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Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir March 23, 2010

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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You really, really have to watch this.

What’s going on?  This is Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, so let’s have Eric explain how it came to be.

In short, every singer is this video is doing nothing more than watching Eric’s conductor video and listening to his piano track, using the score of  Lux Aurumque.  No one is hearing anyone else.  No one heard anything else until Eric released the consolidated piece last week.

It’s a total triumph.

Watching the beautiful, engaged young faces as they worked hard to do the best job they could is a spine-tingling experience, and one which makes me feel optimistic about the future of choral music.


Catching up with jazz July 21, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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Years ago, I listened to a lot of jazz.  I still do, but I haven’t really kept up with the scene. If I look at the dates on my jazz CDs, they’re predominantly eighties releases.  I keep an occasional eye on my favourite musicians – John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny –  but I’m nowhere near as keen a fan as I was in 1985, which is a shame, because there’s nothing in music quite like the sound of a great jazz improviser feeding off a great jazz band.

Last night, I happened once again to buy a copy of Downbeat magazine at the Laguna Beach news stand to look at over a cold Sierra Nevada at the Marine Room next door.  No synchronicity this time – the classic rock station seemed to be focussing on Eric Burdon.  However, it turned out that this was the issue where the magazine announced the results of their 57th annual critics poll, and it struck me that this might be an interesting opportunity to see where the jazz world has moved to in twenty-odd years.

So, let’s look a little closer.  There are three pages or so of categories – small groups, big  bands, instrumentalists in every possible area, vocal and instrumental rising stars, producers, arrangers.  Each category includes the top ten vote getters.  All in all, there’s a whole lot or material to work with.

Now this is not going to be some musical version of the Julie/Julia project (although, who knows, maybe I could get Andie McDowell to play Lorraine in the movie), but it would certainly be fun to dig into some of the more interesting categories, find some new musicians, and see what I think about the world of jazz in 2009 (and, frankly, probably in 2010 too).

I mean, what can go wrong when the winner of the “Jazz Group, Rising Star” poll is an ensemble named “Mostly Other People Do The Killing”.

Synchronicity and Jack Bruce February 10, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, music.
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Last night, I happened to drop by my favourite local bar, the Marine Room, on my way home from the gym.  There’s an excellent magazine stand next door, and I’d picked up a copy of Downbeat magazine to flip through while sipping a cold Sierra Nevada.  I had an pleasant conversation with the guy running the stand, who’d spotted the picture of Wes Montgomery on the cover of the magazine.  Turned out he was a guitar player who’d seen Wes play live, back in New Jersey in the sixties.  We chatted for a while about Wes, Joe Pass and other guitar geniuses.

So I moved next door, grabbed a bar stool, ordered my beer, and started nibbling at Downbeat.  There was satellite radio classic rock playing over the speaker system – Pretenders, very tasty, Eagles, less so.  I turned to the Downbeat  interview with Jack Bruce, and, as if by magic, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” started up.

Weird. I’ll have to try this again. Maybe it only works with Sierra Nevada.

The sound of one drum drumming February 10, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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After a few days of welcome rain had blown through Orange County (even though we weren’t in Orange County to see it), last night was pretty cold and crisp.  OK, it wasn’t cold by any standards other than those of Southern California.  The tenperature was probably in the high forties (8C or thereabouts for the transatlantic contingent), and there was a smart breeze.

Last night was also full moon, and full moon means Full Moon Drum Circle.  Or rather, it normally does.  Not last night.  Lorraine and I donned the arctic gear (woolly cap in my case), packed the djembe and the tambourine, two chairs and two flasks of tea, and headed down to Aliso Beach to join the groove.

Nobody there.

To be strictly accurate, there was one friendly guy, toasting himself in front of a firepit full of furiously blazing wood.  It seemed like a shame to just pack up and go, so we set up and started drumming.  Our new friend professed no ownership of the fire.  He said that it had been started by another guy, who’d set it going and left.

After a while another small group showed up, with a large buffalo drum (like a very big bass bodhran), another djembe and a shaker.  So we had ourselves a small drum circle for an hour or so until the fire started dying down.

It was a really lovely evening – blazing fire on the beach, the sound of drums, and the surf just beyond the circle of firelight – and we’re glad we made the effort.  But I’d certainly like to know where everyone else was.

Update: Turns out that the drum circle had been cancelled, and the cancellation had sneaked its sneaky way to my spam folder without me noticing.

Next stop Wednesday, March 11.

Lynn Harrell in Laguna Beach January 26, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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Our friends Erich and Viviane called earlier in the week, and wondered if we’d like to take up a couple of spare tickets for the final concert in this year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival.  Sure, we said, sounds like fun.  Really, it was more than fun – it was totally revelatory.

The Festival is in its seventh year, and they take the approach of building each year’s festival around a single world-class musician.  I suppose that the goal must be to allow audiences to both hear wonderful music from the guest of honour and, at the same time, watch the interplay between the guest and the younger musicians who form the supporting cast, so to speak.

This year’s guest was the internationally renowned cellist Lynn Harrell, and yesterday’s final concert in the series featured Harrell in a program titled “The Captivating Cello and Friends”.  The first two pieces, Bach’s Sonata for Viola da Gamba in D major, BWV 1028, and Brahms’ Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op. 38, involved Harrell and a riveting young pianist, Victor Asuncion, originally from the Philippines and now blending an exciting concert career with a teaching gig at the University of Memphis.  Asuncion showed a huge range in this concert.  He was beautifully crisp and precise in the Bach and dynamic and involved in the Brahms.  After the break, he played the Piano Sonata No 1 by Alban Berg, which could hardly have been more different.  At times gentle and melodic, at time powerful, dissonant and angry, the piece sounded like a total minefield and he navigated it triumphantly. 

The collaborative piece which followed was Schubert’s gorgeous String Quintet in C Major, D 956, which brought together Harrell and an engaging quartet of young musicians from the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, the Colburn Conservatory String Quartet.  There’s nothing quite like watching a chamber ensemble up close.  They’re always watching each other, looking out for body language, making eye contact.  It’s a most intimate yet dynamic style of music and often the most fun to watch.  It was clear that Harrell was the leader. He was seated in the centre of the semi-circle with the second cello and viola to his left and the two violins to his right.  At the start of the piece, it seemed as though things weren’t quite to his satisfaction – there were some frowns, and at one point he pointed to the second cellist’s score with his bow.  But the piece settled down quickly and turned into a really lovely chamber performance.

And then Harrell came on stage alone, illuminated by a single stark spotlight, and blew us all away with a stunning performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No 3 in G major, BWV 1009.  This is just naked Bach, twenty minutes of unaccompanied cello, with no hiding place.  The ceaseless stream of Bach’s musical genius flowed from Harrell’s cello and you simply couldn’t look away.  When he was done, the audience went crazy – we knew we’d seen and heard something very special.

All in all, I felt very privileged to have been able to see world-class music in my home town, and, what’s more, in the local high school auditorium. The room is pretty small, probably no more than 400 seats, and we were lucky enough to be pretty much front and centre.  We’ve noticed before that when you’re this close, you experience artistic performances in a way that you miss in a larger room – you hear dancers breathing and feel their feet slap the floor.  Here, we could watch Victor Asuncion mouthing his phrasings to himself, and, in the last piece, we could hear Harrell’s physical  involvement in the music, as he breathed, as his fingers hit the fingerboard, as he bowed the chordal passages. 

So that was it, yet another remarkable chapter in the artistic story of our endlessly fascinating small town.  We loved it.

The sound of the drum January 25, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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There’s quite a drumming community in the Laguna Beach area.  Especially during summer at the beach, it’s hard to miss the groups of people sitting in circles, generating fine rhythmic grooves with their djembes and dun duns, shakers, tambourines and whatever else can be persuaded to make a noise when you hit it. 

I’ve been interested in rhythm all my life, but I only became seriously involved in drumming  when Lorraine presented me with the gift of a set of lessons with an inspiring local drummer and teacher called Greg White.  Greg plays regular drums in bands, but he’s also trained in African and Indian drum techniques, and it’s African drumming that we explore in the sessions we’ve been having at the house for the last five years or so.  I bought a djembe early on, Greg brings his,  and we have a blast.  A noisy blast, to be sure, but the neighbors have told us they don’t mind, so we’re OK. 

Greg’s wired into the local drum scene, which is diverse, active and enthusiastic.  We’ve played in the Laguna Beach Patriots Day parade, representing the very cool Sageman Drums, our local dealer of drums and drum paraphernalia. We’ve sat in on the summer drum circles at Main Beach, impressing the locals and the passing tourists with our energy.  Still, the key year-round drumming action in Laguna Beach centres around a gentleman called Billy Fried, and his Full Moon drum circle at Aliso Beach, a couple of miles south of town.

Billy is a local entrepreneur who runs La Vida Laguna, a company offering kayak tours of the local coastline. He’s also very visible in the community, trying to gently redirect Laguna Beach towards the kind of people-friendly values it used to have.  Every month, Billy puts the word out, and we head down to Aliso Beach for the Full Moon drum circle.  It’s a great evening.  Someone starts a fire in one of the beach firepits, and the group forms around it.  There’s sometimes a leader, sometimes not, some people are drumming, some are dancing, some are just watching and absorbing.  In the summer, there are grills and people bring food to share.  It’s a wonderfully warm and energizing way to spend an evening.

The next Full Moon drum circle is Monday, February 9.

“Once” – a must see movie January 23, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in movies, music.
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Lorraine was in the video store (I wonder why I still call it that) a couple of days ago and picked up a movie which she’d seen on one of the LA Times movie reviewers top ten lists.  It also jumped out at her because we both like movies with strong musical content.  The movie was “Once”, and we loved it.

The story is simple enough.  A Dublin street musician meets a Czech girl who plays the piano, and they get together to make a demo.  There’s not much more than that.  But, good grief, the music!  Both the leads are professional musicians.  Glen Hansard is a singer/guitarist with The Frames, a long-lived Irish rock band, and Markéta Irglová is a singer and songwriter on the Dublin scene.  The two of them wrote most of the songs in the movie (and since it’s a movie about their musical experiences, you get to see and hear full performances) and they’re just spectacular.  Hansard is a magnetic, committed personality with a powerful, emotionally rich voice, and Irglová is a perfect foil, gentle, vulnerable and sweet.  The songs are strong, complex and gripping, and they’re circling my brain as I write this.

I hope you like it as much as we did.

Hugh Masekela in concert August 8, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.

For quite a few years now, Lorraine and I have been taking advantage of the concert program at The San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, here in Orange County, California.  The program is varied and always interesting.  Over the years we’ve seen

  • Kitka – a wonderful Bay Area-based women’s vocal group specializing in the unearthly folk music of Eastern Europe
  • The Laurel Canyon Ramblers – lovely bluegrass from a band of folk and country veterans
  • Fairport Convention – the acoustic trio with Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders
  • Old Blind Dogs – beautiful Scottish folk music
  • John Hammond – acoustic blues
  • Adrian Legg – absolutely unbelievable English guitarist

and many others.

The concerts are normally held outdoors, in the library courtyard, which is a great place to listen to music in the cool of the evening.  The normal ticket price is $10, which is pretty much unheard of nowadays.

The program is managed by Bob Slater, a man for whom the term “enthusiast” might have been invented.  Bob just loves this stuff, and he brings it to us so we can love it too.  Even Bob was close to speechless last Saturday as he introduced Hugh Masekela to the stage.  This was the biggest concert in the program’s history, by a man who’s been a giant of African music for over forty years, a man who was on the bill at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and who’s toured and recorded with all the great names of African music.

The concert didn’t disappoint.  Masekela is now 68 years old, but you wouldn’t think so to watch him on stage.  He’s totally absorbing to watch – strutting, shaking, constantly moving with his musicians. His singing voice is rough and compelling, but his flugelhorn is still as sweet and lyrical as it ever was.  The six-piece band behind him – guitar, keyboards, sax, bass, percussion and drums – is tight and loose, if that’s not too much of a contradiction.  They have the loping African rhythm effortlessly down, and, the way they play it, it may be the most infectious dance music you’ll ever hear.

I caught the first of the two concerts they played on Saturday.  It ran for an hour or so, during which the band ran through a representative sample of the music on the recent live 2-CD set Live at the Market Theater, recorded in Johannesburg.  The concert finished with a rousing version of “Ashiko” – also a highlight of the CD – which had everyone on their feet as Masekela drew the song’s call/response from the audience.  It was an evening I won’t soon forget

Next up –

  • Irish folk by Grada (September 1)
  • Scottish folk from Old Blind Dogs (September 8)
  • Zydeco from Geno Delafoose and French Rocking Boogie (September 15). 

Highly recommended.

Happy birthday to an inspiration July 20, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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At school, in the late sixties, the cool kids had a club called the Electric Music Circle.  Looking back,  I find it mildly astonishing that a group of bright fourteen-year-olds had already developed a taste for Captain Beefheart and Pink Floyd.  I myself was, ah, not a member of the Electric Music Circle.  We will draw a veil over my teenage musical tastes.

Not surprisingly, my first year at university (1972-1973) was a little bit of a shock, musically speaking.  My new friends were listening to Floyd, Yes, Zappa, Traffic, the Allman Brothers – music which, within weeks, had completely changed my listening life.  In the end, though, it was a single album, and a single musician, which cemented the change and assumed a central position in my life, a place of honour which both music and musician have occupied for over thirty years.   The album was “Caravanserai”, and the musician was Carlos Santana. 

I played Caravanserai as I drove in to work this morning, thinking about how to approach this blog entry.  I played through the unearthly beauty of Carlos’s guitar in “Song of the Wind”, the driving rhythms of “La Fuente del Ritmo”, and the beautiful treatment of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Stone Flower”.  As I drove into the parking lot, the last notes of Michael Shrieve’s “Every Step of the Way” faded away, and I sat for a moment, spellbound, as always, by the beauty and power of this spectacular piece.  When I first played the album, in early 1973, I’d never heard anything like it.  Now, in 2007, I’m still not sure I have.  The relentless propulsive power of Shrieve’s drums, and Jose “Chepito” Areas and James Mingo Lewis on timbales and congas seem totally unstoppable.

To me, Caravanserai represents the creative peak of the second Santana band.   The music seems effortlessly powerful, whether laying back in “Song of the Wind” or moving with astonishing drive in “All the Love of the Universe”.  And through it all, there’s the sense that the band is looking outwards, experimenting with new people, new sounds and new textures – Caravanserai was the first Santana album to showcase the talents of Cuban percussion genius Armando Peraza (and if you want to hear Peraza at his peak, turn up the volume on “Promise of a Fisherman”, off Santana’s 1974 album, Borboletta).  Probably this period reached a climax with the world tour which resulted in the 1975 live set “Lotus”.  I remember reading Steve Lake’s review of “Lotus” in Melody Maker when the album was released – I cut out the review and kept it for many years.  Lake was of the opinion that the Santana band which made the “Lotus” recordings was, for a time, the best band on the planet. Whether you believe that or not, you cannot listen to the live versions of “Incident at Neshabur” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture” without being aware that you’re in the presence of a special band playing at the absolute ecstatic peak of its abilities.  

 I’ve listened to Carlos Santana down through the decades, to the old material and the new.  The beauty he’s shown me is permanent and imperishable.  On this day, his sixtieth birthday, I’d like to thank him for the joy he’s given to me over thirty-five years and to wish him health and happiness for the future.