Remembering Larry Coryell (pt.1)

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I vividly recall my weekly trips to the Franklin Music store while in high school and my obsessive journey through practically every LP bin in the store. I wasn’t necessarily an open-minded teen, looking for new and exciting music forms (though, in retrospect, it seems I was). Still under the influence of popular music (which, at that time, mixed rock, Motown, folk, country and full-fledged pop musics into one perpetual playlist) I used the covers of the LPs to educate myself. I knew about rock and folk music, of course, but learned of country artists, jazz artists, classical orchestras and composers, Broadway shows, all from studying those LP covers.

By this time I was also into the guitar – any guitar, any style, any level of playing. I was most immediately drawn to cover shots with guitars pictured, my teen-aged imagination just piqued by the music that was lurking on that vinyl disc. I wasn’t much of a guitarist at that time – with literally no guitar instruction available other than a folk-singing father of a younger friend, I was fumbling along on my own, snatching bits of ideas from TV variety shows, where popular groups would lip-sync their latest hit. So, it was with this fascination-driven mentality that I encountered Larry Coryell’s Offering album.

I’m not sure I can express exactly what drew me to that record – the cover is quite artistic, of course, but there was something about this guy holding this immense guitar that hinted at new music, an unique experience. He didn’t have the physical demeanor of Barney Kessell or Herb Ellis, wasn’t sporting the suit-and-tie look still associated with a preconception of jazz. He had bushy hair, giant glasses and a fantastic guitar. The back cover was even more convincing – the quintet didn’t look that different from guys I was hanging around with at school, albeit a bit older. I could imagine sitting there with them just looking cool.

The list price for Vanguard LPs was $3.49 that week, which was beyond my high school budget (circa 1969). But I persevered – upon each return visit to the store I checked the sale banners – various labels had weekly specials when the price would drop by $1. Each week I checked that the record was still in the bin. Three weeks passed – my patience was rewarded when that banner touted all Vanguard LPs for $2.49! I wasted no time in dashing to that bin, grabbing the record, pulling those three $1 bills out of my wallet and buying Offering.

My parents were very tolerant with my musical obsessions. In the era before earbuds and headphones, they had to be tolerant with my often redundant listening habits. This time it went even further. Upon returning home, I rushed to the venerable Fisher stereo system, placed the LP onto the turntable and was astonished by what I heard. The very first track, Foreplay, was unlike any music I ever heard. I played the track six times, all the while running around the dining room, calling out superlatives and exclamatories. When I finally calmed down my mother walks into the room and asks “Is the whole record just that one song, over and over?” I, of course, replied with more superlatives and impassioned exclamations.

I literally had to not listen to the remainder of the record until the next day and the artistic knock-out punches continued. This was group of musicians creating something exciting on many levels, opening new doors into musical expression. For me, it was truly a turning point –  I had a new take on music and new determination to play music like this. The music of the rock and pop idols had nothing close to this – I had to learn to play like this.

Back in the LP days, to learn a song/solo/guitar part you played the vinyl LP over and over again, cuing the needle to the spot as many times as needed. I’m sure those repetitions clocked into three figures as I attempted to figure Larry’s solos out by ear. I had no idea where to begin. After wearing out the first copy of Offering and procuring a second, I realized it was time to find a teacher – this was jazz, after all, and I was in totally uncharted territory (for me). I asked friends who had taken lessons if their teacher was accepting new students. He wasn’t – but he supplied two names: Pat Martino and Tom Giacabetti. As it turned out, Pat was out on tour for several weeks, Tom wasn’t. I studied with Tom for five years and still employ his lessons today.

I also met Larry Coryell some months later…..

More to come

 

Engaging those around us can happen…

…without our realizing it. And it can fit into lives in many different ways. This is a vital point for anyone whose career puts them in public view. As musicians / actors / performance artists / public figures we connect with people around us, often in ways that we may not even count on.

Solo at The Grand

Some years ago I was performing at an art gallery just outside of Philadelphia. It wasn’t a large venue, but it was filled close to capacity. While I can’t claim that everyone in attendance was a diehard Matt Richards fan, I did have a number of listeners there who were familiar with my music. During a break a senior couple came to me and introduced themselves — it turned out they had attended one of my solo performances at the then newly-opened Kimmel Center. They  did purchase a CD and tonight they were so delighted to meet me.

“Your CD is wonderful,” the woman said. “I love guitar music and we have a collection of guitar CDs that we play all the time.” The husband looked toward his wife and added “She insists you remind her quite a bit of her favorite guitarist, though I think your playing is different.” At this point the wife rolls her eyes in the manner of the long-married. Of course, my curiosity won’t let me stay quiet, so I ask “Which guitarist is your favorite?”

“Oh, now I’m embarrassed,” she replies, “Because you may not think you have anything in common….” She pauses, then grins and says “Ottmar Leibert. I just adore his music and certain things you play remind me of him.”

Ottmar Leibert performs with a group, playing music that usually has the word nouveau associated with it. He isn’t a bad player by any means — I just see my own music as more intricate and spontaneous. I manage to squelch my initial reaction to engage in self-centered re-education to delineate the differences just as her husband adds “We had a dinner party with friends and we played your CD during dinner. Everyone loved it! They asked to see the box and our one friend wrote down your website.”

My music had been reduced to dinner party backdrop, an ambient atmospheric landscape….. All the hours to compose, perform, record, edit, mix and master…. dinner music? However, within seconds I was graced by a wave of wisdom. I realized that my music fit a very special aspect of their lives. They had a collection of guitar-oriented music and my recording was important enough to be part of a dinner with their close friends. In a flash I realized this was a true compliment. It didn’t matter that they didn’t consider the time, effort and emotional investment required to produce my music — all that effort created the final result which touched their lives. That is what mattered.

“I do know Ottmar Leibert, of course,” I reply. “Do you think we sound alike?” I ask kindly. I’m not sure where in my life this is coming from. The husband replies “Well, I don’t, but she notices things I don’t. I’m sure you’ve heard of Alex DeGrassi — your playing is more like his.”

They DO know their guitarists! I am so very glad that my sensitivity and maturity won out over my ego in this conversation. We continued to discuss guitar music and my upcoming dates, all with my renovated sense of how my music and I connect with people at different levels and in different ways.

Since that time I am glad to have the opportunity for my music to reach so many people, whether as personal inspiration in life or as a backdrop during their day. And I now understand its far-reaching value. Daisaku Ikeda explains music and its power: “There is probably nothing that speaks so directly to the human heart as music. It needs no words. Transcending space, transcending time, transcending race, music addresses each and every one of us directly, heart to heart. Music has the power to cut across all barriers and make our hearts respond mutually to it.”

Daisaku Ikeda is the head of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International.

“I need a classical guitarist Saturday….

…. are you available?” the email inquiry asks. While I do play with classically-based fingerstyle technique and did develop that technique via basic classical repertoire years ago, I’m not actually a classical player. But there is a respectable sum of money to be gained, so I reply “I can do it”. As a wave of self-invoked satisfaction rushes over me I now notice the original email message states this is a three-hour event. That’s quite a lot of classical music even for a classical guitarist…. At that moment, I realize I will need to practice classical repertoire incessantly for the next five days.

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Which I do.

I cull through the abundant collection of sheet music that I’ve accumulated over the years. Quite a great deal of it is classical music, both long-form and short pieces that span a couple of centuries. I’ve always had a penchant to collect this sort of material even though I was never committed to immersing myself in classical repertoire. I have sporadically taken it upon myself to practice Tarrega or Barrios pieces for a few days; ultimately, I end up diverting my attention to a pressing project that makes use of my jazz/contemporary/improvisational skills and those charts are shuffled to the back of the pile on the music stand and eventually returned to the voluminous binders where they remain until…. (?)

But I have performed in the guise of a classical player in the past. Not counting wedding ceremonies, I have performed short sets of Giuliani, DeVisee and Tarrega for National AIDS Awareness Day and did, in fact, play a two-hour engagement three years ago at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. At the latter, a last-minute request for inclusion of Latin/Spanish folkloric repertoire lessened the pressure — I have quite a bit of experience with South American and traditional Spanish genres.

On the day of the date I feel reasonably prepared. I did eat/breathe/listen to/play only classical pieces. I had prepared a decently-organized collection of charts along with a list of the pieces I had memorized. It was preferred I not have a music stand telescoping up in Lapat111

front of me – I needed the stand with the charts and I was able to adjust it to a very low height. (Usually, in these sort of events, no one notices you until they walk into you while checking their texts.)

I arrive at the immense Constitution Center, where the event is taking place, having given myself additional time just in case. As it turns out, the original booker moved the schedule up by 30 minutes and neglected to inform me. At that moment she was going into a mild panic. I emerge from the elevator and find myself whisked across a spacious walkway to my spot. I do carefully explain that a later arrival time was detailed in the booking arrangements, but rather than insist on my correctness above all else, I assure her I will be ready in 10 minutes as needed.

With one minute to spare I call the booker over to tell her I will begin. For some reason I say/ask “And you want me to perform my classical repertoire for tonight, right?” She replies, “Oh, play whatever works. In fact, it would be good if you included some jazz, maybe some Spanish music.” Once again, pressure removed.

Well….. I did play jazz and other music…. but I did play a great deal of the classical pieces as well. It turned out to be another one of those gigs — but, as is always the case, I played it well, made every note count, every phrase flow. At the conclusion, the CEO of the company comes to me and thanks me profusely, explaining he studies and plays jazz guitar as a hobby. He was delighted that I performed for the dinner. (Additionally, the on-site booker expressed her gratitude to the agent who hired me for bringing ‘a true professional’ in for the date.)

I always put my very best effort into any endeavor I am involved with. I constantly tell my students (and my son) ‘If your name is on it, no matter how small you think your part is, make it count’.

Maybe I should practice more classical music…..

 

“It’s a matter of perspective,”…..

…..Larry Coryell assures me as we discuss my ongoing challenge of self-producing my current recording project Balance. I essentially knew this, but it is re-assuring to hear it from someone of Larry’s stature. I have been fortunate to be able to run things past him over the years and push myself past sticking points with his encouragement.

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I have detailed aspects of this experience on blog postings previously — to update those of you who have followed me in this endeavor, I have most of the recording completed. My greatest obstacle is trusting what I hear — since I do perform as a solo guitarist frequently and I do improvise quite a lot with almost every piece of music I play, songs tend to change and evolve every couple of weeks. I will go back to review a version of a tune from perhaps three months ago and it’s different from the way I played it the night before. I have, somewhat foolishly, gone through the process of recording a new version and, in several instances, deleting the previous one. Of course, in a week or so I end up repeating the same process. At one point I had five versions of a certain piece and each one had a portion I really liked. It took gargantuan control not to begin the dreaded copy / cut / paste of segments and verses and solos (which I immersed myself in too easily for my first two releases) and end up re-titling the release Frankenstein’s Guitar. Digital editing allows me to skirt along the edge of the deep, dark ravine of recording perfection and just jump in with both feet. In fact, after listening to my first CD release Larry inquired how many tracks were first or second takes — I proudly told him how I disassembled and reassembled tracks and mixes. He said “I think you should trust your early takes from now on.” For me, that’s easier said than done……

Larry’s comment that opens this posting was in reply to my explaining my strange habit of disliking a take completely if I listen to it immediately after I record it. When it sits on the hard drive for a week or (ideally) more before I listen to it, all the sonic blemishes, misfired notes, risque ideas that I thought were there are gone. I am aware of this fact, but I still want to check things out immediately, give it a once-over…. at the conclusion of my recent recording sessions I immediately power off the TASCAM recorders and disconnect and put them away, even before breaking down the hardware. I manage to keep away from the files for at least a week before I sit down and begin mixing. To be honest, I do still have takes that don’t make it and after a pass or two I decide if it’s good and worth the next steps. I no longer paste bits and pieces of solos and intros from one take to another, though I do edit false starts and the occasional dead end I play myself into.

It seems Balance is more than just a sound recording — it’s been a growing experience for me, not only in terms of my technical skill in recording, but in my personal understanding of the creative process.  It’s worth the time it’s taking to complete.

I’ll have more soon.

Matt

Now I’m going to figure out what it is I do….

P1010183…and explain to other people. Actually, I’ve been considering how to do this for several months — explain how I create solo guitar arrangements so others can understand what I do.

Before you assume I am acting grandiose or ego-driven (and we have enough of that right now with a certain public figure), after many years of doing what I do, play music and devise ways to re-phrase and re-structure it so it has a unique identity yet remains reasonably musical, the whole process has become second-nature for me. The music theory and harmonic re-organizing are just things I do without consciously detailing the process — I realized I do it while I’m improvising in a live gig.

When I sat down to begin defining my approach, I became aware of the fact that the system that I use is flexible – I can begin with full concepts in some pieces, while other tunes require my going note-by-note and building from the ground up. I had to devise a logical system, a progressive path through the process. At the very least, I wanted in introduce a method that an intermediate player could connect with, that would allow him or her to develop the skills that I’ve been building (often unconsciously) for more than forty years.

Fortunately, I am musically cognizant of how things fit together — I can explain things at face value in clear theoretical terms (i.e., intervals, chord voicings, harmonic relationships, scales) that even some accomplished players aren’t comfortable with. (No names here….) I can also relate to a more guitaristic approach (two frets = 1 whole step, sharps go up the neck, etc.). So, with both aspects necessary to clearly explain things, I’m going forward with Arranging For Solo Guitar and making very sure my instructor’s approach adequately explains my musician’s approach to the topic.

My goal in teaching is for the student to, eventually, develop beyond the point of needing me. While I certainly value everything I’ve gained from my teachers (Tom Giacabetti, Larry Coryell, Steve Khan) and my musical inspiration (too many to list here), I always strove to take what they gave me, whether technical, theoretical or inspirational, and get it into my own playing ASAP. To be honest, it didn’t always work and when it did, it often took months / years. Sometimes, it appeared in my own music and I became aware of it after the fact. But that is how music / art / self-expression works and that’s what I hope to give to my students and my workshops attendees.

Coffee Break

 

I’ll be sharing more as things develop. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot about myself and even more about how I play music. In either case, that can’t be bad.

See you soon!

Matt

Now, about that CD project….

… which has practically become the stuff of urban legends. I half-expect to see non-reputable newsfeeds begin regular reports of CD box sightings in/around certain geographic areas. In an effort to de-fuse any such rumors, here’s the final version of the cover art:

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I do hope everyone realizes I am joking about the news reports. I am not quite that important in the eyes of the general public and, most certainly, won’t be engaging in Twitter battles with other music celebs (or with a certain presidential candidate…..).

Here’s the update on Balance:

The technical issues have been conquered. Early-on, I was encountering all sorts of electrical interference on the recorded tracks. During sound-checking everything would sound perfect – I’d doff the headphones (which I preferred not to wear while playing) and record for an hour or more. Upon reviewing the tracks afterward (days/weeks…. more about that later) I’d hear either news radio broadcasts or twinkly static that resembled electronic mosquitoes. In either case, filtering, which can eliminate power hum and the like, didn’t solve the problem – the noise was too loud and tweaking removed far too much guitar sound. The source of the interference was my electrical lines picking up the signals from no fewer than nine towers that stand within a half-mile radius of my home. I could a) re-wire my entire house; b) install a highly-insulated A/C circuit just for studio use; or c) get off the grid. The third option cost far less than the first two….. Of course, I utilize condenser mics which require phantom power and, essentially, need to be plugged in. It just so happened that TASCAM was offering a factory rebate on their DR-40 recorder – 4-track recording, battery-powered, with phantom power. The unit records 24bit/48K resolution and, as it happened, was on sale through an online retailer.Need I say more?

The new setup features four mics with the DR-40 with the option of a fifth with my DR-1. As I currently do not have a dedicated studio room where mics can be left in place, I face the issue of having the sound just a bit different for each session. A one-inch difference in mic placement can alter the bass response, affect the midrange…. when an A/B comparison is made between tracks you can hear subtle tonal contrasts. That’s not a bad thing, I’ve come to realize, as there is plenty of tonal variation possible with 4 or 5 mics. In fact, my original goal with the multi-mic setup was to capture as much sound and tonal character as possible then mix the signals to achieve the sound I want. I’ve always ascribed to the theory that having more sound/tone than you need allows you to remove what doesn’t work – if you come up short, tonally, adding/boosting frequencies usually yields lackluster results (at least for me).

The guitar takes a deserved break.

Thus far, I’ve refrained from doing a lot of plug-in processing other than compression/limiting. I want the natural sound of the LaPatrie guitar on the recording – it sounds great and the recording is, after all, a solo acoustic guitar album. I have been able to mix and position the individual mic tracks to create a full, rich sound that conveys the dynamics and the texture of the guitar. I do add reverb (Timeworks) and use Steinberg software for mastering – I do have a favorite reverb setting (which I do tweak for each track) but the mastering is accomplished on a  track-by-track basis. I look to fill the sound out just a  bit while getting the overall mix ‘tight’. I do leave a good deal of dynamic range in the finished product. Essentially, I want to like the sound.

Of course, first and foremost, the playing has to ‘cut it’. I have to like what I played and believe it’s a strong musical performance. This is where I must utilize the most challenging aspect of my recording process: patience. 

I will tell you all about that next time…..

Matt

 

I’ve Got This…

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On May 6th I performed a solo concert at the Dover Public Library in DE for their In Harmony series.

Now this is certainly nothing new – I’ve been featured in library settings and, in fact, I enjoy these performances as the audiences are attentive and open-minded when presented with music that is unique and not the usual fare. In this case, I encountered and managed to overcome bad weather, traffic and detours and play what turned out to be a very satisfying concert (for me and the listeners).

One of the aspects of performing that I have recently been highly focused upon is my determination to connect with listeners. I don’t mean engaging in silly antics or playing down to the audience – I want my music to convey my deepest feelings and touch everyone who is sitting there as I play. I may sound somewhat over the top with that statement, but as an instrumental artist this is something I consider to be an essential part of what I do. My mentor Daisaku Ikeda states “There is probably nothing that speaks as directly to the human heart as music…. It needs no words… Music has the power to cut across all barriers and make our hearts respond mutually to it.” I endeavor to apply this in every performance.

This particular date was a true test. As I inched through what was essentially an endless traffic jam from Philadelphia to Dover and found myself driving down the exit ramp to the library at the exact time I was supposed to be playing my first notes, I deepened my determination to make this situation work and turn poison into medicine.

As I entered the rather large performance space wearing my raincoat and wheeling an amplifier behind me, I heard “Alright everyone, Matt Richards is here! He made it!” and the sixty or so people sitting calmly in rows of chairs applauded. I had to hit the carpet running so I decided to forgo the soundcheck and meticulous setup that was originally planned and engage the audience in a light-hearted account of my traveling dilemma while I doffed the raincoat and quickly plugged in and powered up. Within five minutes I was seated and playing my first notes. I recall thinking, for just a moment, that this wasn’t the best way to begin a performance. Then I played three improvised notes, felt them resonate and began my first tune. While it sounds somewhat silly and cliched, I literally thought to myself “No worries – I got this!” and into the music I went.

My contact at Godin Guitars often says “It’s all good!” and, in fact, it was. I felt I accomplished exactly what I determined to do – engage the listeners and communicate my life through the music. The technical details weren’t an issue. The nerve-wracking drive was behind me. I felt exhilarated throughout the performance and had quite a number of people come up to me afterward to buy CDs, sign onto my emailing list and talk about the music.

Fortunately,the drive back was uneventful, though still a bit wet.  It took the normal 80 or so minutes, which seemed to go rather quickly. I was truly exhausted upon my return home, but felt I had not only performed well, but had proven to myself that my determination was important and valuable no matter what circumstances I faced.

The next day I received an email of appreciation from the librarian who coordinated the event. “Despite the stressful traveling conditions you proved yourself to be a true professional. Your performance was excellent and the audience loved you.”

It’s called Actual Proof.

See you soon.

Matt