Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guitar/Djembe Duets, part II

As promised Monday, here's another track of myself playing with Jabari Exum (djembe/beatbox), from October 1st, 2009. It says 2010 in the track title, that's a typo. This was recorded in my living room, and is the end of a much longer, very rambling free improvisation:

Gary Prince Jabari Exum 10.1.2010 Improvisation v. 2 edit by Gary Prince

There isn't as much structure as in the track I posted last time, but I'm still pretty pleased with it, especially with the way it becomes sparse at the ending, just after 5:10. It doesn't hurt that I'm actually completely in tune on this one. A friend told me it sounds like movie music? Jabari plays djembe with several large metal panels, with rivets, inserted into the sides of the drum. He uses these both like cymbals (a bad analogy, but the best I've got) and for their sympathetic shaking/buzzing. On this track they're primarily doing the latter, Monday's track features these things (I don't know the real name, anybody?) much more prominently. Click here to see a picture of what these look like. He also has bells around one of his ankles - you can really hear them at the beginning of the track. That's him beatboxing at the beginning as well. I'm using my wah pedal extensively and playing my Ibanez. The ending doesn't quite fade out how I wanted it to and I'm a little too lazy to go back and fix it tonight - so that's what's going on there, if you were wondering.

John Chambers, the owner of BloomBars (where Jabari and I are both resident artists) filmed a little of this particular jam and mixed it into a video, which you can watch here. Yes this is the same video I mentioned in the last post.

This Sunday I'll be going down to West Virgina to play at Sheperdstown with Carolyn Malachi. I don't think I know anybody in WVA, but if you live down there and happen to read this, come on out!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jabari Exum and the Train of Thought

Yesterday I heard my good friend and fellow BloomBars Artist-in-Resident Jabari Exum perform his piece "One Voice" at Sankofa Books on Georgia Ave, a wonderful and positive bookstore, the existence of which I had been completely ignorant about until today. Below is a video of Jabari performing one of the pieces from the show - the piece I want to highlight starts about 3:00 into this video.

This music is important and people need to be going to hear it. When Jabari premiered this show at BloomBars two weeks ago I had to go twice, I was that impressed. He really is one of the true gems of the DC music community, as a percussionist and as an MC. He doesn't have a website up for this project, but at the end of this post you'll find the dates of future performances - the next one I'll make is probably April 17th, but they will all be amazing.

Of course, this post is not just an excuse to promote my friends, it's also an excuse to show off the music I've made with them. 

Gary and Jabari BloomBars October 2009 Track 1 by Gary Prince

Jabari and I play most regularly together these days in the context of backing up Grammy-Nominated Artist Carolyn Malachi, with whom I'll be performing at The Kennedy Center on May 8th, more on that later. For a while before we started playing with Carolyn, Jabari and I used to get together somewhat regularly to improvise guitar/djembe duets. This track is from the only time we did such a performance live - John Chambers, who founded and owns BloomBars, and happens to be my next door neighbor, pressured us into it. My tuning is a little, shall we say, 'rustic', but I don't think it detracts too severely from this particular recording, which is a free improvisation. I'm playing my Ibanez. There is a video too, combining footage from this performance with a session we had in my living room the previous day - check it out here. John literally walked into my house while we were playing and sat on the couch filming us without my noticing. That's what I get for leaving my door unlocked.

There's one more track of this music that I want to put up, but rather than letting this post get outta hand, I'm going to save it for a few days. Stay tuned.

"The Train of Thought" by Jabari Exum upcoming performance dates

April 12 9:30 pm Ben's Next Door
April 17 4:30 pm Sankofa Books
April 24 4:30 pm Sankofa Books
May 28th 7:30 pm ECAC

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Breakfast in the Field

The summer after I turned 20 I must have stolen a bunch of cassette tapes from my father. I can't remember why I did this or what else was among them except for a home recording of the 1981 album "Breakfast in the Field" by Michael Hedges. I remember putting it on and feeling like I knew every note before it was played. This was music that fit perfectly, with not a note out of place or accent missing. And it sounded suspiciously similar to the music I was writing for solo acoustic guitar, the origins of which I'd always taken to be some combination of being really into Leo Kottke and wanting to write music that would sound full without singing or accompaniment. Then, lo and behold, I realized:

Michael Hedges "The Happy Couple"

I was trying to sound like Michael Hedges. I'd been writing music that sounded like Michael Hedges and developing a style that sounded like Michael Hedges all without knowing who he was. When I told my dad how eerily familiar the music was, he explained that he used to play it for me when I was a child, in an effort to get me to fall asleep. And suddenly, my playing made total sense.

We can only begin to know how affected we are by factors we can not consciously remember. The music we listened to as an infant, what we ate, how we were treated by our parents, the environment we grew up in. Yet no matter how much we grow and how much we get to know ourselves and change and develop, this bedrock of our personality remains, perhaps unknowable even through introspection, until we hear music from childhood and know it without ever remembering knowing it before. And in these unconsciously remembered experiences are the roots of our aesthetics. Do I love this song because of its aesthetic qualities? Or do I love the aesthetic qualities of this song because this is what I was given as an infant?

There are a lot of things I love about this song. Listen for the way Hedges fluidly embeds natural harmonics into the melody of the song in such a way that they don't jump out, but add richness and subtly. Listen to how he alternates between expressing the melody in the middle voices and in the upper voice. Note how Hedges develops this song through a gradual increase in note density, reaching the climax at 2:25. Listen for the different sections of this piece (the first section, for example, repeats for the first time at 1:30), and how they are treated differently, or juxtaposed to different developments. But above all, I think of the name of the piece - how happy is this couple? Are they misconceived as happy by the world? Do they put on a guise of happiness? Or are they truly happy, their love tempered by a kind of shared experience of melancholy, as expressed musically here? Perhaps the different sections of the song can be heard as two people talking to each other, or telling their story separately. This is the infinite beauty and power of purely instrumental music to suggest moods and meanings by attaching only a few words, even to the point of suggesting feelings that are inexpressible.

This piece is performed on a six string guitar tuned low to high G B E F# A D - an open G 6/9#11 chord. Just in case you're not a guitar player, standard guitar tuning is low to high E A D G B E - an open Emi7 add 4 chord (I'm not calling it an 11th because the A is so low), a not particularly beautiful, if utilitarian tuning. Hedges studied composition at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and said that he chose the tuning to fit the composition, rather than starting with the tuning and going from there. In this way he presumably avoided the typically guitaristic pitfall of writing songs based more on a particular idiomatic shape than on compositional intention. Hedges rarely worked in standard tuning, and regularly employed tapping (both hands) as a way to extend the instrument's range.

That's him in 1988 in Guitar World magazine, holding a Dyer harp guitar, which, yes, he actually played. That huge metal thing is some kind of crude pickup for amplification. Hedges died tragically in a car accident in 1997. I won't say I love all his output, or even all of "Breakfast in the Field" - he can get a little New Age for my taste, and something about fretless electric bass has never sat well with me, Jaco's playing on the Joni Mitchell album "Mingus" excluded. Which does cast a shadow on the theory that my aesthetic preferences in music come from hearing this album as an infant. Or maybe I was just always asleep by track 4 when the bass starts in. If you're going to get one of his albums, and you should, this is the one to get.

As long as I'm putting it all out there, compare "The Happy Couple" to my tune "Leaves", written early 2006, and available for download here. I do have a transcription of this tune, if anyone ever wants it. This is an old recording and you'll have to forgive its failings. I'm playing Andrew Klein's Martin, and this was recorded by Mark Swiderski. This is before I started growing/maintaining my RH nails for fingerpicking. I will confess to being proud of my control of dynamics throughout this recording.

Gary Prince "Leaves" by Gary Prince

I'm playing in double drop D - low to high, D A D G B D. This is one of the only tunes I have in an alternate tuning, and I still perform it, even five years later. I don't think I need to write about the obvious influence at work and how it is expressed structurally and aesthetically in this piece. I feel no shame in admitting the elements of my playing that are frankly derivative, and I like to think that my influences and imitations in my playing are varied enough, that, when expressed today and combined with my musical abilities and limitations, especially in free playing, I wind up sounding like myself. After all, is this not how culture works and develops?

I conclude this homage with a picture of myself playing the harp guitar at Dusty Strings in Seattle last August. I'd be lying if I said I figured out how to use those extra bass strings effectively. But yes, I felt pretty cool. And that's what playing guitar is all about, right?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sweater Set this Wednesday/A Blast from the Past

This Wednesday April 6th I'll be going to hear my good friends The Sweater Set play at the Strathmore Mansion at 7:30 pm. They'll be doing it April 27th too, and I plan on going to both - if you're reading this, and you're in DC, I highly recommend going. The Sweater Set is comprised of two of my very close friends, Maureen Andary and Sara Curtin. Both of them make beautiful music individually and together, and they are some of the best of what the DC music scene has to offer.

Before she was in The Sweater Set, Sara used to occasionally sing with The Midnight Special, the blues band comprised of myself, Andrew Klein, Zach Lupetin, and a rotating cast of drummers that defined my existence from about 2004-2007, when I was in college at the University of Michigan. We even did a few gigs with Sara as front woman, calling ourselves Sara Curtin and The Royal Family (because my last name is Prince, get it?), playing primarily blues standards and the like.

The best recorded example of this is this recording of "Ball and Chain" (by Big Mama Thorton, done here like Janis Joplin), from April 14th, 2007, recorded at the final Midnight Special show, at 701 Catherine St in Ann Arbor, our friend's basement

Sara Curtin The Midnight Special Ball and Chain 4.14.07 by Gary Prince

Sara Curtin - Vocals
Gary Prince - Lead Guitar
Andrew Klein, Tomek Miernowski - Rhythm Guitars
Zach Lupetin - Bass
Theo Katzman - Drums
Recorded by Dave Schall

Sara had no idea we were being recorded.

This is how I spent my early twenties, playing in our friend's unfinished basements, to crowds of our friends and peers, for zero money, for as long as we felt like playing, and doing whatever we felt like playing, usually at an obscene volume. Using broken equipment, getting the police called on us for being too damn loud, and doing it all two or three times a weekend were our M.O. I would trade those experiences for nothing.

I'm playing my Strat, and using the whammy bar a lot. If it sounds a little janky it's because the drive channel on my amp broke during our second song, and I wound up borrowing Theo's overdrive pedal and cranking the shit out of it to compensate.

Hope to see you Wednesday