Road Weary

It’s 5:40 am and we’re heading for the airport–more than ready to go home. The days at MCG were well-spent and Clairdee’s new recording project is off to a great start, start being the operative word. Her project will be a part of the new ArtistShare site that I’ve been talking about and working on intensely for the last few weeks. More about that soon.

While in Pittsburgh I got to see one of my writing mentors and that was like a shot of B12 (the Starbucks didn’t hurt either). Leslie Rubinkowski is the author of Impersonating Elvis, a wild book that brings to life the world of Elvis impersonators. She got to know quite a few of them and their world is one that I could never have imagined without reading it for real. She’s agreed to do an interview for my ArtistShare project about how to bring people to life with words.

Well, that’s it for the moment. Just wanted to check in and let you know that I’ll be back tomorrow.

On the Road: Pittsburgh

I’m in Pittsburgh, at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild for a recording session. Marty and Jay Ashby, producers of Nancy Wilson‘s last three CDs, are going to lend their talents to my husbands latest project, a new recording for Clairdee and the promotion of an affordable entertainment package called Vocal Legacy featuring jazz vocalist Clairdee with guitarist/singer Henry Johnson. We are convinced that there are lots of people out there who want to enjoy an evening’s entertainment without breaking the piggy bank. John gets so many calls from organizations planning their annual dinner or convention and they can’t afford to hire performers such as Nancy Wilson or Dianne Reeves. Of course, part of the battle is name recognition and the lack of radio airplay for anyone except the commercially successful. But that’s another lament for another time.

If you happen to be in Pittsburgh on Thursday evening, it’s MCG Jazz Night at the Omni William Penn hotel. Clairdee and Henry will be doing two shows, 7 and 9 pm, in The Terrace Room, where I’m told they serve a delicious and affordable 3-course gourmet meal. (Call 412-553-5235 for reservations)

Drink Jazz?

Jazz, the word, has defined a music that I love. But over the years, the word — not the music — has lost its meaning. In some ways, you might consider it to be evolution — a good spin. After all, if the word was to adhere its meaning to a specific sound, jazz could be synonymous with Dixieland. So as the music grew in scope, jazz became an umbrella term – music that swings, uses syncopation, and, of course, music that is improvised on the spot. We had Dixieland, swing and be-bop, avant garde, modern and contemporary, even fusion.

The generic quality of the term also speaks to an increasing penchant for homogenization. Today, the only “jazz” you hear on radio or television is “smooth jazz” – Dave Koz, Kenny G, even The Rippingtons. The only “jazz singers” recognized are Jane Monheit, Michael Bublé, Nora Jones…even Mindi Abair makes the wiki list.

To add insult to injury, jazz is now a soft drink. For the last week or so television has been bombarding me with an ad for Jazz – Pepsi’s new diet cola drink — likely named to counter the high visibility garnered by the coke folks in sponsoring Jazz at Lincoln Center Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola — and Pepsi’s Jazz also comes in multiple flavors such as Strawberries & Cream, Black Cherry French Vanilla…

Look, to each their own flavor. I’m not going to knock The Rippingtons (whose new anniversary CD I am enjoying), I won’t even knock those performers whose work I do not care for at all, but I do not consider it to be jazz. Similarly, I’m not sure that the music of Maria Schneider or Bob Brookmeyer — music that I DO love — is best served by being dubbed “jazz.” As a writer what disturbs me is the loss of specificity in the use of the word. The umbrella is now so large as to be unwieldy, and any real meaning has taken flight on the winds of change leaving nothing on solid ground.

We need a new word to stand for that je ne sais quoi that I hear when listening to that music that I will now call “real jazz” — just until I find a better word. At first I thought that it was a matter of old vs. new, but I put that notion to rest when I listened to Serenade as played less than six months ago by Sonny Rollins at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center in California on April 11, 2006 (in celebration of his 70th birthday a video clip was made briefly available on Sonny’s web site). Then I thought maybe it was a difference in the sensibilities of older artists vs. younger ones — but dismissed that idea by listening to Ingrid Jensen‘s rendition of “There Is No Greater Love” on her At Sea CD. What is it that best describes this visceral reaction I have, and how can I describe the music?

I’m going to give this some more thought, meanwhile, write in and tell me what words you would use. If you could rename jazz, what would you call it?

I Call It Fun

A press release via email arrived to alert me to an anniversary CD+DVD release by The Rippingtons; included was a brief audio clip. A minute or two of an upbeat dance track titled “Bingo-Jingo” was enough to re-awaken memories of years gone by.

All of you straight-ahead jazzers may be aghast to hear that I rather like this group…I just wish that the word “jazz” was not used in the same sentence. Such is the way of the music biz, ascribing (or in many cases, usurping) niche identifications for the purpose of targeting sales. My dad says the term “music business” is itself an oxymoron. (Maybe just plain moronic would be more apt.) Of course the word “jazz” can also be used to mean “empty or insincere or exaggerated talk” as in “don’t give me any of that jazz,” but that’s another story.

Sometimes these appelations do more harm than good. I remember a few years back I was assigned to review a Rachael Z recording. The package arrived with the F word — Fusion — emblazoned on the front and had I not been on assignment it would have ended up in the round file without a hearing. That would have been my loss, and I said so in the review, noting that labels such as fusion, avant-garde, straight-ahead, and bop may be useful to the sales force, but they do little to illuminate our understanding as listeners.

But back to The Rippingtons. Despite the fact that they are billed as “smooth jazz pioneers,” their sound has a nostalgic appeal for me and I enjoy it for what it is…parts of it, anyway. Their “20th Anniversary Celebration,” a special CD/DVD retrospective, was released on July 25th on Peak Records, reuniting founding Rippingtons member Russ Freeman with past members, Dave Koz, Brian Mcknight, Jeffrey Osbourne and others.

The opening audio track has that electronic new-agey feel that leaves me cold, so I skip to track two, “Celebration,” which is the first of the four tunes that includes a horn section, the others being “Bingo Jingo,” “Rainbow,” and “A 20th Anniversary Bonus.” Those are the tracks I like best — they are jazzier and made me also want to revisit the sounds of those three-name groups: Blood, Sweat & Tears and Earth, Wind & Fire.

I wouldn’t describe The Rippingtons as playing deep music, but it is fun. And if you ARE a smooth jazz fan, The Rippingtons are among the best.

The DVD includes some cool computer-enchanced video of performances super-imposed over scenes of cavorting on the ski slopes (curves ahead) and sailing the seas (tourist in paradise). When I finally got around to watching the historical overview with interview snippets I was amused to see a tongue-in-cheek report from Canadian television grappling with how to describe the Rippingtons’ music, and gratified to hear Russ Freeman, back in his younger years, saying “I don’t even like the word jazz anymore.”

I’ll let Russ have the last word…today.

Like He Said

“Today we’ve learned to celebrate mediocrity. Back in the day we had creative artists; today we have created artists.” — Lionel Ritchie as quoted today in The New York Times. (Lionel Richie Gets His Groove Back, September 12, 2006)

Lionel who? … Oh, him. Where’s he been all these years?  These are not embittered words from a has-been. Having sold 100 million albums worldwide, and with five Grammys an Oscar and a Golden Globe to his name, he’s been living the life in his 30-room mansion in Beverly Hills.

Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

I am sorry that a whole week has blown by without a blog posting. I have been wearing so many hats these past many days that my head hurts. ArtistShare requires a tremendous amount of preparatory work (yes, I really am very close to launch) and the road is steep the first go-round because of the learning curve. I may be comfortable with words, but this being a technology-driven multimedia affair, I have been now been thrown into the deep-end of audio production, video production, and graphics design.

With still pictures I am not a complete novice, but it’s a very good thing that the final images are relatively small and of low-resolution. The human eye fills on so much that is actually missing., and 72 dpi (dots per inch) may look horrible when printed, but it looks great on a computer screen. A little trial and error and we’re good to go.

Motion Pictures, on the other hand, are more than a concept and I am suddenly the writer, director, cinematographer, on-camera talent, and film editor. I bought a little Canon vidcam that has a remote control. My friend came by with a light on a pole, scoped out my little office and place it strategically for best effect with my camera on a tripod across from my desk. (Thanks, Phil.) Now all I have to do is plug in the light, turn on the camera, sit in my assigned spot, click on the remote and begin speaking. Lights. Camera. Action. Of course that’s after I attempt hair, make-up and wardrobe. And did I mention that the camera makes you look 5-10 pounds heavier than the scale indicates?

After a few takes I stopped to figure out how to transfer the digital video onto my computer. (It helps to install the software first.) Then it’s time to edit. Unfortunately, it’s a one-shot, just me talking, so any cuts are jump-cuts…not good. I could use a disolve or some other transition, but truth is that when you’re done and have to compress the video for internet, the reduced quality made the transitions look especially crappy, so I gave up on that idea. I won’t bore you with all the video and techno-jargon I had to learn. Actually, the hardest part was being able to stand looking at and listening to myself over and over…you can’t help but notice all the tics and imperfections.

For the ~10-minute streaming audio talks I’ve been preparing, again I had to be writer, director, engineer, on-air talent, and sound editor. My first few attempts went nowhere, or so I thought. I’d turn on the mic, see that the sound appeared to be registering, deliver my pages, click on stop…and then I’d see nothing in the window. Click on play…hear nothing. Adjust a cable, reconnect, try again. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I changed mics and tried yet again. This time I heard something, but ever so faintly. So I ‘selected’ the whole 10 minutes and “boosted the gain.” Magic! But don’t ask me how long it took me to figure out what to do — why can’t they use simple words like volume? What is “gain” anyway? I thought it was a verb. Well, once I figured that out, the rest went much easier. It also helped when I realized that whenever I stumbled on a word, rather than rush in to correct myself it was better to pause for a few beats, back up to the beginning of the sentence, and repeat. That way I could simply edit out the bad seconds.

So, I have some more content to prepare before I’m ready to launch the ArtistShare site and I hope to get it all done this coming week. Meanwhile, I will don again my DevraDoWrite hat and post at least twice more this coming week. I hope you’ll hang in here with me.