Home to Mendocino: An Encounter with a Travelling Jazz Band

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
Paulo Coelho

Perhaps this rings true because willing for something entails being open and actively searching for anything and everything that will help you get what you want. I look to my pursuits in music.

Like any craft, music is multi-faceted. It’s become a discipline as much as it is a passion in my case. This explains why I squander my time and efforts on learning more, enriching what I already know and braving into uncharted territories. The more I learn, the more in tune I am with the craft.

John Rodgers Jazz Workshop Poster

John Rodgers Jazz Workshop Poster

Weeks ago, I decided to establish the practice of attending orchestra concerts, and so I did. I spent my Saturday night two weeks ago at the Philamlife Auditorium, watching the Manila Symphony Orchestra perform the last concert of their 2010 season–a superb first (read here). This desire to attend concerts is caused by my will to throw myself at chances to improve my craft. Further, within three days of the concert emerged another opportunity: my organization, The Ateneo Musicans’ Pool, held a jazz workshop featuring this band who happened to drop by the country during their Asian tour. I’m glad I grabbed this chance by the throat.

Flashforward

Albeit not a part of the set-up crew, I lent a hand in preparing the venue in aid of a friend in need. Amidst the clutter of laid-out cables and microphones, the industrial silence pervading the tension-stirred air allowed me a moment to toy with my thoughts on the imminent event. I revisited my past regret over missing the previous workshop, which consequently puffed up my excitement and anxiety for this next one. Jazz has always been a genre elusive to me. I’ve had a peculiar curiosity about it, which hasn’t quite worn off. I took a class on jazz piano and improvisation at conservatory a few summers back, but I could hardly come up with anything remotely jazzy using what I had learned. It  was like having the puzzle pieces and the model, but the pieces couldn’t seem to go rightly together. It was frustrating.

Where my vain aspirations of being a jazz musician end, there my love for the genre as a listener begins. I owe it to my parents for exposing me–intentionally or unintentionally–to their music back when I was much younger. My mom would play cassettes of Lea Salonga, Beethoven, Mozart, etc., while my dad would listen to local pop acts of the 90s, Donna Lewis and “smooth” jazz artists (why it’s called “smooth” still surpasses my musical understanding). I suppose part of my musical taste has been inherited from them. The classical was from mom, and the jazz was obviously from dad (sans the “smooth” part). I’ve been listening to Bill Evans, Radka Toneff and of course, the classics–Kern, Ellington and the like. There’s Jamie Cullum, too, for my pop inclinations.

Although there is much to learn and experience, I’ve had a decent share–enough to say that I have, at the very least, a substantial comprehension of this iconic musical style. I’ve picked up on some vocabulary myself–the walking bass, dissonances, scat singing and ragtime, to name a few. As I was setting up the microphone stands, I felt time tick away and the workshop draw near. It was then when I asked myself, so what’s the deal with John Rodgers?

Johnny Rodgers Band

L-R Johnny, Danny, Joe, Brian (photos by Mary Anne Collantes)

Into Graceland

For the benefit of those who missed my guerilla post, meet the Johnny Rodgers Band:

Johnny Rodgers – vocals, piano, guitar

Joe Ravo – guitar

Danny Mallon – drums

Brian Glassman – bass

If there’s one memory of these guys I’ll keep, it’s that they know their stuff. Whether it’s the jargon on technicals or life lessons from a musician’s perspective–or simply when they play–these guys are worth the attention. What they handed the crowd wasn’t a lecture. It was a significant human experience–a flash of genius atop another busy Tuesday morning.

Eccentricity. It can add a glowing dimension to an artist’s existence and dealings with the world. JRB are a bunch of eccentrics who bring life to a show with their sunny dispositions–by throwing humorous slights among one other, dropping anecdotes, and relentlessly interacting with the audience. That was also the first time I ever encountered a band that rewards “recitation” with a copy of their album.

Johnny: What does that song have in common with human beings?

Me: Chicks. (the correct answer, being “heartbeat”)

Danny: I think that “chick” answer deserves a (JRB) CD.

The workshop was an interplay between musical performances and exchanges in insight. The great part was that each of the band had something to say and was all but willing to share. Mallon discussed the heartbeat (a specific drum pattern) and would sample some measures while Ravo would fill in on the empty musical spaces the percussions left out. Glassman narrated his personal musical history–how he switched from rocking out with an electric bass to adhering to the archaic glory of the double bass. Each was an expert at his own craft, which was evident in their musical chemistry.

As a songwriter, the bit I liked the best was when Johnny talked about his songwriting experience. Writer’s block has frequently been irksome for me. I’d get jammed with a verse or chorus and I couldn’t expound. That’s when it struck me–I’d write a song without a clear idea or message to begin with. Apparently, there wouldn’t be much to develop, and this leads to dead ends. I’d flinch at early signs of trouble.

Fact: Ideas are everywhere.

Johnny Rodgers is a lyricist who lives up to this fact. Home to Mendocino first emerged as an idea Johnny picked out while showering. He liked the scent of the soap he was using and checked to see where it was made: Mendocino. It must be a wonderful place, he said–and fashioned a traveler’s love song around it. In the same vein, the band discussed how Americans value travelling so much, that a musical motif was established in its honor: the train drum beat (listen to “Wheels,” by Jamie Cullum). Danny began rolling his brushes on the snare with varied sixteenth notes to demonstrate how it sounded. It brought to mind the steam locomotive trains used in Britain and America centuries ago–I remembered Tom Sawyer. After Johnny’s brief piano lick, the song took off down the railway of emotion, taking us along.

Allow me to place the ideas of the two previous paragraphs in sharp focus. First, ideas are everywhere. Jim Paredes’ analogy is that all ideas are floating freely. It’s simply up to us to pick them out and create something. Some people are more susceptible to ideas than others because they are more aware or receptive. Also, I was recently conversing with a fellow songwriter where we agreed on a point: start with a simple idea. The complexities will follow. This brings me to my second focal point: integration is invaluable to a band.

A wardrobe

A wardrobe

Constructing a song is like putting an outfit together–the different components and details together form a whole. Some parts will work, some won’t. This is where mixing and matching come in. The instrumentalists are responsible for their capabilities and limits–their roles. As a drummer, Danny’s idea of incorporating the train drum beat to a traveler’s love song is a tailored fit. The end-product is a coherent sum–a song whose lyrics and chords convey the longing to return home to one’s lover, and percussions that simulate motion. Each band member must also challenge himself to augment his knowledge–as with expanding the content of one’s wardrobe. What’s there to mix and match if the selection is scarce from the start? Having a wide variety of choices is always a good thing when it comes to dressing up or making a song.

Freedom and Soul

Music won’t be much of an art if it’s all cerebral. The band brought out the eccentrics in each of us during their special segment, Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone. At this point, they invited the audience to stand and crowd at the front, by the band area. The ladies and lads were on the opposite sides of the room, segregated. The extended number included piano improvisations from one of our own soloists (at Johnny’s prodding), episodes of vocally mimicking Ravo and Glassman’s brief solos and virtually anything anyone felt like doing. The microphone morphed into a communal channel for kindred spirits. Entranced by passion, we were all bohemians lost in the moment. We were free.

For the longest time, jazz has been about freedom. The twentieth century proved to be a tumultuous period for mankind. Nations waged war, ideologies clashed, empires toppled and rose–the world was changing. People were changing and predictably, the music wouldn’t stay the same. Arnold Schoenberg, one of the forward-thinking composers of the time, digressed from the age-old conventions of harmony by breaking the rules in his music. Alex Ross calls him the emancipator of the dissonance precisely because of what he did: he flung the idea of the dissonance out into the open. Society, being what it was, was apathetic to and ignorant of Schoenberg’s nonconformity. Perhaps they lacked the patience to understand. However, despite the reigning current of musical thought, the idea of the dissonance remained and influenced other composers, eventually planting the seeds of what we now know as jazz.

JRB with AMP

JRB with AMP (spot me in Joy Division)

At the outset, jazz was a riot against normalcy. Years later along with blues, it decried slavery. Today, it’s about being a spirit unfazed by rules and worries, and allowing things to spell themselves out–que sera sera. It’s about being spontaneous and docile to change. Also, I’d like to think it’s about finding unity in diversity and losing oneself in the music, the way Johnny Rodgers and his crew made us feel last Tuesday. Regardless of how disparate the roads each of us travel, they will at some points, intersect–and it’s great to have company, at times.

This is what I’ve gotten myself into. The gigs, books, musicians, concerts and workshops I’ve crossed paths with, the lessons I’m learning and the life I’m living all make sense this way. Yet I remain a fumbling speck in a musical universe–that nevertheless conspires with me in achieving my aspirations. While time and life stretch ahead, I’ll take the chances to grow and share. I’ll keep at it. Until I die, or the music dies in me.

Get more electric:

  1. Johnny Rodgers Band (Blogspot)
  2. Arnold Schoenberg (Classical Net)

 


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