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Howard Levin and The Amazing Urban School Laptop Program

8 Feb

As I roll my sleeves up and prepare to really get my students ready for our spring concert, I want to take a moment to reflect on a particularly awesome individual, a man whose vision, discipline, and understanding of the fundamentals of teaching have pushed the limits of technology in education. Also, a really cool guy whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and learning from during my past six years as a teacher – the one and only Howard Levin, director of technology at The Urban School of San Francisco.

If you spend five minutes at Urban, you’ll immediately see Howard all over the place, though you might not know it’s him you’re seeing. Students all tote white macbooks, crowding around one another’s video projects, sharing earbuds to listen to music (both their own and that of their favorite bands), video-chatting one another or silently typing away on a paper. You can’t help but notice how remarkable it all is, and you’re not the only one – Urban is at the absolute leading edge of technological implementation.

The whole thing – the school’s much-talked about 1:1 laptop program, incredible (and incredibly important) FirstClass implementation, custom-designed PCR grade- and course-report database, unbelievably professional student-directed “Telling Their Stories” documentary series, vital and supremely helpful faculty training, student workshops, and even the philosophy that Urban has taken towards technology… all of that is the work of Howard, implemented over the past decade by him and his incredible two-person team. Additionally, Howard speaks at educational conventions around the world, has published a ton of articles, and is one of the most sought-after minds when it comes to tech implementation in the educational field.

I should add that Howard makes all this happen with the help of just two people. Two. Mercedes Coyle, groovy chick and drummer for dot.punto,  interfaces with the kids and gets them the technology (and, frequently, loaners and replacement parts) that they need. Computer-whisperer Igor Zagatsky, the man behind the curtain, literally keeps Urban ticking, and also built the school’s incredibly robust and flexible local server setup.  If something breaks, Igor will take a break from whatever giant project he’s working on and come make it work – he is as much a part of Urban as the walls, windows, and wiring.

But that’s it – two people. For a school of over 300 students, plus a huge number of faculty and staff… and all those people running over 50 wireless access points blasting around a constant, massive amount of network traffic… wow. That means that Howard, Mercedes, and Igor are overseeing the day-to-day operation of a network of over 400 computers.  And in spite of this, not only does everything work about 90% of the time (which, when you think about it, is insane), they have transcended technical considerations and are focused on how they can actually use this stuff to improve teaching.

Key to this is Urban’s philosophy of “making the laptop disappear.” (the brainchild of Howard, head-of-school Mark Salkind, and, and I’m sure, many members of the Urban administration and board).  If you talk to Howard for even a little bit about the Urban laptop program, you’ll hear him bring up the distinction between using technology to facilitate education and simply “teaching technology.”  It’s a very important distinction, and Urban’s embrace of the former over the latter is the entire reason that the 1:1 program works so well.

In the school’s view, a laptop is simply a tool like any other – pencil, or a notebook, protractor, calculator. Teachers at Urban don’t teach students how to browse the web, or how to type quickly – they teach math, science, music, art, and they use laptops to allow the students to learn those disciplines more effectively, and in a way that fits with how students (and people) think and communicate in the 21st century. That means that laptops need to be totally integrated into daily life at the school, from administration to teachers to students, to the point that lessons and assignments can begin, exist, and be completed online.  It requires a ton of training for teachers to make it work, but work it does, and you’d be amazed at the degree to which laptop actually does “disappear.”

By now, Urban is no longer unique as a laptop school – a huge number of schools nationwide have adopted the 1:1 program that Urban pioneered. But I’d say that Urban still does it better than almost anyone else, and remains at the cutting edge in other ways, too. They’ve installed interactive smartboards in every room, allowing teachers not just to show off sexy graphics and cutting-edge multimedia in their lessons, but to give their students immediate access to all lessons after they have been presented (by far the most useful aspect of smartboards).  What’s more, in-class video capture, as well as Skype and other videoconferencing tech, are letting kids learn and interact in a more global, decentralized way than ever before.

Wow. I still can’t believe I get to teach at this place. And while everyone here is pretty amazing, Howard still stands out. With his vision, patience, leadership, and clear-eyed understanding of the fundamentals of teaching, he’s led an entire school to the bleeding edge of the 21st century and shown us what is possible when teachers and students are given the knowledge and resources to embrace technology as a means to education instead of its end goal.

Mitch On Music

18 Nov

“I played in a death metal band. People either loved us or they hated us. Or they thought we were okay.

A lot of death metal bands have intense names, like ‘Rigormortis’ or ‘Mortuary’ or ‘Obituary.’ We weren’t that intense, we just went with… ‘Injured’.”

“I went to see a band in New York. The lead singer got on the microphone, and he said ‘How many of you people feel like human beings tonight?’

Then he said ‘How many of you feel like animals?’ And everyone cheered after the animals part. But the thing is, I cheered after the human being part because I did not know that there was a second part to the question.”

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

14 Sep

Imogen!It’s been a while since I posted a MPIWTB, and it took someone pretty special to make me post again.  And this monday, I found just such a special someone.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about my live performance and where I could go with it, so it seems fitting that right now, I can’t help but want to be Imogen Heap.

And it isn’t because of “Hide and Seek,” though I will not deny the absolute awesomeness of that particular song. No, the reason I want to be the lovely Miss Heap is as follows:

DAMN. I like to loop and everything, but this takes it to a whole new level – I’m not even sure of half of what she’s doing, and that custom MIDI controller she’s using is… intimidating. I’m a huge fan of controllers that have no branding or big stupid displays, just button after button after button of tone-controlling awesomeness.  Outstanding!

And after watching that performance, I’m left with so many questions – is her laptop really all her rig consists of, or is there a stack of synths in a rack somewhere backstage?  Were any of those beats pre-recorded, or did she really input them all live?  How much must she have had to practice to get all that down? But most of all, I’m left wondering, “When is Imogen Heap next playing San Francisco?”

My hat is off to you, Imogen.  You’ve abducted the concept of one-woman-band loopery and taken it straight into the future.  Also, you remind me of a way more awesome version of The Ross Gellar Musical Journey (1:35 in particular):

Infinite time, indeed.

Fun Tim Schafer-Related Things

18 Aug
Guybrush Threepwood

"My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate."

Game designer/writer Tim Schafer is enjoying a bit of a “That Hansel” moment these days – along with the re-release of his point and click adventure game classic “The Secret of Monkey Island” and the impending release of his seventh original IP, the Jack Black starring “Brutal Legend,” he’s already in the press quite a bit.

There’s more to it, however, but I know that a lot of y’all have no idea who the guy is, so let me explain him a little.  He’s, like, the Wes Anderson of games, or maybe the Robert Altman… he’s the closest thing that the world of gaming has to a true auteur.  Since he started making games for Lucasarts 20 years ago, he’s made only seven original games, but every single one of which is an incredibly polished gem of comedy, heart, and beautiful design.  From the Monkey Island pirates who swordfight with insults and witty retorts instead of their blades (“You Fight Like A Dairy Farmer!”  “How appropriate.  You fight like a cow.”) to a Dia de los Muertos- influenced tour through the afterlife, complete with beatnik accouterments and a killing jazz score (this would be the one and only Grim Fandango, possibly my favorite game ever made), Schafer’s games are far, FAR more than what people think of when they think of “video games.”

So, it was pretty dang cool when they re-released “Monkey Island,” on the iPhone!  It was actually released on a bunch of platforms, but the iPhone was the one that I have, so I got it there. From my trip to Minnesota until now, I’ve played it off and on, moving at a pretty rapid clip, since I already know how to solve the puzzles.  *Use* “chicken with a pulley in the middle” on “hanging cord.”

Guybrush and Elane Never Pay More Than 20 Bucks

"This experience has taught me something, Elaine."

After I negotiated the game to its classic conclusion (“Never pay more than 20 bucks on a computer game”), the credits rolled.  This re-released version was created by a new team and featured updated graphics and, even cooler, re-recorded audio.  The songs from the first one are, like, burned onto my eardrums (I know I’m supposed to be this jazz snob, but when I was 12, I would listen to the soundtrack to that game on my CD player over and over), so hearing new versions of the old MIDI tunes, performed by actual musicians, was really fun.

And the coolest thing of all was that, as I watched the credits roll, the contributing musicians rolled by, and I saw that Mike Olmos played all the trumpet parts!  Amazing!  Mike’s a player in the city that I know a little bit – he’s totally great, plays all over the place, runs the monday jam session at Grant and Green, plays with a bunch of Jazz Mafia bands, the CJO, etc.  I guess it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise that, since they’re based here, Lucasarts would get San Francisco based musicians to play on their stuff, but all the same, I couldn’t get over how cool that was.  Mike got to play on the soundtrack to Monkey Island! My god, I might be the only musician in San Francisco who thinks it, but that just may be the Coolest. Gig. Ever.


Seriously. Put this on a t-shirt, and it will suffice.

I heard that they’re going to also re-release Tim’s other games, and if they do, and someone who works on the games is out there, I will SO play on the soundtracks.  Flute, clarinet, saxophone, just say the word.  I’ll kill it, and I’ll do it for cheap.  Just give me, like, a Grim Fandango T-Shirt and a couple hundred bucks.

So, onward and upward for Tim Schafer.  His new game is a heavy-metal-themed brawler starring Jack Black, and I think it’s going to be, well, just as amazing as all of Scafer’s other games.  It will, at the very least, be hilariously funny, and feature a truly epic soundtrack. The complete track list actually just got leaked, then confirmed, and it is amazing. Anvil, Mastodon, Dokken and even Deathklok… plus lots of Sabbath and Judas Priest, naturally.  Some way or another, I’m gonna have to find a way to check this one out.

Michael McKean Smells The Glove

30 Jul

Michael McKean on The Daily ShowI caught Spinal Tap’s recent performance on The Daily Show and damn, they sounded pretty good!  I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought of the band as a real performing entity, for whatever reason; hmm… actually, if you’ve seen the movie (tell me you’ve seen the movie), it’s pretty clear why.

As The Darkness proved, we Americans tend to have a hard time taking rock acts seriously if they’re the least bit funny; for whatever reason, we like our comedy music with props and acoustic guitars, thank you very much. Spinal tap was very funny, and American that I am, I just never considered that they were a serious performing rock group.

I was impressed with everyone’s playing (their hired gun drummer sounded really solid, though the gig must come with hazard pay), but the most impressive by far was Michael McKean, (A.K.A. “David St. Hubbins”). In addition to singing lead, McKean played a mean lead guitar, keeping some notey riffs going during the vocals and taking a pretty damn good solo.  Huh.  I always knew that all three of the guys in the band (McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest) were strong players – if nothing else, their acoustic performances in A Mighty Wind made that clear – but it was pretty cool to hear them hold their own in a straight-up rock performance.


"The French know nothing about shampooing."

I looked up McKean, and it turns out he’s known as much for his musical work as for his comedic roles.  After doing a ton of various musical variety acts in his early career, he was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live before joining the cast (according to Wikipedia, he is the only person ever to be a musical guest, then a host, and then a cast member). The guy is just always working – he’s a quintessential Hey It’s That Guy, currently playing Spinal Tap shows in support of the band’s new album, writing a musical for Broadway, and starring in various plays and TV pilots (one of which, “The Thick Of It,” sounds like it would have been great – Hurwitz! Guest! WTF, ABC? Get on it, HBO!)

Also cool – together with his wife Anette O’Toole, McKean wrote several songs from A Mighty Wind, including the title tune (“Yes, it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me“), and the beautiful “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow,” a song so great that it single-handedly makes that movie compete with “Best in Show” for my favorite of the Guest ouvre.

And perhaps best of all?  He starred in one of my all-time favorite movies, playing Mr. Green in “Clue”! Mr. Green has long been my favorite character in that movie, and I had no idea McKean played him, though, to be fair, it was long enough ago that he looks completely different.  I guess I’ll just have to force myself to watch that movie again.

So, ladies and gents, I give you Michael McKean –  Singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor, comedian, and undercover FBI agent. Comedy rennaissance man; king of the Hey It’s That Guys.  Props to you, sir.

Michael McKean Mr. Green Clue

"I'm gonna go home and sleep with my wife."

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

15 Jun

This Monday, as I find myself surrounded by an increasingly wacky bunch of well-meaning fruit loops, I find that more than anything, I want to emulate the cool head, deadpan sensibility, zero-bullshit demeanor of the one and only, Private Investigator Emerson Cod.

Emerson is on my mind because this weekend marked the airing of the last episode of Pushing Daisies ever (sniff), and while there were plenty of things that I liked about that show, Emerson was the thing that held it all together.  Whimsical, snappy, and beautiful-looking though it may have been, Daisies was also saddled with a built-in tendency to go off the rails into twee-ville, with scenes featuring Ned and Chuck in particular constantly running the risk of becoming waaaay too cute and “charming,” at least for me.

Fortunately, we could always count on the gruff and vulgar Cod (played by Chi McBride, who needs a new show, stat) to even things out.  Whenever the two romantic leads would start to lose me with their goo-goo eyes, Emerson was there to roll his, bringing things back down to earth in hilarious fashion.  A choice assortment of quotes:

Ned: It’s kind of a random proximity thing.
Emerson: Bitch, I was in proximity!

Olive: Yesterday, a farrier named Lucas Shoemaker was found dead. Trampled.
Emerson: Why should I care about a dude that sells fur coats?
Olive: Not a furrier, a farrier. *Heir*.
Emerson: Fair-rier?
Olive: It’s a blacksmith. Puts shoes on horses.
Emerson: Don’t try to act like that’s a word everybody knows.

Olive: Maybe John Joseph faked his death. People do that all the time.
Emerson: No, they don’t.

And of course:

Emerson: Just because there’s vodka in my freezer doesn’t mean I need to drink it. Wait… yes it does.

So while I didn’t love the final episodes (it was too bad that they didn’t know the plug was getting pulled), I still appreciated getting to spend a little bit more time watching this show, and I hope that all of the actors find success elsewhere in the near future. For his valiant efforts grounding a show with its head so far up in the clouds it threatened to float away, Chi McBride deserves some sort of medal of deadpan-valor or something.  Cheers, Emerson. Keep up the knitting, man.


I'll read a pop-up book in your honor.

That Michael Giacchino is So Hot Right Now

6 Jun

UpLast night, I saw “Up.”  It was really, really great. In terms of drama and story, it wasn’t on the same level for me as, say, “The Incredibles” or “Ratatouille,” but the visuals, the artistry of the film… the incredible use of color, framing, and expression to convey the emotional transformations in the story… unforgettable.  In 3D particularly – I’m not sure if I’m ready to say that 3D is gonna be the thing that brings people back to the theatres, but it certainly was cool.

All three of those films have something in common – they were all scored by Michael Giacchino. I’ve been aware of the man since hearing (and digging) his jazzy, spy-movieish score for “The Incredibles,” but it wasn’t too long ago that no one had heard of him at all.

After working for several years in the video game world (scoring some movie tie-ins and a few WWII shooters), Giacchino got his first break when he was tapped to do the music for J.J. Abrams’ second show, “Alias.”  He clearly did a good job (though my main musical memory of that show is the awesome Abrams-penned opening theme music), because in 2004, Abrams came to him with his second project, a quaint little tropical island romp you may have heard of called “Lost.”

Soon thereafter, Giacchino was dealing out the groaning, keening music for which “Lost” is now famous, a score which I’d say has as much if not more to do with evoking the show’s unmoored, mysterious atmosphere than any other single element of its production.

At the same time, he was brought on to score Brad Bird’s first film for Pixar, “The Incredibles,” and did a fantastic job. Parts of his score actually call to mind Jeff Richmond’s opening credits for 30 Rock, with a little bit of vintage spy-movie string lines. He also slyly used 5/4 time as a way to invoke the Mission Impossible theme without actually quoting it – (well played, Giacchino, very well played). Also fitting, since he would go on to score Abrams’ underrated entry into the MI canon, Mission Impossible III.  Anyway, I flipping loved “The Incredibles,” and the music brings it back for me, every time.

So, while “Incredibles” was kicking ass in box offices nationwide, “Lost” was topping the Nielson ratings. By 2006, five years after first starting on “Alias,” Giacchino had gone from working on video-game adaptations of movies to being the composer of choice for Abrams, one of the most happening young producers in Hollywood and being tapped by Brad Bird for his second Pixar film, the wonderful “Ratatouille.”  Giacchino’s score for that movie (a film which I dearly love) is just great stuff… listening to it is like being lightly asleep and half-dreaming of Paris, the winding streets and cobblestones, old buildings and tiny cafe tables.  Aah!  Love.  What’s more, his song “Le Festin” went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, further cementing his place as one of the most successful composers in Hollywood.

Giacchino’s work in “Up” is similar to that in “Ratatouille” in that it’s largely in 3/4 time and has a sort of dreamy, European quality.  The main theme is absolutely wonderful, the soundtrack to some primordial hot-air balloon dream ingrained on the collective subconscious.  His score is, at times, incredibly wrenching; his handling of the opening montage of Carl’s life is is both larger-than-life and incredibly delicate, and never short of beautiful.  Actually, I’d describe the whole film that way.

And in addition to all of his work for Pixar, Giacchino has remained J.J. Abrams’ go-to music guy, providing music for “Fringe” (which I really like, particularly the Muse-esque opening credits) as well as the the recent “Star Trek” (a score which,  as I remember it, evoked the original while boldly going in its own direction, much like the film itself). His progression has been really fun to watch, from his early work in TV and video games to his ascent to one of the most in-demand cats in Hollywood, simultaneously working for one of the highest-rated shows on TV AND the most consistently exceptional animation house in the world. That’s pretty damn cool.

And yeah, he also did “Land of the Lost,” but hey – a gig’s a gig.

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

11 May

Sometimes, the Bear gets you.

This Monday, as I contemplate work as a composer outside of my own personal projects, I find myself thinking – in what mediums would I, personally, find the greatest satisfaction?  And, though “Movies” used to be the holy grail for all aspiring composers (well, outside of “Premiering at Lincoln Center” anyway), I have to say that for me, the most rewarding two mediums in which to work would be television and video games.  Television offers the chance to let your writing evolve over time, to really work with the themes for various characters and settings, and to get really creative on an episode-by-episode basis.  Video games, on the other hand, are a creative medium still in its infancy, and therefore offer unlimited potential for experimentation and change. Only one guy I can think of has got his foot squarely in both doors, and while that can’t be a comfortable position to hold for an extended period of time, master composer Bear McCreary makes it look easy.

As any regular Murfins reader knows, I am a big fan of Bear’s.  I first became aware of him, as did most of the rest of the planet, through his fascinating, idiosyncratic work on the TV program Battlestar Galactica.  From my first viewing, it was clear that this was a sci-fi show like no other, and the rippling, tribal themes, orchestras mixed with Taiko drums, sitars, and bagpipes, only heightened the show’s differentness.  For a couple of seasons, I watched the show, unaware of anything beyond the fact that the show’s composer had a weird name (“Bear” is up there with W.G. “Snuffy” Walden in the pantheon of TV Composers with memorably odd names).  Then, somewhere near the start of the third season, I learned about Bear’s Battlestar Blog, and with it, gained significant insight into the dude.

Bear's Battlestar Blog

Basically, Bear's Blog is Brilliant.

The amount of depth in McCreary’s blog cannot be overstated – here is a man who truly cares about music, who thinks about it endlessly, and who takes extra time out of his (no doubt insanely) busy schedule to write about it at length, to share it with his fans and fans of the shows he works on.  You can lose hours reading about his process, the techniques he used to make the sounds that so effortlessly evoke the atmosphere of BSG.  His post on the final season’s episode “Sometimes a Great Notion” is so brimming with content and insight, not only into the creation of the music, but into the show itself, that it should practically be required reading for serious Battlestar fans.

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Monday’s Person I Want To Be

4 May


This Monday, as I come down from the amazing performance my students gave last night at the Herbst (seriously: amazing), I find myself bored by the everyday grind, the bland normalcy of my routine.  I wish I could shake things up!  Wouldn’t it be great if right now, a new client could walk through my door and offer me a case rife with intrigue, double-crossings, and murderous prosecutors?  Life would certainly never get dull if I could team up with my best friend (a shape-shifting spirit medium) and tackle the wildest, wackiest, and plain weirdest cases that the west coast has ever witnessed!  So, this Monday, I want to be none other than Phoenix Wright, the most ace of all ace attorneys.

I first got to know Phoenix when I borrowed my cousin’s DS a couple of Christmases ago up in the Twin Cities. I hadn’t played anything on the DS before, and the game instantly charmed me half to death. I beat the first case, moved on to the second case, and was hooked just in time to have to put it down and go home.  I’ve been longing for something to fill the void it left – I thought that the iPhone game 1112 would do the trick, but I lost interest not too long after writing that post about how freaking awesome it is.  Whoops.

Fortunately, I recently went ahead and got myself a DS, and with it, a copy of all three Phoenix Wright games (which are quite cheap these days, though surprisingly hard to find in the States).  I’m now most of the way through the second game in the trilogy, and I’m enjoying myself even more than I thought I would.

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Monday’s Person I Want To Be

27 Apr
Russ Kleiner


I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a few things to the exclusion of almost all others – playing music, practicing drums, and listening to music with friends.  This Monday, as I think about people I’d like to emulate, it occurs to me that there is really no single person I know who is better at each of those things than the one, the only, drummer Russ Kleiner.

Russ and I went to school together at the University of Miami, and during our time there we were classmates, roommates, bandmates, coverband mates, and, thanks to our incredibly shady slum-master landlord, almost cellmates.  I played with Russ a ton, and we listened and talked about music even more.  We were opposites in so many ways – here I was, this mellow midwestern kid from Indiana, and here was Russ, a brash, semi-crazy, multiply-pierced Jew from Long Island; it didn’t seem like we had much in common at all.  However, we both listened to music in very much the same way, and that common ground eclipsed our yin/yang dispositions and was a huge part of the reason that we became such good friends.

Cliched though it may be, I can honestly say that I learned more from my amazing classmates at UM than I did from my professors, which, given the incredible amount of stuff I learned from my professors, is really saying something.  And of all of the things that I learned from Russ, the one that sticks with me more than anything is his generous, non-judgmental, utterly inspiring love of music.  Any music, all music – good music.

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Monday’s Person I Want To Be

16 Mar

jeff-richmond1This Monday, I want to be none other than Jeff Richmond, the man behind the music on 30 Rock.  I’ve been watching some episodes streaming on Netflix lately (did you guys know that it now works on Intel Macs?  I feel like they should have made a bigger deal out of this), and while I’ve always loved the music on the show, I feel that I’ve only recently had a chance to give it a considered listen.  And damn, is it good.

According to Wikipedia, Richmond got his start writing for Second City, then went to SNL, and from there, headed to 30 Rock. I’m not sure if he was ever a comedian, or whether he just wrote funny songs, though I guess that anyone who can write “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” or “Muffin Tops” is pretty much a “comedian” whether or not that’s what he does for a living.

Anyhow, I’ve had a chance to sit with Richmond’s cues and episodic scores, and I’m so, SO into them.  To start with, he uses an awesome group of musicians – the band is driven mainly by reeds, with clarinets and saxophones featured heavily.  There are some great percussive high-notes, as well, usually coming from a set of bells or a mandolin, and he uses a jazz choir and brass section really effectively.

What’s more, the sound of his band is far from the uber-tight, “studio” sound that Hollywood is so capable of producing. The players play a little bit out of tune sometimes, but it actually adds to the casual, goofy energy and vibe of the performance.  The band sounds like a bunch of old pros who’ve gotten together for an informal jam in the studio, and the playing has a busk-y quality that’s really appealing.

He does groovy things with the show’s main theme, too.  In its usual form (like, during the credits), it sounds like this:


But, as each episode goes on, it’s remarkable the ways in which he twists and skews that theme.  I’m not sure I can think of another show that uses a single musical motif in so many different ways (I’m not really counting the slap bass in Seinfeld). The most common of Richmond’s variations is whenever something is “brewing,” or someone is being “evil,” the low strings play the theme, but streeeetttched out, and loooow, and the result is an sneaky, slinking line that conveys “mischief” just perfectly.

Richmond does a fantastic job, as well, of keeping the rhythm of the episodes moving along.  He does this both by interspersing his musical cues with some really swinging drumming, and by constantly modulating the music on the fly. Drums pepper so many scenes on the show – four on the floor, brushes on the snare, and as people talk, or walk and talk, the groove keeps things moving, and in between bits of dialogue, the horns and strings kick in and transition the actors from line to line. Standard stuff, as far as TV cues go, but really, really well done.

He’ll also step outside of his standard themes to come up with some episode-specific gems. I recently noticed a really good one in the season 2 episode “Greenzo.”  I’m not sure if this theme had made its way into the show’s music before, though it’s since become a recurring motif.


Oh, man!  I can’t tell you how much I dig that progression and melody.  I’m sure that literally no one out there will sit down with their piano or guitar and play the above line, but if you can, I recommend it.  It’s very, very cool.  As the episode moves along, the band plays that theme, quickly modulating it up a half-step every time the scene changes.  In the closing credits alone, the music goes from Bb to B to C to C# to D.  Between the creative re-orchestrations and the constant key changes, the music has a sense of momentum that really, really works.  Plus, it’s catchy as hell.

So, yes. This week, I wanna be Jeff Richmond. He’s a total pro, gets to work on one of the funniest shows on TV, and has a really, really good band playing his stuff.  And I know there was another reason… hmm… something else… maybe something relating to his personal life?  Maybe let’s look at the full version of that picture:


Oh yeah, that’s right. He’s married to Tina Fey.  Some people have it pretty good, I tell ya.

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

9 Mar

Boom boom boom.

This Monday I find myself wanting to emulate the one, the only, bassist extraordinaire Daniel Fabricant.

Unlike past iterations of this post, I’m basing this on firsthand knowledge. Daniel was one of the first musicians I met out in San Francisco – back in 2003 we did a jazz gig up in Stinson Beach, and soon afterward, I had him come over and record bass on some of the very first songs I had written. Since then, we always seem to wind up playing together – in Tape, in my jazz group, in his groups at clubs all over the bay area, at huge shows accompanying a series of world-famous dames… he also plays upright on half the tracks on The Exited Door.  What I’m saying is, Daniel and I go back.

So, you know the “connectors” in Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point?  And you know how everyone says that they are one, even though they’re really just kinda social?  Well, Daniel actually is one. It’s amazing. He’s like the Kevin Bacon of the SF music scene. Everyone’s either played with him or knows folks who have. From jazz to rock to latin to cabaret, dude’s got a gig (or three) every night of the week, and quite literally knows every single player in the city.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s got great chops and is a total pro accross the board, and bass players are often that way, I guess – after all, everyone needs a bass player! But it remains remarkable – in much the same way as his bass anchors the piano to the drums, the horns to the rhythm section, Daniel himself connects to and brings together just about every player in town.

And where, you may ask, is he right now?  Oh, he’s just getting back from a weeks-long engagement overseas.  In France.  That’s right, France.

This guy, I’m telling you.


Check out Daniel’s group Nice Guy Trio, also featuring trumpeter Darren Johnston and accordionist Rob Reich.  I’m helping them mix their first full-length album, and it sounds absolutely fantastic!

They’re playing at the Make-Out Room tonight, Monday the 9th, and will be on the Pirate Cat Radio Cafe, 87.9FM at 5:00 this wednesday, March 11th.


They even LOOK like nice guys.

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

2 Feb

Saving the girl in mom-jeans.

When life seems too big for me, like there are just too many problems in the world, I sometimes find comfort in the simple, direct, borderline-retarded words of 80’s action heroes. These guys had it much easier than the action stars of today – they didn’t have to worry about their past catching up with them or the emotional scarring left by inflicting torture, let ALONE everyday things like taxes or the job market or the economy.  All these guys needed to focus on was making sure they had enough ammo and that they were ready with a spicy one-liner for the next time they threw a bad guy out of an airlock/into a propeller blade/off a cliff.

But of all the 80’s action heroes out there, perhaps none are better suited for these troubled times than the blustering, contradictory, totally fucking awesome Jack Burton.

The man has amazing fashion sense (see picture), wears sunglasses while driving at night, and has a serious way with the ladies.  And by “way,” I mean, “sort of argues with them for a while, then saves them and leaves without so much as a good-bye kiss.” He’s totally rich (he ends the film with at least $3,000, wow), and he surrounds himself with people who can fight better than he can.

Jack also takes ancient Chinese drugs to help himself keep a positive attitude, and is just cool enough to play the part of “America” in a somewhat metaphorically tortured but still interesting HuffPo op-ed from December (though the writer curiously doesn’t mention the weird scene where, just before the final battle and apropos of nothing, Jack and his sidekick Wang toast to the glory of America and the red, white and blue).

And through it all, he saves his love for the one thing in his life that he can truly count on – his truck.

So you know what Jack Burton says:

Why are all those guys at the door? “We may be trapped.”

I am Lo Pan, and he is me! “Are you insane? Is that your problem?”

How are you going to get us outta here, Jack? “I have no idea.”

and of course…

What does ol’ Jack Burton say? “What the hell.”

So I’m just gonna tune out the AM radio talking-heads and tune in to the ol’ Pork Chop express, because even as I write this, Jack’s cruising down the 101, monster-filled trailer in tow, dropping pearls of wisdom into the CB while en route to some Chinatown shenanigans. Thanks to him, when they come to make me pay my dues, I’ll just tell ‘em “Yes sir, the check is in the mail.”


No horseshit.

Top 5… People of 2008

5 Jan

So here it is, the last best-of list for 2008.  And only five days into 2009, too!  I’m so glad to get these done just past the time when everyone stopped caring.  Next year, I’ll wait ’till February, just to be even more different.

So, first was Games, then TV, then Music, and now, we’re on to the top five people who rocked in 2008.  I’m gonna go ahead and disqualify anyone who has previously been a Person I Want to Be, as well as Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.  Just to keep things interesting, because otherwise that would be my top four, and, you know, everyone else’s too.

Please make sure your seatbacks and traytables are in their upright and locked position…


5. Rachel Maddow

Continue reading

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

29 Dec

Same as it ever was.

This Monday, in honor of the impending final season of Battlestar Galactica, I want to be Starbuck (or should I say, Harbuck?). When I was tossing around the members of the crew of the Galactica that I’d like to be, honestly, it’s both really hard and really easy to decide.  On the one hand, pretty much everyone is an emotionally stunted freak, having been chased, tortured, married, cheated upon, taken part in both sides of a genocide, and/or (spoiler alert!) found out that they’re actually a frakking Cylon.  On the other, everyone on board is one or another shade of complete and total badass (well, everyone now that Cally’s dead), as well as impossibly good-looking from Six to Helo to Giaus effing Baltar, and it’d be great to be as rad as any one of them.

But of all of them, Kara Thrace sits above the rest, just as dysfunctional and mind-frakked at this late point in the series as she was at the very beginning of the show. And when you think about it, it’s a testament to the resilience of her character.  She was a tortured, showboaty misfit at the beginning of the show, when the only thing she had done wrong was to sleep with Zak Adama and clear him to fly, kinda-sorta tangentially getting him killed.  After four seasons, she remains a tortured, showboaty misfit, even though she has, by now:

  • Been shot down on a barren moon and been left for dead
  • Walked with a cane for months on end
  • Been captured, cloned, and de-ovaried in a Cylon woman farm
  • Been forced to plan and carry out a suicidal mutiny on another Battlestar
  • Declared her true love for one guy and then married another
  • Been held as a POW in a freaky stepford-apartment-cell with a kid who may or may not be her child
  • Become even more of an alcoholic
  • Beaten the shit out of the one guy in a boxing match, then started cheating on her husband with him
  • Been shot down and horribly burned on an algae planet
  • Died
  • Become an evil bionic woman, until that show got canceled
  • Been resurrected as the savior (or destuctor) of mankind
  • Been widely believed to be a Cylon, in actuality was probably the one crewmember who wasn’t one
  • Taken the president hostage at gunpoint
  • Gone painty-prophecy crazy on a one-ship quest for Earth
  • Actually found Earth, only to also find that, as it turns out, Earth totally sucks

Lord knows where our friend Kara Thrace will end up during these final (ten? twelve?) episodes.  All I know is that, the more crap she goes through, the more you think that she has finally, actually completely lost her mind, the more she comes out of it, stronger than ever. There’s always that glint in her eye that seems to say, “C’mon Lee, it’ll be fine!  The writers are on my side! I mean, I’m Starbuck.”  And that’s what I’m talking about.


"All that and we wind up in BROOKLYN?"

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

22 Dec

This is one way the dude gets around...

This Monday, as I prepare for air travel (aGAIN, and not for the last time this month, sigh), there’s really only one dude I’d like to be – billionaire art thief extraordinaire (though is there really a such thing as an ordinary billionaire art thief?) Thomas Crown.

I’m talking about the ’99 remake here, with the spicy Russo and the suave Brosnan and the everyman Leary and the the plinky Bill Conti pianoing.  Man.  I love that movie.

When I think about how cramped, tired, and uncomfortable I’m going to be for the next eight to twelve hours or so, I can’t help but want to emulate the unflappable, always-prepared Crown.  As Russo’s character observes in the film, “You live very well.”

It goes without saying that he’s got his own jet – hell, he’s probably got a jet waiting at every international airport in the world. He’s also got a fleet of yachts (which we know because of his penchant for crashing them when he’s bored), as well as at least one glider, a fleet of rare old automobiles, and God knows what else.  At least a few jetpacks, most likely, or maybe a Batmobile.

So, yeah – the guy has transportation down. What’s more, as he pulls off his last, greatest heist (that being, of course, the heist of Rene Russo’s heart), he does so in the aisles of an everyday commercial airliner. (Then again, they’re in first class, and they violently make out while everyone else is trying to sleep, so it’s still a couple of notches above my average air-travel experience.)

So, while in my head I’ll soaring in a glider over Connecticut, in reality I guess I’ll just read my book, play some DS, and try to ignore the giant fat guy next to me with the screaming infant.

If that won’t drive a man to art thievery, I don’t know what will.


...and this is another. Not bad, Crown.

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

15 Dec

"Your boyfriend is so weak he needs steroids just to watch baseball."

This Monday, there is one person I’d like to be above all of the others (and believe me, there are others.  Enough to list one per week for a loooong time.  Funny how that works out).  That person is none other than the girl behind The Office’s Miss Kelly Kapoor, writer/actress Mindy Kaling.

Her real name is Vera Chokalingam, and while I guess that’s not great for the SAG, it’s got an awesomely haughty air to it, and damned if that isn’t a last name right out of some sort of Bangalore-tinged Dickens.  I first saw her, as did many folks, on screen for, like, 1.3 minutes in The 40-Year Old Virgin, playing Paul Rudd’s character’s ex-girlfriend during the speed-dating sequence.  It was a small part, but she was super hilarious in it, bringing the same air of detached bitchiness that she brings to her work as Kapoor.

On The Office, she’s an absolute riot, particularly in how she plays Kelly’s love life, going back and forth between the wavering affections of temp-turned-corporate-big-shot-turned-temp-again Ryan and awesome-in-a-can warehouse foreman Darrell.

As with many of the supporting roles on The Office, there’s more to her than it would initially seem – Kaling consistently displays an air of desperate tragedy beneath Kelly’s ditziness and superficial behavior, and a less-skilled comic actress (on a less well-written show) wouldn’t convey that nearly as well as Kaling does, if at all. The Office is a much richer viewing experience thanks to her on-screen presence.

What’s more, she co-produces the show and has written some of its funniest episodes, notably Branch Wars (in which the guys don disguises to steal the Utica branch’s copy machine), The Injury (in which Michael burns his foot on his George Foreman grill), and The Dundies, which is one of my all-time favorite episodes, and features the best line regarding God and Chili’s ever to grace the small screen.  All that, and she’s one year older than I am.  Not bad, Kaling!

As if all that awesomeness weren’t enough, she also has an super great blog called “Things I’ve Bought That I Love.” It’s a riot of a read, and a must-bookmark if you’re looking for some random hilarity to brighten an otherwise dull day. In fact, the title and overall spirit the blog inspired my “Things I Am Loving Today” posts.

So, thanks, Mindy/Vera.  This week, I’m going to try to be more like you.  To begin with, I’ll explain to as many people as possible the difference between talking trash and talking smack:


"I don't talk trash; I talk smack. They're totally different. Trash talk is all hypothetical like 'Your Mama's so fat she could eat the internet' but smack talk is happening like right now, like "You're ugly and I know it for a fact cause I got the evidence right there."

Monday’s Person I Want To Be

8 Dec

Just one more low-profile badass.

This week, I want to be Julian Coryell. Well, maybe not the actual guy so much, but someone like him. Let me explain – Julian plays lead guitar on Aimee Mann’s spectacular album “The Forgotten Arm,” one of the most indelible records I’ve heard in the past several years.  The engine that drives the album is, of course, Mann’s great writing – girl can write a bridge – but Coryell does such outstanding, tasteful work on guitar, and contributes so much to the vocal texture with his background vocals, that every time I listen to the record, I’m struck by his contributions.

In another life, I would love to be one of these guys – they’re sort of the new generation of studio musician.  Really strong, versatile players, usually guitarists or bassists, who can play just about any style, sing, and even get behind the board and produce. Guys (and gals) like Coryell, Sufjan’s guitarist St. Vincent, bassists like Pierre Marchand and Jon Evans, and friends of mine like Yair Evnine and Kenji Shinagawa.  There’s something so freaking cool about the guy who can show up and contribute tasteful, great playing to your track/show/album, toeing the line between merely being just another anonymous backing player and overpowering the writing with his own artistic voice.

Every one of those players has his or her own thing going on, too – these aren’t gun-for-hire studio cats like the old days in LA, and that is, I think, a big part of why they’re all so good at working with others.

When, as now, I am on the verge of a big creative release, I try to keep players like Coryell in mind.  My current work requires a certain degree of musical meglomania, but there is great power, too, in the space just to the right of the spotlight.


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