At the risk of disturbing the tumbleweeds bouncing by a quick update on what’s been happening these past few months behind the curtain here…
I’ve been back in the woodshed and also doing some work in my newly-pimped out studio, with some rather pleasing results. Dancing In The Rain is, amazingly, the first song I put together, and it’s come out remarkably well.
If you can’t see the audio clips embedded in this post because you don’t have Flash installed (or Awasu has stripped them out ), you can also hear them here.
A bit more up-beat, Give It To Me.
Of course, I’ve been rabbiting on all these years about how I play sax, so here’s a track of me playing a “real” instrument Back around 1875 when I first started studying jazz, I had a pair of Aebersold play-alongs, one with a bunch of Charlie Parker songs in it and the other from Miles Davis. The Parker one was too hard and since the first song in the Miles book was Four, that was the first jazz song I ever tried to learn and so naturally, it’s the first cab off the rank here
But have no fear, in amongst all this noodling around in the studio, I’m still plugging away on the next version of Awasu. By popular request, some big extensions to the API and search engine are in the works and the next release will be in a week or two…
If you’ve never supported your own software, spending just one day doing tech support will be an eye-opening – not to mention humbling – experience. You’ll have to keep your ego in check, because most people who contact tech support do so because they’re having problems with your software, some of whom will use colorful language to describe the annoyances they’re running into.
You also need to hear an unfiltered view of what people want your software to do for them. If you rely solely on your tech support team to tell you the features that customers want, chances are you’ll develop those features without really knowing why people want them.
And while I totally agree with this, he fails to mention one critically important thing: you have to use the software yourself as well.
But these are two sides of the same coin (and I know he knows this). The best, indeed probably the only way, to really find out where your software has problems, where it needs improving (and yes, also where it does well) is to actually use it. You need to see how it handles in the field, either by using it yourself  or via feedback from people who are using it themselves. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it, yet it’s amazing how many layers exist between developers and customers at most companies because they insist on playing Chinese Whispers through an army of tech support people, sales droids, managers, their managers, their managers’ managers, to the point where the people actually building the software have no contact whatsoever with the people who use it. Not exactly a recipe for first-class software.
Years ago, I used to work at a company that wrote newspaper publishing software and one day, they arranged for all the devs to go on a tour of one of the major newspapers here in Melbourne that used our software. It was quite a buzz for us to see floors of journalists and editors all using stuff that we had written in their day-to-day work, and I’m sure it was kinda interesting for them to meet us (we only copped a minimal amount of abuse ).
And for the same reason, I don’t mind doing tech support for Awasu either, since I get to see how all you people are using Awasu, which not only gives me an idea of what features and improvements are needed, but also that it’s being used at all The only reason software exists, the only reason it gets written at all, is to provide a service, to do something useful, so to see people using Awasu to help them get their jobs done is gratifying indeed. I’ve always said that a sign of really powerful, well-designed software is that people use it in ways that it was never originally intended for, and so being able to help people like kevotheclone when he comes to me saying “I’ve thought of another weird-ass way of using Awasu, do you think it’s possible?” is pretty cool as well
But getting completely OT now, reading Nick’s linked-to post reminded me of how similar our backgrounds are. We both used to cartoon in our younger days (although it sounds like he was a lot more serious about it than I ever was), we both play music (he plays piano, I play sax), I do Aikido, his son and brother both do karate so he may well do it as well. Clearly it was our destiny to write feed readers
And of course, we are both programmers, although I do C++ while he does (sniff) Delphi Nevertheless, I’d still buy him a beer  if he ever came to Oz. Still, while we probably don’t look alike, if we were twins I would bet good money on me being the evil one…
 And being the developer has the advantage that if there’s a feature I need, I can just add it in myself. Very OSS  The highest compliment you can pay someone in Australia. No, really!
With a lengthy list of new features and bug fixes, this will be the last beta before 2.4. Unlike previous general releases, all the testing and tweaking has already been done so it’s just a matter of updating the internal version numbers, a final round of testing and that’ll be the 2.4 release
I was going to push this out on the weekend but I got called out to play some gigs at a music festival instead. It was up in the mountains and I realized that this was the first time I’ve ever played an outdoor show when it’s been really cold. My sax is made of metal and was almost impossible to play and given that I was constantly blowing warm air through it, it was almost instantly drenched in condensation  You learn something new every day
I’m pretty tired after the festival and would love to be able to say I was not going to the pub and staying home but another band saw me play and I guess I must’ve been doing at least reasonably well since they’ve invited me to jam with them tonight. I’ve been woodshedding steadily since mid- last year and am getting pretty good now but these guys are insanely good and I’m freaking terrified
 And I shudder to think what was happening to the inside of my microphone Although I guess I should be grateful it wasn’t just a little bit colder…
I’ve been playing sax for a little over twenty years and one of my most influential horn players has always been Art Pepper. While he could swing and bebop with the best of them, he really shone the brightest as a soulful balladeer. He used to play a lot with his favorite pianist, George Cables (whom he liked to call “Mr. Beautiful”) and one of my all-time favorite recordings is of the two of them playing “Over The Rainbow.” These days, the song may have something of a cheesy reputation but its melody is as beautiful as it is simple, yet the chords are moving around enough in the background to open up lots of interesting possibilities when improvising. Even so, it was only a few months ago that I finally got around to learning this song and have fallen in love with it all over again
His auto-biography, “Straight Life,” is a great read and there’s one bit that has really stuck with me over the years. I don’t have my copy with me now so I can’t give you the exact quote, but it went something like this:
You play the way are. If you’re a selfish, inconsiderate person then that’s what will come out when you play. You’ll elbow the other musicians aside so that you can take the first solo and then keep playing loud and fast behind them, even when it’s their turn. But if you’re a generous, laid-back sort of a guy, you’ll let others go first and play something supportive behind them before stepping up yourself.
You play the way you are.
I’ve seen and played with so many musicians across the globe, some of whom are insanely good. Incredible technique, fantastic delivery, yet more than a few of them just leave me cold. Seemingly intent on copying every nuance from the CD, the final result often sounds pretty good but it comes across, at least to me, as somewhat fake. Female vocalists seem to be especially prone to this kind of thing, probably due to the rise in popularity of the many near-operatic divas in recent years. Jazz cats too, since so much emphasis is put on technical excellence. We spend all this time practicing how to play at blistering speeds with lots of jazzy “outside” notes that we sometimes forget what it’s supposed to be all about . So these days, when I’m looking at a musician, I want to see something more than just raw technique, I want to see something of them on stage, their persona, a window into who they are.
I used to think I had a reasonably good handle on that side of things until I saw a young lady perform the other night who just put me to shame. She played alone, guitar and singing, and while her technique was OK, her performance just blew me away. The warmth and joy she put into each song simply filled the room and you could tell from the way she moved that it was coming from every bone in her body. I absolutely had to jam with her (and yes, I always bring my horn with me these days) and got the surprise of my life when she tentatively asked “Do you know this one?” and without giving me a chance to answer, launched into “Over The Rainbow,” thus invoking my first ever public performance of it .
After the show, I had a few beers  with her and one of the things she said really got me thinking. “I choose to be a happy person,” said she, “I don’t like being around grumpy, cynical, bad-tempered people  ‘cos they just drain me.” Normally I would’ve just dismissed this as the babblings of another bubble-head blonde but not this time. She really was one of the most genuinely cheerful and happy little vegemites I’ve ever met and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who played their music in a way that was so honest and in tune with who they were off-stage. You play the way you are, indeed.
Yet, having said all that, I don’t think it’s quite enough.
Art is about exploring the entire gamut of the human experience and it’s not enough to take only the happy, nice stuff. It’s when things get mean and nasty and dirty that they get really interesting. Many great artists have struggled with madness, depression, or just simply been really unpleasant people, but that negative energy often translates into some amazing work. Charlie Parker’s recording of “Lover Man” is legendary , where he was so trashed on booze and drugs, he could barely stand. They had to prop him up, put the horn in his hands and stick the thing in his mouth, yet when it came time for him to play, what came out was so painfully heart-wrenching that even after the umpteenth hearing, it still gives me the screaming cold shivers. That kind of thing only comes from being in a place you really don’t want to go.
I know that some of the best music I’ve ever played has come when I’ve been furious or upset or just plain miserable about something. The energy these emotions generate can be incredibly powerful and I’ve sometimes scared myself with what has come out of my horn, things so intense that I don’t want to think about where inside of me they could possibly have come from. I remember one time getting fired from a band and then having to go play another gig elsewhere straight after. I was extremely upset but people, who had seen me play many times before, were coming up to me after the show saying “Man, WTF happened to you tonight?!” Somehow, they could tell that something heavy had gone down.
But getting back to this trip, I also got to see a local barbershop quartet that were amazingly good and while I could certainly dig what they were doing, it also left me a little disappointed, knowing that if I went to see them the next day, I would see pretty much exactly the same show. There was none of the creative fire and passion of, say, a screaming jazz gig, no real dynamic connection between the musicians, or audience. I get the same kind of reaction at classical performances; it’s a wonderful experience to be in the theater with an orchestra in full flight but I can’t help but get the nagging feeling that something is missing. Can a meticulously planned, precisely executed performance really be considered a creative activity?
Anyhow, someone once expressed surprise to find discussion about philosophy on a site that’s supposed to be for a feed reader and now we’re examining the emotional aspects of the creative process . What can I say? Writing C++ code that parses XML and bungs it into a database can get kinda boring after a while. Sigh..
 I was lucky to have started off with building a strong foundation in the blues, where the emphasis is on playing from the heart, before switching to the more technique-heavy jazz. But it still cracks me up that I can play jazz gigs and have people tell me after the show how bluesy my playing is, yet when I play blues gigs, people say they really dig the jazzy bits I throw in every now and then
 Unfortunately, she totally messed up the chords during my solo. Thanks a bundle, girl
 Well, I had a few beers. She had a glass of milk to go with some cookies she had been carrying around in her bag I am not making this up
 Which is unfortunate since this is a pretty accurate description of me But despite being almost completely opposite kinds of people, we really connected musically on stage. Still trying to figure that one out…
 There is a great scene of this session in Clint Eastwood’s biographical movie, “Bird.”
I’ve just updated the weblog Best Bits and noticed that a while back, I talked about Kadri, quite possibly my favorite, but most terrifying, cat evar. This is the entire post, from when I was in Turkey in ’98.
Deep in the heart of the tourist belt that runs along the Mediterranean coast of south-western Turkey lies a string of small towns that European holiday-makers have taken over and called their own. Dalyan is one of the smaller, more laid-back places and caters mostly for middle-aged office workers on their annual two-week break. The pace is somewhat slower than that of the raucous party towns of Marmaris and Bodrum. Here, there are river boat trips, turtle-spotting boat trips, boat trips to the nearby Lycian ruins, boat trips to…, well, you get the idea.
I was lucky to stumble across the Blues Bar on my first night, hidden away in a little backstreet with only a barely visible sign to attract people in off the main road (although some of the lights were broken so that it actually read “Blu:s Bar –>”). It was a tiny, open-air venue dominated by numerous pictures of famous jazz and blues musicians on the walls: Miles Davis looking, as always, seriously cool, an amazingly young (and thin) B.B. King, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin – this was my kind of bar!
Most of the seating was outdoors and being next to a restaurant, the place was overrun with cats looking for scraps of food and a bit of attention. King of the alley was Kadri, a huge, jet-black panther of a cat that everyone was scared of, customers included, not just the other cats. Bad-tempered and grumpy, he would perhaps allow you to pet him for a short while before ripping your arm off when he’d had enough. And it was just too bad if you left your seat and came back to find him curled up there – no-one was brave enough to try to shift him and you just had to go find yourself somewhere else to sit. Nevertheless, the two of us got along just fine, obviously sensing a kindred spirit in each other.
The owner of the bar was a big, hairy Turkish guy named Murat (in Turkey, all the guys are big and hairy) who had studied American Literature and spoke English well. He had done his thesis on the American Blues and was an avid connoisseur – the cupboard behind the bar was jam-packed with old shoeboxes stuffed with cassettes from the obscurest of blues musicians. We listened to them incessantly and he would get quite upset if I tried to spice things up with a little jazz or fusion, yelling at me to change the music and put something on that the customers really wanted to hear.
He also tried to teach me some of the language but I stubbornly resisted, Turkish being one of the world’s most useless languages to know (after Thai) but I did pick up a few Turkish proverbs and learnt such gems as “to hit a tree while driving through the desert”, “if you can’t avoid being raped then you might as well lie back and enjoy it” and my personal favourite: “a man without a belly is like a house without a balcony”.
Each night he would sing and play guitar while his Australian wife served drinks and made pleasant conversation with the customers. I had brought my horn along and sat in for a few nights – the two of us worked well together and before I knew what was happening, I was being offered a job. I was forced to accept, unlimited free booze being part of the deal, and so it was that the World-Famous Dalyan Blues Machine came into being.
There was a constant stream of people passing through town who would come join us for a session: a really sweet couple from the U.S. who played bluegrass and country to a standing ovation, a skinhead from Ankara with a permanent snarl on his face who had mastered the art of playing his guitar and giving the audience the finger at the same time, a really good English saxophonist, a really bad English saxophonist, some short, fat guy who came several times and would sit in for the entire night with a stupid grin on his face, doing nothing more than keep the beat on a Turkish drum (which drove me nuts – he had no idea how close he came to death, or at least serious injury each night). But always, every night, there would be Murat ‘n’ Taka banging away on our instruments, just waiting to see what would happen next.
And when we weren’t blowing the Turkish blues, we were fighting it out over a backgammon board. As soon as the gig was over, out came the set and the testosterone really started to flow (in Turkey, “tavla” is not so much a board game as a test of manhood). We swore at each other in Turkish and Thai as our fortunes ebbed and flowed – he would roll his eyes towards the heavens, urging Allah to give him the best numbers while I spent my time trying to learn how to rig the dice roll. We were evenly matched with neither one of us really able to get an edge and so the sound of wooden backgammon pieces being slammed down onto the board would ring through the night until the early, early hours.
I wrote a while back how I was rejigging a few things in my personal life which is well underway now, and a big part of it is spending more time playing music.
It’s been about two years since I left my last band and I’ve not played much since then. But I dusted off my horn a few months ago and started dragging my ass out to a few gigs and, as often happens, it seems that the break has done me good. I’ve been stuck on a plateau for quite a while now but I could tell that I was ready to move up to the next level so I’ve been doing some serious wood-shedding.
The term woodshedding in jazz means more than just practicing. It is a recognition of the need to sequester oneself and dig into the hard mechanics of the music before you can come back and play with a group in public. There’s something philosophical, almost religious, about the term. The musical treasures of jazz are not easily accessed. You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on the music and your instrument, before you can unlock the treasure chest.
Philosophical and religious it may be, but it’s definitely hard work, swinging between intensely boring, insanely frustrating and extraordinarily uplifting. People who’ve played with me before know that I absolutely detest The Girl From Ipanema (it’s Stairway to Heaven for sax players ) so practising this song in 12 keys, with it’s fiddly bridge, well, I’d rather be gouging my eye out with a rusty fork. But I can pretty much nail it now, so the next time someone requests it, I might even say “yes” (I still draw the line at anything by Kenny Gee, though ).
One of the bands I’ve been playing with recently is a The Commitments-style soul band and one of the guitarist’s favorite lines from the movie is when the trumpeter is bitching to the sax player about his playing. “Soul has corners! You were spiralling, that’s jazz!”
And indeed it does. My background is very much blues, rock and fusion, which are much more structured, but I want to start playing more jazz and it really is about taking old songs, simple chord progressions and tearing them apart and putting them back together again to see where it goes.
Now, this has been an incredibly round-about way of getting to what I originally wanted to link to but I really dug this because I think it’s in the same spirit. Kent Rogowski takes teddy bears, rips out their guts and turns them inside out, then photographs them.
Teddy bears are designed to be innocuous and non-threatening creatures. Inside-out the bears are still sometimes recognizable but are now much more complicated and contradictory. The seams of the bear now look like scars, and some bears lose their limbs and other appendages depending on how they were constructed. When you look at the inside-out bears they appear to have a history or a past. They no longer offer comfort but instead seem to want our empathy.
More insanely cool photos on the website. Jazz teddy bears, indeed
I wanted to write about this when it came out in the Washington Post the other week but didn’t, partly because I’ve been really busy but also because I’ve been mulling over what to make of it.
By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
Thing is, this was the guy who was playing :
A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements.
What happened probably won’t come as a surprise to most people, as we collectively shake our heads in disappointment.
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
Amusingly, he was really nervous about the whole thing :
Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.
“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”
He was, in short, art without a frame.
The article explores the idea that that we judge things in the context of its surroundings and Seth Godin concurs, saying that “[i]f your worldview is that music in the subway isn’t worth your time, you’re not going to notice when the music is better than usual (or when a famous violinist is playing)”.
But I think this is completely wrong. If it had’ve been Britney or Kylie, you can be damn sure there would’ve been a riot within minutes.
I’ve written before about how I think that a lot of what is wrong around us can be explained by the fact that people are fundamentally lazy and I think it applies here as well. It’s actually not that easy to tell the difference between a great musician and one who’s merely really good. For most people, jazz is little more than a lot of wrong notes and to really be able to dig it, you either have to be a jazz musician yourself or have done a lot of serious listening. Classical music is perhaps a bit more accessible but it’s still beyond your average schmoe to tell the difference between someone like Bell and a lesser mortal.
It takes a lot of work to get to the point where we can make such distinctions and so instead, we rely on other people to tell us what’s good and what’s not. Mass media and marketers tell us who is worthy of our adultation and we ignore everything else
I’m on my way back home after an extended trip out of town and I’ve been having a lot of fun catching up with old friends, many of them musicians. It’s getting to be that every time I get back into town, someone else has become a national superstar and this trip has been no different. But I look at my other friends who are still banging out covers in the local bars and there’s really not much difference between them. Why did one get famous, rich and all the girls but the other is still stuck churning out Wonderful Tonight and Hotel California every night?
I remember going to see the Dalai Lama speak when he visited Melbourne many years ago and while it was good to see him in person , I was a bit disappointed in how little real content there was in his talk. It wasn’t much more beyond “People, be nice to each other and the world will be a better place”, which is OK in itself but for this, he got a five-minute standing ovation. I kid you not If I had’ve got up and said exactly the same thing, I would’ve been laughed off the stage
It’s not just a cult of the celebrity, we’re just too damn lazy to listen to what’s being said, think about about what’s actually going on and make our own opinions. Guy Kawasaki is right on the money when he says:
If anyone from the Washington Post reads this, I have two suggestions: First, take a so-so violinist, hand him a Stradivari, introduce him as a wunderkind from the Black Forest, let him play as the opening act at a ritzy concert, and see if the audience fawns over him.
Second, get Steve Jobs to sell iPods for forty-five minutes in a BestBuy in South Dakota and observe what happens.
Suggestions, indeed. I wonder what would happen
 I really dig that he was cool enough to try this When I become a world-renowned saxophonist, I’d certainly be willing to try something similar  I’ve done a lot of busking myself and can confirm that it is indeed a completely terrifying experience Getting up on stage with a bunch of complete strangers to play a song you’ve never heard before is way less stressful. At least you’ve got the other guys up there with you banging out the core of the song. Playing solo out on the street, you are completely naked  He’s just like he is on TV, a cool dude with a wicked sense of humour
As some of you know, I’m currently out of town on a business trip but that doesn’t mean I’m not having an enormous amount of fun as well . I didn’t make the same misteak of not bringing my horn with me and it’s been a blast catching up with old friends that I haven’t seen for years and playing together again.
I went to a jazz jam session the other night and wandered into the bar at the same time as this incredibly fresh-faced young kid who also had a horn slung over his shoulder. We introduced ourselves and started chatting and I mentioned that I used to work in town, many years ago (12 and 14 of them, in fact ). He gave me a strange look, asked my name again and where I used to play and when I told him, gave me an even stranger look as his jaw hit the ground. “OMG. Did you have long hair and play a soprano? I used to come watch you play all the time. I play saxophone now because of you!”
The funny thing is, I’ve been in exactly the same position as he was.
While I used to play a lot of music in school, I absolutely hated it. I got strong-armed into playing flute when I in primary school because my ma always wanted to play when she was a kid but never got the chance, plus my teacher at the time was also a flautist, so I never really had much of a choice . The school had a fantastic big band and the flute section was 10 girls and me so, like I said, I absolutely hated it . When I got to high school, it was all classical so I hated it even more and just didn’t go to most of my classes
It wasn’t until I went to university that I started to take an interest in music when I would go down to the Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne’s downtown to watch a band  busking there every Friday evening. The two sax players absolutely captivated me to the point where I scraped together every last cent I had to buy a horn of my own. I had my heart set on a tenor, like both these guys played, but wasn’t even close to being able to afford it and so had to settle for an alto. Even then, I had to go to my old man and beg for a couple hundred bucks to make even that .
And many years later, I got to play with them although I was never game enough to tell the guys what they had wrought
But getting back to the kid I met the other night, it occurred to me that if he was 24 now and had been coming to see me play, he must’ve been only 10 at the time. I asked one of the old band members about him and he said “Yeah, don’t you remember? His old man used to bring him to the bar every week to watch you play.”
I’ve been doing a lot of work with young kids recently and while the impact you have on their lives is obvious, it’s not something you think about very often (although we probably should). This, on the other hand, has completely freaked me out, to have been responsible for what is such an important part of his life today 
I talk in the Awasu FAQ about part of the reason for doing all this is the importance I place on putting something back in but I also hope you all get something out of using it as well. Maybe not life-changing but hey, ya never know…
 The Swingin’ Sidewalks actually went on to much bigger things and became a household name across Australia.  When I was finally later able to afford a tenor I was never really able to get my head around it. The fingering and technique is almost the same as an alto but there’s something of a mind-shift you need to get a handle on. So even today, 20+ years later, I’m still very much an alto specialist  And let’s face it, I was fairly well lubricated most nights, hardly a good role model for such impressionable young minds
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