough merchandise for it to be worthy tax-wise.


At the end of the ride as we're getting close to the venue, I'm up front with Mike and the subject of self-expression and music comes up. Without hesitation he's able to define the role that music plays in his (all encompassed) life and what it means to others around him. Mark Lettieri (guitar) and Bob Lanzetti (guitar) who are in the seats behind both contribute their thoughts on others' musical raison d'êtres as well. We unload the gear and the band stays at the venue while Mike and I take the van/trailer to be parked. I ask him about running the band, what it's taken and if his childhood-military-base upbringing has anything to do with the apparent precise management he upkeeps. He doesn't think so, nor does he think he's very good at it. He mentions that it's more or less a skill-set that he's developed because he's always been a rational person, and it's also that rationality that keeps him at bay from the eccentricities that other artists that he respects seem to have. He tells me his brother is the genius, a word he doesn't throw around lightly.

We're quickly grabbing a bite before heading over to the club, the opening band must already be playing, and it's guaranteed that the rest of the band has everything under control over there. We head over and Mike isn't phased at all about what time it is (we're not late, or early, like Gandalf, precisely arriving when meant to...) The crowd is pretty decent, and they play a good set. Afterwards, Mike mentions that it's actually one of the lesser performances in recent history, he's thinking that with a proper soundcheck the next day it will make a big difference.


This is what it's been like for Snarky for the last 5 years, they're getting more and more recognition, and a big enough budget to head over to Europe for some gigs on this tour. This is an example of a band that has earned every step up the ladder so far, their “backing” strictly being from within the family that it has become. They're still driving everywhere, this tour they'll likely see over 5000km (I'm guessing) of North American road. They're mostly either in their late 20s or early 30s. They all get called for other gigs (Jay, a trumpet player is not on this tour because he's playing with Toby Keith.) Their collective resume is truly world class. It's difficult to figure out what this means for younger touring bands. I suppose most great new groups have a story that closely resembles this. On the bus ride, Mike was talking about the Facebook analytics of their fan page, noting the demographics of people who are checking them out. This is a band that in my opinion could appeal to all open listeners. It's always grooving, and the energy is always high on stage. So what will it take for them to get to the next proverbial step up the ladder? People are talking, this much everyone already knows, but are they being held back by something that's inherent in the music? (I don't mean this in a negative way.) I think they're doing everything right. There's definitely no lack of talent, the material is truly fresh (I mean that literally, but 90's youth vernacular works as well...); sometimes I wonder if it's the setting in which they're expected to play that prevents a further jump. Sit down concerts would feel way out of place for them. Audience members at recent shows I've seen are caught in some limbo between dancing, bouncing, and sitting rigidly telling their neighbours “how hard it's grooving”. It seems to me there's an unlikely inhibition somewhere inside the interpretation of the music that makes people want to listen to it's intricacies while moving. Weird, right? I don't think it's too farfetched to form a correlation between this and the great dance bands of the 30's and 40's. It would be nice if that switch were easily turned on... The band is doing what they do best, that definitely shouldn't change.


The next night is MUCH better: there's a bigger crowd, the energy is higher, the band is noticeably more at ease (due to having had a proper soundcheck), and the band managed to get a decent nights rest. This performance goes down as one of my favourite Snarky shows ever. In the days following, I get a chance to talk to friends about how they felt about the show. The responses are all over the map, positive of course, but it seems no one is hearing the band the same way. This is true of all music, and I'm becoming more and more aware of the fact. At the end of the day (putting aside the music nerd part of my brain), I continue to seek out their shows because I feel great listening to their music. I become oblivious to everything else for an hour and a half, get to move to music without forcing myself (rare occasion), and have great time. With the music nerd part of my brain turned on, it's just as fulfilling. I think that's what it comes down to, and the hinderance isn't the music, it's the perception of the audience...


Flash forward to March 9th 2011

As for news on my part, I've been busy writing a new piece set to be performed in Montreal in October. If trying to tour with a big band is idiotic, this next project trumps that idea ten-fold. I've also begun trying to set up a few gigs in Europe for June with friends from Portugal, Italy, England, France, and Switzerland. I spent the last month and a half meeting with Vaughn Sulit once a week to mix the tracks from the NYU sessions and I'm happy to say we've got those finalized. I just had the session with Matt Baltrucki this week and I think we're on the cusp of the final product. I feel very fortunate to be working with such talented young engineers.

Shows I've seen and music I've heard recently...

Joe Henry: Introduced to this man's amazing songwriting because his son happens to be a good friend of mine. I saw his show at the City Winery in NYC on February 1st. Mr. Henry has this uniquely refined sensibility to the art of song, which is something I hadn't heard recently. A large part of my writing and playing style comes out of what Joe Henry does so well. He's an anomaly in his field, absolutely worth checking out!

Mehldau/Guiliana: I got to see this rare duo among my favourite musicians at Smoke in Harlem on February 4th. I don't think any explanations are necessary...

Ben Wendel Group: I saw this on February 17th, the rest of the band being Tigran Hamasyan, Adam Benjamin, Gerald Clayton, Ben Street, Nate Wood, and Gilad Hekselman. Playing aside... The writing!!! Geez... New record is out, go buy it.

La Prima Donna: I saw Rufus Wainwright's opera at BAM on February 23rd, and I have to admit I didn't love it...

Bjork: Saw her show at the Roseland Ballroom on February 28th. One of the most gorgeous shows I've seen in my life, I've raved about the album but the live performance of it made it all the more inventive. February was “Bjork intensive”. I met her current drummer/percussionist Manu Delago through Arthur Hnatek early in the month at one of his gigs at Rockwood Music Hall, and was able to attend the show's after-hang due to their good grace. I got to meet Nico Muhly (one of my favourite composers) which was nice, and during our conversation an excited Bjork came over to make comments about the bartender doing “magic tricks”. It's a long story...

Taken from Bjork's website...

Went into studio really last minute one night to record a not-for-Valentine's-day song by Talia Billig for Ben Van Gelder which turned out to be a lot of fun. Here's the video.

Played a fun gig with Mika Hary at Cafe Vivaldi with amazing musicians: Shai Maestro on piano, Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet, Ziv Ravitz on drums, Sam Minaie on bass, and Mika on vocals and compositions. The other usual guitarists are Nir Felder, Gilad Hekselman, and Michael Valeanu... Lots to live up to there!

I'm currently in Santa Cruz beginning a 10 day tour with the Dillon Baiocchi Quintet, with Samuel Bronowski on tenor, my brother Matt on bass, Douglas Marriner on drums, and Dillon on alto and compositions. Staying at this cool little apartment close to the beach in Capitola, life is good!

Recordings should be ready in a months time (hopefully!)