For some inexplicable reason this year’s Thanksgiving and the week that followed found me making a lot of music with guitarists. It started with dinner with the family subset that shares my passion for music: my wife, her brother, his lady-friend, and her niece. My wife has a beautiful voice and loves to sing the songs from the Great American Songbook that are also considered “jazz standards” and sang: “Baltimore Oriole” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer; “Skylark” by Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster; George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Summertime”; “God Bless the Child” by Billy Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.; Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “It Might As Well Be Spring”; and “Route 66” by Bobby Troup. Her brother was once a glam-rock bassist, but now plays a mean blues guitar. He and his lady-friend, who plays guitar and sings, perform around the New Jersey clubs together. The niece is a folk singer who plays piano and guitar. So, while my brother-in-law did an excellent job on “Baltimore Oriole” and “Route 66” with his sister and me, when it came time for us all to play together, we found common ground with Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and songs by the Beatles. Somehow the music of the Bee Gees came up, which left me out of the picture until I found a chance to initiate Bill Withers’s “Lean On Me.” When we played his “Ain’t No Sunshine” a disagreement over the chord changes ensued and, because the hour was getting late, we agreed to close the session. Overall, though, it was a successful outing and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to play this music in a setting that didn’t require wearing a tuxedo!
The next night was spent playing in a very nice venue in Islip, Long Island, the Treme Jazz Club, with guitar virtuoso Tim Siciliano and drummer extraordinaire Gene Jackson. Siciliano is a hard-edged guitarist who plays with a fiery intensity without sacrificing sensitivity or interaction with his accompanists. Sadly, the piezo pickup on my bass decided to die at the end of the first set and I had to use a vocal microphone wrapped in a dishtowel for amplification. I now carry an extra pickup as well as a spare set of strings with me, but not without some grumbling about the need to wield a soldering iron as well as engage in low-level luthier-ship over the holiday weekend—as Jackson DeForest Kelley might have put it, “D!@#-it Jim, I’m just a country bass-player, not an electrician!” But, then again, the nature of the music business demands that many of its practitioners engage in multiple vocations and disciplines.
As if to suggest that there exists an intelligent force that amuses itself by influencing the events occurring in the three (or four) dimensions we regularly negotiate, this cross-disciplinary foray was further amplified on Monday at a discussion on the future of guitar design hosted by the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons The New School for Design and its esteemed director, Dr. Edward Keller. The title of the talk was What Is At Stake With Ergonomics in Guitar Design: Fretboard Cognition, Embodiment, Collective Intelligence. The featured lecturer was Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, an independent scholar and guitarist who is investigating the premise that our ability to use music as a tool for reorganizing cognitive terrains holds a key to unlocking strategies for the emergence of social progress. My part in this lecture was to perform as an accompanist for guitarist Dom Minasi when illustrating certain points in Dr. Rosenberg’s Powerpoint presentation with musical examples and when Rosenberg stepped down from the lectern to demonstrate his considerable skill as an improvising guitarist. He discussed the work of various scholars and researchers who have examined the brain function of people listening to and performing music and how, through concerted and diligent regimens of study and practice, the physical idiosyncrasies of a musical instrument evolve from an impediment to artistic expression to its principle informant.
It’s no secret that experienced musicians eventually arrive at a point where the physicality of the instruments they play seems to disappear. No longer do they need to consider which limb goes where (with fingers being the phalangeal extension of limbs) or how much air to move in order to properly manipulate the technological contrivances designed to make music. It’s at this point that proprioception (e.g. muscle memory) provides the player with a cognitive shortcut that frees the conscious mind from primarily focusing on the mechanical details of music performance and allows it to address issues of aesthetics. Dr. Rosenberg took this one step further by introducing how—and I’m using my words, not his—the jazz musician, by practicing improvising over chord progressions, can place voice leading and other facets of music theory under the auspices of proprioceptive administration. In fact, the rapid-fire decisions needed in the improvised negotiation of a chord progression can become so ingrained that the analysis of musical phrases played by other musicians can take place in what Rosenberg calls Proprio-Sentience. (This ability is not limited to music. New York public school teacher, poet, and string-figure expert James Murphy has written articles and a book about his use of what is commonly considered a childhood pastime to teach mathematics to his students. I believe his observations, although terse, are rather pertinent to understanding the human condition.) To illustrate this, Rosenberg looks at how jazz improvisations will often lead to new melodies based on the chord progressions of other songs. Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” (based on Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton’s “How High the Moon”) was one example mentioned.
We played an arrangement of Rosenberg’s, “My Bebop Valentine,” that features a new melody over the progression to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Another aspect of “My Bebop Valentine” is that the composer incorporated a mistake he remembered making during a performance of “My Funny Valentine.” In this mistake, he played four measures of the song’s progression a half-step flat (easy to do on a string instrument like the guitar). This led to a discussion of modifying the chord progressions of pieces from the Great American Songbook and then an examination of John Coltrane’s composition, “Giant Steps.” Its progression incorporates an ascending minor-third/perfect-fourth pattern that was used by Coltrane and others to modify many pre-existing chord progressions in a way that has deeply informed modern jazz improvisation, composition, and education. (Gone are the days when one could authoritatively assert that one didn’t have to know “Giant Steps” to play jazz; now one has to be able to play the tune in all twelve keys!)
Sadly, time was an issue and we didn’t get to perform any “Giant Steps” variants, which would have included my own composition “Apollo.” (I was, however, asked to supply an impromptu bass solo. I did so by using all of the techniques and phrases that are part of my musical vocabulary that originated from incorrectly performing a different phrase or technique, of which there are many. It was my tip-of-the-hat to “My Bebop Valentine” and currently has the working title “It Was a Mistake.”) There were other musical offerings that fell by the wayside because of the time constraint. We didn’t get to play variations of blues progressions, which had been planned (along with a composition by Dom Minasi, “Takin’ Satin Doll Out,” which was originally performed on his recording, Takin’ the Duke Out) to show how proprio-sentience can simplify highly structured forms into more loosely organized ones that allow for a greater degree of expression by the artists performing them. The idea of this was to illustrate how groups of improvising musicians can generate a kind of group-think that Rosenberg described as disembodied cognition or collective intelligence. As if to strengthen the suggestion of an other-dimensional force at work, the week after Thanksgiving began for me with a performance at The Stone with a large group of old friends led by saxophonist Joe Lovano playing free-jazz and featuring the singular guitar playing of Michael Bocian, protégé of the iconic Cleveland guitarist Bill DeArango, which ends a week-long series of Stone concerts curated by Lovano.
I hope that the readers of this week’s post will take the time to check out the website for Bill DeArango a guitarist whose importance on the development of jazz—from the earliest days of bebop to the music of Weather Report—has gone largely unsung. Furthermore, it is my contention that the guitar, more than almost any other instrument, has been the principle voice of American music. Its portability, coupled with its potential for harmonic expression, has made it a staple of nearly every form of music considered distinctly American. I say “more than almost any other instrument,” though, because nearly every critical turning point in American music has been defined by what is played on the bass and drums. The latter of these, the drum set, an assembly of various percussion instruments into a single entity, is possibly the only original American musical instrument (arguably the actual part of the set uniquely American is the hi-hat cymbal stand) and goes to the greater picture of instrument design as an issue of transformative media. I hope that the Center for Transformative Media will take up the evolution of the drum set as well as that of the guitar in a future series.
Of course, the ever-changing design of the bass could also be taken up by the Center. Ned Steinberger, who developed the NS line of stringed instruments, was the featured lecturer in an earlier presentation, but there are other designs that could be considered. For example: the bass I used for Dr. Rosenberg’s presentation is the latest model of luthier Bill Merchant’s Vertical Bass. While both of their instruments’ designs originate in the 1930s, Merchant’s design is revolutionary for externalizing the internal structure of the bass, making it more durable than hollow-bodied versions but able to realize the sonic capabilities of an acoustic bass.
The lecture ended with a panel discussion where the question was raised of what ethical conditions might be pertinent to the consideration of using music as an agent of cognitive conditioning. While the research describing and mapping how the music-to-mind connection works is new, the overarching knowledge of it is as old as society. One of the great technological innovations steeped in the principle is the pipe organ, used to mesmerize church-goers in Europe. While music, by and of itself, has extremely vague, if any, semantic value, its ability to enhance any message makes it indispensable in multimedia products, such as: film, opera, and radio and television advertising. Music will always be subservient to the drama it accompanies. So it is incumbent on the musician to balance the argument between the elephant and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, keeping in mind that size matters in very strange ways indeed. I am reminded of an Isaac Schankler article “You Used To Like Terrible Music.” I’ll freely admit that I still do! I’m one of those guys who gets teary when he hears Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Small World, Isn’t It?” and is still listening to Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” The corporate messaging of rock ‘n’ roll was tenuous when I started my exploration of American music and the music from the Summer of Love could still promote the ideas of people like Paul and Anne Erlich’s The Population Bomb. I found myself remembering the ground-breaking rock band, Chicago, and a tune that I hope they still perform, “Mother.” Maybe it’s only because my own mother worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for twenty years that I love this example of what many would consider “bad music,” but the drama it addressed more than forty years ago has become an elephant of, quite literally, breath-taking proportions that we, as musicians and citizens, should probably be addressing now. I hope that others agree our culture depends on it.