On inspiration.

Categories:  Composition/Songwriting, Inspiration, Music

I originally wrote this in 2010, for a now-dead blog page associated with an earlier incarnation of this website. I came across a printout of it and decided to clean it up a bit and repost today, since it’s still relevant.

Last night 60 Minutes did an updated profile of child prodigy Jay Greenberg, age 14, who can compose in his head entire full-length orchestral works in about the same amount of time it takes you or me to prepare, assemble, and eat a turkey & cran sauce sandwich.

BlueJay (as he signs his compositions) says he doesn’t know where the music is coming from, can’t turn it off as it flows through his imagination, and in fact hears multiple pieces “playing” at once. It’s a level of extreme giftedness that can make the merely super-talented blush and cower.

As unapproachable as BlueJay’s abilities are, I think many musicians and other artists would recognize some aspect of his inner world. Even someone like me, who’s only occasionally prolific, has experienced moments when an entire song seemed to appear out of nowhere, fully formed in my imagination, begging me to make my way to the piano and bring it into an objective, definitive state of being.

In fact, I went through a lucky period in the spring and summer of 2008 when I wrote a half-dozen songs in exactly this nirvana state of open-eared acceptance. As many others have noted before me, this type of productivity feels less like composition than transcription–just notating a music that existed before it happened to fall into my ear.

The mystically inclined will talk of God or the Muses, while other more scientific sorts will refer to the murky processes of the unconscious mind. Maybe those are just two different ways of saying the exact same thing. When it happens to you, it’s sheer bliss.

But it also sets up a potentially painful set of expectations. BlueJay hears the music all the time, more than he can transcribe. I recently read about another musician, a Nashville songwriter, who hears new songs so often that he can easily write one or two a day, and sometimes actually refuses to “go with” an idea that’s hounding him because he really needs a break to eat lunch or mow the lawn. Most of us, even if we’re lucky enough to experience that flow of creativity once in a while, are more likely to be found sitting at the piano bench with blank manuscript paper in front of us, waiting, waiting, waiting for hours or days or months, waiting for something beautiful to knock us in the head.

Back to the standards.

Categories:  Uncategorized

I am not exactly sure why, but with my new jazz quartet (Jake Leckie on bass, Shareef Taher on drums, and Ben Frock on trumpet and occasionally a little guitar) I’ve been moved to return to some of the classic vocal and instrumental “standards” I started working on fifteen or twenty years ago. At that point, the whole idea of having a jazz quartet was still just a crazy dream I nurtured while procrastinating on a novel I was supposed to be writing. (That’s a long, unfinished story about a long, unfinished story.)

At tomorrow night’s show at Germano’s, we’ll do a couple of Jobim tunes, something from Herbie Hancock, something from Michel Legrand, maybe even a Miles Davis swinger. We’ll do Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” which set hearts aflame during our Valentine’s Day show at the same venue. We’ll do “Consider Me Gone” from Sting, because it’s just so much fun to wring every bit of greasy, slinky, bluesy goodness out of a simple two-chord song.

In between, I’ll throw in a couple of my originals. I think the best of my own songs can stand up to the solid hits of yesteryear, can occupy the same set list without seeming weak or out of place. Occasionally I’ve even had audience members tell me they preferred my stuff to the covers we’d done in a particular gig. This is, of course, just about the best bit of flattery a songwriter can hear. Probably one of my best-ever gigs to date took place at Artscape in 2009. I had an awesome six-piece band, and we played an entirely original set, except for one Radiohead cover (“Fake Plastic Trees”). We had an audience of about 20 to start, but by the end of the hour, there were easily 400 people milling around and clapping and cheering us on…for original songs they had never heard before. Talk about instant gratification…That was the day I knew I hadn’t been wasting my time writing songs.

But for some reason, rather than cranking out new material, these days I’m feeling drawn to delve into some of the classic material, arrange it lightly or aggressively, and see what we four can do to hear it and play it in a fresh way. I guess this means that despite the recent foray into Floyd, I’m apparently still a jazz musician at heart….

Maybe reacquainting myself with standards is a way to tap into a deeper level of craft and intuition for the next time I want to sit down and write something new. It’s been a quiet few years for me on the songwriting front, but I’m not worried: fields have to lie fallow for a while before becoming fertile again.

Wherein I get to have my say, and then some.

Categories:  Composition/Songwriting, Music

I was lucky enough to have John Lewis of BALTIMORE MAGAZINE contact me for an extended Q&A interview about Mobtown Moon, now available in full on the website. After months of focus on the work itself, it was lovely to get a chance to summarize my thoughts about project.

Along with that wonderful opportunity to go on and on and on in the first person, it was also incredibly gratifying to hear what someone ELSE had to say about Mobtown Moon: Here’s an excellent, well-considered review of the CD by Baltimore City Paper’s editor Evan Serpick.

That 70s flow.

Categories:  Favorite Songs & Artists, Life, Memories

When I think back on my childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s, I am sometimes overwhelmed with synaesthetic memories of music, recalling not just a specific song or lyric or instrumental riff, but along with those elements, a whole embodiment of vibe and emotion Read the rest of this entry »

On the advantages of being Type A.

Categories:  Effectiveness, Inspiration, Life, Motivation, Music

I keep hearing that something called “project management” is a hot new field, one of the few growing occupations in our turbulent late-stage-capitalist economy. According to Wikipedia, “project management” is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing, and managing resources to achieve specific goals. Well, jeez Read the rest of this entry »

Stories spoken and sung.

Categories:  Music, Public Performance

My dear friend and fellow ambitious Mobtown Moon’er, ellen cherry, is a terrific onstage storyteller, whether she’s speaking or singing. We shared the “bandstand” (read: back room behind the kitchen) at a wonderful house concert this past Saturday, our kickoff fundraising concert for the Floyd project. Read the rest of this entry »

Constraints & creativity; music & motherhood.

Categories:  Effectiveness, Life, Music, Parenthood

I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did. My first professional gigs as a jazz pianist/singer took place in the same year that I was raising our infant son. Read the rest of this entry »

Mentors are key.

Categories:  Inspiration, Life, Music, Uncategorized, Writing

I’m having lunch with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. When I was still just a late-blooming music student/apprentice with a very unclear future, he was one of the very first full-fledged professionals who encouraged me to stick with my ambitions. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t fake it. Make it.

Categories:  Effectiveness, Goals, Inspiration, Life, Music, Public Performance

I’m slightly afraid to go public with this. If I say it out loud, it sort of obligates me to follow through…. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning by doing.

Categories:  Inspiration, Life, Memories, Motivation, Music, Public Performance

About fifteen years ago, driven by a mix of whimsy and ambition, I turned myself into a jazz pianist. I was already an adult with a full-blown career in journalism, but somehow, through sheer will and focused study, I created a second vocation for myself in music.

Already in my 30s, I was experiencing a dream-come-true just to land some private parties and wedding gigs. Read the rest of this entry »