Off to Onboarding

Today I travel to Fairfax, Virginia to check in and prepare for tomorrow’s intake ceremonies at IBM. Thus commences a new chapter in my professional life. The Onboardiad is scheduled to last a week.

I’m struck by this composite word, which has been wrangled into acting like a verb, much like planing and deplaning, which I shall shortly do. “What did you do last week?” “I onboarded at IBM.” “Ah, nice.” I’m not sure I can imagine a younger person approaching me and saying, “Sweet, dude, you onboarded. Way to go.” There’s just not enough skater or punk in the term for my money. But I’ve heard several adults use it with a straight face recently, so I’m gonna let it go by. Best to start off life as a team player.

Don’t think though that I’m not taking this event seriously, all jibes at corporate jargon aside. I am eager to consume the content that awaits me. All the prep literature hints at a week of getting dipped by the heel in the river of corporate culture and values, and I’m hoping to somehow emerge with a smidgen of invulnerability, or at least more than a shred of confidence that I can do this gig well. All my recent bench time has been getting to me lately.

Last night I haunted Jamaica Plain after watching the Red Sox clinch their playoff berth. Aside: will the Sox ever learn to pull their pitcher before it’s too late? Daisuke went in to the seventh with 98 pitches under his belt and proceeded to put two men on, which resulted in our losing the lead, albeit temporarily. But I personally never put much stock in counting on twin home runs in the top of the ninth, especially with the Yanks so close in the rear-view mirror. Anyway, Jamaica Plain. It was balmy and kind of misty, and parties spilled out onto the sidewalks, and noise from the pubs floated in the air. I sought the Pond and took a lap around it, talking myself into relaxing and going with it, this new job. Once I get the rhythm of it down, I’ll understand where the music fits in. I guess I’m just scared that if this gig is too all-consuming or demanding, I’ll have no time to do any serious playing.

More about Joe

I’ve spent a few days reflecting, and there’s more that Joe left in me that I haven’t described yet. Bear with me, it’ll take a minute to paint the picture.

If I said to you, “Carlos Santana!” you’d probably hear in your mind’s ear that buzzing, saturated sound that only Carlos can get and wield properly. Sure, I can get a distortion soaked, infinite sustainy tone out of my rig, but that doesn’t make me sound like Santana. But I believe it propels me towards studying what my own sound is, by comparing the possibilities and reacting to myself. It’s about taste and choices.

If I said to you, “Joe Zawinul!”, what would you hear?

Joe came along at the time when keyboard technology changed rapidly over a forty year period. Think about this: when Joe went to Berklee, nobody was playing Fender Rhodeses yet. When he left us this week, my laptop could put together a synth rig 10 times the size and power of what he played in 1975 without breaking a sweat. That’s a long way to come. Joe rode this wave of innovation and was one of its leaders. He relentlessly studied and found new sounds. He was one of the pioneers. He was on of my heroes.

His sound profoundly influenced my sound, and I pursued a line of study that lead me through the bowels of analog synth programming and equipment schlepping. Thinking back on those days this morning, I’m reminded of two tangible pieces of evidence of how Joe influenced me.

First, the Fender Rhodes. I used to lug one of those around back in the seventies. I’m fortunate enough to still remain friends with some of the other guys whose backs complained every time we had to move me to another jam or gig. I loved the sound of that instrument for two reasons: Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. I went through a period where I would constantly play the Rhodes through a wah-wah and phase shifter, just to get that Zawinul sound.

Second, Joe’s Arp 2600s. I was immediately turned on as a kid by any track that had synthesizers in it, starting from then-Walter Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” to “Here Come the Sun”. By the time “Chameleon” hit the scene, synths had become part of the funk lingua franca and would enjoy a decade of over-use until they very much fell from fashion and became a joke.

If you have a chance, look up a cut called “The Juggler” – it’s my favorite cut on “Heavy Weather”, and it’s for me one shining example of what Joe was all about. It’s his tune, it bounces around in a triple/duple kind of way, using his sing-songy pentatonics, and the sweet little lead sound he coaxes out ot the 2600 is priceless and haunting. It haunted me for all those years, a mental backdrop that never got erased by Talking Heads or The Clash. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a used copy somewhere.

Joe Zawinul

I heard the news from Robin Young on “Here and Now”, of all things: Joe’s taken a cab, too.

I was in the legion – and it seemed like a legion for a while – of kids who spent hour after hour shedding pentatonic scales and trying to figure out which pentatonic riffs worked over which chord change to make it sound more “out”, all thanks to Joe Zawinul. The quirky little sounds that he would coax from his 2600s are embedded in my musical DNA, and to this day, whether on guitar or mandolin or even the nowadays rare piano solo, I find myself catching a whiff of a Zawinul riff in what’s spilling from my fingers. Automatically. With no help from me.

Jammed up in that musical DNA is also the star-studded litany of fusion artists from the days before fusion became muzak: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea…. in other words, all the artists I dug through the cutout and used bins searching for. Joe has a special place in there. I played the grooves out of a 3-dolla copy of “Tale Spinning”.

Joe drove me crazy. He had this, kind of, Alpine thing going on that I understood, based on a brief year in my youth in Switzerland. His lines made sense to me and resonated with the little mountain goat I still carry around inside. On the other hand, I grew tired of his compositions. “Birdland” struck me as bombastic and smug from the first time I heard it – and boy did I have to listen to it a lot in those days. It was on everybody’s turntable and even got pretty heavy radio play on the underground FM jazz shows. I remember years after hearing a smarmy arrangement of it in an elevator on the way to the doctor and just shaking my head. But one of my favorite mood pieces is “Boogie Woogie Waltz” – that was my signature cut in the days that I was a fusion DJ in the 70s.

I read once in Keyboard magazine that Joe had a special Yamaha upright that he had modified to add resistance to the keys, making it harder to depress them. I always figured him to the the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the keyboard, and I pitied his OBX with its delicate little keys.

I broke up with Weather Report before they broke up with themselves. Fusion was in decline, I was listening to Talking Heads and Adrian Belew and Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop and the Police and I was trying to recapture the rock thing in me. It was becoming obvious to me at the time that I just didn’t have the chops to be a real jazzer.

I found that I was a rocker who, without warning, would bust out with some Zawinul-sounding licks.

See ya, Joe. By and by.

Rotary Club CD on its way

Today, I’m shipping artwork to Tom Devaney for the CD cover for his new release “Vis-a-vis”. It’s been a lot of work, but it looks like we’re done with it. Stay tuned for more details about the Rotary Club World Tour Of Two Cities – we’re playing NYC and Boston on November 2 and 3, respectively.

It felt good to do a print production job once again. It was a blast from the past – including all the typos, omissions, corrections, design changes, etc. Just like the good old days…

Pitch, imperfect with age

One morning, I heard about a study at the University of California which was investigating the genetics of absolute pitch.

This was of interest to me, so my ears perked up. (I know. Cheap one.) I’ve got pretty good ears – really good ears, when I’m “in shape”. I think the debate I’ve had with myself over the years is whether I have absolute pitch or just really really good relative pitch.

Time was, I was able to sing an A 440 out of thin air, and be spot on. (Still can – just did it. Ha ha.) That would be proof of absolute pitch.

On the other hand, I experienced an ear training class at Berklee where the prof played a whole example, and I was able to take the dictation and notate it in C. Meanwhile, my pal David was over in the corner cringing – he could tell that the example was actually being played in the key of B, and it was like nails on the chalkboard to him. That would argue the case for my having relative pitch.

I got to a point in my pedagogy where my teacher Charlie would play tone clusters on the piano, and I could pick out which of the 12 tones were not in the cluster. But this took a lot of practice and training – another argument in favor of relative pitch. I can’t do that one anymore. But I bet I could if I worked on it. For a year.

So anyway, I took the test on the U-Cal San Francisco site and did miserably. The tones came too fast for me, and they were sine wave tones, which contain no harmonics. It was like trying to read a book with vaseline smudged in your eyes, that’s what it felt like. I got really frustrated and bailed after a few missed notes. I felt embarrassed.

But I’m over it, a little. And I also found that I share some interesting traits with the survey results.

For example, my perception is going sharp, as they put it. In other words, if you play me an E, I am more likely to identify it as an F. This appears to be associated with age.

That’s a relief. I thought I was losing it. Last few years, when I’d restring a guitar, I’d tune it by ear and discover I’ve “Alice In Chains”-ed it – i.e. tuned it perfectly down a half step flat. Thank my stars for electronic tuners to keep me honest.

The other trait has to do with confusing A with G-sharp. The theory behind this has to do with the fact that “concert A” sort of floats around, depending on which orchestra or consort you consort with.

One other interesting side effect I experience often is synesthesia, or the phenomenon of having sound trigger a visual response in terms of color perception. Not only do I tend to think of pitches as having colors associated with them, when I am deep in listening concentration, I see these colors. This was especially true during the days when I tuned pianos for a little side cash.

Maybe I’ll bone up, and take the test again. Or maybe I’ll just grow up and get over myself, and get on with things.