Monday, March 30, 2009

Music, She Wrote

Music, She Wrote… On Saturday night, I participated in a concert of original music performed by female composers and musicians.  A few weeks ago, I was invited by the director of the Oakland Public Conservatory to participate in a their second annual celebration of Women Composers, "Music, She Wrote". The other performers and composers in the ensemble were:

India Cooke - violin

Kelly Fasman – drums

Karen Horner - bass

Branice McKenzie – vocal

Sandy Poindexter - violin

Angela Wellman - trombone

Yehudit - violin

It sounded like a wonderful concept, and so I signed on.  Week after week, trying to gather each of the musicians together for this volunteer effort (a fundraiser for OPC’s wonderful program of offering music instruction to Oakland’s youth) was proving to be problematic.  All of us are active performers, teachers, and composers, with schedules that would possibly be defined as overwhelming, except for the fact that we all manage to handle them!  Finally, the week before the concert, everyone came together for a rehearsal on Tuesday.  Thanks to some world-class creative procrastination, I waited until the last minute to compose a work specifically for the gathered ensemble: piano, bass, drums, 3 violins, trombone and voice.  I came up with the foundation of my piece (a rhythm section groove and violin support), hastily notated my music using music software as quickly as I could before shifting gears to teach my piano and voice students.  I only had about 90 minutes of time to prepare my score, and managed to print out something legible!

The rehearsal that evening was a bit bumpy, partly because some of us (…ok, me…) didn’t have completed or accurate scores of our pieces, but we got through it.  I was enthusiastic and excited about the music we’d be performing.  On Saturday, I was still struggling with coming up with a confirmed melody for one of my compositions.  We had all agreed to meet at the Conservatory at 6pm for a run through.  At 5:15 lightening struck, and EUREKA!  I created a melody.  No lyrics, but a melody that I actually love and a general concept of the song…in case I write lyrics at some point. I headed to the Conservatory and we did a quick run through of the music, each of us professional enough not to be worried by anything musical and 8:20 or so (maybe it was a weeee bit later) started the performance.

First, we performed a piece by Karen Horner, “House Spirit”, a lovely ode to the birth of her daughter in 6/8 time, with African rhythms.  Next, “Ra Storm” by India Cooke.  I have very little experience with free jazz, but India is a master of the idiom.  Not only did she create a composition that was clear, evocative and exciting, but her musical leadership focused our sound in creating an incredible musical journey. “HJ”, a piece by Angela Wellman in dedication to her friend, the reknowed musician and Oakland music educator, Helena Jack, was next on the program.  Reminiscent of a McCoy Tyner waltz, “HJ” was solidly in the jazz tradition yet expansive and healing in its intent and performance.  The violinists took a break on Branice McKenzie’s first piece, “Shelter”, a charming R&B / Samba with lyrics reminding the listener to look inside one’s self for “shelter” from life’s storms. 

Sandy Poindexter ’s pieces both infused the night with Latin rhythms.  Her first piece, “In The Stars”, was a nod to celestial themed entertainment (she specifically named Star Trek as an inspiration!).  Yehudit and the violinists opened Yehudit’s “Song of Praise, Song of Peace” with a beautiful trio, joined at the repeat of the theme by the trombone, and then further developed with the rhythm section into a form of the blues.  The final piece of the first half of the program was my hastily composed tune “Alone” (title is tentative).  I was inspired to write a song in 7/4 time, and am quite pleased with the piece, though it’s still a work in progress.  I tend to compose in popular music forms, and this song is no different.  I was utterly thrilled to hear the piece performed live and am sure I will record it at some point.

During intermission, several of the performers offered their CDs for sale.  Please visit their websites (links provided above!) and support these fine musicians by buying their CDs!  You will not be disappointed!

The second half of the program opened with Angela’s ballad “Who Will Speak for the Children”.  Angela’s dedication to musical education, to supporting children and youth in Oakland and beyond is perfectly conveyed in this lovely piece.  In keeping with the spirit of children, next I performed my song “Faith of a Child” with the rhythm section.  I wrote this song in honor of my niece Naomi’s triumph over leukemia.  I had hoped that Naomi could have performed the song with me (we’ve performed as a duo – me on piano and singing, and Naomi dancing), but she was already booked to perform at a fundraiser in another city.  At 6 years old, she’s already in demand as a performer!  For the next piece, I took a break!  Yehudit composed her piece “Blue-per” for non-chordal instruments, so I sat back and enjoyed this fun bluesy romp! Then came “Sun”, another piece by India.  This was one of my favorite pieces of the night.  Another example of free jazz, India and I played this piece as a duo.  Despite my inexperience in free jazz, I followed India’s instruction to play with “big ears and a big heart” and I think it worked brilliantly! 

After “Sun” set, we moved into “The Prince To Another Land”, a piece that Sandy dedicated to a friend of hers (whom it appeared that everyone in the ensemble knew except for me).  The piece opened with a beautiful melody, played in a rubato (somewhat freely) style, and then moved into a Mambo which grew in intensity over time.  Branice then came back to the stage to sing her gorgeous song “I Can’t Remember”, another of my favorites.  She composed this piece for a film featuring Gregory Hines.  The song was not selected for the film, but should have been!  To close the program, we performed two grooving, bluesy pieces.  First, Karen’s “What Goes Around”, which she composed for young students, and Angela’s “Well Jack”, which she composed with her friend Helena Jack, who is currently dealing with a serious illness.  It was a great way to end a night of amazing music.  I personally enjoyed performing everyone’s music, and am grateful to the other ladies for having performed so beautifully on my pieces!  I’m sure we’ll be organizing another performance of “Music, She Wrote”.  If you missed this one, I implore you not to miss it again!  It really was great.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Why Music Matters

A friend of mine recently emailed the following article to me. It's long, but I took the time to read it, and am glad I did. For those of you struggling with finding purpose in music, searching for rationale in challenging times, read this for inspiration. I did, and I couldn't keep it to myself : >

Dr. Karl Paulnack's address to the Boston Conservatory Freshman Class

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting things done!

I am so proud of myself! I have been making real progress on my to do list, including items which had been sitting, ignored, for months on end! Also, this afternoon, I sat down and composed a new song! I loooove it already, and I've only got the piano, bass and drums recorded (quick, cheezy tracks, but still...)! I'm so happy, oh so happy, I'm so happy, and creative and pleased! : >

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Driven Week

Not my car. Photo used for effect (I do love an Aston Martin DB9, though...)

No more driving. I’m done. Well, for the day. This week, I drove to and from LA for my gig, and then today drove to Sacramento to visit my grandmother (ok, my cousin Tony drove, but I was in the car). I am utterly car fatigued. I was supposed to have a rehearsal this evening, but thankfully it was cancelled. I would have been rather useless.

I'm so wiped out that despite wanting to practice, I’ve decided to take the night off and … drum roll …just relax! I might even take a bubble bath! I’ll get up early tomorrow morning and practice. Really… I mean it! No, I’m not kidding… I’m not going near the piano… Not even to try this really cool new exercise that Peter Horvath showed me… No!!!! Tomorrow!!! Get up now, and walk away from the studio. Don’t look at the piano as you exit, Victoria! Bubble bath….buuuubbbbblllle baaaaath… sleeeeeeeep! I can do it! I can resist the temptation… inhale, and GO RELAX!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Hawk, The Bustier and the Gig with Kaylah Marin

On Wednesday night, after having worked all day performing and teaching, I packed up and drove to Los Angeles. Bay Area artist, Kaylah Marin, with whom I’ve performed recently, asked me to travel to LA to perform at the Urban Network Conference held at the Pacific Palms Resort in City of Industry. The rest of the band was traveling via van earlier in the day, but because of my teaching schedule, I wasn’t able to leave until late. I set up my navigation and my iPod and I hit the road, listening alternately to audio books and my favorite high energy music: usually a mix of spirited contemporary gospel, popular R&B and dance pop and alternative metal – anything that I can sing along with and keep myself awake on the long drive. As I was traversing the Grapevine, I felt myself starting to get drowsy, and was at the point where I felt the need to pull over. In the moment before making a decision to stop the car, a gigantic bird, with a wing span nearly as wide as my windshield made a dramatic dip towards my car, sending my adrenaline through the roof! The bird swooped low and then went off to the right of my car. I’d never seen anything like it. The bird’s appearance was very well timed, and the energy I gained from the sighting propelled me all the way to the Resort, thus sparing me an accident and saving me time.

I arrived at the Resort at 2:35am, went to bed and slept until 12:30pm…a much needed respite! I got dressed and went to lunch in the main restaurant on the ground level. I noticed a camera crew and several people dressed in golf wear. Given that the Resort is a popular golfing location, I assumed there was some kind of golf event taking place. A group of young men came in and sat at the table next to me. They appeared wealthy (the haircuts, the glowing skin, the tight bodies), and I assumed they were golf pros. One of the men looked familiar, and I thought to myself “he really looks a lot like Matt Dillon, but that’s not Matt”. I don’t watch golf at all, unless Tiger Woods is playing and he’s in a good match, so as far as I knew, they could have actually been golf pros. While sitting alone at my table, with apparently nothing better to do, contemplating who these men were, a young African-American women walked over and asked to take a photo with the men. Now, I’m sure there are African-American women who are avid golf fans and know golfers who aren’t Tiger Woods, but I don’t personally know any such women! So, I thought to myself “wow, it’s so cool that golf appeals to a diverse audience today”. Intrigued, I asked my waiter who the “golfers” were. Apparently, I’m not only ignorant of sports figures: these men were actors from the HBO show “Entourage” and the reason that one of the men reminded me of Matt Dillon is because he was Kevin Dillon, Matt’s brother, a cast member of the show. Of course, Ms. Lives in a Cave (that would be me) has never seen the show and is utterly clueless about who actors are except the Ultra Famous (Brad, Will, Denzel, etc. – oops, am I drooling?). My phone rang, breaking my voyeuristic spell, and I was summoned to sound check. I had to leave TV land, but it was fun to watch the set for a few minutes.

After sound check, I dressed for the show and received abundant validation of having made the correct wardrobe choice: form fitting pants, sky high boots and a subtly sexy bustier. I could barely walk 3 steps without receiving additional "validation"!

The show went well, and Kaylah received lots of attention. Hopefully she’ll gain the exposure that she and her staff were hoping for in booking the gig. Several people watched the show, and I heard only positive comments when walking around after the show.

The band had dinner as a group, reveling in a job well done. Earlier, I had informed everyone that I would be driving back home after the gig. I had hoped to secure a Friday night job in Los Angeles, which would have justified staying an extra day, but I had no further booking luck, so I didn’t cancel any of my obligations back at home. Marvin, one of the background singers, was kind enough to be my co-pilot on the drive back to the Bay Area. It’s amazing how much easier it is to make a long drive with another person in the car. I don’t think I’ll be doing that drive again on my own, errant hawk, notwithstanding!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Friday I cried...

More on that later : >

It was a weekend full of music, my own and that of others. It all began on Thursday night: I’d been asked to perform in a Stevie Wonder Tribute show with the incredible vocalist, Fred Ross, at The Broadway Grill, a local restaurant where I frequently perform as a singing pianist.  Both of us enthusiastic Stevie Wonder fans, we took on the task with glee.  Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t sufficiently advertised, so the audience was small and thanks to a subdued sound system, barely aware of our presence.  Regardless, Fred and I agreed that it was fun and that our duo (actually a trio, with the drummer) should be repeated.  Fred is one of those rare singers who’s unafraid (and actually able) to sing Stevie’s demanding songs in the original key.

Friday was intense.  I woke up at 5am and went to the gym, my “reward” for having practiced 5.5 hours the day before.  After a brief nap, I went to yoga, returned home to prepare for the day.  I drove to the school where I’m the choral program accompanist, and accompanied the very talented teens, rehearsing music for their upcoming music tour.  After school, I drove to a senior living community, where I performed for an enthusiastic audience of senior citizens.  I received requests for music ranging from Chopin to “In The Mood for Love” to “Phantom of the Opera”; of course, I happily accommodated them all.  It was an interesting contrast to play for (and accompany) people of such diverse ages back to back: both have clear love for music, and are demonstrative in their appreciation of my performance, but differ in the type of feedback energy that I sense as a performer, the restlessness of youth versus the focus of maturity.

After my performance for the senior community, I decided to spend my free 2 hours before my next event having a late lunch with a friend.  After lunch (dinnertime for most people), my friend and I made an attempt to view a few art galleries under the moniker Art Murmur, a group of galleries in Oakland that have openings every first Friday of the month – and it’s FREE (my favorite word of the moment!). Our first stop, at a gallery in Jack London Square, was a bust: the gallery was closed, despite having been on the list of galleries.  So we sped off to the next gallery (as I only had about 40 minutes left to keep my schedule), 510 Gallery.  The 510 Gallery featured an incredible series of angel wings cast of plywood.  The artists were on hand and happy share their creative vision and process.  I was astonished at the delicacy of their work, and how thoroughly the work reflects the character of wings.

Next, I headed to Berkeley to see the Berkeley Playhouse production of “Once on this Island”, directed by Kimberly Dooley.  For several years, I worked as an accompanist for Elizabeth McCoy, the artistic director of the Berkeley Playhouse, and was excited to finally have a chance to witness the results of her hard work as an audience member.   I had no idea that Kimberly, Erika Bowman and Michael Mohammed, were also involved in the production.  I’ve worked with all of them over the years, and it was a pleasure to see them in a musical theater context.  From start (with the beating of drums as audience members entered the theater) to end, this production was excellent!  Kimberly’s vision of an island in the French Antilles was beautifully rendered through gorgeous set design, vibrant, engaging performances, energetic choreography and lovely music.  I had a hard time sitting still!  I wanted to jump up and dance with the performers! The biggest surprise was seeing my friend’s daughter, Zendaya, on stage.  I’ve accompanied Zendaya in school concerts before, but had no idea she was such a natural stage performer!  I enjoyed myself immensely!  “Once on this Island” is showing through March 15.  Go see it!

After watching the musical, doing my networking (which I always do when in musical environments…it’s a business!), and chatting up old friends, I was thoroughly exhausted.  However, I received a text message from a friend who’d invited me to see Stanley Clarke that same evening.  After having promised Elizabeth that I’d come see her production, I had to turn down the invitation, but I really, really, really wanted to see Stanley perform.  I’ve missed countless opportunities to see musical legends perform over the years, mostly because of conflicts with my own performance schedule, but sometimes because of budget.  Well, after receiving that text message, I called and discovered that tickets were still available for the 10pm show.  Hm…I was running on fumes at this point, and the tickets were outside of my current budget, but I spoke on the phone with another friend who (thankfully) encouraged me to go to the show.  So I did.  I sat behind the pianist at a table with strangers (who didn’t seem all that pleased to have me sit with them; at least they were utterly non-responsive to my pre-concert chit-chat…oh well!  It was an open seat, so I took it!).  One word: amazing.  And then, my weepy moment. It came during Stanley’s composition “Paradigm Shift”, which he wrote in honor of President Obama’s election.  Stanley’s music can be quite complex, and extremely difficult to execute technically.  Through the statement of the theme and solos by Stanley’s pianist and violinist, this technical difficulty was evident.  The musicians played with fierce virtuosity and soaring energy.  However, during his solo, Stanley played with utter simplicity and delicacy, creating such exquisitely beautiful sound and phrasing, that I could barely contain my emotions.  That moment alone justified my fatigue and the expense.

Other notable moments were the solos of pianist, Ruslan Sirota, and drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., during the song “After the Cosmic Rain”, a Return To Forever classic.  Ruslan has superlative technical facility and a tremendous musical imagination.  I only wish he’d add a greater element of emotion into his playing.  Ronald was plain ridiculous!  I mean that in the best possible way!  His solo was a demonstration of how to have fun when playing music.  His joy was irrepressible and his playing full of vitality.  Violinist Zach Brock was consistently expressive and passionate in his playing.

Stanley’s first finale was Bass Etude #6, during which he played the acoustic bass as if it were a Flamenco guitar.  I’d never seen anything like it.  What a show.

Having been duly inspired, back to work I go! And a one, two, a one, two, three, four…

Friday, March 06, 2009

Looking for a gig in the LA area Friday, March 13, 2009!

Hello friends,

I'm performing in the LA area next Thursday, March 12, and if I can get a gig for Friday, March 13, I'll stay an extra day. Anybody looking for a keyboard player / background singer for that day? Book me!! : >

Blessings and Music,


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Stanford Weekend

I spent 3 of the past 5 days on the Stanford University campus! A Stanford weekend! On Thursday, I drove to Stanford to attend a songwriting lecture with the incredibly talented Esperanza Spalding. I first met Esperanza at Stevie's 2008 House Full of Toys fundraising concert in LA. I had the opportunity to accompany her on her catchy tune "I Know You Know".

Esperanza is terrifically talented as a singer, bassist, songwriter and pedagogue. During her Stanford lecture, she shared profound musical insight. I was utterly impressed by her ability to articulate the balance between nuanced sensitivity and technical practicality in the creative process. My favorite quotes were: “practice finishing songs” and “be sure that your skill set is fully cultivated”. Esperanza told us a story about recording with bass legend, Stanley Clarke. She had been spending time practicing finishing songs in her down time, flying around the planet, etc. During the recording session, Stanley Clarke asked her to complete a song for him. Because of her diligence in practicing writing and completing songs, she was ready and able to fulfill his request!

Esperanza's story so inspired me, that the next day, my friend Amy and I met for a song writing session. We got to work, with a self imposed time limit of 90 minutes, and we wrote a song that we really like! We are both proud of ourselves for setting an intention, working hard and fulfilling that intention! Thanks to Esperanza for the inspiration!

On Friday, I again drove to Stanford to hear Esperanza in concert. She was kind enough to invite me as her guest. I’d never had the opportunity to hear Esperanza and her band in concert, so I was thrilled. Her band includes pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Otis Brown, and guitarist Ricardo Vogt. Anthony Diamond, a Stanford student, joined the band onstage for a couple of numbers, and was a welcome addition to the vibe. The concert was excellent! If you have the chance to hear Esperanza in concert, don’t miss it! Not only did she perform several of her wonderful compositions (including “I Know You Know” and “She Got To You”) but also brilliantly reconceived and arranged versions of “Body and Soul (Cuerpa y Alma)” and “Wild Is The Wind” – which was one of my favorite performances of the night.

Another favorite performance was a piece that Esperanza sang accompanied only by her pianist, Leo. The piece is based on an Argentinean rhythm, I can’t remember the name of the rhythm, and therefore only remember the second half of the title, which was “Liliana”. Whatever the title, it was a blazing example of pianistic and vocal virtuosity, and at the same time a beautiful example of superlative musicality. The primary melody was doubled in the piano and Esperanza’s soaring soprano. The piece was intricate, esoteric, yet appealing and vibrant! For most of the concert, I couldn’t sit still in my seat. Otis Brown’s groove on the drums was undeniable and Leo and Richard’s comping propelled Esperanza’s natural groove. I had a GREAT time. After the show, we all ate dinner and hung out for a little, ending the evening early because the band had a 5am airport call time.

Finally, this morning I found myself once again on the Stanford campus, attending a lecture by General Colin Powell. He was GREAT! I had no idea he’d be such a charismatic and humorous speaker. He given a lovely introduction by former Secretary of State George Shultz, and then spent the next hour explaining to the audience what his life is like now that he’s no longer a power player in the sense that he was during the Reagan and Bush administrations. What I mostly loved about his speech is that he’s not one of those intransigent Republicans that is so devoted to party, that he won’t admit when a candidate from another party is superior. He brilliantly articulated his reasons for supporting then-candidate Obama over his friend Senator McCain, and offered examples of justification from his own experience as a military leader. I thoroughly enjoyed the speech and enjoyed hearing an example of a “conservative” that didn’t just seem angry and bitter that their side “lost”. How refreshing! Lol I do love visiting my secondary alma mater…