Augusto Monk

Multi-instrumentalist Augusto Monk is one of my oldest musical friends.  He's been in the trenches with me since we first met at Berklee College of Music way back when.  We would meet in the school's shitty little practice rooms with the broken-down pianos at midnight almost every night of the semester to practice ear training together.  We'd stay until they kicked us out at 2am.

Originally from Argentina, he's lived in Boston, London, and now Toronto.  His music is equally as nomadic.  At any given time, I have no clue what instrument he is playing, what kind of music he is making, or if he is even making music at all -- sometimes he paints, draws cartoons, or makes films

(PS: watch the entire film; the password is Brass)

We go a long time without seeing or talking to each other, but when we do, we always fall into deep discussions about the nature of making music.  Invariably, we wonder: did those endless nights of ear training teach us anything? Anything at all?  Or were they just an exercise in stamina?  Or was that the point?

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

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

Every time I have connected with someone I found inspiring has increased my energy and strengthened my relationship with music. The several occasions that these connections have happened had (and still do have) a great impact on me. The connection I refer to can take different forms: it has been taking lessons from a musician I looked up to; it has been playing with a musician I share lots of values with; it has been interviewing a musician whose love for life is contagious.

Here is one experience in particular: I had known drummer Kenwood Dennard from a concert with Wayne Shorter’s band I had seen in Argentina when I was 15; it blew my mind. It really did! Lots of things happened after that. Twenty years later, I took two lessons with Kenwood. From those two lessons I grew so much.  His wisdom, his love for life, came from a very high level of awareness and high frequency of energy. That experience gave me a lot of courage. Among other things it made me feel I could realize my goals. It made a huge difference along the way. (Note: courage is not fearlessness; it is doing things even though you may be fearful. In other words, you may feel fear, but you do the thing you fear anyway).

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

This is a tricky one.

I guess I would ask you, Kate. Why? Because I’m not sure what you would say. I feel you as very close to me. With someone more distant it is easier to guess; but with someone closer it is more complex. So, I would ask you to get to know you better. My guess is that you would answer something along the lines of “collaborating with musicians with whom I felt I had a lot in common about music.” But that is just my best guess...

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, to keep going?

I tend to feel that way when I have no projects. 

What does help me move forward, what gives meaning to my relationship with music is to do projects. Now, here, it is important to differentiate between projects and goals. By a “project” I mean some form of tangible music making such as a gig, a recording. Composing, for instance, if it is not going to be “out there”, doesn’t count for me. Let alone goals relating to practicing, such as “I want to learn this piece, or I want to develop perfect pitch."  If the goal is not for a music-making project, I don’t have the motivation.

On the other hand, if the project is dead-ended (or has an end, or a finish-line), such as “to record a track and put it on Soundcloud and that’s it”, then for me there is meaning.  So, every time I feel depressed about my music career – on average twice a year at least – find a project to be involved with, often self-initiated. The last one was in May this year, when I made the music for two of my wife’s dances (she's a dancer). The show had three performances, got great responses from the audience, and we made a documentary on the process of making the show together.  In sum, when you are working on something it is impossible to feel like “what’s the point?” That thought doesn’t even come into your mind.

I get a kick out of you / u

I'm working away on new songs this month.

Often, writing songs includes a lot of research: looking up words in the dictionary, checking out synonyms and antonyms, using a thesaurus, reading up on the etymology of a word, seeing how else it's been used, etc.  Sometimes, I end up down the rabbit hole.

It happened to me today, working on a new tune that is kind of a "list" song.  It made me think of other great list songs (someday, I'll make a list of list songs ... there are some great ones out there).

I wanted to remind myself of the lyrics to my hero Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You," so ... I googled it.  After reading the lyrics and listening to a bunch of different versions, I came upon this wonderful rendition / spoof.

It made me smile!  Hope it makes you smile too ...

Do you know other equally as inspired takes on popular songs?  I'm talking Weird Al and beyond?  Clue me in, will you?  Leave a comment below!  Share the wealth!

Your most important word as a musician is

NO.

NOs are how you become a player (or band or singer or songwriter or producer) who has something to say. 

Nobody remembers the players who can do EVERYthing, who do ANYthing that comes their way. 

We remember and love and get absolutely rabid about the players, singers, and bands who are unabashedly good at, basically, one thing.  That's why we love them!  They do one thing to the maximum!  They don't give a sh*t about all the other things they could do or should do.  

You can think of a bunch of examples, can't you?  Some that come immediately to my mind: Tina Turner (fiery vocals, legs), Mick Jagger (energy, lips), Stevie Ray Vaughn (blistering guitar, that black hat), etc.  I'm not even gonna start listing jazzers who kill one thing, one sound, one emotion.

So your most important word is NO.  Actually, it's HELL NO.  (Many thanks to John Morgan and Rich Litvin for teaching me this invaluable life lesson.)

HELL NO, I'm not spending 1000 hours learning how to play Cherokee backwards in all 12 keys at quarter note = 248!  Screw that!?  (Unless, of course, that is exactly the thing you want to say HELL YES to!)

HELL NO, I'm not leaving this apartment until I finish this new song I am working on!

HELL NO, I'm not taking that gig.  I'd have to drive 6 hours, then play for 4 hours for tips to 5 regulars sitting at the bar ... F*ck that!?

 

When you say HELL NO, you create space for HELL YES.

And HELL YES is where you want to be for as many days of your life as possible.

 

What are your HELL YESes and your HELL NOs?  When you say HELL NO, what does that allow you to create?

How to be nimble and quick

How do you become nimble, quick, able to respond in-the-moment to whatever comes your way ... in music, or in whatever it is you are doing?

What the heck am I talking about?

A little back story might be in order here.

When I came to NYC to play music, things got real.  Meaning: being able to play my guitar at a certain level got real, being able to put on a great performance got real.  Real meant having to do those things with no rehearsal ... or very little rehearsal.  Or maybe, if I was lucky, an hour of rehearsal.  Which meant all the responsibility was on me.  (Of course, the responsibility was ALWAYS on me ... but when you know you have a few rehearsals to work the kinks out -- aka slack off -- you don't prepare as well.)

So how do you man-up and get real?

One way is to get scorched by the fire ... You do that by slacking off and not preparing enough and then going to the gig and getting your arse handed to you.  That's one way.

The other way is to put yourself into situations where you are forced to be nimble, where you are forced to get real.  Put yourself in situations that scare the sh*t out of you.  Do this as often as possible.  Do it even when you don't feel like it.  Do it even when you think about it and it makes you feel like you want to throw up.  I would argue that if you feel like you want to throw up with nervousness and anxiety it means you are doing the right thing.

Here are a few situations that are coming up for me that scare the sh*t out of me but I am doing anyway because I want to be better, grow, change, work, go deeper:

My new band's gig tomorrow night at the Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 3 at 9:30pm.  We will have only a few hours of rehearsal and I've got to get ALL my ideas and passion and vulnerability out there for my band mate Julian Lage to feel, take on, blow up in his own way.  You can get tix here btw if you want to see what this looks like in real time.  Bring it!

Booking a series of figure drawing models to come to my apartment and pose for me so I can finish a HUGE art project I am working on.  It seems strange to say that I am nervous about having someone come stand around in my apartment nude so I can draw them ... but I am.  It means laying out cash, it means showing up to complete some huge drawings I am working on (haven't been drawing for a couple of months now), it means believing that I am actually good enough to pull of this art stunt of mine.  What's the art stunt? Turn these huge figure drawings into banners the size of a three-story building and hanging them from the roof of my apartment building.  Ha!  I have no clue how that will happen ... but it is happening.

Be nimble.  Force yourself into situations that call on spontaneity and work your face off to prepare.

much love, over and out

 

 

 

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,
Kate

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.