Sunday Listens: Fresh Local Music, Vol. I

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

This week, as usual, I drowned my sorrows by actively seeking out beautiful works of art.  There was much to process in the news, especially in local Denver news, and especially as it pertains to Denver's art scene.

I didn't know Colin Ward, musician, filmmaker, visual artist, but a lot of my friends did.  His face is familiar and perhaps we did meet at a show.  That's the haunting part for me - to think of the many folks I've met at shows in the 20+ years I've been attending DIY events in this town, and how each one of those individuals certainly played a role in shaping a community that is so special to me.  

Here's my point: that if you live in a town (you probably do), then there is vibrant arts scene there.  Whether you play a large role in it, or just drop in every now and then, you benefit from it's existence.  Art is a defining feature of our lived human experience, right?  Therefore, it's the responsibility of every one of us to care for not just art itself, but the creators of that art.

I can't speak to Colin's life, because I am only now learning about how deep his artistic output was, but this article in the Westword is a beautiful testimony, as is his YouTube page.

In an attempt to honor Colin Ward, and the community that cherishes him, I am going to write a series of blogposts that promote Denver musicians.  I am also going to encourage you to buy their music on digital platforms, buy tickets to their shows, and in general make it a point to be a fan to local musicians.  

When musicians are able to pay their bills, they can continue to create art.

First up, PRODUCT LUST.  Brutal, raging, and necessary.  Their bandcamp page has the best recordings.  This video is also great:

Next up, LEOMAR MENDEZ.  Energetic rapping en español out of Boulder.  Fun scenes from the Boulder skate park in this video.  Be sure to check out his Soundcloud page as well.

Finally, for this week, THE JOSHUA TRINIDAD QUARTET.  Y'all know I love jazz that pushes boundaries, but did you know there are plenty of Colorado musicians putting cutting edge sounds out into the atmosphere?  Be sure to buy tickets to his upcoming date at Dazzle.  And watch the video for a taste of what futuristic trumpeting you might be in store for.

What is the music scene in your hometown like? What shows are you going to this week?  What local artists are you excited about? Share your thoughts in the comments!

[Hey, music fans! Did you know that purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds?  Don't stream; Collect!]

Sunday Listens: Reliving My Youth With Late 90's Crust Punk

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

Texas band Bread and Water circa '99

Texas band Bread and Water circa '99

Last week I attended the Denver premiere of the movie Bomb City.  It's based on the true story of Brian Deneke, a punk kid living/skating in Amarillo, Texas who was murdered in 1997.  He was murdered for being a punk, and so the movie featured late 90's punk prominently.

For more on what it meant to be a punk in a small town that elevated the status of jocks, and why being a punk was something that might get you killed, read the wikipedia article, and then follow that up with this brief but timely analysis from Vice News.  Definitely go see the movie (you can pre-order it on iTunes).  Failing those efforts, ask an old punk friend (everyone has one, right?) about the late 90's.  It was a thing.

I was a punk in the late 90's and watching the movie felt like a time warp in many ways.  During one of the scenes from the court trial, a punk who is testifying is wearing a Bread and Water patch.  "Wow, that's an obscure band reference," I thought.  Later my friend (and fellow old punk), Sascha reminded me that they were a Texas band and Amarillo punks would have surely been into them.

Late 90's/early 00's crust punk: liberally applying a distinct d-beat, with a notable scream, periodic slow parts with some guitar picking, multiple vocalists employing a call and response motif, mostly unintelligible lyrics, with perfectly understandable choruses that serve as a call to action against such things as the state, the system, racism, patriarchy and capitalism, meant to be danced to with ample headbanging and thrashing of limbs, fosters a strong sense of community amongst fellow show-goers and bandmembers, linked to the ongoing anti-globilization movement at the time.

That's my best attempt at a definition, but please judge for yourself.

Here's the Bread and Water album that got me hooked:

This list isn't complete without a band that was highly influential on my musical tastes and my political beliefs: Anti-Product.  This live video says it all, especially singer Taína Asili saying it all at the beginning.

The Subhumans groundbreaking album, "The Day the Country Died", was released in 1983, which predates my timeframe by a lot.  But, there wouldn't be 90's crust punk without the Subhumans.  (Who, by the way, still actively tour and release albums.)  Go ahead, dig back into the vaults and listen to the entire album, "The Day the Country Died".  It's only 35 minutes long!

So, what do think?  Has crust-core played an important role in your life?  Should it be mandatory listening for the youth of today?  Does it sound like a chainsaw in a dumpster?  Let me know in the comments below!

[Hey, music fans! Did you know that purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds?  Don't stream; Collect!]


New News and Other New Things!

There is so much exciting news to tell - a new studio space, new album, a couple of new videos, and the summer session at Swallow Hill is almost here!  Where shall I begin?  Hmmmm......................

ANNOUNCING a NEW StUdIo SpAcE at 910 Arts!!!

I've just opened up time at a brand new studio space in the 910 Arts co-op building at 910 Santa Fe Drive.  Over the coming months the space will develop.  And likewise a community of students will start to flourish.  There are plans for super-charged recitals, clinics with various professionals, drop-in classes and lots and lots of singing.

I'll be at this new space Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  Definitely get it touch if you're ready to get back into music making.

Stay tuned to this website for upcoming events at the space.

In the meantime, here are a few pics to get you excited for the shape of things to come:

I'M IN A BAND and We ReCoRdEd An AlBuM!!!

Some of my longtime friends and students know that I've been singing with a jazz quartet for some time.  We've gone through a few personnel changes over the years and about as many band names.  But, things have really hit a groove [and I mean that literally] with our current line up and name.

ROPE TRICK EFFECT is now the thing and it consists of myself on vocals, Dustin Adams on keys, Squirrely McSquirrelington on bass, and Mike Spencer on drums.

We went into Derryberry Studios - one of our favorite recording engineers! - in early May and threw down seven - 7! - killer tunes.  We've been honing in our sound and have six original tunes (two by me) and one innovative take on a traditional.

We also commissioned our friend, Kim Fronapfel, to draw some art for us.  Her skills are vast as you can see here:

Our self titled EP was released in late May by Growler Distro and you can stream it here.  If you have the funds, and would like to support the cause, you'll get an extra special, secret, bonus track upon purchase.

We've also got hard copies available here.

CHECK OUT my pRoLiFic YoU-tUbInG!!!

You-tubing from one's phone is so easy the temptation to post new music rests in the back of my mind constantly.

I recently uploaded a tune I've been working on while I had a break between lessons at Swallow Hill.  Here's a little jam for y'all:

And the other night at band practice, Dustin, Mike and Squirrel laid down a funky groove.  There was an adorable kid + a highly apathetic dog in the room, which made for great cinematic drama (IMHO).  Put the video on and go about your chores because it's a pretty chill groove (IMHO).  I throw down some jammy ideas after the 9 minute mark:


I'll be offering some great classes and workshops this summer.  Singing 1-A and 3-A for the grown-ups; Little Swallows for kiddos ages 1-4; and Teen Singing for, you know, teens!  

I'll also be offering Harmony Singing for the first time.  I'm excited to start choosing harmonic tunes and tunes with harmonic potential so sign up and find out what I pick out of the hat!

I'm also continuing my series of Vocal Workout classes that occur every other Saturday (7/1, 7/15, 7/29, and 8/12).  Though the time has moved to 11am.  This is your yoga for singing class!  Each session presents new stretches and exercises for your voice.  We're working together to help your voice get stronger and healthier.  Definitely swing by one of the Saturdays if you aren't able to commit to a full session of classes or lessons this summer.

Check out the full list of my class and workshop offerings here.

HOPE to SEE EvErYoNe SoOn!!!!

Sunday Listens: Jazz is the Lexicon of Now

It's no secret that I'm a lover of jazz.  But, what jazz means exactly varies person to person.  The narrative of this musical genre extends back to the beginnings of the 20th Century.   No wonder, then, that it bends definition.  

Step away Merriam and Webster.

Nonetheless, contemporary listeners are happy to describe a band or musician as jazz.  So, what the fuck does it mean?

There isn't any doubt that jazz, as in the heyday of jazz, influenced everybody today.  Billie, Duke, Ella, Coltrane and even Oscar (my kid's namesake) are just some of the notable names that we associate with the jazz sound.  And, pity any musician who doesn't name at least one of these as an influence.

7th chords.  Mmmm, mmmm, juicy harmony.  Not to mention the melodic freedom that comes with those juicy harmonies.

Even if you have no idea what the 7th is, or how we get there, or what kind of building our notes are building, you know 7th chords when you hear them.  Something sounds, "bluesey"?  Well, you just heard some dominant 7th chords and it was really juicy to your ears.  Mmmm, mmmmm.   Yummy!

Lately I've been obsessed with musicians who've obviously studied their ii-V-I progressions (holla jazz!).  Yet, so much more is going on.  

Both Esperanza Spalding and Xenia Rubinos have ties to Berklee College of Music (known for it's jazz instruction) and Hiatus Kaiyote hails upon the jazz from all the way over in Australia.  But complex chord progressions and odd time signatures are only the beginning.  Synthesizers, compelling storylines and atmospheric vocal lines define these artists equally to their training.

I have a theory about songwriters these days: they've had exposure to the great American song form - jazz - and they've had ample opportunities to study it in music lessons - as compared to strictly Classical.  And they've made it uniquely their own.

Here are some of my favorite jams of late.

Esperanza Spalding released an album earlier this year, "Emily's D+Evolution".  It's a great album.  I highly recommend you buy the whole thing.  It's very prog and very conceptual, coming from a strong jazz background.  I like this track:

Xenia Rubinos released her sophomore album a few months ago.  Out of Brooklyn, she brings a fresh take on the region's legendary hip hop.  She studied jazz singing at Berklee and her breathy, but large, range is used to accentuate a broad harmonic chord progression.  Note, the 7th chords!  I can't stop jamming the entire album - it's so stellar! - and it demonstrates the wonder of jazz song form with a great deal of 21st Century style thrown in.  The following track opens with a haunting vocal line that only a jazz singer could deliver with authenticity:

And so I must talk about Hiatus Kaiyote (pronounced "hiatus coyote") from Australia.  Jazz, most definitely, with a punk edge and a romantic sensibility.  It's awkward time signatures and strange meandering through thick chords is inviting rather than alienating.  Seriously, this has been my go-to on the bus to work.  As you can imagine, I arrive at work in a blissed out state.  Take this tune (and buy the whole damn album, please):

Love your 7th chords.  Mwah, mwah.  Juicy!  It's the language of now.

[Purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds.]

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

Lots of Newness in My Musical Life

This summer has been productive!  Although my family had to temporarily sacrifice our vegetable garden due to moving, I would say that my musical garden has been robust!

I was honored to be asked by CBS Denver to give Wednesday's Child LeShea a voice lesson.  LeShea was so earnest, sweet and hard working that it was a pleasure to work with her.  I wish for her to find the family of her dreams.  Anybody would be lucky to have LeShea in their lives.  Watch the clip that aired on the morning show on channel 7.

I've also been busy working on a deeply personal musical endeavor, The Molly Growler Project.  What started out as an outlet during a difficult time has morphed into a three-piece band.  I'm the primary songwriter, something new for me, but the other band members have powerful musical voices to contribute.  We played our first show as a full band recently and it felt empowering, uplifting and communal.  All the good stuff about putting a band together and just getting out there with it.  Check out the bandcamp page for recordings.

I also put together a little jazz duo that consists of myself and guitarist Aaron Summerfield.  It's a mellow, stripped down sort of jazz that's been really fun to perform.  We played a few gigs at the ModMarket in Highlands Ranch and I made a short video of it.

The full jazz band (which is now between band names) I've been singing with for a few years finally finished mastering our demo.  Crazy how these things can take a while to complete!  Two of my favorite tracks are loaded on the sounds page of this here website.  Here is the direct link.  Listen to the tunes at the very top.

If you would like to catch any of my performances be sure to check the regularly updated calendar.  Be sure to say hi when you stop by.

I'm feeling especially grateful for all these opportunities that have come my way recently.  Many friends, students and family have come out to support my performances.  I feel all warm and gooey inside thanks to them.  It makes me want to keep on keepin' on.


Sunday Listens: Rakta and In School (punks of the week!)

I'm ever grateful for my monthly subscription to Maximum RocknRoll to keep me informed of new, underground, punk music. It brings much joy to me when that easily identifiable, tidy, manila envelope appears in my PO box.  If you like punk, or you consider yourself a subversive, I highly recommend that you get this delivered-by-mail treat every month as well.

Two standouts were brought to my attention in last month's issue and I've been rattling my speakers with them since.

Ratka (pictured above) hails from Brazil and plays what you might call psychadelic rock, but it's more than that.  It's a little droney, and forgive me if I hear the inevitable influence of Brazilian jazz, bossa nova.  They know how to create a mood and sustain it.  You can kind of lose yourself in the textures and harmonies.  If you're into punk sub-categories, you'll hear a good deal of post-punk.  

Those they're Brazilian they chose a sanskrit word for their name.  It means red, blood, passion, power and strong energy.  See if you can pick up on those adjectives in their latest release:


You can also check out their previous releases, while supporting them via downloading, here.

In School make great NYC hard core that easily stands with the long standing scene out there.  They thrash out four brutal tunes on their latest 7" in approximately 6 and a half minutes.  Meaning, you could listen to this record four times on your way to work and then be ready to quit in storm of f-bombs and middle fingers by the time you arrived.  Sounds like a good morning, eh? 

Fast-paced, screamy, distorted hardcore is an acquired taste and to an untrained ear it can sound all the same, but In School makes some choice turns in the gnarled guitar progressions and the drums have a way of not quite lining up that works really well.  Plus, the lyrics to Cement Fucker are amazing.

Start by downloading their 7", Cement Fucker, on bandcamp (name your own price!)  Then follow it up with this live video that is of poor quality and doesn't quite capture the magic:

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

Friday Lessons: Olympic Prep



Getting ready to perform, be in sports or music, takes a great deal of preparation.  It's tempting to look for the perfect workout or the tried and true regimen.  

I've been thinking about this while watching the Olympics this past week.  Surely the greatest athletes in the world, who also have access to the greatest training, and training facilities, in the world have it down to a science.  But what I noticed on the sidelines was that the way to getting ready to perform was as varied as the individual athlete.

This was particularly evident in the swimming competitions.  While some competitors paced back and forth on the desk, hopping slightly, rotating their neck muscles, listening to music, pumping up teammates, and shaking their arms out, others, notably Michael Phelps, tuned all the chaos out.  In fact, his preparation game face was so severe it made me shiver in my flippers.

Sometimes singers are looking for the warm-up that will get them to a great performance of a song.  In reality there is no steadfast rule for how you should warm-up, what warm-ups you should do, or for how long.

Much like olympic athletes, your goal is to build an awareness of your own body and then create the regimen that your body likes.  

As singers our bodies are our instruments.  Your voice teacher can give you exercises to try out and suggestions for areas to target, but ultimately your body will tell you when and how much to do.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you build up your voice and your individualized routine:

  • What time of day works for me to do my warm-up?
    • Think about the schedule you normally keep.  If you wake up very early in the morning, then early morning might not be a good time to dig into some heavy vocal lifting.  However, you might want to do some gentle warming-up for a few minutes first thing in the morning and then do some more targeted exercises later in the afternoon.  There is no rule about when you warm-up, or even that you do your entire warm-up in one go.  
    • After I had my baby I had to squeeze in practice whenever I could and expect to be interrupted.  I began to do 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there throughout my day and it worked for me.  Think about what makes sense for you, and listen to your body.  It will tell you if the schedule feels right, or is overly taxing.
  • How much space between warming up and singing songs feels the best to me?
    • There is no rule that says singing songs should be immediately preceded by warming-up.  Sometimes, with time constraints this is the only option, but consider warming-up then doing other activities for a while and returning to your repertoire.  
    • I like to warm-up for about 20 minutes and then let my voice rest for about 30.  Play around with some different time periods and see what feels best.
  • How long of a warm-up fits my voice?
    • Some singers prefer an extended warm-up of 20+ minutes.  Some singers feel great after 5.  Sometimes it depends on the day.  For example, if my breathing is feeling shallow I'll tack on about 5 minutes of breathing exercises that build into the vocalizing.  
    • If I'm getting ready for a lengthy performance I don't want to overdo it on the warm-up so I'll limit it to about 5 to 8 minutes.  But, if I'm really trying to target specific areas of my voice on a non-performing day I'll spend 20 to 30 minutes on exercises.
  • What kind of exercises feel the best for my voice?
    • There are many, many variations on a vocal exercise.  As you progress through lessons with an instructor you'll pick up all sorts of ideas for exercises.  Your teacher may even have specific recommendations for your voice.  Every voice responds uniquely to each and every exercise.  Pay attention to exercises that feel like they loosen the instrument and get it ready to sing.  A few examples of the kinds of exercises you might incorporate into your practice are: slides, scales, arpeggios, staccato patterns, small intervals, large intervals, working from head voice to chest voice, and working from chest voice to head voice.  Likewise, remember that all exercises can be done on a lip trill, a hum, any vowel, and any consonant, or no consonants at all.  
    • For example, I like to start with a sliding exercise on a lip trill to loosen up my constriction (we all have some!), then I like to work with arpeggios across the entirety of my range.  I might tack on a cool down exercise like descending on a simple syllable with an easy vocal production.  This routine does a good job of getting my voice into a comfortable place for singing my favorite tunes.

The vocal work-out that you do on your own is as unique as yourself.  Your instrument will give you a lot of information when you listen to it.  Your body knows what feels good and what feels like strain.

You want to push yourself, but never to the point of fatigue or strain.  Try new things with your voice.  You are encouraged to experiment.  You may find new exercises that feel just right to you.  You may also find that some exercises you've learned in lessons work better for you than others - that's ok.

With the guidance of your instructor, you'll also better understand what areas of the voice you want to target.  Your instructor will help you to identify areas of strength and weakness and how to balance those out.  But much like the doctor-patient relationship, this process can only work when you bring all of your personal awareness to the table and are ready to workshop your instrument collaboratively.

The point of warming up is to get you prepared to do whatever Olympic-esque vocal performance you're working towards.  Be it singing at karaoke night or fronting a band, your voice will thank you for treating it like a professional athlete.

Whatever works for you works.

I just had to finish with a Phelps game face.

I just had to finish with a Phelps game face.

Friday Lessons are where I talk about practicing, performing and other aspects of being a life-long learner of music.  Appearing most Fridays.

Friday Lessons: Recording Kids' Songs

This week Jazzabaloo went into the studio to finish up a recording project.

We were hired to do an anti-bullying song for elementary school students.  I'd share the track with you but I don't own the copyright.

Boy was it a fun project! 

Initially I wasn't sure where the song was going to go.  It had a simple set of lyrics that repeated.  Like 10 times.  But the sound engineer (shout out to Mark Derryberry!) suggested we start to layer in additional voices to make it sound like children joining in.  

Where were these additional voices to be found?  Well, since it isn't acceptable to grab other people's children from the park, we had to become those children's voices ourselves.  The two other guys in the band, Dustin and Mike, as well as myself, were tasked with conjuring the sound of singing children.

We were together in the studio dancing, laughing and pumping each other up.  We sounded great, er, like slightly-out-of-tune-yet-enthusiastic children.  

It was effective.  The song reaches a fever pitch by the end.  I imagine school children across the country becoming extremely hyperactive shortly before being returned to their classroom teacher.  A small inconvenience for teaching them that being a friend to all is TOTALLY AWESOME!

Here's what I learned in the studio, that creating character voices was made easier by understanding my instrument.  In thinking about the lead vocals I went for a bubbly, pop styled voice.  It was a chest dominant mix with lots of scooping and a little vocal fry.  To get a little girl's voice, I placed my voice in head register, slightly nasal, and let go of tonal precision.  Ha!

Knowing how your voice functions helps you to make choices that suit the music you're performing.  And that can lead to some not-so-serious fun.

Friday Lessons are where I talk about practicing, performing and other aspects of being a life-long learner of music.  Appearing most Fridays.

The Sunday Listens: Punk is as old as me, and I as tired as it.

         I googled "punk" + the year I was born and this awesome photo of Bad Brains came up.

I learned how to be jaded and cynical and angry and scrappy and passionate and independent from punk.  I learned to have high expectations but to live with disappointment from punk.  I learned what community was - as dysfunctional as it sometimes is, but also as comforting and present - from the punks in Denver.  The better part of my youth was spent in sweaty, DIY venues.

As today's post shows, some of us intend to spend our golden years there too.

If you wanna know when I was born, then google Black Flag's debut album, "Nervous Breakdown".  Yup, it was that long ago that a bunch of rag tag teens in Redondo Beach, CA released four raging songs at breakneck speed that changed the course of hardcore music - and inspired generations of kids to start their own bands, no matter the musical ineptness.  This project was fronted by Keith Morris.

This week I was riding around in my brother's car listening to Keith Morris' current band, Off!  Keith is 60, ya'll.  But, he still somehow manages to churn out hardcore that inspires a middle finger in the air and possibly a good ol' circle pit.  This video I chose includes a song so brief that you'll miss it if you blow your nose.  Therefore, Vice News decided to tack on some real-life footage of the band members.  Keith still lives in a dilapidated apartment with punk stickers covering the fridge.  The drummer drunkenly skateboards.  And they hate hippies and cops with equal fervor.  Their band should just be called Punk!

Keeping with old punkers rocking out for as long as I've breathed air, Bob Mould put out a new album in March.  The former frontman and lead songwriter for Husker Du has been putting out consistent material since the early 80's and it's consistently sounded like, well, Bob Mould.  It's a good thing to stay the same, in this case.

Although bands like Off! may sound quintessentially punk, the genre was defined by it's Do It Yourself ethics more than any one sound.  Bob Mould was as punk as Keith, but his music bridged the brashness of hardcore with the emotional content of what was to become "alternative music".  In this video he doesn't hesitate to jump right into fast paced guitar playing, cymbal heavy rudiments and a distinctively grumbly voice.  Energy is high, dismay palpable.  Bob Mould doesn't seem to fatigue.

Curious what these punkers sounded like while I was learning to walk?

Bob Mould in his Husker Du days, 1986:

Keith Morris in another legendary band he was a part of, the Circle Jerks, 1980:

Punk is as old as me, and most days I feel as tired as it is.  But if Keith and Bob are any sort of role model (sarcasm?), then you can keep on rockin' till your fingers can't make chord shapes anymore.  Maybe they tell us that punk as a musical medium is still just as relevant.  I hope you enjoy your Sunday Listens as much as I did this past week.

What do you think?  Is punk still a thing?  What kind of music inspired you as a kid?  Did you google "punk" + the year of your birth?  What did you get?

Let me know in the comments below.

The Sunday Listens: Prince's Prodigies

                    Prince and Sheila E.  A fruitful musical relationship!

Social media has been stretching my phone's data limits this week with retrospectives on the prolific career of Prince.  Maybe you've noticed?  I can't help but click with endless fascination.  Yes, he was a great and uncompromising artist (the kind I like best), but I'm not gonna pretend that I was super fan just because he has passed.  

Nope, my appreciation of him came much later in my life, and by then I was more interested in getting to know other musicians' catalogs.  No offense, Prince, I swear.  We just weren't timed together well.

I was really young when he was big news.  In fact, the song I'm most familiar with is "Cream" - and only because it was hard to ignore that video on MTV - the buttless pants!  That factoid alone dates me.

However, I knew that Prince was super amazing, and I also knew that he inspired some equally amazing artists.  That became something I was more tied to.

When I first saw a video of Janelle Monae, I immediately saw a connection to Prince.  She's plays with androgyny and character onstage.  She also plays some funky guitar and is from the midwest.  She recently said it best herself though, "He stood for the weirdos."  


Sheila E was THE example of badass women drummers for a very long time.  Now there are many more out there, but as a teenager in the 90's I was desperate for examples of women who could rock it hard.  My mom was the one to tell me about her - that's how famous she became making music with Prince.  Here she is shredding.  You can hear the strong influence of her Latin roots, but also her ability to hold down a solid groove when need demands - and need usually does demand.

I've been following the career of Esperanza Spalding for a long time.  She comes out of the jazz tradition, but her most recent album struck me as weird in a very Prince way.  The entire album is presented as a character piece, "Emily D+Evolution".   She grooves on the electric bass while singing from her soul.  Messages of love, something Prince would approve of.

I did a google search, just to see if she was indeed acquainted with Prince and found that he had invited her to perform at BET's tribute to Prince (in 2010, I believe).  Sadly, I couldn't find any decent videos of her performing his "If I Was Your Girlfriend".  I did, however, find TLC's version and it's pretty amazing.  Oh Left Eye!  Oh Prince!  RIP!

Let's hear it for the weirdos!  What do you think?  Any Prince prodigies that should be added to the list?

Let me know in the comments below.

The Sunday Listens: Ladies of the Canyon, Joni, Joan and Judy

Joni Mitchell is one of those musicians who've been around so long you almost assume you know what they're about.  How many times have you heard "Big Yellow Taxi"?  I'm approaching several hundred if I count the times it's been playing in the grocery store while I shop.

Yet, she's also a prolific and varied artist.  Joni gets mentioned in passing by friends every so often and each time, a different album is cited as influential.  Counting only studio albums, she's written and released 19, ranging from the quintessential sound of the 1960's folk revival to visionary jazz interpretations.

It's the early Joni Mitchell that I assumed I had already heard and understood, but in reality, I used to get her confused with Joan and Judy.  Baez and Collins, that is.

All three women wrote meandering, soprano folk tunes with deep messages and lovely finger-picking techniques.  All three were a part of an artistic scene, and that's what I want to talk about today: the era that united these voices as well as the aspects that make these individual voices distinct.

Joni Mitchell bought a home in Laurel Canyon, outside of L.A., in the 60's and immediately began hosting get-togethers for her musician and artist friends.  Creativity flowed and in turn continued to inspire itself.  Sometimes referred to as the "Queen of Laurel Canyon" she hosted the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Byrds; The Mamas and the Papas; The Doors; and Judy Collins. 

Perhaps in tribute to this vibrant time, her third studio album, "Ladies of the Canyon", was released in 1970.  It includes her best known hit - the one about painting paradise and putting up a parking lot - but I like the title track especially well.  It tells the story of a young woman that fits nicely into our nostalgic ideas of the time.  It also demonstrates Joni's unique guitar style and something else she is known for - playing in strange tunings, so that her chords can't quite be pinned down.  Her young voice demonstrates light, airy high notes that seem to float above the song and exist in the periphery, yet equally command attention.  It is the sound that made her name a household one, and securely positions her in the early 1970's cannon.

On the opposite coast, Joan Baez was becoming known as a part of the Greenwich Village scene, along with another person you may have heard of, Bob Dylan.  Joan was a skilled guitar player and had a knack for sensitive covers of her contemporaries' tunes.  She also wrote songs that tended to tell stories begging for social justice.  

Joan was bilingual, having learned Spanish from her Mexican father as a child and in 1974 she released an album of exclusively Spanish tunes, "Gracias a la Vida".  It is a diverse offering including darker, deeper songs, with light-hearted traditional songs, such as "De Colores".  True to the title, she brings much color to her rendition.  This album is one of my go-tos when I need a pick-me-up. 

It was risky to expose oneself as mixed race at the time.  She was advised by industry people that such a move could cost her fans, but she believed that being honest about her identity was itself a way of fighting for social justice.  In her original tune, "Las Madres Cansadas", she addresses the mistreatment of migrant farm workers - a song that reverberates equally in 2016..  Her voice is distinctively resonant and strong and her vibrato is unrestrained, giving the effect of deep emotional connection.  Even if you don't speak Spanish yourself, the message is made clear.

Judy Collins was raised in Denver, which makes her a bit of a hometown favorite.  In fact, she donated her childhood piano to Swallow Hill, where it sits in a place of honor in the cafe.  It feels like a celebrity connection to say that I've played it many times.  It's a great piano, by the way.

She's an appropriate finale to this blog entry, because her migration through the folk revival scenes brings the other artists together.  She first made a name for herself in Denver and Boulder, but soon moved to east coast and settled in Greenwich Village.  Her friendship with Joni, which continues to this day, brought her out to Laurel Canyon frequently.  Judy still tours extensively.  I had the opportunity to see her perform at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in 2010.  She is a captivating performer. She has collaborated with musicians as varied as Randy Newman, Chrissy Hynde and David Grisman.  She is an extraordinarily talented pianist and guitarist, but I also think of her as a musician who has worked hard in the industry for over 50 years.  How many people can say that?

I thought it fitting to choose this song, "So Early, Early in the Spring".

Who do you like - Joni, Joan or Judy?  What are your favorite songs?  Let me know in the comments below!


The Sunday Listens: New Santigold

This week we're gonna talk about how brilliant Santigold is.

Ok, I'm not really gonna go on a diatribe about her artistic merit, but I will say that her newest album, 99¢, which came out 2 weeks ago, is a really fun descent into pop mutations.  Frankly, it's been my only jam for the past week.  Carribean dancehall meets 80's pop meets contemporary hip hop.  I hear everything from Siouxsie Sioux to Erykah Badu.  Intrigued?  Buy it here.

What I do want to talk about is how wonderfully Santigold uses the full range of her voice in this album.  In fact, she gives us clear examples of the spectrum of her registration.  

Let's talk registration for a moment.  Loosely, this refers to head voice and chest voice, high notes and low notes, respectively.  Oftentimes singers blend these registers, singing in neither register exclusively.  However, Santigold has sections where she fully lives in each register, letting us hear the unique colors each register has to offer.  It is this type of tonal play that makes pop music so infectious and interesting to listen to.

In her song "Chasing Shadows" she layers to separate vocal lines during the chorus.  The primary one is sung in a chest dominant register while a head voice only line is superimposed on top.  The contrast between the two registers happening simultaneously creates a dynamic sound and helps to heighten the song overall.  Then, she comes in on the second verse singing, again, in an exclusively head register.  Her voice sounds very pretty, for lack of a better adjective, and the vocal line has an opportunity to float over the bass and drums.  Check it out and let me know what you hear:

The track, "Before the Fire", opens with a darker sound than much of the rest of the album.  The lyrics hint at personal struggle, be it in romantic love or life's purpose.  To accentuate this, she sings in a full, heavy, chest voice registration.  On the chorus, with its held-out notes, it becomes almost a full belt.  This song has serious feels and it comes through because of the choice she made for vocal placement.  What do you think?

Conveying artistry and emotion as a singer is often about making smart choices in how we use our voice.  I appreciate vocalists who give us a wide range of vocal colors and textures, like Santigold.  Listening to how our favorite singers use their voice will help us to create dynamic, emotional music that reaches our audience.

Who are some dynamic singers that inspire you?  Let me know in the comments.

The Sunday Listens: Students' recommendations

I'm taking a cue from students this week.  My students teach me as much about music, arguably more, than I teach them.

This week was the Swallow Hill graduation, where all of the group classes culminated with a performance for each other.  I had several classes perform.  The songs spanned Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.  I must say they all performed fabulously.

One of my students performed with a class I was not teaching - a fingerstyle guitar class with fellow instructor Jeff Rady.  Her class performed "Colorado Girl" by Townes Van Zandt.  I'd never heard it before, but it was just breathtakingly beautiful. The original version ain't too bad either.

Down a similar steel-stringed acoustic vein, my student Shannon has been persistently telling me to get in touch with the style of Western Swing, specifically Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.  When I mentioned it to Dustin - who has never before this moment displayed any knowledge of country and western - he was like, "Oh yeah, Bob Wills, he's the best."  Apparently you can't grow up in the Texas Panhandle and not know about Bob Wills.  So much for me, I grew up in Kansas!

I'll share two tracks.  The first one is instrumental, although you'll hear a lot of hootin' and hollerin' going on in the background.  The YouTube video comes with a thorough introduction to Mr. Wills:

One of the best Bob Wills western swing pieces you probably never heard. A notable and quotable music historian said that Western Swing was nothing more complicated than White men playing jazz on guitars and fiddles. While Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys may not have been the first Western Swing Band (That honor probably belongs to Pappy Lee O’Daniel and His Light Crust Doughboys) Wills was the hottest, most prolific, and most innovative of the bands with a vision and a stage presence that would make the sound wildly popular. Listen to Too Busy and you will hear some of the most joyous and upbeat swing jazz ever arranged. Wills made Western Swing impossible to nail down as he played waltzes, reels, blues, pop, ~all the most unlikely hybrids While the sound originated with groups from Houston to Beaumont, up East Texas to Tulsa, and back to Ft. Worth, it was known as hot string band music in Texas and Oklahoma and was not tagged as Western Swing until the 1940s as is became popular in California.
Wills had been a member of that first Swing Band, Pappy Lee O’Daniels Doughboys, but left around 1932 for station WACO in Waco taking vocalist Tommy Duncan and Wills’ brother, banjo player Johnnie Wills. In Waco, Leon McAuliffe, steel guitar, pianist Al Stricklin and drummer Smokey Dacus were added, the nucleus of the best band Wills ever managed. Pappy Lee, still seeking revenge for the loss of Duncan said he would put commercials for his flour on WACO if they would fire Wills. WACO went for the money and Wills went to Tulsa where he played at Cain’s Dance Academy, a place where men would be taught to dance for, as the song says, 10 cents a dance, and where you could also be treated to some bootleg hooch while spending time with the young ladies. Cain’s evolved into Cains Ballroom as Wills packed the hall full every night he was booked there. The Wills sound would soon be broadcast over clear channel powerhouse KVOO, (Voice Of Oklahoma) in Tulsa. Pappy Lee showed up once again seeking more revenge on Wills. He promised KVOO he would pay a lucrative sum to the station to advertise his flour if they would fire Wills. KVOO, fired Pappy Lee instead and an 8 year association with Bob Wills & KVOO began which made the station famous for it could be heard from the Rockies to the Canadian border and the East Coast to the Gulf Coast.
Too Busy was recorded September 1936 in Chicago on the Okeh and Vocalion labels 03537A, the flip side of “No Matter How She Done It”, 03537B.
— YouTube user preservationhall01,

This little ditty is charming my cowgirl boots right onto the dance floor.  A couple of listens will have you singing along.  It also includes a pedal steel solo that Jeff Rady would probably be proud of.  Shannon, I hope I chose well!

If your curiosity has been piqued and you'd like some more exposure to folk music of all styles, western swing yourself over to Swallow Hill.  New classes start tomorrow.  I've got a number of classes and workshops to choose from myself.

Y'all take care now!

Getting Through Cold Season Still Singing

Wintertime can be divided into two halves: the period leading up to and including the holidays, then the anguishing period of waiting for spring to finally rescue us from the doldrums.  It is this latter half that really tests our immune systems.  It seems as though right around now, February, everyone we know has some kind of cold.

Upper respiratory illnesses can be disastrous for singers.  It can quickly ruin our plans to head into the studio, play a show, or even keep up with our practice schedule.  My students often ask me this time of year, what they can do when the ubiquitous "winter cold" strikes.  Here's a short list of some of my favorite comforts, remedies and preventatives:

  1. Sleep, Hydration and Relaxation.  It's what our parents told us, but as adults it still bears reminding.  It can take a great deal of effort to set aside our responsibilities to co-workers, children, clients, spouses and the world at large, but even a temporary leave of absence on some of your duties can make a big difference.  Try to set aside a moment to read a book in the bathtub.  Turn your phone off and tell your family to give you an hour.  Stress and fatigue will lengthen your illness, and often cause it.  Hasten your recovery by taking some "me-time."
  2. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol.  I love a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening, but these stimulants not only compromise your already taxed immune system, but they dehydrate your mucus membranes.  It is imperative to keep your sinus cavities, and their silia which help move the illness out of your body, hydrated.  Below are some suggestions for alternatives to your favorite grown-up treats.
  3. Throat Coat Tea.  This tea is delicious and it does exactly as the name advertises - it coats your throat.  It includes naturally soothing ingredients such as licorice root and marshmallow root, which become viscous when steeped.  I drink this when I am well too!
  4. Homemade Chai.  Sure, you can buy some chai at a coffee shop, or get those flavored tea bags at the store, but this is not the real deal.  My husband learned to make chai from an Indian family he played music with in Texas.  He grates fresh ginger into the boiling water, and this makes all the difference.  Ginger is not only an immune booster, but it is a natural stimulant.  Combined with the gentle tasting black tea, this will keep you feeling awake and energized without the come down effect of coffee.  I switched completely to chai while I was pregnant and did not get sick once!  Here is the recipe my husband uses:

      • Boil half a pot of water, add freshly grated ginger (peeled or not is up to you) and freshly ground cardamon pods including the husks (loosely crush them in a mortar, just enough to open the pods)

        • You can add ground black pepper, white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, mint or other spices if they sound good to you and you have them in house.  The basic recipe is plenty delicious on it's own but the above spices have their own medicinal properties as well.
      • Add a few Tbsp of loose leaf black tea (amount depends upon your taste), we like to buy Mamri tea from the Indian market because it tastes great, but we've used Lipton in a pinch.
      • After boiling for 5 minutes or so, reduce heat to low and fill the rest of the pot with milk.  Stir frequently to prevent scalding.
      • Strain into cups.
      • Add a sweetener of your choice, or none at all.
  5. Coconut, Chicken Broth Soup.  This is loaded with good stuff, it's easy to make and delicious!  Here's the recipe:
      • Heat on low equal parts chicken broth (homemade is best!) and coconut milk.
      • Add fresh lime juice and chopped cilantro.
      • Eat!
  6. The Neti Pot.  This can be looked to as a preventative as well as an ameliorative.  They can be purchased at health food stores as can the water-soluble solution.  I make my own using 2 cups boiled water and 1/2 tsp finely ground sea salt.  I wait for the mixture to cool to body temperature.  Other solution recipes and information are here.  I am not a medical professional, however I have been using my neti pot for years and it has been a huge relief to my chronic allergies as well as the occasional cold.  When I am suffering from sinus trouble I use it once in the morning and once at night.  Be sure to disinfect the pot between use.
      • *It is very important that you use either boiled water or distilled water because tap water has some microscopic bacteria that can cause serious harm via the mucus membrane if not killed through treatment.  Information from the CDC can be found here.
  7. Salt Gargle, Steam Inhale. If the neti pot is not your thing then do a salt gargle with warm water several times a day for at least a minute each.  Without swallowing do your best to let the saltwater get to the back of your mouth.  You can also put your head under a towel and over a bowl of steaming water.  Add salt, baking soda or even tea tree oil to the water.  Breathe deeply.
  8. Limit Cough Syrup and Cough Drops.  Although these provide relief and can help you sleep when you have a bad cough, they work by numbing the vocal folds.  This can create a dangerous situation for singers because they may be fooled into thinking it's safe to sing, or talk, when it's not.  Remember, your body is sending you messages of pain for a reason.  Be sure to listen to it and avoid vocalizing, including talking through the day, as much as possible.
Next steps: Practice loving self-care!

The Fine Art of Vocal Improv

Five for Friday

As a jazz singer, I do a lot of vocal improv onstage.  Every time I do so I think of the lengthy history of vocal improv that I'm inheriting.  Here are just a few examples of vocal improv I find inspiring and astounding.

1. Ella Fitzgerald "How High The Moon"

In the case of jazz it's hard not to talk about the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  She transforms herself from just another singer to a fellow musician on stage.  It is captivating and engaging.  She performed "How High the Moon" throughout her career.  It's worth watching videos of her from early on as well as renditions from when she was older.  She constantly changed and shifted her interpretation, bringing fresh ideas to the bandstand up until she was no longer able to perform.  Damn, lady!

2. Al Jarreau "Take Five"

Al Jarreau stormed onto the jazz scene in the 70's and brought with him a new style of scatting, one that incorporates vocal percussions.  Things I love about this version: the bright sounding Rhodes keyboard, and the command Al has over this song, making it something new and interesting at every moment.  It's notable that he's able to convert an instrumental tune (originally Dave Brubeck) into a vocal tune.  Something I rarely enjoy in jazz, but this one stands the test of time.

3. Bobby McFerrin "Improvisation"

Bobby McFerrin picked up what Al Jarreau threw down and took it to the edge.  Here, he creates a complex composition using only the human voice.  He uses the audience to help orchestrate different parts.  This frees him to improv widely varying ideas.  He turns down melodic paths that are quite unexpected.  I heard him once say that when he was a young singer he would practice scales and arpeggios much like a horn player would.  Over and over again he would drill the various seven-chords and all of the modes.  That kind of focus and determination is noteworthy amongst singers, but the product sings for itself.

4.  Amita Sinha Mahapatra "Raga Jaunpuri"

Improvisation was not invented by jazz musicians.  The idea of making new musical compositions in the moment is something that probably goes back to our cave ancestry.  The traditions of Northern Indian Classical music call for a composition to be stated and then freely interpreted by the performer.  Here, Amita Sinha Mahapatra elaborates upon a Raga Jaunpuri by letting herself surrender to the music itself.  The effect is trancelike, yet very similar to what jazz musicians eventually also brought to the table.

5. Natalie Dessay "V'adoro Pupille"

While Northern Indian Classical is the one of the oldest currently existing forms of musical improvisation, the practice also extends back to the Baroque era.  In Handel's day it was common to include da capo arias in operas.  The form of the da capo aria is strikingly similar to the jazz form.  The aria "V'adoro Pupille" from Handel's Guilio Cesare has an AABA form.  After the aria has been sung as written in it's entirety, also referred to as the head in jazz, the singer reprises the A section but with elaborations.  Here Natalie Dessay makes a wide departure from the head with many melismas and as many high notes as possible.