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.

beats per minute

Maybe it’s fueled by my desire to connect with the local community. Maybe it’s my selfish need to play the music I want, whenever I want it. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m kindred spirits with Marc Maron and Terry Gross. Whatever it is, I’ve started hosting a radio show.

I’ve always had a fascination with radio. I think it started when I was an intern for a local station in high school. It all seemed so whimsical – a relationship with the community through the air. A personality that people knew, but never met. When I was an intern, the DJs used to send me on ridiculous missions – most notably dressed up like a Christmas tree and waving to people on the side of the road, or being the gatekeeper of concert tickets where listeners had to decipher clues over the air to find me in town. It was a great way to encourage my shy high school self into becoming a sociable person (or at least less shy).

The new show is whatever I want it to be, which I continually find to be incredible in this carefully calculated, mainstream radio climate. Due to streaming services and other factors (thoughts on that for a future post), the radio industry is certainly not the giant it once was, so it seems that all stations are doing everything they can to hold on to listeners. At a low-power, non-profit FM station, that problem doesn’t exist. It’s been a liberating, exhilarating experience, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.

The show is called Beats Per Minute (after my initials, BPM), and I’m doing it twice a month so that it doesn’t ever feel like work. I have guests, I play records, and talk about whatever I feel, to whoever wants to listen. Check it out sometime, either on 92.9 if you are in the NW Philly area, or gtownradio.com.

aaron & the spell

Well, it’s been a while. This site has grown embarrassingly out of date, and all I can say is that life happens, the good and the bad, and updating my website somehow became the last item on my list.

Enough of that. Plenty has been happening, and I plan to post with regularity to document and reflect the highlights over the past couple of years. Plus, I’ve updated my bio, music, and film pages, so please take a peak to see and hear what I’ve been up to.

But this post is about Aaron Parnell Brown. I had heard his name and his music around Philly for several years, and been a fan. I’ve just started playing with Aaron and his band, The Spell, over the last 6 months or so. His music is exactly the type of stuff I love – soulful, bluesy, energetic, all with something to say. Aaron is a thoughtful leader, and the band cooks. The first time we got together to rehearse, we already felt like a band. That’s no small task.

Last month, Aaron wanted to film an NPR Tiny Desk audition. Regardless of what happens with the video submission, the filming was a lot of fun. We shot the video at RareCo, this great antique shop in South Philly. They had the greatest collection of old, weird, cool stuff I’ve ever seen in one room. Just as an example, there was a giant high heel hanging from the ceiling. Like 10 feet long, and oh, it was built completely from wire clothes hangers and zip ties.

I hope you enjoy the video, which I also had the pleasure of mixing.

we are music film premiere

To say that this has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on is a start. But it’s not everything, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to express everything this project has meant to me and everyone else who has worked on it. It would have been cool if we only incorporated the tons of talented players and filmed around the cool locations that we did. But being able to pay tribute to a musician who meant so much to so many of us elevated the project to a special place of significance. It is an honor to be able to dedicate this project to the music and memory of Dante Bucci.

For those interested in the production process (which is often what I talk about on this blog), let me begin by thanking everyone who worked on the film. We had an excellent crew, and excellent players who braved the cold (I still shiver when I think back to those shooting days). Because if the music isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how nice the gear is, or if the microphones were placed in the optimal spots. The music is king, and all of the players rose to the occasion.

The production process ran like a proverbial well oiled machine. The three person crew (myself, Todd on camera, Kyle assisting audio), piled into my car, pulled up to the location with talent waiting, setup audio and video, and ran takes. We gave everyone three takes of the song to do what they wanted to do, then we quickly tore down and drove to the next location, charging the laptop in the car during the commute.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our fair share of problems. People ran late, we had to switch schedules and locations a few times, and we were kicked out of two of our locations (although the second time it wasn’t until we already had recorded 1.5 takes, so we had enough material). I am generally a proponent of the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” style of filmmaking, and in this indie production, it largely benefitted us. Plus, the happy accidents outweighed any of the road blocks. There were multiple times during production where we all thought, “wow, we couldn’t have planned that.” Examples of this can be seen at the Academy of Fine Arts shot, where all three players (who were not originally supposed to be in the same shot) were all dressed complimentary not only to themselves but to the walls of the Academy as well. Also, the 30th St. Station scene featured two musicians who were playing with no acoustic sound – only direct line instruments. So we were able to quietly work without bringing attention to ourselves by making lots of noise.

From there, post-production was the most intensive part of it all. With all of those players doing multiple takes of the song, the audio mix alone was a bear. Going through and finding the best material was a challenge that yielded a great reward, because after I was able to pick and choose the parts I liked best, everything seemed to sit really nicely together. Again, top musicianship.

Once the audio mix was mastered, we could move onto video editing. It was great working with Jay on the edit. Since he’s also a drummer, this job proved to be ideal for a video editor with musical timing.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the premiere on December 1st. It was a great evening of sharing music and stories. And we raised a bunch of money for charity. I’m feeling thankful all around, and am pleased to share this project with the world.

Daniel J. Bowen: Blood Moon

Blood MoonI couldn’t think of any better way to get backing into blogging then to share a recent project that I think is way cool and unique. Daniel J. Bowen is a guy that I pretty much grew up with. We used to play music in high school for various talent shows, basketball games, and other such high school type opportunities. He’s one of those guys that has always made me turn my head to hear what he’s playing, not to mention pushing me to be a better musician. Since then, we’ve kept in touch intermittently. Every few months he’ll give me a call to get my take or advice on something, and it’s a call I always take. Daniel is just one of those guys you want to be around, and one of those guys I always want to help if I can. For this record, I was so happy to be involved and facilitate such an enriching project.

Imagine my surprise when I guy I’ve known primarily for playing gospel, R’n’B, and jazz, shows up with full sized orchestral scores. Daniel was inspired by the Blood Moon, a celestial event that has had much historical and religious significance. I helped Daniel contract several orchestral players for this project, and engineered the strings, horns, and voice. Daniel, the ever evolving and super talented guy that he is, mixed the project and is working on a documentary about the experience.

This music is haunting, introspective, and beautiful. Check it out.

symphony in bossa cd release

It happened. After over two years of work (just on my end, not including the years of work done by Minas prior to my involvement), Symphony in Bossa has been released to the world. The record release at World Cafe Live went spectacularly well. If there was anyone in the room who wasn’t overwhelmed by the warmth, love, and beauty in the music, then I certainly didn’t speak with them. From my vantage point, the sold out crowd was in it from the first to the last note. I can’t say enough how much of a pleasure it was to work on this project, and to work with such graceful artists as Patricia and Orlando. For all of that work to culminate into such an emotionally moving evening, well, it just doesn’t get much better.

sound check

sound check

sound healing

I started working with Eric Levy on his Sound Healing record in the spring of last year. I don’t really like the term, “concept album,” because I think that every record has a concept. So I suppose a better way of putting it is that this project had a well defined and unifying concept.

Eric is a musician, songwriter, and a sound healing practitioner. He does reiki and workshops incorporating singing bowls. This project incorporates all of that. The album is 7 songs, with one song dedicated to each chakra in the body. Each song begins with a toning exercise, using singing bowls and other droning type instruments. Additionally, the chakras start low and move up in the body, so sonically we had to make everything feel like it was running the continuum of starting heavy and gradually getting lighter. We used several production techniques to achieve this, both in the recording and mixing stages.

It’s been a rewarding experience, and it’s nice that the record is in its finishing stages. In addition to producing and mixing the record, I also played bass and keyboards. Eric just released a video for one of the songs here. And if you are so inclined, he’s raising some funds to finish the project here.

not hibernating

Looks like I’ve slipped a little with the updates to the blog. Here’s some recent happenings with me, in no particular order:

We’re hosting an in-studio concert with Dylan Taylor, Larry Coryell, & Mike Clark (from the Headhunters). There will be some serious sounds coming from the A room at this show. I’m thrilled to be producing and co-engineering the concert. More info here.

Symphony in Bossa, the record I’ve been working on for two years, will be released on Pi Day, March 14th at World Cafe Live. Minas will be joined by the Univ. of Delaware big band and strings. I’m really excited for this record to go forth into the world.

My alma mater, LVC, asked me to teach a course on Sound Design. It’s been a really fun experience so far, and I look forward to what the students come up with each week. It’s also completely online, which has been an interesting experience.

I got a call from the Wells Fargo Center the other week. After some meetings and shadowing, I can now announce that I’ll be working the music chair for the Flyers and Sixers on an occasional basis. It’s a nice facility, and certainly a different show than what I’m used to with the Union.

Last fall, I started working on a new music video for AlyCat. This one will be completely different from anything we’ve done so far (no puppets this time), and includes the talents of over a dozen guest artists. More on that soon.

I feel very fortunate to have these opportunities, and am constantly thankful to be able to do this stuff. Thanks for reading.

la giara

I’ve been working with Minas pretty intensely on the Symphony in Bossa project for over a year now, so it was interesting to take a creative detour with them this past summer. Patricia King of Minas has written a new work: La Giara, an operetta that’s based on her family history. It has all of the juicy elements that make for great drama – unbalanced personalities mixed with narcissism, oppression, racial identity, love, family, and longing for the past. Take those themes and set them to some catchy tunes that mix Italian folk music, bossa nova, choro, classical music, and jazz, and it makes for a diverse and entertaining production.

I helped Patricia with the visual elements of the show. We collaborated on the video design that was projected behind the performers to enhance and heighten the story being told. It was great fun to make and I think it was pretty effective. I also recorded the audio for the entire show and we did a multi-camera shoot of the performance, which I’ve edited together for a short promo piece below. Many thanks to Les Rivera for filming and doing the big edit between all cameras.

live in-studio concert

I’ve been doing a lot of stuff over at Forge lately, and am really excited to coordinate a new event happening at the studio. I thought it would be cool for many people, mostly those unfamiliar with professional recording studios, to experience a concert in the studio environment. It’s such a different vibe and atmosphere as compared to a live venue, and everything is under the microscope.

So, Forge be opening up the studio for the public to sit in on a real session. Audience members can either sit in the control room, behind the large mixing console, or in the live room with the musicians. Those in the live room will have the option to be on headphones during the performance, where they will actually be able to mix their own version of the show. Live. Not only that, but everyone in attendance gets a digital download of the concert.

Our first in-studio concert will be with the great Steve Giordano and his Organic Trio. We’ll be able to utilize the excellent Hammond Organ and Leslie already at the studio. I can’t wait to hear what the trio does in the space.

Tickets are available here.