Taking the Abyss on the Road

Ok, no, I am not on tour, but I did play out tonight.  To be specific, I drove down the road a little bit to Heidi’s Jazz Club for their Sunday jam night.  This was my first time there in well over 10 years, so it was like a new thing.

The piano player was the guy who ran the jam, so he is the one I talked to about doing a bit of wholly-improvised music.  He just stared for a moment and said, “You don’t know any songs?”  I explained that isn’t really what I do.  He was clearly not happy.  The bass player was keen on trying a bit free improvisation, but piano player wasn’t having it.  He said, “You can play a solo.”

When he called me up he said, “This guy’s going to do a solo piano piece.”

I went up and  briefly explained what it is I do.  I spoke a bit about people who have done Free Jazz in the past like Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett.  When I thought they were ready, I took a deep breath and dove in.

The reason I was there tonight was to see if I could do what I’ve been doing in the studio in a live setting.  Sure, I’ve been playing for my friends and family and in music stores.  I was trying to see if I could improvise in front of an “audience.”

I should mention that I don’t normally suffer from stage fright.  I have been in bands for years.  I made speeches, presentations and training sessions when I was working.  I have been in a couple of community theater productions.  Actually, I love being on stage.  This time though, I was going live with only my skill at improvisation and absolutely nothing prepared.

How did I do?  I did exactly what I wanted to do.  Once I started, I hit a groove immediately.  The piano was great.  I had a nice touch, nice sound.  The piece I played rolled off my fingers just like other pieces have in the studio.  I was completely focused on what I was doing to the extent that I don’t even remember how the audience reacted.

Usually in jam sessions each person gets two songs.  Sometimes more.  Mr Piano Player did not look happy.  He said, “That’s it.  We have a lot of people waiting.”  There weren’t a lot of people waiting.  So I walked back to the bar and ordered a beer.  The bartender said, “When you mentioned Ornette Coleman, you had me scared.  But you played very well.  I enjoyed it.”  Several members of the audience also complemented me.

Jazz in my little beach town is relatively popular, and it is very traditional.  I made a little ripple tonight.  If I keep going to jam nights, I might make a bigger ripple.  In a small town, you don’t need a very big ripple to get noticed.  Maybe if I can get some of my friends to join me, I will have a better chance.

If you aren’t into the technical part of this project, I will say goodnight now.  The rest is about hardware.

If you look back at my posts, you will see a brief discussion about the hardware and software I am using on this project.  It is a very short list for the reason that the fewer things to go wrong, the more likely I am to succeed.

That was brought home to me last night when I went down to practice.  I normally practice on hardware so I don’t have to hook up my computer.  Last night when I turned on my Kurzweil Micro Piano, it was dead.  No heartbeat. No display.  No sound.  Nothing.

In my mind, I went through all the things that could be wrong.  Since the thing is screwed tightly into my studio system, the only possibility I could think of was that the power supply was dead.  While I was out today, I picked up a new power supply.

When I got home from Heidi’s tonight, I set it up and plugged it in.  I turned it on and the thing booted up just like magic.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I started playing and …nothing.  No sound.  The little light that flashes when it receives a MIDI signal from the keyboard was happily flashing away.  Just no sound.  I eliminated the possibility that some other part was at fault, but no.  This means I need to pull my Micro Piano out of its comfortable cubby, and take it apart.  There are a very few things I can do from the inside, but I have to try before I take it somewhere and see if I can get fixed.

To be fair, this little box has been playing faithfully for over 20 years now.  I am not dissatisfied with its performance, I just need it back and working.  Hopefully it is something simple that I can fix.

Now I see it is after 5 am and I need to get some sleep before I grill meat to honor the men and women who have given their lives for our freedom.  I know it is a strange custom, but who am I to argue.

Play on.

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First Night in the Studio

It is a bit after 3:00 am.  I’ve just come up from my studio.  I spent a couple of hours making sure everything is set up and working.  It never fails that when I sit down to record something is out of whack.  Sometimes it is the audio interface, or a driver on my computer,  or a plugin not being properly authorized.    Fortunately for this project, I am using a modicum of hardware and software, so it was relatively easy to get the studio set up and running.

To give you an idea of exactly how little I am using, I use an Arturia Keylab88 for my keyboard controller.  I am using a Focusrite audio interface.  My computer is a Samsung with Intel i7 processor.  My recording software is the latest version of Sonar.  For soundware, I am using a variety of Kontakt piano libraries from Native Instruments as well Sampletekk.  While I am not getting paid for promoting these products, I would be open to an offer.

The reason I am using multiple piano libraries is because even though I am using the same controller, each library has a unique feel to it as well as having a unique sound.  These things influence how my improvisations develop.

Another reason for my being in the studio tonight was to get the first session out of the way.  While I have been playing and practicing lately, I haven’t done any recording since last summer.  As any recording musician will tell you, once the Record light goes on the first time, everything goes out the window.  Most musicians I know plan for a throwaway session just to get back into the rhythm of recording and to get past the fear of the Record light.  So that’s what I did.

I recorded two tracks and both are definitely throwaways. They each had some moments I was fond of, but they didn’t hang together as a complete piece of music.  That will come.

In addition to the normal first session fidgets, I am contending with the fact that this is going to be my first commercial release (at least hopefully).  That means I am putting pressure on myself to record good stuff.  To counter that, I have set aside several weeks for initial recording, and I am planning on laying down at least 50 complete tracks.  From that I will pick what I feel are the best 30.  Then I am hoping some friends will help me narrow it down to the final 15 for release.  But all that is for another day.

I accomplished my goal..I got into the studio.  I debugged my set up.  And I recorded.  Time well spend.  Now to sleep.

Play on.

Welcome to the Abyss

If this is your first trip to this site, please read my “about” page aptly entitled, “JJ Biener and A Step into the Abyss.”  It will tell you who I am and what I am doing.  And to an certain extent why.  I want to start off this blog by telling you how I got here.

The first thing that happened was that I was a part of Bob Baker‘s  Creative Cash Flow Challenge.  Just as an aside, if your are a musician, composer, artist, author, etc., you need to know who Bob Baker is.  He is a well-regarded expert on independent marketing for creative types.  I have known him for nearly 20 years, and I own and have benefited from a lot of his materials.

The Challenge was a focused, 14-day period where we did deep dives into things like what products and services do we offer for sale, who do we know who might be a potential customer, etc.  There were videos from Bob and online discussions, and it really helped me think in broader terms about what I do and how I could provide a product to a given audience.

The second thing that happened was PBS had been showing Ken Burns’ documentary series on Jazz.  I have been a huge fan of Jazz going back to childhood.  I had a favorite aunt as a child. When she married for the second time, she married a very nice man who happened to be a huge Jazz fan.  He gave me several great Jazz albums and encouraged my interest in the genre.  That interest continues unabated to this day.

The episode of the documentary that really sparked with me was the one on Free Jazz.  It talked about Ornette Coleman and his forays into the avant-garde.  It talked about Keith Jarrett who would often improvise entire concerts from scratch.  All this rang true with me because for the last 20 years, I have been improvising without chord progressions, without key signatures.  When I sit down to play, this is most often what I do.  I have some examples on my SoundCloud page.

So now I was ready for the final tumbler to fall.  After the show ended, I went down to my studio to play for a bit.  As I was playing, I started thinking about Coleman and Jarrett and what they did.  I was thinking that what they were doing isn’t much different from what I am doing.  While thinking about them, the music coming through my headphones sounded different.  I wasn’t hearing it as I usually do with me as a part of the music. I heard it as someone else might hear it.  That was when the final tumbler fell.

The two weeks of the marketing challenge, the Jazz documentary, my own playing all coalesced into a product, a plan and a set of goals.  The goal was to produce a CD of improvised pieces.  The plan was to record and market this CD.  The product was a CD, a blog, and some other things that will be revealed in the weeks ahead.

The first step, this blog, is now live.  I will be posting here periodically to give you a view into my creative process and my progress toward my goal. I will be posting some music as well.  I hope you will sign up to follow along either here or through my Facebook Page.  It should make for an interesting ride.

Play on.