symphony 21 on tour

This past March, I spent a week with Symphony 21, an organization that aims to promote and inspire young people through music. It’s a brave mission fueled by seemingly endless ambition and energy from the founder, Daniel Bowen – someone I am honored to call a friend.

This isn’t a music education program that gives kids glockenspiels or ukuleles and attempts to connect some dots via Mary’s little lamb. No, Symphony 21 flies in world class musicians from around the country to give a multi media performance and presentation of original content with lighting, sound, visuals, with full interaction and participation from the audience. The bar is set high, with the idea to get young people excited about music and thinking creatively.

Not only that, but the targeted schools are located in underserved communities. These programs aren’t presented in cities with access to music and live performances everywhere. The programs are presented in areas where students might not be able to identify each instrument being played, let alone hearing a live performance of those instruments.

The work feels important, and the response from the students has been incredible. During the hour long presentation, Daniel has the ensemble perform his own compositions as well as compositions of members of the group. The students get to see that a violin can be electric (literally), and it can be hip and modern. They get to see how technology and music interact through the use of live looping an instrument. We even present a song where we live sample the students stomping and clapping and loop them into a track while projecting the whole software process on the screen. It shows these young minds the limitless possibilities of many disciplines in the arts, and hopefully opens them up to considering directions they didn’t know existed.

I have to share a particular high point during the tour. During one school program, I could feel someone staring at me. Even while the ensemble was playing full blast (we’re loud) with backing tracks, projected visuals, and dramatic lighting, someone continued to stare at me. I looked over and saw that a little girl was seemingly mesmerized by the mixing board. I motioned for her to come over and put my headphones on her so that she could listen to the mix up close. That moment was such a great reminder of our obligation to share what we know. While the school tour is pretty draining and demands my full attention to help present the programs effectively, that moment is exactly why we do this.

The weeklong tour culminated in a community concert at the end of the week. We presented an expanded version of the school tour program with more music, different presentations, and oh yeah, a 30 piece orchestra and full rhythm section. As previously mentioned, we go for cinematically loud, so mic’ing up strings to get them to show volume can be a real challenge with feedback. This year, we rented 30 special microphones that mount on each string instrument. To some, spot mic’ing every instrument might seem like overkill, but I am here to say that the result was incredible. We really rocked that concert hall. It was easily the largest show I’ve ever mixed (especially as a studio rat who infrequently mixes live sound). Between the orchestra, rhythm section, and electronic backing tracks, we were well over 50 channels of audio. With the lighting, haze, and celestial theme to much of the music, I felt like I was at the helm of a space ship.

I’m incredibly grateful for this week of music. My body was exhausted by the end, but my soul was full.

All photos by the fantastic Sarah Murray.

the church of jamaaladeen

I’ve been trying to get to Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Outsider’s Improvised and Creative Music Festival for 3 years. This year, it was looking like I was going to miss it again, so I had to make a real effort to get myself there. Why is it so hard to commit to engagements and show up anymore? That’s probably worthy of another post.

Anyway, this particular installment of the festival featured Jamaaladeen with Marc Ribot on guitar and Will Calhoun on drums. It was clear that there was no real pre-meditated plan here; the three players were to have a conversation and interact musically. I love improvised music, but often feel like some kind of structure can be helpful as a unifying or start and end point (at least for the audience – it’s generally always fun for the musicians to stretch out). But when you have players who are amazing communicators and can fully express their intentions on an instrument, it’s worth going along for the ride.

I’m not a music critic and will not pretend to be one here. All I can say as a takeaway from this music is that it made me feel more alive. To be so in tune and present in the moment while interacting with the talents of others onstage (and for it to be good and entertaining) is not only remarkable, it’s infectious. All of us in the crowd were drawn in for the dialogue.

After about an hour and a half of non-stop music, it seemed that the show was coming to an end. Will Calhoun was playing this hypnotic groove on a synth drum pad, and Jamaaladeen had taken off his bass to watch, as we were, with a smile on his face. But, Will wasn’t done. He smoothly transitioned back to the acoustic kit and starting playing a groove that was reminiscent of James Brown’s Mother Popcorn. Jamaaladeen and Marc hopped right back in. Then, Jamaal went over to the mic and started chanting, “Get me some popcorn!” Unanswered, he finally, plainly, said, “there’s a bag of popcorn and the back, can someone bring it up here?” My friend turns to me and asks, “is he serious?” Immediately, as if Jamaal heard him, says, “I’m serious! Get me that popcorn!”

The popcorn makes its way up to the stage, and Jamaal feeds it to Will and Marc as they play, making a remark about how real they are to eat popcorn on stage. He then hands the bag of popcorn into the crowd and motions for it to be distributed. As the bag made it’s way over to me, I realized that on this particular Easter Sunday, I was taking communion in the church of Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

germantown dreaming / singing nina

Sometimes (often), I get too caught up with the doing that I miss out on the dreaming. I’m finding it helpful for my soul to be in regular contact with people who are natural dreamers. This has been the case with a current project, “Singing Nina: a cultural festival and conference.” I met David Rose at my favorite coffee shop in 2018, and David shared a dream with me. His concept was to produce a concert of Nina Simone’s music as performed by musicians from the Curtis Institute, putting an interesting spin on Miss Simone famously being denied admission to that institution. I loved the idea, but thought that it would require a fair amount of work, doing custom arrangements for a string ensemble, plus recruiting the players, etc. I quickly went into “doing” mode.

By total coincidence, I’m in the middle of making a record with violinist Monique Brooks Roberts. Monique is part of a string ensemble called Rootstock Republic, who already presents a program called “Dear Nina,” an evening of Nina Simone’s music arranged for string quartet, bass, harp, piano, and voice.

Sometimes life aligns in a beautiful way. I thought it would be a good idea to have a sit down with a person I greatly admire and respect, Jim Hamilton. Jim has an incredible studio in Germantown, and presents concerts monthly. His perspective would be vital to the conversation started by David and myself. After our first meeting, it became clear that we should present a festival around various locations in Germantown to celebrate the life and music of Nina Simone. One night of dreaming, and we have a festival. Almost.

Of course, without an audience, there is no festival. Otherwise, it would just be a really fun day of activities for David, Jim, and myself. So please, dear reader, I encourage you to check out the links below to read about the festival lineup, and get involved if it resonates with you.

For general admission tickets, click here
If you’d like to make a tax deductible donation to the festival, click here

prismatic

Ever since moving to Philadelphia, I’ve been a fan of the PRISM Quartet. Aside from saxophone quartet being one of my favorite textures, the group’s ferocious devotion to new music, collaboration, and discovery with unapologetic integrity is worthy of true admiration.

When I learned about the “Unlocking Your Inner Composer Workshop” series through a local arts radio show that I help produce, I was filled with excitement at the opportunity to work with the PRISM Quartet and special guest Tyshawn Sorey. I couldn’t believe my luck: the workshops were held at a library that is within walking distance of my house, and I was available to attend all of the offered dates (a requirement). The whole premise was built on inclusion: the workshops welcomed any level of experience, and to be sure that no one would be turned away, there was no fee to attend.

Over the course of three sessions, we soaked in as much as we could to write a one minute piece for the ensemble (a miniature). Tyshawn and the quartet taught us about idiomatic writing for each instrument, extended techniques, and gave examples of non-traditional notation so that no one had to feel obligated or intimidated to write a formally notated piece.

The third workshop was a recital of all pieces from our class, and the results were wonderful. The pieces were all so different and I truly enjoyed each one. Hearing all pieces back to back exemplified the varied routes that creativity can take. Sure, formal written notation is a fine way to convey a musical idea, but certainly not the only way. Some composers wrote instructions as to what they wanted to hear, others wrote a theme and allowed the ensemble to improvise over the theme. One person recorded themselves singing a simple melody, then played it back for the ensemble to learn and build upon. I’ve often felt that one of the signs of true artistry is being able to fully communicate an idea, and these workshops were a great exploration of that notion.

For my little piece, I tried to utilize the colors available through the ensemble. I wrote two contrasting mini-pieces within my mini-piece: one with a more impressionistic feel, and the flip side was more aggressive and direct. While I am so grateful for being able to play and record music for a living, one downside to this lifestyle is that it’s difficult to find time to work on my own music that isn’t attached to any project. These workshops reignited my inner composer, and reminded me how important it is to keep writing for myself. The whole experience was an honor and privilege to be a part of, and huge thanks to the PRISM Quartet for putting it all together.

quiet the noise

Hearing masterful musicians perform live is always a thrill. Being able to record them is a privilege. But when the musicians are communicating at an incredibly high level at an extremely young age, I’m filled with admiration and joy.

The Isaiah J. Thompson Trio joined us for a night of music @exuberance last October. These three young lions are all studying at Juilliard, and the chemistry and dynamic of the trio was truly inspiring. I recorded the show and mixed it for them, and a few tunes are now available.

I’m glad the recording has been released for several reasons. I’m sure it will be the first of many for these talented musicians, and it would be a disservice for anyone not in attendance that night to be denied this music. It’s hard to believe that their best is yet to come when you hear a performance like this.

Secondly, I hope that releases like this will raise awareness for what we are doing @exuberance. The spot is a private residence owned by Matt Yaple, who opens up his home, once or twice a month, to anyone who wants to appreciate the superb series of performers he curates. I don’t believe I have ever met anyone who is as fiercely and singularly driven by a passion and wonder for jazz music as Matt. To that end, there’s really only one rule @exuberance: simply listen. We don’t allow texting, photos, video, or anything else that would detract or distract. It’s a beautiful setting in a great sounding room with an incredible Steinway B available for all players who come through. I record every show as part of the service we offer to the musicians (besides paying them everything that comes through the door minus expenses – profit is not part of the mission).

In this age of endless devices, “multitasking,” and staring at screens, @exuberance offers an alternative. For each show, we quiet the noise and offer a calming respite where some of the best jazz music in Philly can be enjoyed. If you’ve never joined us, I hope you check it out sometime.

my music

What is it about music consumption that elicits a feeling of ownership? Why do we refer to our personal collections of files, records, CDs (or recordings from a streaming service stored in the cloud – hello, 2018), as “my music.” It was written, performed, and recorded all by people who are not you. And yet, because you have picked it and deemed it to be enjoyable to your ears, it becomes yours.

I can’t find an analogous example in other art forms. We don’t get prints of our favorite pieces of art, hang them in our homes, and proclaim them to be “my art.” While we may refer to a stack of books or DVDs as “my books, my movies,” the same ownership context isn’t attached.

And let us not forget the judgement attached to the ownership. For serious music fans, meeting someone who doesn’t share *your* love of the same type of music can be disastrous. We all know those who look down on others who we feel do not exude the same standard of taste, because clearly, “our music” is better than “their music.”

Herein lies my theory: I think that the inherent ownership of music is routed in the consumption. First, let’s take live music off the table – that deserves a separate discussion. Recorded music is cheap, and often free. It’s everywhere – aural wallpaper when you go to a store, the background to your conversation in the car, your phone ring tone. Music fills in the silence. And because it’s everywhere, it’s not valued the same as other media, and other art forms. Why would we value something that permeates our lives?

I do not mean this as a disgruntled rant against the music industry. As someone “in it,” whatever that means, I am perpetually interested in how people consume music and claim it to be worthy of their time, money, and interest.

How did we get here? It can easily be pinpointed to the rise of downloading music, both legally and illegally. The iPod made music so portable, it decimated the radio industry. And sure, the rise of Napster et al. blew up the traditional model. But is it that simple? For sure, movies and books can and are downloaded, but not on the scale of music. Further, you have to sit down and read a book, watch a movie, look at a piece of art. It interrupts you and demands your attention. Music can do that, but it just as easily can not do that, if the listener so chooses.

I offer no solution here, because there isn’t one. This is simply how we live with recorded music, at least right now. I think I’m more interested in what others have to say. What is your relationship to recorded music? How has that changed over the years? What value do you place in recorded music, if you can be completely honest with yourself? Feel free to write to me using the contact form. I truly want to hear from you.

tune the room

I’ve found that a key to me staying afloat in this strange business is to be able to do a number of different tasks. For example, last week included recording strings for a couple of folk songs for the prison project, doing my radio show, producing another radio showplaying a gig on bass, and mixing audio for a Monster Truck show. I love the variety, and each situation is a learning opportunity.

I recently got a call from someone who needed help with their home studio. Their goal is voiceover work, but the control room and tracking room needed a lot of help from an acoustics and connectivity standpoint in order to achieve professional results. I love this kind of work. Not only did I build and treat my own home studio, but I have consulted and implemented acoustic plans for several clients. I jumped at the opportunity to work on this project.

As an aside, I was extremely lucky to study with the mad scientist/genius acoustician and architect, John Storyk. His class was incredible, not only from an informational/real world/knowledge perspective, but also for his personality. Some memorable moments include an answer to the question “will it do anything acoustically if I put (fill in the blank) in the corner?” Storyk: “I don’t care what you put in the corner – a plant, a table, your mother-in-law, it’s doing something!” Or the time when we had to take a break in the middle class so John could take a call from his longtime friend, Eddie Kramer. Storyk also pronounces “reverb” in the most wonderful way. It was a formative experience to learn from this man, and I still revisit the texts and materials he gave us. It’s also an interesting twist that I frequently work out of a studio that Storyk built. The room is unmistakably his – the man has many signature fingerprints in his designs.

For this home studio project, I applied many of the tools I learned from studying with Storyk: assessing the scope and goals of the studio, testing and tuning the room with tones, white noise, and pink noise to discover the frequency response, designing and wiring custom wall patch plates, and working with the client on a solution that meets their needs, while also building out enough for the client to expand the scope of the studio’s capabilities should the need arise. And of course, staying within a budget. I’m pleased with the results. With the help of some well placed absorption, diffusion, ceiling clouds, de-coupling speaker stands, and an easy to use wall patch panel, the studio is fully functional and turning out great results. And we fit the aesthetic already established in the room, so it looks good, too.

behind the sounds feature

I was recently featured on the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s website for a series called “Behind the Sounds.” It includes interviews with a handful of audio engineers who do a lot of work in the local jazz scene. I’m incredibly honored to be included, and have a tremendous amount of respect for the PJP and all that they do. Check out the full interview here.

songs in the key of free

I’m producing an album inside of a prison.

I’ve shared this news with friends and colleagues, stated just as I have above, to mixed reactions. Some simply say, “wow,” and change the subject. Others say, “good for you.” Some want to hear more. If you fall into that last camp, please read on, as I have a lot to say about this project.

I met Miles Butler, co-founder of Songs in the Key of Free, at my neighborhood cafe. He and co-founder August Tarrier have been conducting songwriting workshops at SCI Graterford for the last year and half. During that time, they have cultivated a community of men who have composed a collection of songs. Now that the songs are ready to be recorded, they’ve tapped me to helm the production.

And these songs deserve to be heard. There is pain, love, regret, anger, and frustration throughout this group of songs, expressed by men with nothing to lose. It’s an honor to be in the unique position of facilitating the encapsulation and distribution of this music that would otherwise go forever unheard.

To those with the mentality of “lock them up and throw away the key,” I would respond by saying that someone does not cease to be a human because they have committed a crime. And just as we are free to make music as soon as our young bodies are able to figure out how to make sounds, it is my belief that music is a basic human right. Not only that, but many of these men will rejoin society at some point. How can we expect them to be adjusted members of a community if they are not treated as human beings while they serve their time?

Miles and August have done some incredible work with this program. They have cultivated a community within the prison, and these participants, that is one of respect, communication, and admiration. Most of these guys have overwhelmed me with their humanity and wisdom, and trust me, it comes through in the music.

If you’d like to learn more about this project, check out the video below. They are in the middle of a crowd funding campaign to help pay for this ambitious endeavor. Feel free to throw some bucks their way if you want to get involved. Thanks for reading.