Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New guitar finished!

My latest guitar commission is finished and delivered.  The happy owner is Keith Sinclair, a talented young guitarist in the 4th year of the Capilano Jazz Studies program.  Keith is also a fine singer and performs with the acclaimed Chor Leoni men's choir.  Here he is in my living room with the guitar:
The instrument was designed around Keith's ideas; essentially it is his dream guitar.  I have taught him in several classes at Capilano so I had a pretty good idea of his playing style and the kinds of sounds he likes.  The design is a semi hollow archtop with two humbucking pickups.  The body is made of African Mahogany with a Sitka Spruce top.  The unusual shape is very comfortable and ergonomic - especially for the right forearm.   this was a significant concern for Keith and he is very pleased with the results so far.

 I'm happy to have this one done as it took several months longer than I anticipated.  My other jobs kept eating up the guitar building time.  I have a few other commissions already but really won't have time to do anything about them until later in the spring.  I also have a couple of classical guitars that I'm building just for fun.  For now, I'm glad to be finished this one and eager to spend some time practicing over the Christmas break.   I find all the fiddly work of polishing by hand, making nuts, tailpieces, and saddles, adjusting string height etc. is hard on my fingers and I want to get back in top playing form for post-Christmas gigs. (TBA soon)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Recordings online!

There are some new recordings up at my website

First is a very recent recording from July of this year and a band I'm calling "Delta Quartet".  Several tracks from this session are up and ready for listening.  Second is a 2009 recording from the Jared Burrows Quartet.  The complete session is available online for FREE listening.

It seems that CD manufacturing is almost completely unnecessary except as a sort of fancy business or trading card for musicians.   For the moment, I think it is important to get the music to the people so I've decided to just let folks listen to complete tracks for free at my website any time they feel like it.  The sound quality of MP3s these days is quite good and just about everyone has a computer.  I hope you enjoy listening.

Just go to and click on music and select JB Quartet or Delta Quartet to hear some tunes.

In other news...

I'm finished with most live performing now until after Christmas.  Between teaching and playing, the last few months have been so intense that I just had to schedule a break for myself, though I won't be idle.  Christmas break is typically a time for me to re-focus on my guitar building. I'm just finishing off a lovely semi-hollow electric guitar for local guitarist, Keith Sinclair.  Three or four days more work should see it completed!  Then I have some more electric guitar commissions to design and think about.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gig tonight with The Offering of Curtis Andrews

I have a gig at Presentation House Studio tonight with The Offering of Curtis Andrews.  8:30 downbeat, only $8 admission.  333 Chesterfield in North Vancouver.

Curtis is a fantastic percussionist/drummer/composer who has recently moved to Vancouver from Newfoundland.  In fact, some of my father's ancestors and my wife's father's ancestors are from the same little town as the Andrews family, Port de Grave, Newfoundland.  Perhaps we are very distantly related...

Curtis has studied south Indian and West African  styles of drumming and he combines these with other influences from jazz, rock, etc into a wonderfully groovy polyrhythmic stew. 

The band is a great group of players: Curtis (drum kit), Jack Duncan (percussion), Colin Maskell (saxes/flute), JP Carter (trumpet), Robin Layne (marimba), Tommy Babin (bass), and yours truly on guitar.

 Here is a picture of Curtis in Ghana.  He leads special trips to a little village called Dzogadze for people interested in learning about the music, dance, and cultural practices in this part of the world.

Keeping Up Appearances

A week ago some of my students from Capilano University played an off-campus concert as part of a small ensemble class.  In an email to them I suggested that everyone dress to show respect for themselves and their music.  Only two of the six were not dressed in jeans.  This is not the first time this has happened.  My purpose is not to shame these guys for not dressing to my standards, but I am quite interested in the idea of how standards of dress and behaviour relate to music and performance.

When I was a young boy, two wonderful old ladies played a major role in my life: my maternal great grandmother, Frances Astbury, and her younger sister, my great-great aunt, Mabel Potter.  Grandma and Auntie Mamie were, quite literally, from another era.  They grew up around the turn of the 20th century in a tiny village in rural Kent without electricity or running water and had only minimal formal schooling. As soon as they were old enough to go out and work, they did.  Despite their humble circumstances, they somehow learned to speak the English language with impeccable grammar.  They dressed with meticulous attention to detail with every article (no matter how old or worn) meticulously cleaned, pressed and mended.  They behaved with immaculate good manners and a sense of personal dignity and propriety in all situations.  Though I fall short of their examples in many ways, they certainly did instill in me a sense of what was 'proper'.   My mother picked this up too.  I remember going to see The Who (on their last big tour before Entwhistle died) and Mom scolding me for wearing jeans to a concert.  My Grandfathers were also important sartorial influences.  Grandpa Burrows was a self-made business man and wore a tie every day, only removing it for physical work in the garden.  This kind of dress is much more rigorously formal than I can manage.  Grandpa Tidmarsh has more of a thrift-store aesthetic and is not a tie-wearing type, but always has a fantastically creative combination of unusual shoes, coats and hats.   I'll probably never match his fashion daring.  From all these people I have somehow inherited some sense of the importance of keeping up appearances. To this day, I don't think I could bring myself to wear jeans to work or to leave the house without shining my shoes or ironing my shirt.

Some of you may think this is all just incredibly uptight and pointless, but I don't.  I'm simply talking about clean clothes appropriate to the situation and a sense of respect for myself, my work, and the people with whom I interact.  I don't think this requires a lot of money and I don't think it requires fancy things.  Earlier this week I took some students to breakfast at Bon's, the famous greasy-spoon, all-day breakfast place at Broadway and Nanaimo.  The crowd there, though sometimes diverse, tends to wear a carefully prescribed uniform of 'studied scruffiness'.  It was clearly important to these folks to have the right amount of beard growth, the right rips in jeans of the correct brand, and toques of the correct size and shape pulled down to the eyes.  From the smell of several people standing with us in the lineup for tables, washing seemed to be discouraged. Unfortunately, the 'marginal' position of jazz music in society seems to be influencing a new generation of young players to dress in a similar way to the Bon's crowd.  They are creating a subculture that proclaims its own marginality in a self-perpetuating cycle. 

For jazz musicians of bygone eras, the Brooks Brothers suit was the basic uniform for work.  (Check out the MJQ at left)  Think of Miles Davis, John Lewis, Duke Ellington and so many others in those photographs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Those guys looked good on stage and their appearance was only a tantalizing hint at their musical artistry.  Miles famously said that he could tell how a musician would play just by looking at them and the way they dressed and carried themselves.  Now the standard is quite different.  I rarely see jazz musicians wearing suits or even jackets to a gig.  Classical players, by contrast, have maintained a very high standard of concert dress.  Classical players demand respect for themselves and their music through the way they dress, the venues in which they perform and the fees they demand for their services.  There are notable exceptions in the jazz world today of course.  Wynton Marsalis and his Linclon Center colleagues adopted early on the sophisticated and suave urban dress of their musical role models from the Blue Note era.  John Pizzarelli similarly cops the 1940s crooner look to match his music, and some of the 'downtown' New York players are very much aware of the latest contemporary (even if casual) fashion trends.

Most of the players with whom I perform do not dress up for a gig unless it is a 'formal' situation like playing at a hotel reception or a wedding (a type of performance which on the West Coast we ironically call a 'casual' gig).  I have never suggested (well, ok, maybe once or twice...) that people dress differently when they perform with me.  I don't think it is my business to say so and, frankly, I care much more about musicians abilities than I do about their appearance.  I'm also not suggesting that anyone should share my taste in clothing or that everyone should wear suits or jackets to gigs.  I simply think that making music and performing in public is a very special activity and that some effort should be made to make one's dress and comportment reflect that.  This could be accomplished in numerous ways without conforming to a specific, standard mode of dress.  Take my friend Curtis Andrews as an example.  Curtis is a wonderful drummer from Newfoundland who has studied music in Africa and India for many years.  When we perform he wears a fantastically personal blend of African and Indian clothing which he has gathered on his travels.  His appearance reflects the varied and colorful nature of his music.  Talking of drummers, a few years ago I saw the wonderful Chicago drummer, Hamid Drake, perform at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Drake walked out in a colorful ankle-length robe and this, combined with his large stature and tremendous pile of long black dreadlocks, made him look like some kind of African king from a storybook.  His appearance was reflected in his incredibly powerful playing on that day.  His mode of dress was thoroughly in keeping with his artistic greatness and I could feel that his visual impact had a palpable effect on the crowd. 

Whether musicians like it or not, public performance does have a visual component.  Even if it is "all about the music" for a musician, it will rarely, if ever, be so for the audience.  We live in a visual culture where subtle, subconscious messages are sent and received all the time through our dress, speech and manners.  For musicians who are interested in elevating the status and importance of their music in our culture, I believe it is worth considering the content and the impact of the messages we are sending.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Over the last 2000 years or so Western culture has been the incubator for the development of a system of tonal harmonic organization.  Unlike many of the other great musical cultures in the world, Western European musicians and thinkers have spent a lot of time figuring out how to put together stacks of simultaneously sounding musical tones.  That means that we have neglected a lot of other things of course, but that is the subject of another post.   Tonal harmony is based on the organization of consonant and dissonant collections of pitches.  Very simply put, consonant collections of pitches are ones that we feel are stable and dissonant ones need resolution to make them consonant.

The feeling of harmonic tension is established in two principle ways.  First, it predominates in most of the music we hear in Western culture.  Most of us hear harmony even while in the womb.  Second, there are actual physical processes involved in the perception of intervals and chords.  In his book, "On the Sensations of Tone", Helmholtz described how consonant intervals like a fifth or fourth create simple vibrational modes int he eardrum.  He said that we perceive these vibrational modes as having a smooth texture whereas dissonant intervals produce a feeling of roughness due to their more complicated vibrational patterns.  These sensations of smoothness or roughness would therefore be independent of culture.  If this interests you, read Helmholz.

Just as some people will learn to experience pleasure from bitter or sour flavours, human beings can learn to appreciate the complex sensations of dissonant intervals.  In fact, without dissonance, tonal music would be very boring indeed.  We use musical dissonance or harmonic tension to provide a sense of motion and progression.  Tension helps us to go to interesting places and also to feel a need to return to a state of stability or consonance.  In the past 150 years or so, musicians have increased their ability to deal with and accommodate dissonance in tonal music to the point where some people (probably a very small number in truth) will tell you that the ideas of dissonance and consonance don't mean anything anymore. 

I could go on and on about this but really all of this talk has meant to prepare you, dear reader, to think about harmonic dissonance as an analogy.  I have been thinking a lot about the idea of cognitive dissonance between ideas.  I am fascinated by the fact that people can entertain simultaneous thoughts or concepts which somehow contradict each other or which are in some degree in conflict.  In other words, I think we are, almost by nature, a species of hypocrites.  We espouse moral ideas which we do not live, we legislate laws which no one can obey, we harbour values and concepts which contradict each other.  Philosophers often concern themselves with clarifying such tensions and popular culture abounds with advertisements for various schemes to find inner peace.

In my own life I experience various levels of ongoing cognitive dissonance.  As a person who professes to be a Christian, I am keenly aware of the fact that my actions frequently betray my best intentions and fall short of my ideals for behaviour.  I claim to value kindness, yet I have a deeply sarcastic streak.  I claim to value mercy, yet I can be judgmental with my fellows.  These are clear dissonances between moral ideals and daily action.  These are dissonances that I seek to resolve through efforts to improve each day.  These dissonances are a spur to change and which seem to be of a certain class; they make me uncomfortable and unhappy.  To the degree which I can resolve them I seem to find more happiness. 

There is another class of cognitive dissonances with which I am infinitely more comfortable and these are perhaps of a more rarefied type.  For instance, though I have a great faith and appreciation for science and the power of the human intellect to apprehend its own experiences in the world, I seem to have a lot of experiences in my life which are not easily explained by intellect or observation. I am keenly aware of experiences which seem to transcend the objective.  Abraham Heschel describes such experiences as encounters with the ineffable.  For folk of religious faith, this is not so unusual.  There are of course many who do not believe that such experiences are anything more than fabrications and imaginings of the subconscious mind.  On extreme ends of the spectrum there are religious folk who discount science as a poor substitute for faith and at the other end there are those who deny the possibility of anything beyond the objective.  For people at these extremes, it seems to me that dissonance is unacceptable.  It must be resolved and put to rest permanently.

Most people I know come down somewhere in the middle.  For me, the dynamic interaction between faith and doubt, between the reliable methods of science and Heschel's experience of the ineffable is of great value.  The dissonance in these ideas provides fuel for inquiry of various kinds.  In "Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis", the Jewish philosopher (and Heschel's teacher), Martin Buber, suggests a view of religious faith (and doubt) which has a deep resonance for me as a way of relating to the cognitive dissonances I experience.  He helps to reinforce the idea that dissonance need not always be resolved, or at least that it need not be resolved permanently.
"Real faith does not mean professing what we hold to be true in a ready-made formula. On the contrary: it means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life and which cannot be comprised in any formula. It means that, from the very roots of our being we should always be prepared to live with this mystery as one being lives with another.  Real faith means the ability to endure life in the face of this mystery."

Music for me is an inquiry into mystery but not an inquiry which I hope ends in a comfortable and complacent truth.  It provides a very rich and complicated system of actions and interactions where we can explore seeming conflicts between dissonance and consonance.  In my best musical experiences, the physical reality of sound and the tactile, tangible control of instruments and bodies interacts seamlessly with complex interpersonal   issues, the depths of human intellect and creativity and, in special moments, a brush with the ineffable.  Dissonance keeps us searching, keeps us moving somewhere. We can learn to savour it and value it.  The resolution of dissonance is not the end, but only a moment of calm and stability before motion begins again.  Without dissonance and tension we have only stasis.  An unending drone of boredom.


Last Wednesday I played a wonderful gig with Soundimagenet at Presentation House Studio. We also played a show at the Museum of Anthropology as part of the Man Ray exhibit there a few weeks ago and it was great.  

Here's Krista amazing poster for the MOA gig:

This group is an interdisciplinary collaboration between video artist, Krista Lomax and musicians Carol Sawyer (voice), Clyde Reed (bass) and Gregg Simpson (drums).   I have worked with a lot of great video artists and film makers in improvised music settings, but Krista Lomax really has the goods.  She listens and improvises like a musician and, working through her laptop, has a virtuosic control over her incredibly diverse repertoire of evocative moving images.  She is also a really friendly and fun person to work with.  The musicians with whom I collaborate in this band are among the finest improvisers around.  Clyde Reed and Gregg Simpson  are real pioneers of improvised music in Canada and they play with a rare depth of feeling and incredible improvisation intuition.  Carol Sawyer has an amazing ability not only with extended vocal techniques but also a rare talent for improvised 'dadaist' deconstructions of text and spontaneous poetry.  
Like me, the musicians in the band also have 'other lives' outside music.  Clyde is an emeritus professor of Economic History, Gregg is a world-renowned surrealist painter, and Carol works in various visual media from photography, to collage and painting.  I think somehow this makes the music better and makes our collaboration with Krista work more smoothly somehow.  I can't yet say for sure how or why this is.  Maybe after a few more gigs I'll be able to understand better the nature of what we are doing.  So far it just works on some kind of subconscious level.  Fuji Mooney, a student from my FPA 140 class at SFU said that the music and video had a kind of "dream logic".  The music and visual elements feed each other in a very natural way somehow without obvious surface connections.  Now that we have played a few gigs together, I am starting to recognize elements of Krista's visual improvising 'vocabulary' and I think she must also recognize elements of our collective musical vocabulary.  We haven't talked about this much, if at all.  I always think it is a good sign when collaborative art can be made without a lot of talk.

Projects like this make me feel very happy and fortunate to live in Vancouver, which is absolutely loaded with very creative and talented people who are willing to try new things. There should be a video up soon with an example of our collaboration.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

Everyone seems to be writing a blog.  Why not me?  I suppose there is a small chance that I might think of something interesting, witty, or even worthwhile to say, something that someone would want to read.  A lot of people say that I am a sort of 'renaissance man'.   I do have a very full and rich life as a guitarist, composer, bandleader, university teacher, concert promoter, luthier, writer, husband and father.  My students, colleagues, and other smart people who don't try to confuse themselves with such varied pursuits have often said that I should keep a diary of some of the things I do and see and think. maybe this will be it? 

The great composer, John Cage, is reported to have said,  "I have nothing to say and I am saying it."  I have never really been able to identify with that idea.  It is a sort of Zen fib really isn't it?  In some ways I feel it is quite an egotistical thing to imagine that anyone else would be interested in reading anything I throw out into cyberspace, but then I remember that has never stopped me before in other situations.  This kind of 'ego projection' is essential to being a musician or a writer and I've been both for quite a while now.  It really boils down to having the confidence that people will want to hear what you have to say.   Perhaps this blogging activity will be another avenue of performance for me.