Django Reinhardt "J'attendrai Swing 1939"

This month's theme is "by hand."  Now, here's something: the only video where we actually see Django Reinhardt's hands playing the music we hear on the soundtrack.  Awesome.  And kind of the holy grail of videos for those that play gypsy jazz. Or so my main man and bandmate, Duane Andrews tells me.

You see, I've been working on la pompe for our new band, the FIERCE DREAMERS.  The Fierce Dreamers are Duane and I playing two guitars.  I sing sometimes.  Our music sounds a bit like Bonnie Raitt meets Django with a little Jim Hall and Tina Turner thrown in for good measure.  We are still (obviously) working it out.

In the gypsy jazz tradition, la pompe is how the rhythm guitar plays.  Essentially, it replaces the drum kit.  What you are after is a percussive, swung sound that keeps the music chugging along.  I'll let you go down rabbit hole on this yourself.  If you want to work on your pompe, start listening to Django first and foremost.  If you want a little instruction, I recommend the Gypsy Jazz Guitar School.  These are the best lessons I have found on the web.  But go to the source, young grasshopper.  Watch the vid and weep. 

Do you have a few vids of your favorite gypsy jazz players playing -- hands and music synced up?  Show me!  Leave a link below.

A Letter to Yourself

I'm constantly writing letters and postcards to other people, but it has been awhile since I wrote a letter to myself. 

When I was 15 my camp counselor said, "Write a letter to yourself, seal it up, and address and stamp it.  In addition, on the outside of the envelope, put a date on it.  When that date rolls around, I'll mail it to you."  I wrote that letter and tucked a sprig of Wyoming sagebrush in the envelope.

What a concept!  What a gift.

That letter arrived out of thin air almost a year later at a time when I desperately needed a boost of confidence and a bracing breath of Wyoming sage.  I'll never forget reading the simple words of wisdom from a girl who'd just spent more than 4 weeks in the back country of Wyoming backpacking and horsepacking.   With her ten closest friends, she'd bushwacked through the burliest section of the Wind River Range losing ten pounds in one four day stretch.   She'd taken a string of pack mules up the trail for five days, loading and unloading panniers, throwing the diamond hitch, making coffee on an open fire at daybreak.  She'd run for her life over a mountain pass as lightening sizzled the alpine wildflowers around her.  All of this made that algebra test look damn easy.

The Postcard Project is about writing letters to others.  It is about being vulnerable and connected and slowing down.

What about writing a letter to yourself?

One of my heroes Maya Angelou wrote a whole book called "What I Know: Letters to My Younger Self."  And one of my favorite corners of the web for letter writing just featured one of those letters. 

How about writing a letter to yourself? 

If you seal it up and send it to me, addressed and stamped and with a date you want it sent back to you written on the envelope, I'll make it happen. 

I swear I will.

I dare you.

I dare myself to write one to myself dated for sometime next year.  I'll post a picture of it up here as soon as I write it.



Colin Stranahan

I've been wanting to ask Colin to be a part of the Tenacity series since I first met him, and I first met him through Facebook. 

He came to know my music in some mysterious way (who ever really knows how these things work) and he reached out.  We had a lot of musical friends in common, so it was only a matter of time before we met and played together.

And play together we did at one of the last gigs I had in NYC before my Mom got sick and I took two and a half years off from making music in public.  Colin brought his small kit, crammed himself into a corner at the Gershwin Hotel, and we played a set of tunes.  It was a magical, memorable night.

(This interview is part of the TENACITY series.  Read the FAQ here.)

1. What made a difference for you along the way?

When I was younger I knew who I wanted to play with. The first time I heard Kurt Rosenwinkel I knew I wanted to play with him. There was something about his music...the sounds, textures, harmony, melodies. Everything about it grabbed me and locked me in. I use to listen to every recorded record of his. Also I came across a lot of boot leg recordings of live concerts he had done. 

When I went to the Monk Institute in New Orleans they asked the students to select a musician we'd like to have come down and teach and hang out for a week. I put Kurt's name on a list assuming they wouldn't take it seriously and that there wasn't a chance he'd be able to make it down. A week later I found out he'd be coming for a week. 

   When we started playing with Kurt I had my eyes closed and would just play. I had learned every tune he had ever written or played. It felt like we had been playing for years. At one point Kurt pulled me aside on the break and said " man why arnt you reading the charts? Do you know my music?". " yeah. Yeah I do in a very shy voice". " do you have a business card? " 

From that moment on I realized that I was able to do this. That was one of the most inspiring moments in my life. I followed my passion for his music and a few months later we were headed on our first tour together. Kurt tells me a lot how appreciative he is that I have a personal connection and history with his music. That again is fuel for inspiration and makes me want to work harder.  Ever since that experience if I know someone I want to play with I go for it and go beyond what I know to try and become closer to whatever that might be.

2. To whom would you like to ask this same question?  Living or dead.

There are many people is be curious to know their answer.  But I would really like to ask Duke Ellington that question. No matter how famous he became he always keep going and composing touring in the same way he did before. So what really changed for him?

3. Think back to a time when you were struggling with your music, your career, your direction. What did you do to get out of that place?

I seem to feel this way a lot! I'm always trying to figure out different ways to keep my mind, heArt and spirit going . The most important thing to me is to acknowledge my work and my efforts. We as musicians and artists work so hard. And I am the worst at taking a step back and saying wow! I work hard and look at what I have done . I'mGetting better but it could use some work.

July 2014 = by hand

Dear you,

It seems ages since I last wrote to you.  Our correspondence is such lifeblood to me.  It is the very act of love.  It is silence written, my silent thoughts spelled out, letter by letter, in a moment of quiet.  It is a form of written meditation. 

I write to you, but aren't I writing to myself and for myself as well?

Aren't I writing to show faith in us, in you, in our bond?  A letter is a connection across distance and time.   It's a different vocabulary than what I'd use on the phone, or at dinner together, or on a walk with you.

And handwriting – of course there's that aspect to our letters.  The space I have created for my thoughts are made visible, measured out by the movement of my hand across the page forming each letter in a slanted, looping, too-large, slightly drunken script.

We've heard about the writers who still insist on writing long-hand and how they prefer the pace of handwriting to the quick skip and tap tap of the keyboard. 

For me, the joy of letter writing is the slow, unmistakably personal, very quirky way of communicating.  Think of the visual oddness and strange comfort of seeing someone's handwriting, especially someone whose handwriting you know well.  It is an immediate recognition, an inner-knowing, a primal response.  Your mother's note on the kitchen counter outlining your chores; from across the room you knew she wrote it by the shape and slant of the script.

You could be in another room, in a stranger's house and magically a note from your mother is sitting in a box under a small wooden table, along with bills, newspaper clippings, and dust, and still you'd know it was your her handwriting. The feeling is disorienting yet comforting.

That happened to me.  I was in Key Biscayne visiting a family friend that I had never met before, and I went into a guest bedroom to fetch something and I saw that box with my Mom's letter in it.  Actually, what I saw was my Mom's handwriting, then I saw everything else.  The writing might as well have been in neon ink it stood out so much.  It glowed.  

And just last week, I took a book from the stack next to my bed to donate to the free library.  As I went to put it in my bag, a letter fell out.  It fluttered down, and as it fell, I caught the shape of three words and knew immediately who’s letter it was. The angular, Victorian-era writing is as familiar to me as my own name.  

Has this happened to you?  What do you still do or write by hand?  Make a grocery list?  Write checks?  All month I will be exploring this theme.  What handmade thing do you treasure the most?  

Tell me.  Show me.  Write to me.  Leave a comment below or try your hand at the Postcard Project. 

I remain yours,

P.S. What is lost as we write by hand less and less ...

Damian Erskine

It all comes back around.

Way back when I first started keeping a blog and first conceived of the idea of the TENACITY series, I knew that the first musician I wanted to interview was Damian.

Why?  Because he is an old soul.  I knew it from the first time we met.

Damian is one of my closest friends from my Berklee College of Music days. Now, we only get to hang out when we are recording or touring, but no matter ... I know this fellow has my back.  He's a big brother to me (and I am rich in real big brothers - I have two).  We can (and do) talk about almost anything.  He is open, wise, caring, and real. 

He is also one of the funkiest bass players on planet earth.  Seriously.  His chops are jaw-dropping, but he knows how and when to use 'em.  He's got awesome sauce in his hands and heart and it only comes out at the right time, if you know what I mean. 

In honor of my new blog, I asked Damian to revisit the TENACITY questions from where he is now.  His answers from 2011 are also below.


Alan Ferber

Did I ever tell you that the trombone is my favorite instrument?

It's true.  My love of the trombone was instantaneous and forever.  It happened in a dark, sparsely attended memorial concert for the founder of Berklee, Lawrence Berk, during my first semester at Berklee.  Phil Wilson, the legendary trombonist and faculty member (whom I did not know at the time, but would come to know very, very well) got up and played a solo version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that literally stopped my heart, stopped time.  Frozen.  The sound coming out of his trombone had color to it.  It was  gold.  I swear.  There was nothing and nobody else in the world except for him, his shining playing, and the moment-by-moment unfolding of this familiar yet suddenly, achingly tragic song.

I was done.  Cooked.  Ever since then, I am a sucker for a trombone every single time.

May 2014 = Tools

The monthly theme is tools.

The tools we use; the tools we no longer use; the tools we care for; the tools we take for granted.

The web tells me that tool, the noun, is a device or implement, one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function -- gardening tools, for example.  The synonyms are great: implement, gadget, device, contraption, gizmo.

Tool, the verb, means to impress a design on something (usually leather, also stone).  Another great list of synonyms: work, fashion, shape, cut, embellish, ornament.

And then there is one one of my favorite expressions: tooling around.  ("We were just tooling around on our bikes.")

What are your tools?  What do you do with them?

Is there a particular set of tools that mean something to you, that carry emotional weight?

For example, I saw my 99 year old friend Gladys's address book.  That's her tool, for sure.  It is an extension of her hand, her mind, her life. She is one of the best letter writers I have ever met.  The book was frayed around the edges and, seemingly, made of ball-point pen (by now), not a single blank space on the pages.  The entries were written in three different languages.  It was a wonder to behold.

Tools become us, comfort us.  I recall the way my ice hockey teammates would treat certain pieces of equipment.  One player I know was still using her elbow pads from grade school although she played for both Harvard and the US Olympic team.  She had access to the best tools (equipment) on the planet, but that set of elbow pads was more than just protective (were they even protective anymore?).  There was something else about them.  Were they comfortable?  Obviously.  That was part of it; our tools need to be comfortable; they need to "fit" us.  Did they contain some magical quality? Maybe. 

Our tools can have an inner glow of mystery or radiance, as if the thing itself has supernatural or shamanistic powers. Many guitar players I know obsess over their guitar picks; they have one or two with a certain kind of juju in them. My teacher John used stone guitar picks that he made himself. Each one had a kind of aura.  It was the stone he used -- agate, but it was also his own reverence for them.  They were always with him.  I am sure he's using one now, up in heaven.  It is probably on fire, that pick.  

I'm a singer; my voice is my tool.  When I had my vocal surgery in 2002 to remove nodules from my vocal chords, I almost lost the ability to sing.  Did I almost lose a tool?  The tool was badly damaged and needed a long time to recover.  I didn't talk for 3 months.  It wasn't until a year later that I could really sing anything with any kind of accuracy.  I had lost control over my voice.  And when I got my voice back -- I called it my "new voice" -- it was weird, higher pitched, did things I didn't ask it to do.  Didn't always behave.  I was just learning to how handle it again.

What isn't a tool, really?  When you get right down to it.  Is there a threshold you have to cross with an object that really makes it yours?

Talk to me.  What do you think?

Do your tools have special qualities?  Have you ever lost one, broken one, left one somewhere?  What did that feel like? Tell me a story. 

Take me somewhere.  Let me in.