Thursday, February 26, 2015

Musical Drumming vs. Accompaniment, or Why The Guitar Center Drum-Off Disappointed Me This Year

I've never really been considered "trendy." I eventually catch on to things, and I even embrace them, but I'm always a little late to the game. Which I'm okay with. I recently finally bought a black woolen peacoat, which has been a staple of men's fashion for years now. As you may have read a couple of posts ago, I recently learned what expressions like "put on blast" and "turn up" means (though I haven't started using them).
(Shameless self-plug: If you'd like to read my thoughts on some not-so-trendy but still recent music, click here.)
Trends are found in clothing, language, and virtually every aspect of modern life. Today I want to talk about a trend in music. Specifically, my aspect of music. Drumming. This line of thought was inspired by a recent Facebook post by a good friend and fellow drummer. Steve is a talented guy and I love watching him play. His performances with the UB Jazz Ensemble when we played there in undergrad were always a highlight of every concert, especially his solos. So when he posted about the Guitar Center Drum-Off competition, I took notice.
I am no great soloist. I perform drum solos with my band Mayday (as I did last weekend), but it's with the song Wipeout, usually near the end of the second set or beginning of the third. People are drunk and dancing and they want to keep doing that. So I play a dance-y solo, simplistic in nature, and featuring my favorite gimmick, leaving my drumset and drumming the whole way around whatever room I'm in. I should practice more and work my solo into a better drumming showcase, one that remains dance-y but shows off the intricacies of my playing and the capabilities of the instrument - because that could certainly be done. But I'm unable to make that time. Which I've grown to accept.

From my first years in high school jazz band, I've known that drum solos are often looked down upon by other musicians. I don't blame them. Most of the non-drummer musicians at my high school (including my band director) were used to high school level drummers who just wanted to play as fast and as loud as they could (which I still sometimes fight the urge to do). God knows Mr. L certainly dealt far more often with loud-and-fast drummers than with drummers who tried to be musical, even while showing off. So I never blamed them for thinking that way - I just used their aversion to spur my efforts to be better and convince them otherwise (an quest which has stalled in recent years due to things like medical school).

But there are people who work hard to make this an art. Steve has great musical playing. All of my favorite drummers take the time to make their drum solos (if they do those) sound musical as well as fun. And this is supposed to come to a head at the annual Guitar Center Drum-Off Competition. The trends of solo drumming present themselves boldly as the focus of the competition. The winner is crowned the best undiscovered drummer in the world. Here's this year's winner (the video's only 5 minutes):
Did you watch the whole thing? No? That's okay. It's a fun solo, but it's not my favorite. If you didn't watch it, it's pretty heavy on the Octapad. For non-drummers, that's the electronic console on the drummer's left, where he's concentrating 90% of his efforts. When I said heavy on the Octapad, I mean the amount of his solo that doesn't rely on electronics and a synthesized melody of some kind is about...30 seconds.

This is NOT a judgment on Shariq Tucker. Actually if you watch his solo from the 2013 competition, it's actually pretty awesome. It displays a lot of chops, even as it threads the fills together with musical drumming; it works in the Octapad purely as icing on the drumming cake. But that year, the winner was the talented D-Mile, who played way more Octapad than his competitors. It was still a decent drum solo, but relied much more heavily on the Octapad to constantly underlie the drumming. So this year, when Tucker came back to the competition, he knew what he had to do to win. Which is why the winning solo in the 2014 Drum-Off is almost completely carried by the Octapad - Tucker faces the Octapad almost more than he does the drumset.

Now, this isn't bad performance. In fact, it's impressive as far as the music and technique. It's a terrific display of balancing drumming and Octapad usage, complete with homage to Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" as well as classic jazz. It's fun, and he displays a great deal of talent - it still takes major coordination to work in that melody as well as the drum beat. But if you take away the Octapad, the part on the actual drumkit is rather on the shallow side, seeming more like accompaniment than a solo. It's a far cry from the subtle but well-layered electronic additions he made the previous year (and, incidentally, if you watch last year's video...he's smiling a lot more back then).

YouTube comments should be no one's source of inspiration, but I misread one comment yesterday that gave me the notes on which to start this post. I won't tell you what it actually said, because it was just a sarcastic YouTube comment, but my misreading was, "Is drumming so boring that he needed [an Octapad] to keep people entertained?"

To which the answer is no. Or at least, it doesn't have to be. Drumming can absolutely be musical, even melodic. There are so many things a drummer can do to make a solo come alive, to get people dancing, or thinking, or rocking out. There have been Drum-Off competitions where that's been the case, but in my opinion, this solo is not representative of that.

Now I get that this is a big corporate-sponsored competition (subject to the same pressures as American Idol or any other musical competition), and so part of this is corporate politics. Roland (the company who makes Octapads) is a huge sponsor in this event and it's because of that that every Drum-Off set has an Octapad hook-up, and that it's become nearly a requirement to work it in (that's been happening since at least 2011, when JP Bouvet took the crown with a beautiful solo). But trigger pads have been an evolving trend since the 1980s when they first came out. From giant drum-shaped pads to little ones that fit in snugly in the spaces of a drumset, and every shape and form in between, trigger pads are awesome for working in those unconventional or cumbersome instrument (or non-instrument) sounds. But that has evolved naturally through the doesn't need to be shoehorned in by a corporate sponsor at a competition that is supposed to be about the art of drumming. About how this instrument can be just as musical as any horn or piano or strings.

And yet Roland's sponsorship (and the subsequent requirement of the Octapad in solos) kill that push to challenge the boundaries of the instrument itself, and instead relegate the actual drums almost to the role of accompaniment next to the electronics. There's nothing wrong with making music that way, and I would enjoy hearing some of that in a different performance or album context. But in a drum solo competition, it makes me feel like my instrument is not good enough on its own. Which I know is not true.

Maybe I'm just a dinosaur. But I feel that this competition should fuel a kind of creative excellence, not channel it and forcibly shape it. I know drum solos are capable of a great deal of musicality, without overusing electronics. This musicality can make drum solos accessible and enjoyable to drummers and non-drummers alike. Because in the end, that's what drumming is about - the enjoyment of the music. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My Favorite Musical Finds of 2014

This post is quickly becoming less than timely. But I have two loves in my life - medicine and music. And this one's about music. 2014 spawned a lot of popular hits, many of which now grace my iPod. Ariana Grande maybe the first Top 40 artist in years who had an album that I listened to all the way through ("Problem" and "Love Me Harder" were in my head for weeks). My sister was, for a while, playing through an endless loop of Ed Sheeran's "Don't", Disclosure's "Latch" (or as I refer to it, the "Thah-Thah" song), and Hozier's "Take Me to Church." My fiancée will be incredibly pleased when the day comes that she can say the word "happy" and I don't immediately ask if she wants to CLAP ALOOONG IF [SHE] FEEEELLL[S] LIKE A ROOM WITHOUT A RO...sorry.

But there are a lot of great artists that won't be heard on the Top 40 stations, or if they are, not nearly as much as some of those artists. Some of these have been around for a long time, others are just coming into the light as artists. But here are my favorite musical discoveries of 2014, in no particular order:

1. Elizabeth Shepherd: The Signal. I tend to prefer instrumental jazz to vocal jazz, and it's rare that I buy the latter. However, sometime in October, Canada's Jazz.FM 91.1 newsletter highlighted Ms. Shepherd's new album and its unique sound. I went to iTunes and previewed 2 songs. I listened to about 10 seconds of each, and immediately bought the album. Fastest I've ever done so with a new (to me) artist. I know I said this list is not in any order, but this is definitely my favorite album of last year.
Shepherd stated in an interview once that she was reluctant to call this album "jazz" because jazz lyrics, at least classically, tend to take a backseat to the melody. Shepherd combines the freedom of jazz form and instrumentation with a deliberate and serious approach to lyrics, and the result is gorgeous. I could make a whole post about why I love this album, but suffice it to say I can't listen to it enough.

2. Richard Marx, Beautiful Goodbye. If you've read more than two or three of my entries here, you know I've been a lifelong fan of Richard Marx. With the exception of a Christmas album two years ago, it's been about six years since his last album of new material. When the first single for this album came out, it was clear that Marx was choosing to embrace the fact that he is loved by middle-aged women everywhere (the music video certainly plays to this strength). "Whatever We Started" depicts the feelings of two people who can't help but have an affair. That sets the tone for the rest of an album that oozes with sensuality, where Marx employs modern pop and EDM production to channel his cougar's-darling sex appeal. Except for final track "Moscow Calling" - I'm pretty sure that's just him having fun. While this kind of lyric material is not my usual cup of tea, Marx's voice and clever lyrics (ranging from subtle to not-at-all-subtle) continue to be great. And for one other highlight - in his recent trend of taking songs he wrote for other artists and re-introducing them in his own voice, he brings back a re-recording of "Suddenly", originally recorded by Toni Braxton. If you're looking for a good adult contemporary/soft rock album, look no further.

3. Meg Myers, Make A Shadow. My former roommate Eric and I share a fondness for great music (and a fondness for ranting against the music we don't find great). We occasionally disagree on what's great, but for the most part we tend to enjoy the same stuff. So when he told me to go and listen to this girl Meg Myers right away, I figured it would have to be pretty good. 19 seconds into the album, when the harsh guitar chords of "Desire" kicked in, I was immediately hooked. I have since described my reaction to that song as "I don't know if I'm turned on or terrified." This is Myers' second EP, and she ranges from Florence + The Machine-style art-pop choruses to femme fatale seduction to raw powerful screaming vocals that sends chills down your spine. Alternative rock has a new siren, and she packs a punch. Also, her Instagram is pretty funny.

4. Snarky Puppy, We Like It Here. Snarky. Freaking. Puppy. My old friend and fellow drummer Ryan sent me a video via Twitter, and the minute I heard "What About Me" - my jaw hit the floor. Described by my friend Mick as "Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Blood Sweat & Tears," this jazz collective is exceptional at marrying prog rock, fusion, jazz, and insanity all in a beautiful onslaught of sound and fury. The recording session, filmed and recorded live over 4 nights in the Netherlands, is as much a visual experience (the entirety is on YouTube) as it is aural - you gotta see the joy and the intensity these players display, and how much fun they're having. Drummers especially should watch as well as listen as Larnell Lewis (subbing in for usual drummer Sput Searight) melts everyone's faces off.

5. Lindsey Stirling, Shatter Me. Ms. Stirling's story is fairly well known now - auditioned for America's Got Talent, the judges told her a dancing violinist wasn't enough to fill stadiums, she took to YouTube posting violin/orchestral/dubstep covers and originals and became a sensation. Her first album was in heavy rotation on my Pandora study playlists, and I wondered if she would actually be able to do better with her sophomore effort. Well, she did and then some. She takes the EDM+violin concept and expands it, incorporating more diverse themes and motifs in her playing (channeling Westerns in "Roundtable Revival" and dripping with '90s-style hip-hop in "Swag"). She also makes it a much more personal album with the title track, in which guest vocalist Lzzy Hale* belts out Stirling-penned lyrics inspired by her history of dealing with an eating disorder. Stirling also enjoys transforming her songs into visual experiences, and her music videos continue to be awesome.
*Also, check out Lzzy Hale's guest appearance with Eric Church where she basically sings him off the stage during "That's Damn Rock n' Roll."

6. Eric Clapton, The Breeze (An Appreciation of JJ Cale). The world lost a great blues songwriter in 2013 when JJ Cale passed away. He wrote so many great songs, though most of the world (including me) knows his work due to other artists' covers of his tunes. The great Eric Clapton hit "Cocaine"? That's JJ Cale right there. Clapton and Cale were long-time collaborators, and so to commemorate his beloved friend, Clapton teamed up with John Mayer, Tom Petty, Doyle Bramhall II, and a host of other great blues/rock players to pay tribute. I admit I'm not familiar with a lot of Cale's work (beside what Clapton's done), but the songs on this album make me want to listen to more of it. There's more old school blues rock songwriting and sentiment here than you can shake a stick at, coupled with some terrific guitar work by Clapton, et al., yet it's accessible enough for today's listeners.
Also, if you want to hear some of Cale's collaborative work with Clapton, I highly recommend their duo album, The Road to Escondido, from 2006. One of my favorite albums for years.

In addition to these, you probably heard about a couple of my other favorite albums from last year, these two actually on the charts - Beck's Morning Phase (listen to it, and ignore the awards show "controversy" there - just enjoy the album), and the Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways (and its companion HBO documentary series by Dave Grohl). Both very much worth a listen.

There's already a lot of great music to look forward to in 2015. Florence + The Machine, Toto, jazz drumming legend Steve Gadd, and many others are already in the pre-order stage of their album releases, and there are many more to come. Here's to another year of great musical finds!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

But Seriously Though, How Great Was Saved By The Bell?

So if you've been on social media at all for the last week or so, you've probably seen this clip. And, of course, if you watched TV in the early 1990s (or reruns at 7 AM in the early 2000s), it was a nostalgic sucker punch. If there's one thing anyone over the age of 20 likes, it's a reunion of the characters of their favorite shows or movies or anything. And Saved By The Bell was definitely one of our favorites.
Before I go on, here's the clip. If you haven't watched it already, there will be spoilers below:
This clip is great. They got the makeup and outfits right, the musical vibe was there. On a related note, as my good friend and band mate Loren pointed out, apparently rolling up one's sleeves (in a non-proverbial sense) went out of style a long time ago and no one told us. It's okay, though - we're bringing it back. 

As usual, I digress. The inside jokes (for lack of a better phrase) in this clip are my favorite part. References to Tiffani Thiessen (who is still just as gorgeous today, even pregnant) and her post-SBTB run on "Beverly Hills, 90210," flashbacks to Mario Lopez's spandex-clad dance ability, and Elizabeth Berkley's brief stint as a fictional stripper in Showgirls. There was also a reference to Jessie Spano's most iconic moment in the show. She's made a couple of flashback references to the SBTB ladies' rendition of the Pointer Sisters' classic hit, "I'm So Excited." Her run on Dancing With the Stars (which I don't watch, but again, social media brought it to my attention) was remarkable for a flippant nod to that moment leading into one of her dances with her partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy. Everyone laughs at the reference, as they should, the same way they did when she did it in the Jimmy Fallon sketch. I laughed at it, too, but it was uneasy laughter.

Saved By The Bell, like most high school-set sitcoms, was known for its occasional "special episodes" where a more serious issue would be raised in the course of the show. One of those is the episode where Jessie gets addicted to caffeine pills while trying to balance forming a musical girl group with Kelly and Lisa (whose lead single is a cover of The Pointer Sisters song) and maintaining her grades to get into Stanford University, which culminates in her realizing her addiction ("I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so...scared!") and collapsing in Zack Morris's arms.

15 years down the road, I fully acknowledge that this is a pretty laughable portrayal, but for me, as a fairly naive 11-year-old kid watching Saved By The Bell reruns, Jessie's breakdown was kind of a scary moment in the show. Everyone at that age knows not to do drugs, but that was the first time I'd been shown the emotional toll of drug addiction (you know, in a still-innocent high school way). At age 11, I had known for 6 years already that I wanted to be a doctor (yeah, I was that kid), and so I viewed this with the same desire to help that I intended to apply to all of my future patients.

I've seen other fictional characters get into much worse situations because of their addictions, ranging from Mason in Dead Like Me feeling sick when a bag of cocaine bursts in his rectum, to Dr. House's visual hallucinations and complete lack of control when the Vicodin becomes too much, to every character in Requiem for a Dream when they succumb to the effects of their drugs of choice.

I have met real people (mostly patients) addicted to drugs (far worse than mere caffeine pills) and I know people who use caffeine pills and other supplements on a regular but non-addicted basis. Heck, I get headaches when I don't drink at least one cup of coffee per day. But I still remember how I felt when I saw Jessie crying, because I was picturing how Zack must have felt when he encountered her. I didn't have the benefit of knowledge and experience to help me deflect the emotions there. And it still gives me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I'm not saying it's wrong to laugh at these humorous references - like I said, I laughed myself. I'm sure Elizabeth Berkley shakes her head at herself when she thinks about it. But there's that moment of hesitation there when I remember that poignant moment, that's stuck with me through the years.
And then I wonder if I'm taking myself and a 1990s sitcom too seriously. In fact, I'm certain I am. Even back then, the very next scene is of Kelly and Lisa performing a live version of the song, with Screech hilariously filling in for Jessie (Season 3 episode 9 if you want to watch it on Netflix). And all is well again.

But I think of it this way: While I am busy memorizing all of the signs of addiction to various drugs, as well as their withdrawal symptoms, it's easy to forget that there are real patients behind those test questions. And until I get into the real world of treating patients as a doctor (which will hopefully be pretty soon, as I graduate in May), I can always use a reminder of that human component. In this case, that's where Jessie Spano comes in. So I will always be thankful to SBTB for that.

And, on a less serious note, for moments like this. Very few shows can pull off a rapping portrayal of Snow White.