Music To My Ears

1985saxIn 1985 I decided I was going to be a tenorsax man. That’s me on the right (click to biggify) shortly after I went to Baxter-Northup Music Company on Ventura Boulevard somewhat on a lark and bought a used Bundy on a two-year payment plan. She was not at all pretty to look at as saxes go, but she was beautiful to me and along with a couple beginning instructional booklets I brought her home to Van Nuys, and soon after spent many an hour with the doors closed in that dressing area of my single apartment usually with socks stuffed in the bell to protect my neighbors from the awful noise that came from my self-teachings.

Month to month, paying the $1,200 total down, my ability with the sax gradually increased. Never to the point of being any good or knowing what the hell I was doing, but I could put on “Joe’s Blues” recorded live at the Century Plaza by the Capp/Pierce Juggernaut and riff along somewhat capably with my favorite jazz vocalist Joe Williams. Same with some Manhattan Transfer, Lou Donaldson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and others.

When my grandmother died in 1987, I consoled myself with long slow renditions of “Amazing Grace.”

Though it became quickly clear I didn’t have the chops or the dedication or the desire to be anything but a closeted sax player, I kept on blowing for the sheer joy of it until I even got up the courage a couple times to venture outside, open up the case and just blow under a streetlight. Once was at the Santa Monica Pier, and once at my beloved and long-gone Cafe Figaro located at the mouth of Melrose Avenue just before it drains into the convergence of Santa Monica and Doheny on the Beverly Hills border. Each time I made a few bucks, probably more out of my passing patrons’ sympathies than out of appreciations for my musicality.

Nevertheless I always said the two things I’d never be without was my bike to get me where I’m going and my sax when I got there to make me some money for breakfast. Or beer.

I kept saying that up until one of the literally and figuratively poorest days in my life. It was 1996, and to make whatever month’s rent, it came down to putting an ad in The Recycler and sacrificing my beloved sax. A fellow answered the “for sale” offer and showed up to see what I had. Given its condition got no better from when I’d bought it, he scoffed at the $350 asking price, countering with something substantially lower. I told him point blank there was no “OBO” in the deal and that the least I could do to honor my best friend who I’d been able to turn to keep me company through some 12 years of some serious solitude was stay firm on the deeply discounted price. It was $350, take it or leave it.

He took the price and my sax and a bit of my heart when he walked out the door.

But the rent got paid and I vowed that one day I’d replace her. I even kept the mouthpieces handy as reminders — a plastic black one that I bought to replace the white one that came with the instrument and a far fancier Berg Larsen one that my friend Donny Sierer — a cool cat and a tremendously talented musician who married my good friend and tremendous actress Josie DiVincenzo — had given to me as a gift in the late ’80s (along with kind encouragement to keep up my playing).

To this day, within arm’s reach at my desk the mouthpieces sit. And held to the plastic one by a clamp whose copper has spent the last 13-plus years oxidizing  is the same 2-1/2 Rico Royal reed that I last wetted and blew through so long ago.

Last night, after coming home from Yosemite, we decided not to wait until this morning to open our presents, mine from my beloved Susan being a brand new tenor sax. Goodness gracious: with going to Yosemite and coming back to find the Most Awesome Present Ever, could this Christmas get any better?  That answer would be no.


As to any question about how she sounds, I like you people to much to subject you to any initial audio evidence of the havoc so long an absence can have on skills that were at best meager to begin with. But if anyone needs me I’ll be in the upstairs cubby hole off the bedroom known previously as The Clubhouse but now as the Music Chamber with some socks in the sax’s bell blowing my heart out now that an old hole in it has been filled.

The Dude Arrives

Last March at Disney Concert Hall I considered it a once-in-my-lifetime event to hear my favorite symphony, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” played live. After all, I’d been waiting for that since I was 12.


Last night at the Hollywood Bowl, in attendance with my wife and mother among 18,000 others in the capacity crowd, under a full moon and a smattering of bats flittering about the dusky skies, I truly was privileged to witness a Once-In-A-Lifetime event — nothing less than a defining and historical milestone in the cultural landscape of this city. Not only was I there for the much-anticipated debut as Gustavo Dudamel officially lifted his baton for the first time as the L.A. Philharmonic’s musical director, but I exulted in an uncompromised presentation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony the likes of which I’m pretty sure I’ll never see again — nor ever expected to.

In front of a full orchestra and a chorus some 200-strong behind it Dudamel transported me and I marveled in the Ode To Joy finale as it reinvigorated my creative spirit in reminding me of the pure power and prestige of  music and the arts.

Pure and simple: It was superb and glorious.

The Hottest Tix In Town

Nevermind their location is way in the up ‘n back and all the way over to the left, three of the coveted admissions for the “Bienvenido Gustavo!” event at the Hollywood Bowl October 3  just came in the mail yesterday! Thanks to fellow Silver Laker and LA Metblogs contributor Mykal Burns for dropping the super secret earlybird code on me so I didn’t have to get all frustrated waiting in line at the Bowl box office last Saturday.

Ladies & Gentillymen, Mr. Ray Charles

Found this (that I’ve never before seen or heard) thanks to the every-loving Boing Boing: Ray Charles covering the hell out of “Ring of Fire” on the Johnny Cash Show:

UPDATE (8.7): I meant also to add there’s a personal significance to seeing these two legends together in this clip, as they represent half of the first music I adored as a child. I couldn’t tell you how many times Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” and Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack” I played over and over and over and over. And over. The other two were Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” from the sountrack of the movie “Hatari,” and Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” better known to me then as the theme from “The Lone Ranger.” The moment any of these songs would finish I’d race back to my mom’s Admiral hi-fi and move the needle carefully back to the beginning and start it all over again.

Oh The Cleverness Of Me!

One of my favorite diversionary iPhone apps is a little number called Bloom from Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers that allows users to generate ambient musical compositions by tapping out notes on the iPhone’s screen that then get replayed in a slowly fading loop that you can add on to pretty much for infinity.

In times of stress or angst I’ve turned to it  and plinked out a random melody and it has a wonderful calming effect not only in the soothing music and colors it produces, but also in getting me to focus — if even but for a few moments — away from whatever’s frustrating me at that time.

Of course true to the ephemeral nature of its on-the-fly creations, Bloom offers no way of saving and exporting whatever you’d done from the iPhone. Until now: I just figured out a way. Because I’m a bottom-rung genius like that.

The trick is it involves additional equipment:

1) Some sort of digital audio recording device — preferably one that can capture in stereo (I use a Sony Recorder – Model No. ICD-UX70)

2) A jack-to-jack wire that can connect from the headphone output of the iPhone to the mic input of the recorder.

Then it’s just a simple matter of hitting the record button on my Sony and tapping out a tune in Bloom. After that I plug the recorder into a USB port on my computer, open up the MP3 file in Quicktime and either save it in iTunes or export it as a WAV audio file, like this minute-long snippet.

Granted, it’s just a whole buncha not much, but I’m pretty pleased that I figured a work-around and for better or worse, you might be hearing some of these ditties attached to the occasional future bike commute timelapse vid.

One Classic Begat My Love Of Another

My favorite symphony is Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” also known as his 4th Symphony. I discovered it as a 7th grader when my mother put the record she had of it on the old Admiral Hi-Fi with the pull down turntable in the dining room of our apartment at 1933 Holly Drive in Hollywood.

Though at the time I was far more inclined to the music of Queen than the classics, I think the reason I was drawn to it almost immediately was exclusively coincidental. My English teachers (my class was team taught by a pair of wonderful women, Ms. Litzke and Ms. Diamond) had assigned us a novel to read: Richard Adams’ “Watership Down.”

A novel! I remember being handed my paperback copy and admiring its heft and thickness and its lovely illustration of a rabbit on the cover and feeling so grown-up — while cluelessly taking the title quite literally; I thought it was about a shipwreck. Captivated from the first page, I soon discovered otherwise. And to this day it remains my favorite book ever.

Anyway, it so happened that while in the midst of reading Adams’ classic my mother decided to play Mendelssohn’s classic, and I was captivated from the first notes. Not just because the music was beautiful, but moreso because the light and flowing melody of those first few bars painted a picture in my head of rabbits frolicking in a field — something the rabbits in the book that I’d come to know and love  — Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig — had little opportunity to do across their adventures.

Here’s a YouTube video of the opening of the  first movement by the Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra:

I’ve listened to the Italian innumerable times since — on cassette, LP, CD, MP3. And while I can’t recite it entirely from memory I can pretty much sing along with it note for note. In fact, I recall a time as a highschooler working in the dungeon at Hunter’s Books on Rodeo Drive when Arthur, the elderly and most cultured of my co-workers there — always dapper in a bowtie and wingtips — didn’t believe me when I told him I knew the piece and challenged me to sing it to him. So I did and he told me  that in a world filled with  the likes of Oingo Boingo and the Go Go’s (who I loved!) the fact that a teenager of that day and age not only new of Mendelssohn but could recite his music gave him hope for humanity.

Next Sunday from seats way up in the Disney Concert Hall balcony with my mother on one side and my wife on the other I’m going to hear it performed live for the very first time. It’s been a long 32 years coming, with many of the adult ones spent unsuccessfully scouring the calendars of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl. For what it’s worth I think it helped that this year is the 200th anniversary of Felix’s birthday (which was February 3).

But it’s him and the LA Phil giving the gift. And I’ll tell you what: just as I choked up and shed some tears of joy last year seeing my favorite Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” for the first time at A Noise Within, I already know I’ll be overcome with similar emotions when Mendelsohhn’s magical music graces my ears.

I may not be able to keep from crying, but I’ll try my best not to sing along.

I Am A 6’2″, 215-pound Manly Man And I Have Absolutely No Problem Admitting That Eva Cassidy Makes Me Weep, Do You?

Just as there are songs like Prodigy’s “Firestarter” and Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire” that I can’t listen to while biking because they make me ride punkass angry almost to the point of where I’m looking for a fight, there are also songs that calm me without fail. The late and great Eva Cassidy’s version of “Over The Rainbow” is one of them. I swear my hair could be on fire simultaneously while some fudgepot in an SUV is trying to shoot me AND run me over and if Eva’s singing into my ear, it’s nothing but all good: have a nice day, nothing Supercuts can’t clean up — and by the way Turner’s is having a special on hollow points this week. Peace.

Not only that but I can listen to it over and over and over and over and overover and I did just that this morning pushing the back button on my iPod four or five times on the way in to work because I was a little bit funked up and Eva said easy there big fella, come over here and put your head on my shoulder and let me tell you where I’ve been and what I know.

In addition to the five or six times in a row today, Eva has soothed my savage beastie on hundreds of other occasions and without fail each time I listen to the first notes sung in that fragile voice of hers I always get chills and semi choked-up. It’s so pure and so magic. Then later omes the anticipation of the crescendo’ing refrain she builds to near the end in getting to :

“…way above the chimney tops,
That’s where… you’ll… find… Meeeeee!
Somewhere over the rainbow,
skies are blue…”

It’s that elongated powerful coloratura’d Meeeee! that flows into the next line that always gets my eyes watering. It’s the happiest and saddest sound in the history of song. It’s a plaintive wail and a triumphant cheer. And for the first time in all the brazillion times I’ve cherished her hitting that note, I was on 4th Street crossing Vermont and finally heard what she’s been trying to tell me all those times. She’s saying she got there. That she found it. That she’s seen what it was like over the rainbow and it’s awesome but it’s also far away and removed and it’s next to impossible to come back to what you know and love once you get there so don’t be in such a hurry to escape that you fail to appreciate what you have.

God Bless Eva Cassidy.