Monday, 21 January 2013

Guest Blogger: Alex McMaster!

Ten Years Gone
I've covered a lot of ground with CAL over the past decade.
It's not the way I used to tour, gone for 4 or 5 weeks at a time, sleeping on floors or all crammed into one cheap motel room; these days the trips don't last as long (and I rarely have to share a room, let alone a bed), but they all add up to a lot of miles travelled together.

I like being on the road. Life is simpler. You don't have to worry about much beyond getting where you're going, and playing the show once you get there. My only potential cause for concern is when I have to work with a new violinist, or adjust to a different cello. (I won't fly with mine anymore, not since Air Canada broke its neck). But those are small things, and usually work out just fine.
There is comfort to be found in the boredom of hours spent in the van, or waiting in an airport lounge. In the unshakeable faith that at some point, the following things are bound to happen:
Marty will mention that band he was in called Wireless.
Mark will beat me at Scrabble, and I will recall with fondness the days Before Mark, when I always won.
Rob will share a bor.. riveting Pink Floyd-related anecdote.
Craig will give me his crossword to finish, and then need a new activity.
Will will pun.
Brax will pollute the environment with a foul-smelling meat product.
David will watch old black and white films on his ipad, and ask Mark if he thinks 9/11 was a conspiracy.
Nicky will say F a lot, because he doesn't swear anymore, then tell cute stories about his kids.
Troy will make fun of my  moves.
Des will drink tea, and read a book about Terribly Important Ideas.
Boge will chuff-chuff, and never forget to pack the wine.
Someone will ask "where's Doug?"
Johnny B will keep us alive.

Monty Python will be recited with British accents that we'll forget to switch off in the outside world.
We will spend hours in silence, and laugh at the same stupid jokes til it hurts.
We will take the stage together to perform great music.

If this is how it were to end -  right here, right now, like this - I'd have no complaints.

Alex McMaster
CAL Musician, String Arranger and Road Wife since 2003

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Guest Blogger: Michelle Jones!

What does it take to be a CAL musician? I can only offer my opinion based on my experiences and learning from others (including asking other band mates.)

Like most professional violinists, I was trained to be a symphonic musician in the classical styles.  This means that I was expected to take complex music, analyze it from start to finish (including chord changes and progressions and how the melodies and harmonies fit together), practice playing it on my own, and then finally rehearse it with the full ensemble before a performance.  As a solo musician, I still had to do all these things to ensure that the essence of the piece is captured in a solo performance, not just the written solo parts.  Listening to recordings of the same piece by a variety of artists was crucial in developing my own style for the way of performing that piece. 

But this is where the freedom ends.  You still have to learn all the notes exactly as printed on the page.  When in a symphony orchestra, you have to learn the conductor’s style for the way HE wants us to perform that piece as a cohesive group.  Much of the music we are taught and perform is from DWEMs (dead, white, European males), and we cannot simply ask them, “Is this the style you intended?”  Therefore, it is up to the conductor to interpret that for us, and it is our job to create it as best as possible.  If a player’s style conflicts with the conductor’s style, then that player is usually not rehired for future work.  Sometimes, the conductor fires them on the spot (I’ve seen this happen several times.)

With CAL, this same discipline applies.  Only stricter.  There are no scores and parts written for us that we can simply purchase or rent (like symphonic music.)  We have to create those charts OURSELVES.  Our styles or interpretations of the music are irrelevant.  We are completely dependent on recreating the original recordings of the albums.  We do not have the freedom to improvise based on some possible chord progressions.  We have to virtually dissect the album, note for note, cut for cut, by listening repeatedly, and determining which parts of that album for which each one of us is responsible.  It’s like musical dictation at the most advanced levels.  But how do you know what parts are yours?  Ahhhh, that’s where the discussion arises.  Are you covering the tambourine and the vocals in this song?  Am I singing the high or middle note?  Who is on the lead vocal for this one?  This is where the style of the players/singers must be matched to the song.  This is why there is a large pool of musicians in CAL; the performers must match the original as closely as possible. 

Some of the CAL musicians scrawl notes or just words with chord letters on a piece of plain paper; some use no charts at all as they have their parts fully memorized for that album.  Some don’t even know how to read musical notation, but that does not mean that they are any less caliber of a musician.  They still have trained themselves to listen for every nuance, every twang, every breath and know how to place them accordingly.  Some of us have written out the musical notation for our instruments, mainly to make it easier for ourselves on the gig so that we don’t leave anything out.  Craig has even paid for some charts to be transcribed so that he can hire local musicians to “fill in” and save some travel expenses by not using all traveling musicians.  This is good for business, but challenging for consistency.  In one city, the trumpet player may play well reading the chart, but doesn’t know when to help fill in with handclaps or sing with group vocals.  In another city, it takes two keyboardists to do the job of the one they have in another.  How do they know how to split their parts when they live in different countries?

These considerations and decisions are the responsibility of the leader and contractor.  You hire someone based on their abilities and recommendations; you continue to hire someone based on their performance and interaction with the band.  When there are no charts and very little directions, you have to rely on your band mates to communicate with you.  But, you still have to be prepared to play parts you might not have practiced.  You just don’t exactly know until you get to the rehearsal, if there is one.  Oftentimes, the bandleader will want to do different songs than originally planned for the second set.  This is where you need to know the entire catalogue from that band, and be prepared to play it with a moment’s notice.  Keyboardists have the most challenging time with this as they have to program or re-program on the fly during the show.  On many occasions, I have been asked to help on keys, percussion, vocals, and even the congas and glockenspiel.  I was hired as a violinist for that show, but I was prepared for these last-minute additions, as I knew the other parts needed to be covered.  On one show, we learned during sound check that the guest choir was not prepared for their parts.  They were expecting the leader to send them a chart to learn, they would learn it in school (traditionally this is how they prepare), and then come to sound check.  They were never sent a chart; only told to sing the choir parts on this certain song.  I saw the immediate need, and knew that the show would fail if I didn’t do something.  I was able to use my many years of vocal training in opera, church and gospel choirs to quickly transcribe a chart for their director, work with the group during my dinner break, and successfully re-create the sound needed for that show.  The audience was none the wiser, but the band knew.  I later sent a formal transcription to Craig for use in future shows so that it would not happen again.  It’s this type of teamwork that makes a successful show.  If you cannot learn other parts on a moment’s notice, or if you are flustered easily by the quick changes, then you don’t belong in CAL.

As Craig has stated many times, this music cannot just be read and played once.  It has to be in your DNA.  You have to grow up listening to it, over and over, wearing out the grooves on the record, stretching the tape from listening so many times, even wearing the paint off the “back” button for repeating it so often.  This is where the only classically trained musician usually fails to meet the expectations of CAL.  The CAL musician has to know the music inside and out, and LOVE IT.  If we don’t love it, it shows in our performances, and the fans can read that.  The fans are here for the love of the music, and it is our job and responsibility to give them exactly what they want while leaving them wanting more.

Michelle Jones, Vinylinist
CAL musician since 2005

Friday, 18 January 2013

Guest Blogger: Marty Morin!

 These days I spend a lot of time listening to and working on music that was created in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s by giants of the music industry. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, The Band, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC…the list goes on and on. To me, to my generation and even to generations after me this music became iconic. It fueled a social movement in the ‘60s and eventually created an industry. These were artists and musicians who wrote their own music, played their own instruments, had control over how their music sounded and even how they looked. It was a Renaissance period in popular music. The advent of new technology in those days allowed this new music to be heard around the world for the first time. It exploded! It was huge and the numbers were staggering.

   However just before these bands broke new ground there was a period between the rockers of the late ‘50s and the British Invasion of the mid ‘60s when popular music was an entirely different animal. This was the era when music producers and A & R men from record companies decided who recorded what songs and how they were to sound. This was music by committee. Pop stars were created from scratch, sometimes found working in diners or on the street. Phil Spector on the west coast, Mitch Miller in New York, Barry Gordy with Motown in Detroit, Ahmet Ertegan pretty well everywhere and Jerry Wexler in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These music producers, among others, would find singers, find songwriters, find studios, find musicians, find arrangers and create these stars. Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Bobby Goldsboro, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Patty Page, Jan & Dean…there were dozens of these artists on top of the charts. They sang songs about love, songs about breakups, songs about getting back together, songs about cheating and being cheated on and, for some odd reason, there were a lot of novelty songs like The Bird Song, Flying Purple People Eater and They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha, Ha. It was a weird time for music. Most of it was overproduced and very hollow. The rock & roll edginess of Elvis, Little Richard and The Killer Jerry Lee had given way to a sickly sweet, manufactured sound that was safe, straight and predictable. When the British Invasion got under way with The Beatles it was a breath of fresh air.

    I see a lot of parallels to that time in the music industry today. As I listen and work on these classic songs I can’t help but wonder if there is anything out there today that will have a lasting effect on people the way these songs have. Will they stand the test of time? Will there be another Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon? These days it seems the chart positions and attention goes to artists like Justin Bieber, Niki Minage, Taylor Swift, the boy band One Direction, Shakira… These artists are packaged in much the same way as the overnight sensations of the early ‘60s were. To me, it has that same hollowness. This, again, is music by committee. Producers and record company suits once again rule the roost. It’s not healthy. Music should be played and performed by musicians. Today producers such as Kanye West, Dr. Dre, The Bomb Squad and Timbaland krank out, in my opinion, faceless hits filled with their own trademark sounds. Most of the music is created without the singer or writer even being present. An artist I know from Toronto got a deal with a producer in Miami. She sent her basement demos to him and six months later he sent her back a complete album he produced. Songs were rearranged, titles changed, strings and horns added, sometimes the tempo and feel of the songs were altered drastically. The only input she had was overdubbing the vocals after it was all done. Are there too many fingers in the pie? Have we lost the singer/songwriter/producer? Has the music ventured too far from the writer’s intentions?

    Today’s music scene is very much like the way it was just before the music took over back in the ‘60s. The airwaves are saturated with manufactured artists singing simplistic lyrics. Who or what will save us from this banal soundscape? Has the internet cancelled the “next big thing!”? Is there an amazing talent just around the corner that will change the course of music the way Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix and Dylan did? For the sake of music let’s hope so.