Things Learned at Jam Sessions, V. 1

Sometimes jam sessions have the temperament of an old-fashioned Wild West shootout, with hyperskilled musicians doing everything they can to stun and/or dazzle everyone within earshot. That energy, once unleashed, can be viral: One extravagant “lookie-at-what-I-can-do” solo sparks another even more flamboyant one, resulting in an endless Faster! Louder! death spiral.

Usually when this happens I sit down – I’m not wired for “faster,” never have been able to make my fingers go that way. The other night at Milkboy Ardmore, during a boisterous cluster of tunes at Mike Frank’s Monday night session, somebody suggested Benny Golson’s challenging “Along Came Betty.”  It’s often played at a comfortable medium swing tempo, but Jason Shattil, the phenomenally gifted pianist, wanted to take it up. Way up. We were into it before anybody could protest, shuttling along through Golson’s twisty post-bebop lines at near breakneck speed. When it came time for me to solo, I jumped in with my two left feet, rattling off chromatic lines that did not always land where they were supposed to. It was an unforgiving tempo, the kind that forces you to be “on” from the first note. All I had in my holster was variations on the theme of clutter.

Then Jason played. His first chorus was incredibly serene – and at the same time completely locked in. He approached the demanding tempo as though ambling down a country lane. As he navigated, he made everything sound easy: There was no frenzy in the cool-headed, wonderfully interconnected melodies. His improvisations grew more complex as he went along, but he never lost the easygoing aspect. For me, that was a huge lesson: Sometimes the way to engage listeners is to step back and take it easy. Even if things are moving at 100 mph. Especially then.

There are, of course, endless chances to apply these lessons. Tonight, we’ll do our best at Milkboy Philly’s weekly Tuesday happening, Jazz Casual. Music starts around 8:30 in the beautiful upstairs room, and tonight we’ve got Philadelphia legend Mike Boone as the special guest on bass! Also on board: Mike Frank (electric piano), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Eli Sklarsky (drums). Please come and sit in! Ballad players welcome!

 

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Does a nightclub event need a mission statement?

No, really.

It’s not a joke question. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the notion of the “mission statement,” that succinct attempt to capture often elusive, abstract goals in words. Before starting on just about any kind of project, I usually make lists of objectives and all that, trying to stay away from the squishier ideas that might come under the heading “Hopes and Dreams” in favor of more concrete measurable goals. So now, as we’re gearing up for the start of Jazz Casual, I find myself wondering if there’s benefit to generating a mission statement for it.

I can hear the derisive laughter from the oldtimers at the bar already: “You overthink everything! Just play music! Make people happy! Go exploring with some friends and see what happens!”

I hear that too. So….mission statement? And if so, what might it be?

BTW, Jazz Casual with TM and Friends begins Tuesday 9/27 at 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK. http://www.milkboyphilly.com. Come hear Mike Frank (keys), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and guest luminaries from Philly music!

Thoughts on the end of R.E.M.

As news of the R.E.M. breakup traveled around the web yesterday, one recurring comment I read on Facebook and Twitter went something like this: “About time! Should have happened twenty years ago!”

I’m no big admirer of the later studio recordings of the band from Athens – I’ve argued that the “rock” leaning efforts since Monster (1994) are plagued by an abundance of calculation and, at times, a troubling absence of the loose renegade spirit that drove the early works.

But as one who covered just about every album and tour (starting sometime in 1984), I object to those posts and the glib dismissal of a long career. First because fans and critics don’t – and shouldn’t – get a say in the “calling it quits” decision. Had R.E.M. actually hung up the spikes twenty years ago, the band would not have issued Out of Time or Automatic For the People – two of its most cohesive full-album listening experiences.

There’s also this: Given the particular complementary talents of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, and the catalog they’ve created together, it’s completely unfair to judge them as “finished” – no matter how uninspired the last effort might have been. Most music critics, even ones known for their quick-trigger appraisals, try to approach every release with an open mind; the majority of them would invest time in listening to a new R.E.M. project. Not because the band was a commercial powerhouse and remains a viable “name act,” but because over and over again, for a really long time, R.E.M. offered up provocative, ear-stretching and often deeply moving music. Do that once and you’re an act to watch. Do that over and over, and you’ve got some mojo working. Mojo that commands at least an hour’s worth of respect.

Still, people slept on R.E.M. Some in the band’s fervent following bailed out when “Losing My Religion” became a huge hit. Some jumped even before that.  It’s safe to say that even some of the diehards missed what I consider the last great R.E.M. effort – Up! from 1998.

The first record without original drummer Bill Berry, Up! is R.E.M. at its most lush and orchestral, with hints of Pet Sounds in the gilded vocal harmonies and a touch of Lou Reed (a recurring influence on Stipe) in the wonderfully maladjusted lyrics about loners, apologists and sad professors. Mid-tempo and often downcast, it’s a leap into an unknown sound-world – a place where half-crazed characters reveal themselves not in overt declarations, but in contrast to the mysterious, flat-out breathtaking accompaniment rising up around them. It’s also a clear evolutionary step from what the band had done before. It’s the great lost R.E.M. record; many listeners, critics and fans alike, had harsh words for it because it wasn’t in the style of Automatic For the People. Which is a shame. Nowadays, that intolerance is much more prevalent: Anyone with a twitter feed can pop off about any band. To those folks, I say this: Check out “Suspicion” or “You’re in the Air” and then explain to me why anyone other than the individuals who created this music should say when it’s time to stop.

Lamenting the Facebook “Invite” System

OK, so as is evident by these posts, we’re in the midst of spreading the word about an event.

It’s natural to think that since Facebook traffics in “friends,” we should use their system to invite folks.

First problem: After being very careful about filling out the form, I discover that some of the key information — like who’s in the band and what time the event runs — didn’t make it.

That info, in bold for emphasis:

Tom Moon & Friends

Ryan McNeely (guitar); Mark Przybylowski (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

With special guests: keyboardist extraordinaire Mike Frank (Fractals) and vocalist/drummer Pete Gaudioso.

Next problem: It’s impossible to simply invite one’s entire friend list. you have to go through and select/deselect each.

More absurd problem: For some reason, Facebook doesn’t let you do a recurring invite. Which means that my once-patient friends will now suffer through a series of potentially irritating updates regularly. It’s true that our info will change with different guests and themes and stuff, but still. There ought to be a system for weekly events like Jazz Casual. Or maybe there is and I don’t know it…..

 

at last, a calendar listing!

Mark your calendars!

Jazz Casual with Tom Moon and Friends

(a weekly happening devoted to the pursuit of creative music!)

First show is next Tuesday, September 27, with special guest: Mike Frank (The Fractals, Electric Farm).

8 p.m. – ???

Tuesday, September 27 and then every Tuesday!

$5 cover.

at Milkboy Philly

1100 Chestnut St.

Philadelphia, PA 19151

215.925.MILK

http://www.milkboyphilly.com

We’ll have a different guest every week, along with drink specials, themed evenings, surprises, etc.!

Please join us as we chase away those Tuesday blues!

what’s in a name? please help name this night!

Before twitter, before the status update, even before the annoying all-points email blast, there was the calendar listing — that short phrase describing a show or event, designed to be published in newspapers and other media. It still matters, incredibly. There are some who think the listings are the only reason print survives at all.

Why am I wasting precious Saturday time thinking about calendar listings?

(Hint: It’s not because I’m pining for the old days at the Miami Herald, where one of my jobs was to input the Movie Time Clock by hand, one theater and one film and one showtime at a time, my work supervised by a woman named Kathy Tune. Those were the thrills!)

No, it’s because on Monday I need to deliver a calendar listing about the Tuesday night jazz experiment at Milkboy downtown, which begins on September 27.

Oops I said “jazz.” Did I mean it? There are a bunch of highly skilled jazz musicians who would probably not include me in their ranks; sometimes invoking “jazz” invites a bit of scorn from the Jazz Police.

And at the same time, there are a bunch of people I’d like to share music with who don’t happen to know or care who played guitar on the sizzling Groove Holmes On Basie’s Bandstand record (answer: Gene Edwards!). It’s not fun performing just for obsessives, and in a way, the minute you use the word “Jazz” in a calendar listing, you’re telling all the possibly-interested nonjazzheads out there to be a little bit wary — could be beret-wearing chin-stroking super-serious jazz listeners attending. There’s an argument to be made that categories describing music are meaningless, and that argument gains traction where jazz is concerned. Few terms of art lug around so much baggage.

So what to do?

My friend Aaron suggested we call it “The Tuesday Happening” and identify the artist as “Tom Moon and the Jazz Casualties.” After the great Ralph Gleason TV series Jazz Casual.

That’s our frontrunner in the “Name This Evening” competition.

We need a description that conveys, in just a few words, what listeners might expect. Please help, won’t you?

What do we call this weekly evening anchored by my quintet and featuring special guests from all corners of Philly music? There will be lots of improvising going on, but not always over jazz tunes — we’ve been playing a bunch of samba and some originals that don’t meet the Wynton Marsalis Industry Standard for jazz content.

Deadline is Monday. Thanks in advance.