Thursday, September 2, 2010

what I did last summer

I haven't posted a new blog in quite some time, but "I'm back," as they say. I didn't post for a number of reasons. For one thing I wanted the post on "Timbasa" to stay up since the album was doing quite well on the Jazzweek radio charts and I wanted the discussion of the session to be available. Interest in "Timbasa" is still strong as evidenced by a recent interview. But the main reason was that I didn't do much during the summer. I worked a few gigs but didn't move on any major projects. For the other thing I was very busy doing a lot of different and time-consuming things. I contradict myself, I'm allowed; my PhD is in logic (actually formal philosophy of science).

I never talk about my other life, except tangentially when I discuss the topic of this blog, my dream to make a contribution to jazz as a flutist. But my other life, my PhD and my full-time job as a professor in a department of educational foundations is an integral part of the whole story. For one thing it pays me a middle class salary and being tenured, the money just keeps on coming in (unless something happens that forces me to retire-- my greatest fear at this point in my life). Plus being divorced and with grown children I can spend my salary anyway I want to, and I want to make records. That is not to say that my recordings aren't a business venture, they are. They are just about the lousiest business venture imaginable. Luckily there is no law in the tax code that says you have to be a smart business man, or even a reasonable one. Only a damn fool expects to make money selling jazz records. But there are lots of us out there trying, musicians putting every available dollar into recordings and jazz record labels willing to accept a marginal return on their investment of time and money for love of the music. My records sell, and I record for a wonderful label, Jazzheads, which has even received the recognition due to a company that earns a Grammy nomination (for Bobby Sanabria's album "Kenya Revisited Live!"). All that said, it is my full professor's salary that fuels my music habit and so a significant part of my life is dedicated to teaching and the requirement that any self-respecting academic must publish.

This summer, like every summer I taught a full schedule to earn extra money, but I also had a number of conference papers to give in the areas that I publish in, logic and argumentation theory (practical logic as evidenced in people reasoning together). That meant that I had to write papers and do some traveling. Nicely the conferences were is great places, Corsica and Amsterdam. The Amsterdam conference on argumentation meets every four years and I have been to every one since the late '80's. I love Amsterdam and I got to celebrate my 70th birthday in Vondelpark, nicely toasted playing my flute. But I also had to do the work and the paper (elaborating the history of the Periodic Table of Elements as an example of argumentation that leads to truth), required quite a bit of work since I needed to support my position with historical facts as well as logical analysis. The paper in Corsica was pure logic, the application of a theory of truth that I have been actively presenting for a number of years to the problem of counter-examples to scientific generalizations (evidence that goes against a seemingly correct theory). Piece of cake!

Corsica was the sort of adventure I loved when I was younger. The trip included a flight, a ferryboat ride across the Mediterranean, a ride along the coast in a narrow gauge railroad and a bus that went pretty much straight up the mountains, going from a hot sea-side climate to a high mountain town surrounded by bare mountain peaks and moving through pine forest and Alpine meadows all in the space of hour. But at 70 and traveling by myself I was full of trepidation. Worse, there was almost two weeks between the conferences and that meant not playing for almost 3 weeks, unless I could go somewhere where I could get together with musicians. I looked at a map and Israel seemed next door to Nice from where I was taking the ferry for Corsica (actually it turned out to be a long flight since all of flights in within Europe and heading to to Tel Aviv seem go through Riga, Latvia a hub in Eastern Europe).

I had never been to Israel despite my deep involvement with Judaism. One reason was that like all Jews I have mythologized Israel and I was afraid of the emotional impact of my trip and the consequences it might have if I really felt drawn to the land. The contradictory emotion was that, as a long-time left leaning kind of guy, I was appalled by the political situation especially in the last decade as Israel skidded hard right in response to the second Intifada. I just let a tune of mine from an old album of Jewish jazz called "Shifra Tanzt" be used for a compilation CD called "Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall," although I required that the following be included on the album back cover.

That's a scan from the prayer book I use after eating. The cool parchment effect is actually grease stains from my hands over the years.

Anyway, Israel proved just the ticket since a dear old friend who lives in Jerusalem was friends with Steve Peskoff. Steve, a guitarist and native New Yorker, has lived in Israel since the 80's, is extremely active performing and a faculty in a number of jazz programs in Israel. Steve knew of my recordings and we both were looking forward to doing some playing. The trip to Israel was wonderful and playing with Steve as a high point both musically and personally. I made a video playing alone in a park overlooking the old city and one of the reasons I delayed in writing a blog was that I was waiting for the video so I could post it with my description of the trip to Israel. That is still in process so I'll save Israel stories for my next blog.

When I returned from my trip I was back to an intensive summer of teaching. I teach methods of empirical research to graduate students and although the teaching part is easy, reading and assessing student papers is very involving and time-consuming. The six week summer course meant putting all music projects on hold, although as indicated earlier I did get into local clubs and out door venues a few times. But nicely as things work out, my break between the summer and fall semesters was just the time that Aruán Ortiz was free and so we scheduled the recording sessions to finish "El Cumbanchero," my charanga project, for the last week in August.

The picture at the top of the post is the string section with Aruán and me in the center. The string players are (left to right) Everhard Paredes and Francisco Salazar, violins, Sam Marchand, viola and Brian Sanders, cello. Here is a picture of the rhythm section.

Again, left to right, Mauricio Herrera, timbales, conga and quiro, me, Aruán Ortiz, Yusnier Bustamante, conga and Yunior Terry, bass.

The session was rather difficult. Aruán's arrangements were complex rhythmically and harmonically and the musicians were not available for rehearsals, so we did a lot of preparatory work during the session. Teaching the rhythm section the charts took hours and the basic rhythm tracks took 11 hours to record. But the result was impressive. Aruán brought in three charts. The title tune, "El Cumbanchero," was a fast conga with a long flute solo. Another Cuban classic, "La Mulata Rumbera" was an innovative take on a classic tune which moved between a danzonet and a rumba. And an original tune, "Aruán's Co" which moved between rumba and conga and featured the latest addition to the rhythm section, Yusnier, who played quinto over Mauricio's conga (which was done after Mauricio laid down the basic drum track on timbales along with a bass drum played with the peddle ). Mauricio added an additional two tracks playing bomba (low drum) patterns on tom toms. Aruán played a wonderful piano solo which complemented the alto flute flute solo. Although the tracks were swinging and the drummers magnificent I didn't get the full effect until a few days later when Aruán brought in the string players to add the string parts on top of what we had done.

The string recording went a bit faster since the string quartet had rehearsed before hand. But, as always, the strings had problems playing with the tracks and struggling to play the complex harmonies and counterpoint that characterizes Aruan's writing for the date. And, as always, intonation problems required many takes before the string sound was as good as it needs to be. Aruán did not write standard charanga string parts. Using the string quartet gave Aruán the possibility to do some serious writing and his arrangements move the charanga concept to another level. The session took another 9 hours, but the result is amazing. Along with the two numbers, "El Cumbanchero" and "La Mulata Rumbera" (Aruán's original was without strings) Aruán brought in an arrangement for string quartet and bass flute of a Cuban classic, "Perla Marina," a deeply moving bolero melody by Sindo Garay played without drums, another break with tradition.

The session recorded last year included Aruán's rearrangements of two classic compositions from the repertoire of Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, "Doña Olga" and "Armoniosas de Amalia," plus two original compositions, one a danzón whose name is not finalized and a Latin jazz tune, Av Pintor Tapiro, which Aruán wrote when he was a student in the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de Vila-Seca, in Spain, as well as a lovely bolero, "Contigo en la Distancia" that I play on alto flute. These five and the four tunes recorded last week complete the album.

I began the process of mixing in the spring and faced a serious musical problem that I have yet to resolve to my satisfaction. Charanga bands generally have very simple string parts (Arcaño's arrangements written by Cachao are notable exceptions) generally written in unison or with simple harmonies and the strings support the flute rather than predominate. Aruán's arrangements, on the contrary, are complex string quartet writing, often reminiscent of Bartok. And so my tendency is to spread them out across the stereo spectrum and make them the focus of the music. But then where do I put the piano and drums? Latin music, whatever else it does, has to swing. And the rhythm tracks swing like crazy. But the string quartet changes the entire complexion of the music. Finding the right balance between the two will take time, and time costs money. So those full professor payroll checks are going to get a working over before this project is ready for public consumption.