Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Holy crap, I can't believe how long it's been since I've posted anything. Part of it is that I have cut back on my performing out of necessity. The new day gig is demanding and is worth the time and effort I am putting into it. Free jazz just doesn't pay all the bills, if you can believe that.

As well, there has been a disturbing trend in Vancouver where many of the places where I have played with Wanda and the boys have cut back to trios, duos, solos or no music at all. Quintet gigs are rare. So I haven't been playing a lot of straight up stuff.

Typically in these fallow periods, I go back to the proverbial woodshed and work on saxophone fundamentals. That is never a bad plan of action.

But this time, I have realized that I have done just the opposite of my usual pattern. I have been doing a whole range of diverse and sometimes new things in the time I have allocated for music.

One of the first was a duo gig at Stitching/Unstitching at Casa Del Artistas with Amsterdam-based drummer Robbert Van Hulzen. It was a classic hook and hit - we'd never met before and did not discuss what we were going to do before we hit the stage. We'd checked each other out online and had a sense of what we were going to be in for. Robbert is a very sensitive and musical drummer. We meshed very well and I was quite pleased with the result. Too bad we didn't have another chance to get together while he was here.

Another new grouping was an ad hoc ensemble with guitarist Craig Townsend, trumpeter Joe Rzemieniak and longtime Wanda bandmate Mark Bender on bass. It was Mark's first venture onto the "dark side" of free improv. Given the nature of the gig, we framed it by playing some standards in a very open form. The grouping was quite effective and we will definitely play together again.

Then there was the recent reanimation of Primord at the Cobalt. We did an arrangement of "Sister Ray" at a Fake Jazz Wednesday night that was dedicated solely to covers of Velvet Underground tunes. Tenor sax, two baris, drums and myself on bass sax. Another skronkfest, but a most effective one. Many thanks to Femke van Delft for getting the definitive photo of me playing The Beast.

I was fortunate to sit in for the best part of a set with the Coat Cooke trio a couple of weeks ago at The Cellar. Coat was sick as a dog ( and still recovering from that damn bug) and I offered to spell him off a bit. It's always great to play with Kenton and Clyde. And I felt that Coat and I meshed better than ever. It was one of those evenings that gave me an adrenalin rush, and it took a long time to get to sleep on a work night.

Brasilian music has continued its seductive pull. I am now exploring four separate styles in various configurations. I have the good fortune to start working with Ache Brasil's performing group, some of the foremost purveyors of samba in the city. It is refreshing for me to go into very non-linear rehearsals, then see the process these guys go through, then pull off a great performance. I have to park my musical judgements at the door, and just be open for anything. And I get to play a bit of flute.

Then there's capoeira music, another humbling experience. It's not uncommon for us gringos to have trouble playing percussion and singing at the same time. It's odd, considering that mankind has been doing that sort of thing from its very beginnings. Western society has eradicated that from its musical tradition, save for the likes of the late great Karen Carpenter. Learning complex songs in Portuguese by rote, especially where the emphasis is on rhythm, not tonality is a challenge. Then there's learning the berimbau, another very deep instrument, and one where you need a pinky of steel in order to play it for anything longer than a minute. Doing capoeira has me in the best physical shape of my life.

Bossa nova, often dismissed as American jazz by Brazilian traditionalists, is the most familiar style for me. I've been listening to some of the original bossa recordings done by Brazilian groups (as opposed to Americans) and the arrangements are sometimes really wild. Quite an eye-opener, especially when bossa can be watered down to elevator music in the wrong hands. I'm working in a trio format with Wanda and guitarist Jared Burrows for a couple of upcoming gigs.

Then there's the most seductive style for me, choro. Beautiful melodies, counterpoint guitars, elegant chord progressions, this is the precursor to bossa nova in Brasil. Maria Schneider turned me onto this music, and I'm thankful for that. Both on sax and pandeiro, I have years of exploration ahead of me. I've been working hard at improving my pandeiro technique and I feel that just lately, I've been making some headway. Liam MacDonald is not only the best pandeiroista in town, he's a great teacher. It doesn't hurt having recently gotten a beautiful handmade instrument from Brasil. A friend called it "o pandeiro magico", the magic pandeiro, and just like a fine saxophone, everything sounds better, and it's much easier to play. I hope to get my nerve up to start performing at some choro gigs by the summer.

As well, I've spent recent Saturday mornings doing the VOXY project, being organized by Carol Sawyer and Kate Hammett-Vaughan. Wildy successful, they have tapped into a heretofore unknown demand for large group vocal improvisation. Though I will never consider myself a singer of any merit, it's good to be using my voice on a regular basis, both with VOXY and in weekly capoeira rodas.

Speaking of wildy successful, ion Zoo had the privelege of playing at the most recent FUSE event at the Vancouver Art Gallery. There were over 3,000 people packed into the building on a Friday night, with more lined up around the block. We played a couple of sets to a revolving audience, with some interesting video projections. I felt that I had to "perform" more to this sort of crowd, to be be more animated. It didn't seem to detract from the group focus. There was music all over the building, and I wish I could have seen it all.

Then just last Monday, we had another good night at The Cellar and the group continued to develop and push at boundaries. The final improv of the night was more intense than anything we have previously done. The best news of all for ion Zoo is that we got a Canada Council recording grant for our next cd and are looking at going into the studio in the fall.

We also were featured in the most recent issue of the Capilano Review, a respected literary journal. Our initial performance of Taking Jude Out For Breakfast... was included on a cd compilation of recordings from the Song Room series. The theme of this issue of the Review was "collaboration". This came on the heels of getting a photo and some column space in a recent issue of Coda Magazine, so ion Zoo is getting some recognition.

Despite this, the group continues to be unsuccessful at getting a jazz festival gig, but not without tremendous effort by the programmers to fit us in, for which I am grateful. We are a tough group to slot, requiring a grand piano and a listening sort of room, and certainly not for the masses. Fortunately none of us bases one whit of self-esteem on whether or not we land a festival gig.

Wanda and the boys are fortunate again this year to have gotten a nice slot in the big show. If only we could land a few more regular gigs. We are finishing off the long-awaited cd at the end of the month. We have a rare quintet gig at The Heritage Grill this Thursday night.

And I'm getting calls out of the blue for a number of really varied one-off gigs.

Looking at everything I've listed here, it appears that I've been busier with music than I thought, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. In some ways, I much preferred it when Wanda was scoring at least two nights a week, but frankly I couldn't do that and also keep up the variety of things I doing now.

And I am in the woodshed, breaking a new tenor mouthpiece handmade by wizard Theo Wanne.

That's more than enough.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I first met Evan Parker during the inaugural year of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute. Frankly, he was one of the two reasons I went for it. Between Evan and the brilliant George Lewis, I had a chance to work with some of the actual pioneers of improvised music, from both the American and European traditions. VCMI turned out to have a lot more benefits, but the opportunity to spend time with those two musicians was priceless.

I stayed no more than six feet away from Evan's right elbow during the time he was at VCMI. He had a demanding touring schedule and was not there for the entire duration of the program. He also was travelling with his wife and they have many friends here in BC. I asked him about getting together for a private lesson, but the time was not available. He had to fly to Toronto and Ottawa before returning briefly to Vancouver for a jazz fest gig.

The day before my birthday, my home phone rang. It was Evan. He was apologetic that we couldn't get together. We talked for about 30 minutes and he answered all of the questions that I had for him. I couldn't have asked for a better present.

This week, Evan was again in town, this time for the annual Time Flies series. Visit the Coastal Jazz & Blues website for more details. Last Wednesday, I attended a short workshop and did an evening performance with the Time Flies guest artists. The performance was not well attended, as it wasn't publicized to any great degree, but I was happy to be onstage with Evan again. We did a small ensemble piece with 3 tenor saxes and a conga player. Interesting, but not earth-shaking. I was satisfied nontheless.
During the workshop, the topic of groove came up. I jumped into the conversation and made a sweeping generalization (which I prefaced with a bit of a disclaimer) about the European and American approaches to time in improv, saying that Chicago-based improvisors would be more likely have a more groove-based approach. I knew Evan would bristle a bit at such a broad statement, and we had a few laughs about it later. I gave him an ion Zoo cd and I assured him that he would find me more European in my improv style.

The following evening, while I was eating supper, I got a call that Francois Houle was looking for a soprano sax for Evan to play during the Time Flies shows. Apparently, the one Frankie had arranged didn't turn up at the appointed time and place. I grabbed mine and dashed down to Ironworks. Evan was backstage, preparing to go on in a few minutes.

I handed him my horn and asked him to give it a try. He said it was very similar in age and feel to his one back home. He had a slightly bemused look as were talking. I wasn't sure why until Frankie came flying in at the last minute and thanked me for bringing it down. Then Evan understood. ""Oh, I'm supposed to play this tonight. I thought you just wanted me to check out your horn." So typical, ever gracious. I had to take off right away, unable to stay for any of the show. I didn't know how Evan would like my soprano, those horns being very finicky, and especially given Selmer's lack of consistency. Evan is also very particular about what he likes in a saxophone.

I made it down to the Saturday evening show. It was pretty great. The move in 2007 to Ironworks from The Western Front has done wonders for this series, and there was another full house. The music was really happening. Just before the finale, Evan came out and played his trademark tour-de-force soprano solo, 15 minutes of nonstop circular breathing, with cascading multiphonics and moving rhythmic patterns. He played more notes in that solo than I would play on my soprano in a year. I knew he would not have undertaken this solo if he wasn't comfortable with my horn.

I went backstage afterward and he handed my soprano to me. I caressed it and asked if it will have me back. (Only time will tell, but at least we're talking...) Evan and I joked that I'll sound like a European on it now, the groove having been played out of it. Groove or no groove, it was an honour for me to help him out.

Evan's back in June, again participating in VCMI, but this year his longtime associate Barry Guy will be there as well. Barry's approach to graphic scores has been a huge influence on my composition, and performing a remounting of his Witch Gong Game II/10 was a pivotal experience for me. So now I have to figure out how to work another VCMI into my schedule. Life is tough.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Viva Las Vegas

This is part two of my adventure. Let me backtrack a touch.

Three Ring and I both disliked the seediness of The Strip on first sight, and our hotel in particular. We thought our travel agent had really blown it, booking us so far away from the convention. In retrospect, with 100,000 people attending that event alone, it was probably the closest she could get us.

We were immediately disappointed with the lacklustre casino in our hotel. We tried venturing a bit further afield hoping to find something more happening, but were hampered by our feet worn out from the convention and his bad back. Places like the MGM Grand and The Bellagio were more physically impressive, but just didn't grab us. The Paris Las Vegas was too phony for words. Planet Hollywood was more lively, drawing crowds mainly because of the skimpy outfits waitresses were forced to wear. A quick sit at the bar told the tale.

The Miss America 2008 pageant was going on there, but we walked in too late to see any of that crowd. Apparently they turned in early. All of the attractive women at the bar were pros, save for one. Three Ring has a gift for starting up conversations with strangers, an incredible asset at the trade show, and quite entertaining after hours. This particular young woman was celebrating her 21st birthday, legal age in Nevada. This was her first night at the bar in Vegas and she was getting blitzed. She told us she was a music student in South Carolina, a mezzo-soprano studying musical theatre and jazz. She had a nice singing voice. I remarked that she must like Sarah Vaughan, to which she replied "Who?". When Three Ring told her that I was a sax player, she asked how I liked Kenny G (not the last time I was asked that in Vegas). My answer effectively killed our conversation.

She introduced us to her mother, whose job apparently was keeping her eye on her inebriated daughter. We were benign, just a couple of guys having a drink, not looking to chase someone old enough to be our daughter. It was then I started looking around to see who else was there. There were only hookers and prospective johns at the bar, with pimps keeping an eye on them from a distance. We cleared out of there. No wonder the mother was on watch. I felt sad for them, celebrating a birthday that way. I later heard that the pimps cause trouble at that bar as they get drunk, let alone what happens when they follow their girls and their marks back to the hotel rooms.

This place was starting to disgust me.

The next evening we took a cab to Downtown, which was the original strip in the 60's. THIS was the Las Vegas of the movies and the Rat Pack. Gaudy, yes, but on a manageable scale. People were looking like they were enjoying themselves, at last. There was live street entertainment, including an accomplished smooth jazz saxist. He also told me jazz was dead in this town. We ate a fantastic Italian meal in the Golden Nugget, at a much more reasonable price than on The Strip. We enjoyed the light show over Fremont. Maybe not all was bad.

The next day was our last at the trade show, very productive. We had been told to go to the Rio hotel for the seafood buffet, so we went there for dinner. Apparently none of the cabbies knew (or cared to say) that the seafood buffet was closed for renovations. No worry, the regular buffet was great. And finally, we hit a place that had some life to it. The Rio has a nominal Brazilian theme. What this meant in reality was there was tropical decor and the showrooms had Brazilian names like Copacabana and Ipanema. And the waitresses had to wear thongs under short chiffon skirts. Sometimes they got up on tables and danced something that had no relation to samba.

Penn and Teller had an ongoing show there. Finally, something I wanted to see. I loved their book How to Play with Your Food. I do their "stick a fork in your eye" trick at inopportune times. Our timing didn't work out and we thought we would come back the next day. We decided to take a cab over to the Wynne. In the taxi lineup, Three Ring struck up a conversation with a young British couple. We shared a cab and it turned out he was an accomplished jazz drummer, playing with a lot of name musicians in England. I mentioned that I was looking forward to getting together again with Evan Parker in early February. Regrettably we went our separate ways once the ride ended, but the encounter had continued to buoy my spirits.

The Wynne is truly impressive and the Beautiful People were there in full force. Finally, we hit a place that matched the hype. There was big money here, without a doubt. Ahnuld Schwartzenegger had breezed through with his entourage just a few hours earlier. I liked this place, even though I was way out of my depth.

In the end, Three Ring and I pulled an all-nighter, appropriate for one's last night in Vegas. We eventually got back to our hotel room, arranged a late checkout time and crashed for a couple of hours sleep. We planned to pack after the nap, then scoot over to the airport. It annoyed us when a fire drill came on a couple of minutes later. The damn thing was very loud and persistent, even when we buried our heads under our pillows.

I got up to look if anyone outside was actually heeding the alarm. A few people had started walking out. They were pointing and staring up to the roof. I put my hand on the top of the window in order to look up. The window was hot and I could see smoke.

"Hey, this thing's for real. We're on fire!"

We got dressed as quickly as possible. I grabbed my horn and nothing else. Three Ring also left everything save for his cel phone and passport, leaving his heart and back medications in the bathroom. Passport?? I checked my pockets on the way down the fire escape. Wallet, cel phone - yes. Passport - no. I was stuck in Vegas.

The stairwell smelled of burning plastic, not too oppressive, but strong enough to focus one's attention acutely. People were generally orderly. A couple of assholes were blocking the stairway as they awkwardly tried to manoever all of their luggage downstairs. Three Ring cursed them out for their selfisheness, then grabbed the woman's bags and hauled them down at least five floors. Remember, he had a freshly broken vertbra in his lower back. He left me in his dust. Once he got the luggage outside, he went back upstairs a bit to help out an older woman in distress, again cursing out the selfish assholes as they passed.

He would not leave her. She had just had her knees replaced and was in considerable pain. She was separated from her family and was without her cel phone. She started having a panic attack as we moved across the street to the initial evacuation point. He stuck with her until a paramedic came by.

Then we ran into some people that we had met only the night before. The mother was quite elderly, frail and in a wheelchair. They had been on the 30th floor and the fire was just outside their window. They cleared out the moment the alarm sounded and were incredibly fortunate to catch the very last elevator going down to the lobby. All of her crucial medications were left behind in their room.

This family was from the projects in Chicago, supposedly on the trip of a lifetime. In all likelihood, they lost everything in their room, either from fire, toxic smoke or water. We never found out before we left. Three Ring and I basically stuck with them for the balance of our time in Vegas, giving whatever support we could.

I watched the facade on the top floor burn away. It was easy to see that it was all styrofoam, probably with a vinyl outer coat. Great chunks of burning foam fell to the ground, dripping fire. Some of it fell on cornices on lower floors, starting new fires. Beneath the foam was blackened concrete, and the fire burned no deeper. So as the fire burned outward horizontally, it died down in the centre of the building. I snapped a few shots on my cel phone.

Traffic around the hotel immediately became gridlocked. I was angered that I never saw any fire trucks, assuming that they were also stuck in traffic. Then I saw firefighters appear on the roof - they had approached the building from the opposite side. I watched in awe as these guys hung over the edge of the roof, manoevering high-pressure spray onto the fire on the facing sice of the building. Others worked through the fire on the adjoining floors, putting out flames from the inside.

Those guys are bloody heroes.

The hotel guests and staff got notice to move away from the initial holding area, directing us first to the neighbouring New York New York, then immediately across Las Vegas Blvd. to the MGM Grand. Hotel staff were posted at close intervals to guide us every step of the way. We cursed out a stupid person who was trying to hand out show promotion tickets to passing evacuees.

Once in the MGM Grand, they ushered all 4,000 of us through the staff hallways to the MGM Garden Arena, where all the big boxing matches are held. Very clever, I thought, keeping us out of the main casino area - better to move a large number of people, meanwhile not upsetting business in the casino. By the time we arrived in the arena, they already had free bottled water and coffee stations set up. Staff had been pulled in from all nine of MGM's properties, of which the Monte Carlo was one. They took our names, cel phone numbers and room numbers and showed us to sections of the area based upon the floor we were staying.

We were still with the Chicagoans, moving to our section. Another staffer asked if there were any medical requirements for evacuees. In a nice move, they brushed off a self-important guy who pushed to the front of the line to ask about his car (we figured him to be a lawyer worried about his beloved Beemer). They ignored him and talked to Three Ring and Mama about the medications they had left behind. Both had critical need of their medicine. The staff immediately asked us to follow them out of the arena. The guy in charge was a pit boss I had noticed at the MGM Grand, a well-dressed, very handsome guy. He was on top of things without a doubt. By this time, Three Ring had started jotting down name of the staffers, but we missed this guy's name. He had someone lead us back into the MGM Grand, then down a secure hallway. The next thing we knew we were checked into rooms in MGM's super-elite Signature Suites, rated the best such suites in the country. We had been put in the lap of luxury.

By this time, we had encountered at least a hundred MGM staffers, every one of them unfailingly polite and professional. Many apologized for our inconvenience as we passed. The manager at the Signature Suites did so as well as we went up to our superb rooms. These people were absolutely genuine in their concern, and it was getting overwhelming for us. Three Ring resolved to write MGM thanking as many staffers by name as possible, and make it company policy to stay at MGM properties whenever possible.

I chilled out in the room for the rest of the day. Three Ring marvelled at his continued travel misadventures, fearing his upcoming trips to Calgary and China. I am going to arrange a witch doctor or an exorcism or something.

We phoned relatives to say we were OK. We contacted our travel agent and US Airways immediately rescheduled our flight without any financial penalty.

We watched news coverage on CNN and we were astounded to see a couple of guests show up on the news complaining how poorly the evacuation was handled. One of them had been standing under the falling debris, shooting video, probably aiming to sell it to the media. Idiot. We figured they were angling for litigation. It was not our experience, or that of anyone around us. The CEO of MGM Hotels was interviewed. He apologized for the terrible inconvenience, then guaranteed the salaries of the staff for the next 30 days. In light of the sub prime mortgage scandal, he promised that no house payments would go unpaid. This was not the typical corporate American response to such an incident. Where was the evasion and double-speak?

We met up with the two Chicagoans for dinner. They wanted to go to Emeril's restaurant in the MGM Grand, even though Mama had left her teeth back at the Monte Carlo. Everyone from the servers to top management came out to apologize for our inconvenience. They comped the meal for us. We were starting to feel like celebrities, but were also humbled. It started sinking in that this fire could have been a major disaster - people could have died, particularly the ones we were dining with, with flames outside their window. But everyone was evacuated safely, with only a few minor injuries reported. Throughout the whole experience, Mama never once complained. She gave away the shawl that covered her wheelchair to a young family whose baby was getting cold in the outdoor holding area.

We got a few long looks walking back to our suites. Poor black people were not usually seen in such an exclusive hotel. I'm sure some of the guests were oblivious to the day's goings on. But the Chicagoans paid no mind. They had been treated with respect by everyone involved, and were thankful that we were there to keep them company in the aftermath.

Arriving back in the lobby, we learned that people staying in the lower floors of the Monte Carlo were about to be allowed to go back into their rooms to gather their belongings. The Chicagoans were not allowed, being roomed so close to the fire. They were warned there would be water, toxic smoke, maybe fire damage to everything in the room. Mama looked forward to getting a new set of teeth.

We were immediately loaded onto a waiting shuttle bus. The Chicagoans were dropped off at MGM's hospital facility so that Mama's medications could be replaced. We continued back to the Monte Carlo. Typically, Three Ring shouted to everyone on the bus. "Hey, did anyone here see those two fucking assholes on the news complaining about the evacuation? Did any of you have that happen to you?" No matter how many times he asked that through the night, the answer was always no.

We were held up slightly at the entrance to the Monte Carlo parking area. Security personnel were the last to learn that the guests were being allowed back in. Three Ring was about to go out and knock some heads when they got the word. We were among the first to reenter the hotel. The point person greeting the buses was clearly shaken and overwhelmed. Three Ring hugged her and told her what a fantastic job she was doing.

Hundreds of MGM employees were in the lobby, every one of them greeting us, most apologizing. We could only continually thank them for their superb efforts, as we had been doing all day. Security and damage claim forms were quickly processed at the check-in desks, and they ran down the recovery procedures for our possessions. We showed ID and room cards, then were escorted in fours up to our floor. There two staffers accompanied us to our room, one bellman and another woman who maintained the checklist for the procedure. It was her second week on the job for MGM.

Everything in our room was fine. We packed up and got out quickly, deeply impressed by the courtesy and professionalism of the staff. Three Ring took more names as we headed back to the Signature Suites.

One of the few hassles was when I called to reschedule our airport shuttle. I told the lady that obviously since we had been staying at the Monte Carlo, our afternoon shuttle had been cancelled. She started in on me for not calling them to cancel (while we were watching our hotel burn). She regained her perspective when Three Ring yelled from across the room "YOU FUCKING IDIOT, DIDN'T YOU WATCH THE FUCKING TV TODAY?" He has such a delicate way of putting things.

The next morning, we ate breakfast with the Chicagoans. They received word that they would not be allowed back to their room, or what was left of it, for at least another day. I suggested that they go to the front desk and get MGM to get them some new clothes, something I am sure they would oblige. We bade our farewells and left.

At the airport, US Airways had handled our flight change so quickly that I hadn't had time to get the old e-ticket out of my suitcase pocket. They comped our drinks on the flight. Three Ring took more names down.

And then we were home.

Two very conflicting impressions of my trip remain. The first was my initial revulsion to the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas. My photo of the hotel fire is quite symbolic. The facade was not real, it was a fake mix of styrofoam and a glitzy covering, a poor facsimile of reality. It did not take much to peel that back - the fire spread so quickly and totally obliterated the facade, leaving a blackened, smoky skeleton underneath, foul and dirty. Vegas is still like that - don't buy into the ad campaigns.

Conversely, the hundreds of people who assisted us showed us the very best that Las Vegas could offer, something that cannot be manufactured or merchandised. That is the lasting impression that I will keep in my heart.

What happens in Vegas goes on CNN

Part one of two featuring the exploits of Three Ring and Yours Truly.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to Las Vegas for a trade show. There were a mere 100,000 attendees and it took us several days just to walk the entire show floor. My business associate, henceforth known as Three Ring, and I learned a great deal and came away from the show confident that our new venture will be successful.

Vegas has never been on my list of desired destinations, though I had a secondary incentive to go there. Selmer has recently set up five Selmer Pro Shops in the USA and all of them are on the East Coast except for Kessler Music in Vegas. They stock a full line of Selmer instruments and accessories.

I had phoned them in advance of my trip and I learned that they had a lot of Selmer's special series of sax necks. Getting a new neck for my bari made a huge difference. I highly recommend Phil Barone's line of bari necks. But for my tenor, I wanted to try out Selmer's sterling silver necks and their special booster neck that has interior spiral grooves designed to focus the air column inside the horn. Dave Kesseler told me that they had lots of choices in stock.

When I had a gap in my schedule, I grabbed my tenor from my hotel and hopped a cab to their shop, fairly far away from The Strip. They presented me with a Selmer alto case that had the interior modified to hold more than a dozen various necks. I had at them until the store closed. In the end, I was satisfied that the original neck for my horn was the best match. The sterling silver necks were good and had a brighter, somewhat thinner sound, not what I was looking for. The booster neck was a dud. So in the end, I bought nothing, which was fine with me. Nevertheless, one of the family members, Mark Kessler, insisted on driving me back to my hotel, something way above the call of duty. I was totally impressed with this offer and we had a very enjoyable drive back. This was the first time I had met a person in Vegas who showed a real quality of openness and generousity. It was not to be the last.

For more on Kessler Music and their Selmer Pro Shop, check out their website. They have my highest recommendation.

My initial impressions of The Strip in Vegas were not good. Everything is on a huge scale, all manufactured in a phony manner. Massive theme hotels. Smoke-filled casinos. Overpriced shows. Nothing was free, other than crappy drinks served in the casinos. The cheap buffet is non-existent these days.

There was a seedy sexual undercurrent everywhere. In a country where fundamentalist fanatics continue to spread their own special brand of oppression, this is a city where people come to let loose. Suburban housewives dress like tramps and become indistinguishable from the numerous hookers. Breast implants are the norm, with varying degrees of aesthetic success. Guys strutting around with whores or wannabe whores on their arms, smoking big dog-turd cigars, as if that made them special. Latinos standing on every available space on the sidewalk, handing out cards for an escort service (girls to your room in 20 minutes). They'd give the cards to kids, asking them to pass them to their dad. They'd snap the cards as you walk past, creating a growing irritation with each snap. There were huge video billboards promoting strip shows, newspaper boxes full of ads for escort services.

I could not see how they could have the gall to market this city as a family destination. How could I ever bring my daughter here? We spoke with lots of locals - cabbies, waitresses, hotel workers. They all said Las Vegas was not a good place to bring up a family.

That said, 6,000 people move to the city every month, now with a permanent population of more that 2 million. Millions more visit each month. Construction in Vegas puts Vancouver's Olympic boom to shame. There was a $7 billion development immediately beside our massive hotel, actually surrounding it on two sides. Construction went on round the clock, and they had built their own cement batching plant across the street to service its requirements.

Our hotel had a dismal interior, despite its huge faux-neoclassical exterior. The front doors were too small in comparison to the facade, betraying the low ceiling of the casino inside. It was not one of the happening places on the strip. The casino was usually pretty empty, with sullen gamblers affixed to their slots or blackjack tables. There were none of the Beautiful People that populate TV and movie depictions of this city. A creepy magician had a permanent show in the hotel. The food was overpriced and unsatisfying. The room that Three Ring and I shared was quite satisfactory - we simply disliked the rest of the hotel.

I won a tidy amount on just my third pull ever on a slot machine. Once I determined that there was no new tenor neck in my future, that was my gambling money. I don't think that it's a coincidence that spending a dollar or less on a slot is the only cheap thing on The Strip. They get you in the end. I broke even on the trip.

With everything going on, I figured I'd be able to hear some decent jazz on The Strip. I was wrong. I saw a piano/bass duo at a bar in The Bellagio. They told me that real jazz is long gone from Las Vegas. There was only one lone jazz club in town well off the beaten path. I never maded it there.

Three Ring and I made ever-expanding forays trying to find some place we would like. He couldn't get around too well, especially after walking the trade show for at least 6 hours each day. On his previous trip, in Mexico last Christmas, he fell down a hole and cracked a vertebra in his lower back. The trip before that, to the Maritimes in August, he had a heart attack. Hence the name Three Ring, as in Circus. Two weeks ago we had joked that he shouldn't take another trip.

Here's a shot I took of our hotel on what was supposed to have been our last day there. Our room is in the lower left hand corner.


I only had time to get dressed and grab one thing, my saxophone.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Conditional acceptance

Re my New Years Day post, as my memory of gawdawful rehearsals begins to fade in a manner akin to forgetting the actual pain of a broken limb, a natural disaster, or being trapped in an elevator with the Kenny G muzak set on repeat.

Yes, I would do it again, on two conditions:

1.) I run the rehearsals.
2.) They get satin jumpsuits for the horn section. With wings. Or a cape. I like capes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My trinity

As 2007 drew to a close, I reflected on having a very good year, with the promise of 2008 being even better. Many things have fallen into place and some of my long-term efforts have begun to bear fruit.

It occurred to me that three people have been very important in my adult development as a musician, something that is on a very slow, but steady track.

The first is Kate Hammett-Vaughan, whom I have known since my first year of university, one of my oldest friends. Now that she is of a certain age, I should rather say ours is one of my longest friendships. She has inspired me many times over, and after we both moved to Vancouver just a couple of years apart, she opened my eyes to the possibilities of improvised music, both with her great trio Garbo's Hat and with the NOW Orchestra.

Next is Stan Karp, who is the most amazing teacher of the saxophone. He has given me the tools to become a much better player than I could have hoped. His dedication, enthusiasm, patience and support over the last dozen years is unmatched. I am being totally selfish when I say I hope he never stops teaching, and I'm sure many of his students would agree.

Finally there is Hugh Fraser, who gave me the confidence to step up and play with the big boys. He encouraged me to start composing again and enabled me to have my pieces performed and recorded by wonderful groups of the most amazing people. My most intense and life-changing musical experiences have been working with him and the guest artists he attracted, like Maria Schneider and Chucho Valdes.

I owe these three people everything and I feel compelled to make that acknowledgement public.

If there was a fourth person I could add to my triumvirate, my fifth Beatle as it were, it would be Coat Cooke. Especially over the last few years, working with him has afforded me many great opportunities, and certainly the ion Zoo cd would not have been released this year without his vision and support.

Now of course, nothing happens in a vacuum and there are many, many people who have been and continue to be important in my musical life. Particularly, there are my bandmates in my two main groups: Carol, Wanda, Lisa, Chris, Clyde, Mark and Tom. Without a doubt, there is my wife Clara, who endured dating me back in the prog rock years and has supported me right up to my latest New Years ordeal, has been an unwavering support. And the many musicians that I've worked with in Vancouver, Seattle and Banff. The list grows ever larger, spreading out to the big names in jazz and improvised music who inspire me, some of whom I have had the honour to work with in some manner.

The music I play does not occur in the isolation of a bedroom or a studio. It takes a very large community indeed. And lately I've been feeling very grateful. Maybe tomorow I'll get cynical again, but hopefully not.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What the hell was I thinking?

As the year wound down, I found myself face to face with a second trip back to my days as a teenage musician.

When I was in grade 12, I got a call out of the blue from a guitarist who led a horn band. He asked me to come try out at a rehearsal. I had been recommended by a pro sax player whom I hardly knew.

At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about this type of music, being a prog rock type. That was a style of music notably deovoid of saxophones, with King Crimson as the occasional exception. But with horn bands, the big names were Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire and thanks to cancon, Lighthouse. I had previously learned exactly one piece from the entire repetoire of these groups. Thanks to my extensive K-Tel collection, once I had gotten it into my head to learn the Lighthouse hit One Fine Day.

By pure coincidence, that was the piece that the band chose to audition me on and I played it from memory. So I was in. And in way over my head. Fortunately, they had great charts, all beautifully handwritten. I went out and bought a whole bunch of vinyl and got to work. And I had to go over to Halifax and join the musicians' union. I was thrilled and a bit intimidated, as I thought I would have to pass some sort of competency test. The only criterion was whether or not I had the joining fees, which the band leader had fronted me.

So in no time, I was playing all over the province, having a lot of fun with these guys. Their book was pretty heavy on Chicago tunes, which I really loved playing. The other two horn players were also high schoolers, as was the drummer, but they were some of the best young players in town. They pretty quickly figured out I was not. They replaced me as soon as they could, when I said that my mom was forcing me to miss a gig in order to attend my high school graduation. The band leader drove across town to fire me in person - it was a terrible feeling and I was pissed off at my mother for a long time.

As it turned out, my replacement, a much better funk player, didn't last long and I ended up playing off and on with these guys for about four years. We had a lot of laughs, doing all the stuff that a bunch of young guys do on the road. Many of the guys in the band went on to be fine career musicians.

Now to the present: by early December, I knew that I probably wouldn't have a New Years gig with Wanda and the boys, unusual but not unexpected given the current dearth of gigs in town. Our bassist took another gig and he asked me if I'd be interested in join him in doing a horn band gig. I knew some of the players, most of them good, but I had my doubts about the leader. Mark told me they would be doing a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire, so for the sake of nostalgia, and despite the pay not being too great, I said yes.

At this point, please refer back to the title of this blog entry.

This was a brand new band. The rhythm section had been rehearsing for a few weeks. The plan was for the horn section to come in on the last two rehearsals Dec 29 and 30, and the singers who had been rehearsing separately would join us on those nights.

(Note: After a couple of days, I've decided to go back and edit this post. Suffice it to say that the rehearsals leading up to the gig were the worst I've ever had. I needed to vent a bit, but I think it was dull reading.)

The final rehearsal came and we still had about five tunes that we had not played as a group. Again there were lots of surprises. Good times. By the end of the night, we still hadn't actually run the set in its entirety. But at least, I felt we wouldn't totally embarrass ourselves.

I had a good sign while getting ready for New Years Eve. I put on a pair of gig pants that I hadn't been able to fit for a long time, and found the pay from a gig years ago still in the pocket. I considered that cash as a raise for my efforts on the coming night.

As it turned out, it wasn't a bad gig at all. We weren't super tight, but given your typical New Years crowd, nobody noticed. A good rehearsal or two would have made all the difference.

I considered it a privelege just to play this great music again after 30 years.

So if the call comes again, will I do it?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Confessions of a teenage prog-rocker

This is not the post that I'd intended to write today, but Oscar Peterson's recent passing triggered this memory. Why I'm compelled to make it public beats me, but it was the one time that I met him.

I was never into jazz as a kid. My folks were MOR listeners, Dad into the Ray Conniff Singers and the like, and my mom finding nirvana with Englebert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. We weren't allowed to have rock and roll records until I was in grade 9. The first lp we got was Abbey Road, an album I still listen to, unusually good taste in retrospect. From there, I listened to whatever was in with my friends at school. We had a pretty impressive collection of K-Tel records, but who didn't back then?

One day, one of my friends in music class brought in some "classical rock", namely Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition. I was hooked. This was something way beyond what I had been listening to and gave a purpose to the classical music I was studying in school. Soon I was into it whole hog: Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and a token American group, Gentle Giant. I'll confess it now - I was a teenage prog-rocker.

Everything is absolute when you're sixteen. ELP was the shit for me. Nobody was better. In my world, Keith Emerson was the best piano/organ/synth player on the planet (even better that that showboater Rick Wakeman - I mean, anyone could wear a gold cape!); Carl Palmer was the greatest thing ever to hold drumsticks (way better than Ringo); and nobody could sing like Greg Lake. OK, Chris Squire was better on bass (I loved his Rickerbacker 4001 sound), and his Yes bandmate Steve Howe was the ultimate guitarist (like, Jimmy Page totally sucked dog farts in comparison, no, dead dog farts.)

But the star was Keith Emerson. I loved his Moogs - what classic sounds. I dug the way he would get under his B3, lean it on top of him, reach over and still keep playing. Sometimes he'd light it on fire. For me, the big thing was his piano playing, even when he wasn't strapped into that grand piano that spun through the air. I especially loved his boogie woogie bits - I thought that's when he let go of his classical training and really let his hair down. He was God.

With two of my high school classmates, we formed a progressive rock group, my first real band. Paralandra was an interesting footnote in Nova Scotia's rock history, its only true prog band, with some minor measure of success. Kurt, our keyboard player, initially copied not only Emerson's keyboard setup, but had the same shag haircut.

Auditioning for university, one of my pieces was The Old Castle by Mussorgsky. They may have thought it was because it was one of the few compositions that had crept into classical sax repertoire, but I really chose it because of ELP.

My first-year roommate turned out to be a fine jazz drummer (now lost to Scientology somewhere in California, but that's another story). That first weekend at Acadia, he unwittingly changed my life when he played Kind of Blue, turning me on to Miles. He had a pretty good collection and he would put a different album on the record player every night, and we would doze off listening to all of this fantastic jazz. Someone would wake up in the middle of the night, probably due to that skipping sound at the end of the record, and turn the stereo off.

Bill had no tolerance for my prog-rock fetish, at least at first. Finally he let me put on something, and knowing I had only one chance, I picked the most awesome ever Carl Palmer drum solo from Brain Salad Surgery. That did him in - he was one of us. I was anxious to show him what an excellent jazz player Keith Emerson was. So I played him my favourite cut, but he was unimpressed, saying that Emerson was simply ripping off Oscar Peterson.

I was devasated. Even when he played lots of Oscar for me, I couldn't accept it. Sure, there was no question that Emerson was copying Oscar's style to the note, but c'mon, Keith Emerson was God.

Later that year, Oscar played a solo concert at Halifax's Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. Bill, Kurt and I had to go. It was my first true jazz concert. I was totally caught up in Oscar's magnificent stage presence, and worshipped that thundering left hand. I have no idea of what tunes he played, not having any real grasp of jazz repertoire at the time, but loved it anyway. He made me proud to be a Canadian. I allowed in my heart of hearts that maybe, just maybe, he was better than Keith Emerson.

Bill insisted that we wait outside the stage door to talk with him. We stopped Oscar as he came out by himself. Bill asked him about Ed Thigpen, and he graciously answered, probably the same answer the had given a thousand times before. "Ed Thigpen?" I recall asking myself, "Who cares about Ed Thigpen?" We needed to discuss something much more important.

I shook Oscar's hand, and was astounded by its size. It seemed to wrap around mine twice - I guess that's what's needed for a thirteenth reach. We hit him with our trump card. "What do you think about Keith Emerson?" He smiled and told us that he had just recently been in London and taped a TV show with Keith. We were awestruck - it must have been musical perfection.

He excused himself after a couple of minutes and left the theatre. We were ecstatic.

Now, all these years later, just before writing this post, with the help of YouTube, I finally saw this meeting of musical giants for the first time, for what it really was - a plain, old-fashioned ass-kicking of a self-indulgent rock star. And Oscar wasn't even getting warmed up in the three scant choruses he played, it was nothing fancy, his playing was just really deep. He had that same gracious look on his face as when we were speaking. I don't think he was being condescending or competitive, he appeared to be just enjoying life, happy to be making music.

He was a truly great man. He rocks.