Archive | December, 2009

Merry Christmas!

25 Dec

This year, for the first time ever, I’m spending Christmas in San Francisco. My folks are flying in today, and Jaegle and The Genius got a tree and everything.

Have a great holiday, everyone! May your travels be safe and your destinations warm, and may they feature at least one loving animal, perhaps a bit older and creaky-er than the last time you saw him, but still very excited to see you.


Avatar Was Pretty Frickin’ Awesome

23 Dec

It's actually a lot awesomer than this.

After weeks of mocking the ads, doubting the movie, and marveling at the fanboys, it was time to go see Avatar. So, David, Sonia and I hit the metreon IMAX to see, as David called it, “Ferngully Everquest III: Dancing with Smurfs in 3 Dimensions.”

In an effort to avoid getting there late and having to sit in the neck-breaking front row (which totally happened last time I saw an IMAX movie), I got there 45 minutes early, only to find… that the theater was half-full.  Woah!  (Side note: when you arrive to find a theater half-full, are you still being optimistic?  Like isn’t it more positive to say you saw it as half-empty?  What if the expression was “See the theater as half-empty” instead of “See the glass as half-full”?)

We managed to get pretty good seats, high enough up that the entire screen was visible with minimal neck-relocation.  There weren’t any ads, which was nice (especially considering that tickets were $17), so we got this awesome world-beat “WELCOME TO IMAAXXXXX” video, where the screen described and showed us all the awesome speakerssss and screenssss and stuff, and then… AVATAR.

I of course won’t spoil anything story-related, but dude. This movie was some freakin’ eye-candy the likes of which I have never seen. I had some pretty serious doubts about it – the ads looked silly, and the story sounded trite, it was basically FernGully… but here’s the thing: all of that is totally true, but when you’re seeing it in action, on that screen the size of a parking lot with the ridiculously beautiful 3-D glowing plants and the sizzling bullets just jumping off and shit, and you just can’t help but be blown away by it.

Every time a groaner line of dialogue would make me roll my eyes, they wouldn’t get to half-roll before some crazy wondrous thing would happen onscreen – these insane-o whirlygig glowing nightcrawlers were my favorite – and I’d be bugging out all over again.  Like, there were actually whole scenes of the movie that made my jaw drop, like one of those people in the ads for movies. If you have the option, see it in IMAX – the movie is so impressive-looking that it gives credence to the entire notion of the New Age of 3D Movies.

As Sonia pointed out, several scenes in the film, mostly to do with the Na’avi (those are the huge blue alien people) and their rituals, felt akin to watching the Opening Ceremony at the Beijing Olympic Games.  Just total sensory overload, a voice in the back of your head saying “Dude, how in the hell did they even MAKE this?”

Which was a question I actually asked several times. Whether it was the touch-sensitive, glowing flora, the incredible skydives of a huge red flying pterodactylmonster, or the way that embers and bullets would shoot off the screen at you… it was just ridiculous.  Whatever you may say about James Cameron, the dude’s still got it. And by “it,” I mean “gigantic balls.”

No, seriously, it's really pretty rad.

So, yeah, if it’d been an animated film that came out ten years ago, it would’ve been wholly unremarkable, literally FernGully, the sort of movie where people say “Oh, you know, actually, I really like that movie!”  But it’s not that, it’s Avatar, and it is not, (thankfully!), a spectacle of the handheld “you-are-there” variety that so many filmmakers have become enamored of these past five or so years. Nope, Avatar is a real goddamn spectacle, full of the kind of larger-than-anything-you’ve-ever-seen, balls-out impressive stuff that I wish more movies had.

And it bears mentioning that this isn’t some movie about robots from space or a monster invasion or something… it’s a movie about how people suck and destroy nature, and how important it is to be connected to the world around us.  Which, sure, it’s not There Will Be Blood or anything, but it’s still nice.

Basically, the movie made me feel like I was 14 again, stoked as hell for a big event film and years away from the bloggy, opinionated internet scrooge I am today. That’s something a movie hasn’t done in a long time, maybe not since The Two Towers. I turned off my brain and let the absurdly pretty pictures overwhelm me, and it felt good.

The Urban School Winter Concert

15 Dec

Elena "Harmonica" Goldstein

…was totally great!  I thought I’d put up a couple pictures (thanks Howard and Audrey!) and write a little bit about it. I teach jazz at The Urban School of San Francisco, which is a really groovy small private high school in the Haight-Ashbury district.  The ensemble I direct is the younger of two jazz bands, called the Lab Band.

Twice a year, we get to take all of our ensembles (the small chamber ensemble, the Urban Singers, my band, and the Advanced Jazz Band) and do a show at the historic Herbst Theatre on Van Ness.  It’s pretty nutbars that we get to play such a great venue, but each year, it’s felt more and more like my kids have earned their place on that stage. This year was no exception.

I do a lot of writing for my group – for this concert, as with the last two, I arranged all three of the tunes we played.  It’s a really big part of ensemble directing, for me, and I think that having the ability to write specifically to my players’ disparate ability levels goes a long way towards getting the most out of them in performance.  I actually wrote a whole post about my approach after last year’s truly outstanding spring concert.

This year, I have my biggest Band yet (like, they actually almost qualify as a “Big Band”), and I honestly couldn’t believe how well they did – mainly because of my own slow writing process. One of the downsides of writing original arrangements for the group is that  they have to wait until I finish one before we can really learn it.  This year, that meant that my final arrangement for “It Don’t Mean a Thing” dropped on them two weeks before the concert… we’d been playing iterations of the chart, each one with a bit more than the last, but were sill just finalizing things a few days before the show.

And keep in mind, this band has a bunch of students who just started on their instruments!  So, we’ve got trombone and saxophone players trying to digest this part in a matter of days, when they still don’t know how to play all the notes on their instruments… and the ridiculous thing is that they pulled it off! I’m amazed at the resourcefulness.  If the entire year could be as focused and productive as the two weeks before a performance, I can’t even imagine how much we could accomplish.  Maybe the moral here is to perform more often?

Anyhow, they rocked the thunder, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. In addition to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” we played an arrangement I did of “Summertime” that riffed off of Gil Evans’ famous arrangement for Miles Davis, substituting harmonica for Miles’ harmon mute.  We closed with a funky-ish version of “In Walked Bud.”  Throughout the set, the kids didn’t miss a single beat.

I’m planning on sitting down over the coming holiday break and banging out all of our charts for the spring, as well as one for the Advanced Band, and I really want to take my time with it and get the most out of this huge, great group. Also, this will be our chance to get as weird as possible – clapping is old hat these days, so I think we’ll do some whistling, if I can figure out how to notate it…

Enough. Lady GaGa Rules.

14 Dec

The first time I came into contact with Lady GaGa was when she performed on American Idol. Actually, it was in the immediate aftermath of that performance, since I didn’t see the episode, just read about it.  And the whole time people were writing about GaGa this and GaGa that and how she was so crazy, and what’s the deal with GaGa and I had literally no idea who the eff they were talking about.

I was like, GaGa Gabor was there, or something? Where am I?  What time is it?  Why are these kids on my lawn? It was probably the most culturally out-of-touch I’ve felt in a while. Somehow I’d just… missed it.

No longer.  I think it’s safe to say that by now, everyone in the country knows who GaGa (neé Stefani Germanotta) is. She’s got three smash singles, a ton of Grammy nominations, has been co-writing and collaborating with all of the top pop artists in the world (including writing two of the best songs on Adam Lambert’s record), and her live show sounds like it is balls-to-the-wall insanely great.

But still, I hear so many people rag on her, or say that they’re ashamed to like her music, or imply that she is some sort of “guilty pleasure.”  And to these people, I say NO.  She is not a guilty pleasure, that phrase has been misused so much over the past five or so years that we have forgotten its meaning.  Flavor of Love is a guilty pleasure. Twilight is a guilty pleasure. Lady GaGa is a frigging actual artist, a kid who busted her ass in tiny clubs coming up and still busts it every day in service of a bona-fide goddamn artistic vision (and I must emphasize – HER bona-fide goddamn artistic vision).

She writes her own music and has mastered the crap out of  writing a pop hook. She lives her art in a fearlessly weird, sometimes damn ugly, always awesome way. She is so, so clearly just not some product of the LA Studio Machine, not an American Idol winner or a barbie-fied twanger from Nashville.

I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the line it just started to really bug me. People seemed so quick to rush to judgment because she’s so over-the-top, and probably because she’s a girl, and I felt like they completely ignored her real talent, drive, intelligence, vision, and self.

A few of my friends in NY were talking about how they played in a band with another singer who had a similar glam/disco thing going on, and a similar look, who was courted and ultimately rejected by a major label at about the same time that GaGa got signed to Interscope.  They seemed to be of the opinion that if the tides had been different, this singer could have been the next GaGa, that singers with big glasses who did disco beats were really that interchangeable. Respectfully, fellas, I gotta disagree. I don’t think that stars like Germanotta are ordained by studio heads, and I don’t think that they ever will be. They make themselves.

You may still feel hesitant, or like it is just easier to mock her than to take the time to learn why you should respect her. If that is the case, I urge you to read this critical New Yorker essay by Sasha Frere-Jones, and this quite supportive interview in the LA Times, and give it another thought.

I’m certainly not asking everyone to love her music. I’m just hoping that we can take a moment to put down our knee-jerk reactions and imagine what it would be like to be her, to really think about the strength of character and the fearlessness it would take to tackle The Fame Monster head on. To tackle it and, even if only for a fleeting moment, to win.

Happy Pants!

6 Dec

Oh, “Happy Pants.” The little melody that could.

What began as a goofy little jingle I used to demonstrate my looping rig has become so much more – it was a highlight of my last full-band show, has become the bane of all my friends who hate musical earworms (sometimes even Astley isn’t enough), and it has surpassed “Shoshana” as the most-requested song I’ve ever written.

In the spirit of holiday giving (though really, just for the fun of it), I thought I’d record a special version of the song and put it online for streaming/download.  The audio quality is far from professional (I made it the other day in my apartment), but it features just about every instrument I play, and hey, it’s… Happy Pants! It does not require professional-level audio. It’s embedded below, and you can also stream/download it here. Brace yourselves:

The above illustration was, awesomely, drawn especially for this post by my friend David Tracy. David is a supurb illustrator and all-around groovy dude, and also recently started the illustration blog “Drawing Attention.” His work is guaranteed to put a smile on your face/pants – head over there and give him some love!

(Speaking of smiling pants: David went through a few drafts; he said that initially, all of his pants had smiling crotches, so they were kinda pornographic. Exhibit A: this NSFW draft he emailed me, which prompted a solid afternoon’s worth of hearty laughter. “Happy” pants, indeed!)

I hope you enjoy the recording!  And in case you missed it, I do recommend checking out the video of the live-looping, full-band version we did in September.

Crabcore, Screamo, Dubstep (Also: Dopey, Happy, Sleepy)

1 Dec

Tastes like Crab, Looks like People.

My friend Katie recently shared this post by Lars Gotrich from NPR’s monitor mix blog, which details a host of new musical Sub-Genres, mostly from the worlds of rock and hip-hop. It contains very helpful definitions of a ton of of these SGs (though not as comprehensive as Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary) – sort of an Unhip Person’s Guide to New Music.

Which has me thinking a bit… some of these names are preposterous (“Shitgaze,” for example, is shoegaze music that is… played poorly), but I wonder to what extent they are all embraced by their various subcultures. Anyone who’s browsed the Musician-Wanted section of Craigslist will tell you that folks certainly use these terms to describe their sound – (i.e. “We are a little bit Shoegaze with some Iggy Pop and a touch of Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster”), but do the fans of this music really use these terms? I’m unsure. Like, really, I have no idea.

It does make me think about genres past, specifically all of the various Jazz genres of the latter half of the 20th century. After the rise of Bebop in the 40’s, the map from there to here followed this route:

Bebop–Cool Jazz–Hard Bop–Free Jazz–Electronic Jazz–Pop Jazz–Neo Hard Bop Revival….

But then it sort of peters out. I think this is ’cause it’s really hard to put labels on things as they’re happening, and this article sort of bears that out. In twenty years, is anyone really going to be talking about “Crabcore?” I’m doubtful.

But then, music is more fragmented and specific than ever before, and things are different than they were in the 60’s. Those who listen to music outside the corporate mainstream tend to define their tastes by an ever-growing lexicon of obscurity, where it sometimes feels as though the point is obscurity (I refer you again to “Crabcore.”). Just take a look at the ever-growing “Genre” tab in your iTunes library. I’m certain that, for example, the new-folk revival has at least as many SGs as are listed in Mr. Gotrich’s post, SGs which your average flannel-clad Mission resident could most likely recite without batting an eye.

Precedent says that eventually most of these SGs will fall by the wayside, replaced by more broad categorizations, but perhaps this won’t always be the case. It’s not as though we need to simplify things in the interest of space, anyway – the pages of Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary are limitless in their hunger for new marginalia and jargon.

Maybe it’s more likely that musical sub-genres will become as numerous and varied as bands themselves, and we will all come to identify the type of music we listen to by simply listing the names of artists we enjoy. Which, come to think of it, is how I describe my musical tastes, anyway.

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