Writing boring piano parts doesn’t necessarily make you a minimalist.
I’m thinking about Cormac Begley playing the concertina, about Jacqueline du Pré playing Dvorak, about John Coltrane playing Crescent, about Radu Lupu playing Brahms, about Jimi Hendrix playing “All Along the Watchtower.” I’m thinking about why it’s so arresting to hear a great instrumentalist take a physical object and make it sound almost, almost like a human voice. When the playing is average, you’d rather hear someone singing. When the playing is masterful, a drama arises. You notice how incredibly close they’re getting to the subtlety of phrasing we all take for granted in speech; but all the while you know, it is the nature of this game that they’ll never actually get there. They can’t. That gap is the ineffable beauty of instrumental music. And it points to what’s around us all the time, all the beauty and subtlety of speech that we’re always taking for granted.
Grant Wallace Band’s latest, our fourth full-length, America (or, One for the Mullygrubbs) is now available on Bandcamp and all the usual streaming outlets via Two Labyrinths Records. Thar she blows:
And thus spake the label:
“Nature is a haunted house,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.”
In July 2019 Grant Wallace Band gathered at Earhead Recordings, Ben Hjertmann’s new Asheville studio and abode. After years of methodical projects focused around songcraft, composition, and an exhaustive group workshopping process, this was GWB’s chance to play fast and loose. They improvised in the studio for three days, then assembled the results into a full-length album. They were joined by cellist Emmalee Hunnicutt, veteran of adventurous North Carolina avant-folk projects Mountain Bitters and The Library of Babel.
The haunting occurred on the evening of July 4, when the group set up microphones around the house and simultaneously, each in their own room with a battery of instruments and noise-makers, listened through the full album, adding a layer of sound throughout. The fireworks let themselves in through the open windows. The result is an arresting, digressive album, full of stylistic trap-doors and secret passageways, gravel-and-bourbon vocals, iridescent sun-spot reveilles, transcendental warblings and comic asides. It’s an unexpected culmination of GWB’s years of collaboration, a slowly developed group concept cast into playful spontaneity.
During our week in Asheville we also found a minute to record CFL’s arrangement of the great classic “Lovesick Blues”:
I’m pleased to announce my new trio recording on Two Labyrinths Records. Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez documents my trio of the same title, composed for Chatter in 2018, premiered in February 2019. David Felberg and Jesse Tatum were the most excellent band for this go-round. The recording and mixing is by Drake Hardin. There is also “Pathless Cañon (Invention for Three Keyboards),” a quick studio creation.
The label's blurb is below.
Every nowhere you pass through is someone else’s somewhere. In the middle of the last century, Weldon Kees drove across the continent and memorialized the trip in a poem, “Travels in North America.” He visited Santa Fe and admired the trees of Los Alamos: “We meant / To stop, but one can only see so much.”
Half a century later, the poet and El Paso native Ray Gonzalez put Kees’ ghost in the passenger seat for another road trip and another poem, “Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees.” Now a third iteration emerges: inspired by these two journeys, composer/pianist Luke Gullickson travels through his adopted home state in his latest trio composition, Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez.
Seeking a more complex approach to Western landscape depiction in music, Gullickson takes Aaron Copland’s wide-open chords and sets them in a New Mexico landscape that has known drought, wildfire, and the atomic bomb. That struggles with the legacies of colonialism and poverty, that skirmishes over land and water policy. In the decaying chords held in the piano, one might hear the interweaving sounds of wind in a ponderosa forest. In the contrapuntal relation of the three instruments, one might hear the difficult task of relationship—among people, and between people and place.
“Journeys are ways of marking out a distance, / Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually, / Or ways of searching for some enclosure in this space / Between the oceans…” (WK)
For a long time I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. At some point, without precisely realizing it, I must have reached the top, and now the work is running after the boulder as it rolls down the other side, to try and catch up with it, not to let it get away. That’s still hard work. But it’s different.
1. One of my jazz piano teachers told me to straighten out my eighth notes. A “bouncy” swung eighth was anathema. He said that when he was playing his best, he noticed the eighth notes tending toward evenness. It has long been observed that at a faster tempo, the difference between straight and swung eighths begins to disappear. I have been listening to Cormac Begley. Question: are those straight eighths?
2. Milford Graves said a metronome would give you a heart attack. He dismisses the metronome as a military taskmaster and tells his students to listen to their own heartbeats. I went through a heavy period of metronome practice years back; recently I use it less. That said, last year I was learning the Brahms F Major Cello Sonata, and I found myself reaching for the timekeeper. Brahms’ time is not metronomic, it’s romantic, phrase-based, breathlike, and so on, but it also operates simultaneously on multiple rhythmic levels, and sometimes features hard shifts between the foregrounding of those levels. So a metronome seemed useful to keep myself honest—I wanted to see if my eighth notes, my triplets, and my sixteenths were all actually happening at the same tempo as I hopped back and forth. In Brahms these levels are like the different floors of a house. You want them all built on the same foundation. Now I’m learning the Horn Trio, and I’m staying away from the metronome. I want to let the time grow out of the music, rather than imagining that the time is already there and the music is just being set down within its preexisting walls.
My favorite songwriting compliment is still Elvis Costello, writing about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes: “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone.” I’ve aspired to that quality. But lately I’m wondering if I shouldn’t wipe the ideas clean, maybe give them a quick rinse under running water. Just so their natural shapeliness can show.
My latest Golconda, The Lost Forest, is now available on Bandcamp and all the digital streaming platforms. This completes a diptych with Ghost Stories, documenting the songs I wrote at PLAYA in 2018.
For more on the stories behind these songs, subscribe to my email newsletter. Missive to come.
I think a lot about what Leonard Cohen said to Terry Gross:
GROSS: “Do you feel, as a songwriter - do you feel a connection to, say, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen - those guys - the kind of classic American popular songwriters?”
COHEN: “Well, I think they're better than I am. You know, I just think they know more about music. Someone like Cole Porter - his rhymes are, you know, much, much more elegant than mine. I have a very limited kind of expression. But I've done the best that I can with it. And I've worked it as diligently as I can.”
I try to remember that the bar has been set very, very high, by people who led harder lives than mine. I try to be inspired rather than discouraged by this. I try to maintain a sense that the work is its own reward, and while I too am entitled to the occasional break, I am never entitled to feel sorry for myself.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues