Thursday, August 25, 2011

You can leave your hat on

New hi-hats! YES!

Also thanks to the power of Craigslist, I located a cheap but high-quality ancient Pearl hi-hat stand:

and this cheap amplifier, who knows what we'll use it for:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

You're the key to my heart

Many years ago, after an English class in which one of his songs was featured for an assignment...I became a huge Billy Joel fan - and in turn, discovering his organ-and-drums duo Attila, became focused on creating some sort of piano/organ-based band.

I think I'm finally there.

But as much as I derive a lot of inspiration from the Piano Man...technique-wise, I took very few lessons (only did that for a year in 1993), so I can't say I compare. (In terms of songwriting though...that's a topic for later.)

I can't really compare to this person's technique either, but I think his musical approach and eclecticism have informed my own playing and style for some time. And if anyone deserves a little bit more written up about his accomplishments, it's this guy:

The Isley Brothers' Chris Jasper isn't cited nearly enough as a force on the keys in 1970s music, but so much of the band's music centers around his tasteful, smooth work on piano (acoustic and electric) that it can't be overlooked.

On the more conventional end of things are two of the very best piano ballads the group ever pulled off:

"Love Put Me On The Corner" is considered by some as the first great love song of the group, in a time when Jasper wasn't quite officially a member (merely an accompanist). Can't say I disagree - even with all the great songs that came afterward, the devastation and melancholy still come across in that mix of Ron Isley's heartfelt vocal and the introverted arpeggiation on Chris's piano.

"The Highways of My Life" - lyrics written entirely by Ron - begins with a tasteful, warm synthesizer solo before settling into a comfortable piano-and-drums groove. Jasper's run-down-the-scale changes serves the stanza's melody nicely, especially when the synthesizer offers its line up before the vocal segments.

Both of those songs - and the similar "Lover's Eve" - thematically and musically take me to the same place...a quiet room...a piano surrounded by space and time...the aloneness of thought.

A little more outgoing in comparison are these Rhodes piano recordings:

"For The Love Of You" is the quintessential smooth R&B song, its meditation on devotion and sweetness coming out of what was originally a frustrating recording session (according to Wikipedia, Rudolph's original lyrics were tossed aside to his chagrin, while Ron's first vocal take was accidentally erased, forcing him to record the final version off-the-cuff). It's my parents' anniversary song and it's probably what really got me into the Isleys, even though I had heard them on R&B stations in the Bay Area for years.

Not as much of a radio staple - though I first heard it on 102.9 about a decade ago! - "Hello It's Me" for most people is known through Todd Rundgren's original versions (with his band Nazz and as a solo take), a staple of 70s soft rock. While I'm usually one to prefer the songwriter's version of a song over anyone else's (i.e. Jimmy Webb's material), "Hello" is one of the few instances where I sharply diverge.

The jazzy Rundgren version from Something/Anything (often found on oldies stations worldwide) works okay, but lacks the sheer heartbreak and contemplation the Isley cover has. Maybe it's the choice to fadeout the song on a definitive F# minor, or the additional lyrics and ad-libs behind the mic for Ron...or it's those bright fills on the electric piano that Jasper colors up the song with. Maybe it's all those things, but a song about seeming ambivalence becomes way more direct, way more heartfelt...not simply about one forgotten evening, but about a story built on a lifetime now ending, and a man remaining compassionate in the face of losing someone so dear to him.

Ballads were far from the only genre the Isleys dabbled in, of course...

"Ain't I Been Good To You" is a smooth funk workout for its first part, and a dark blues jam in its second. In the first part, Jasper deftly mixes a church-like organ part with a buttery electric piano line, before pounding out block chords for the chorus. Part One always leaves me wishing that there was another minute or three to it!

Part Two slows the pace down, and switches up to shuffle time, though repeating the same lyrics as the first segment. Where the first half of the song simmers with anger and fire...the second half remains intense, but becomes a plea of desperation, with the organ becoming more prominent in the arrangement. The electric piano remains but the organ's Leslie-speaker swirling provides atmosphere for Ron's incantations and Ernie's call-and-response guitar lines.

Take away the organ and the weightiness of the composition simply isn't there.

"Who's That Lady." I remember first hearing this on a flight to Newark in 1998 and getting blown away. It may have made its appearance in a million commercials since, but it doesn't get old.

So much has been made about Ernie Isley's fuzz guitar here, but I can't help and notice the subtle acoustic piano (mixed just beneath the drums) throughout the piece and what sounds like a Wurlitzer electric piano in the instrumental bridge...both elements providing more fullness to the arrangement and structure to the guitar jamming that unfolds.


I know that my mostly self-taught ways can't come close to matching Chris Jasper's skills, but I do have a desire to remain open in terms of song construction and arrangement, a desire for variety in writing that I think fueled his time in the Isley Brothers 3+3 lineup and made it one of my favorite bands ever - a group that straddled the line between rock and soul while blazing its own path for a good 13-14 years.

And here's a nice little recent interview with the man himself, for your perusal. :D

Monday, August 15, 2011

You're the meaning in my life, you're the inspiration

Holden has weighed in on some of his inspirations, so I'd like to provide some of mine. However, I just finished one of those huge writing memes so I don't really feel like expounding anymore. Still, this idea has followed me around for days so I think I will eventually get back up and write a full post on each. Meanwhile, I'm using this post as a placeholder.

Top 5 70s/80s [Female] Vocalists that Inspire Me:

1. Stevie Nicks - Obviously.
2. Ann Wilson - Face-meltingly awesome. More of a karaoke inspiration than a Nino Blankenship one, though.
3. Pat Benatar - Face-melting awesomeness with a strong classical foundation; like me, she is classically trained and eventually used it to rock out.
4. Kate Bush - Musically versatile, not afraid to sound weird. She embraces her weirdness, in fact.
5. Chaka Khan - For my funkier side. Also, "Through the Fire" is a litmus test for female (and sometimes even male) Filipino karaoke divas.

Top 5 Musical Inspirations:

1. Fleetwood Mac - Obviously.
2. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - For their garagey sound. Also, for their collaborations with Stevie Nicks.
3. Aimee Mann - the sardonic, sarcastic, and yet sometimes sensitive singer-songwriter whom Holden & I have adored for a decade now. (I introduced him to her music, and I've created a monster.) Her snarky songwriting and Bacharach-meets-punk influences inspire us quite a lot.
4. Kazunari Ninomiya - the "Nino" in "Nino Blankenship." Like Aimee, he balances snark with sensitivity, although his acerbic wit tends to display itself more in his daily life than his music, which is full of beautiful ballads and perky pop hooks. Also, his entire career is based on doing things for the lulz - he can be incredibly silly on television. Plus, the reason he began writing is pretty awesome: he couldn't afford to buy CDs, so he wrote his own songs. And something has to be said about always writing your own solos when everything else in your life is hyper-controlled and factory-produced (he's a member of top Japanese boyband Arashi).
5. Self - a mostly-one-man band who produced an entire album, Gizmodgery, using children's toy instruments. Also, on that album he covered "What a Fool Believes," which is one of the best songs in the history of yacht rock (another genre Holden & I adore).

Top 5 Covers:

1. Stop Draggin' My Heart Around - Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty - The first time Holden and I ever performed publicly with a live band (we weren't playing instruments, but it was awesome)
2. Tusk - Fleetwood Mac - Probably our best piece centered around Holden. Also, I get a sweet drum solo.
3. American Girl - Tom Petty - Another good piece, and one of my favourite songs.
4. Gold Dust Woman - Fleetwood Mac - Sparsely arranged, musically mysterious, and perfect for our little group. Also, Manny sounds fantastic on cowbell.
5. Don't Go Breakin' My Heart - Elton John and Kiki Dee - Holden's and my go-to karaoke duet, besides #1 (it preceded #1). We're really all about the lulz, when it comes down to it.

5 More Inspirational Women in Music:

1. Janis Joplin - A misfit good girl turned rockstar. An adopted daughter of San Francisco who taught me, misfit good girl and adopted daughter of San Francisco, how to rock.
2. Lady Gaga - Fabulous performance artist. She's got a brilliant musical mind behind those crazy costumes and headline-grabbing antics- she was writing pop hits, Carole King-style, before she was thrust into the spotlight; she has solid roots in jazz, pop and rock; AND she was accepted into NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at age 17. She really brings all dimensions of performance and entertaining into her craft.
3. Lea Salonga - Every Filipino girl grew up wanting to be her. I am no exception.
4. Utada Hikaru - Asian-American phenomenon. She's done all sorts of genres, from R&B and hip-hop to experimental electronica to rock to dance to sweeping J-pop ballads.
5. Madonna - The queen of pop and constant reinvention. She came to New York, knowing no one and having no money, and in just a few years conquered the world. I could learn a thing or two from her.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Everything old is new again

Okay, maybe the Fiberskyn 3 isn't really that old of a head design, but that vintage look and sound is nothing short of glorious. YES!

Also on the "outdated but useful" list is this Radio Shack mixer that I'm running all vocals through now. For some reason, I don't know if it's the teeny amp it's hooked up to or not, it generates a lot of reverb:

And finally, this cheesy C major toy flute I've had for several years that is great for soloing - if the songs are in C major or its relative minor in A:

More tales of the bargain hunting percussionist coming up soon, of course. woot

Monday, August 1, 2011