Johnny Alegre’s Jazz Guitar Workshop @ Tiendesitas Super Jazz Weekend – Part 1: “The Experience”

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(Author’s note: Earlier this week, I asked permission from Mr. Johnny Alegre to post this piece. Last night, I was granted permission to do so and even got help completing the piece in its final form from the legendary jazz guitarist himself. I feel very honored.)

Around 3 p.m. last Sunday (May 25, 2014), I stopped by Tiendesitas to attend a very much anticipated jazz guitar workshop. This jazz guitar workshop was facilitated by none other than one of the top jazz guitar heroes of the Philippines, Mr. Johnny Alegre. I’ve heard of Sir Johnny around the late 90s, but I became acquainted with his work through his CD “Eastern Skies”. The blend of jazz guitar and the sounds of the Global Studio Orchestra (conducted by Gerard Salonga) was captivating to say the least, and I wondered how Sir Johnny was able to do his thing. This afternoon’s event was a chance I took to somehow find out how he thinks musically as well as gain some useful information to improve my jazz composition and piano/guitar skills.

The workshop kicked off with an interview conducted by Zach Lucero (former NU107 DJ and drummer of Imago and Humanfolk), which served as kind of an introduction to Sir Johnny. Afterwards, Sir Johnny tried to figure out what his audience was like that afternoon, a mixed group of people consisting of beginner-level guitarists to people who’ve had many years of experience, such as myself. The key tips in his workshop were:

  1. Be in tune.
  2. Play in time. Have good timing.
  3. Strive for the right tone.
  4. Have good visualization (e.g. practice playing all your modes across the fretboard, draw fretboard charts)
  5. Listen to great works of music.

The workshop had discussions ranging from some of the most basic topics such as getting in tune and scale shapes to more advanced discussions of jazz theory such as modes and the impact of Latin American music.

In terms of jazz guitar playing and composition, one of the points that greatly captured my interest was Sir Johnny’s discussion and demonstration about modal interchange and secondary dominants. Why is it such a big deal? It is because it explained a lot of things such as playing minor pentatonic or the Dorian mode over a major blues chord progression, “out there” soloing, the use of color/passing/approach tones, and other stuff that makes jazz sound like what it is. Modal interchange and secondary dominants make perfect sense as to how many jazz pieces (bebop and modal jazz in particular) start at a particular key signature, drift in and out of different key signatures, and then end right back at the original key signature without sounding jarring like a 20th-century serial composition (Ascension-era John Coltrane is a different case for another discussion). Sir Johnny’s words regarding the matter had confirmed what I have been hearing and trying to do before: Modal interchange has big implications not only in the way we approach soloing but also in reharmonization and composition.

The seminar sort of felt like most of my jazz theory discussions with pianist Steve Nixon, with the exception that this time it’s about jazz guitar. I have been learning jazz through a pianist’s perspective for most of my life as a musician, but this afternoon was the first time that I was able to learn jazz directly from a guitarist’s perspective. For years I have done work to try and understand the theory of jazz through a piano keyboard and have been trying to transfer that knowledge through the guitar. Thanks to Sir Johnny’;s workshop, I was able to confirm that I must be doing something right with all that experimentation and self-learning. More than that, I now have some understanding as to how Johnny Alegre approaches jazz guitar and this big musical language called jazz itself. Would I say that the workshop was a success? I would say yes simply because my understanding of how and why jazz guitar is what it is has improved vastly thanks to Sir Johnny.

So, how did it all end for me? Well, like a star-struck fanboy, I fumbled around thanking the man for the stuff I learned and I asked permission to publish this post (with snippets of the recording and photos). As star-struck as I am, I forgot to introduce myself properly, despite trying to converse with him three times, and I forgot to purchase his latest album (which I will BTW) despite having prepared some cash for it. I even made an embarrassment of myself by asking, “What was that piece you played at the end?” only for him and another member of the audience to tell me that it’s Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” in a tone that seemed like, “Isn’t it obvious that Johnny’s playing ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’? Duh…” Oh well, if I do meet him again, I’ll take note of these things and hope to be a bit more composed and refined in the way I conduct myself in front of him.

If time permits (and if I am allowed to do so), yours truly will  transcribe some of examples Sir Johnny performed in the workshop and make them available here (in standard notation and tab). Watch out for Part 2 of this piece as I try to retell some of the things I have learned from Mr. Johnny Alegre.

For more information about Johnny Alegre, his latest and past albums, and his other projects, please visit this Facebook page or his website.

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Postmodern Societal Attitudes Give Rise to the Starving Musician

Any decent business (especially businesses involving media) would hire a number of people and services to get something done. The range of such services would involve anything from PR personnel to cleaning services. All of these people get paid, whether they get down dirty to clean whatever muck such project accumulates or act as your typical desk pencil pushers. It does seem really unfair that while people have budget for such things, there are others who simply leave music out of the picture. Such a thing has been going on for as long as I can remember like all of those times that I have played with a mediocre dinner or endless cups of iced tea the only remuneration I get for music. It sucks really that there are numerous times that in certain events, people ask you to play for them free. It’s like society is conditioned in such a way that music is free like air, yet the fact remains while it is possible for any person to learn how to play music, not everybody can become pros at it. Therefore, as law of supply and demand would dictate, a demand for music from a pro should equate to financial remuneration. What you should sow is what you should reap, right? Now, why is it that so many people, ranging from the casual party organizer to media giants, think that they can get music for free? To put things into better perspective, I’d like to share this fascinating letter from D.J. White, a professional musician, to a media company who would like to use music for free:

 

whitey letter

 

 

Now, every serious musician (myself included) has invested close to a lifetime of learning to be able to do what they do best. Matter of fact is that until now, I am investing time and energy to learn new skills, techniques, etc. so that I do better. It is fact that such activity requires money simply by virtue that all musicians have the same needs as other people, just as Abraham Maslow had charted in his hierarchy of needs. Therefore, professional musicians, such as myself, have every right to demand payment for what they do. Now, the problem is that why is it that certain sectors of society feel entitled to get music free, never providing a budget for it? Shouldn’t we musicians have the final say regarding that? After all, such parties are the ones in need of what we do best: provide music. Another question is how can society’s perception change? How can we change the mindset that music has a premium. It something that demands effort, patience, and time, that it is something produced by people who have bills to pay and mouths to feed in order to keep on going. Are musicians also to blame as to why people can get away with getting music for free? Maybe it’s time that all musicians in the world start to dictate the worth that they deserve so that others won’t just push as around to play or write music for free. Perhaps there are ways out there that can change the attitude of postmodern society so that we no longer give rise to more starving musicians.

The Sobering Reality of a Life as a Musician

At this point in time, it’s pretty obvious I’ve become a Devin Townsend fan. Obviously, music has got something to do with it, but more than the music I get to learn a lot of things from the guy. I’m not a touring musician at this point but I sure understand how difficult it could be.

In this recent Devin Townsend interview, other than talking about Casualties of Cool (his new album and project), Mr. Townsend presents a picture of a touring musician who has the challenges of keeping a musical career while keeping things afloat back home (kids, aging parents, etc.). Perhaps, this is the sort of thing that Frank Zappa was confronted with before, being an independent musician and all.

One thing that I think about is would it be possible for me to go the same kind of route that Devin Townsend and Frank Zappa have done before. I got a bunch of compositions now that I will start recording some time this year. Maybe I can organize a band and then go on tour, but there will always be the questions regarding finance and logistics. How much money will it take? More importantly, how will I be able to establish a following that will allow me to do such things? How do you make it sustainable? Such are things that I’m learning little by little from people like Devin Townsend, Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, etc. From what I hear, it’s so far off from the glamorous life that you get to see from mainstream artists who are on the radio stations. If Devin Townsend, an individual coming from a developed nation that supports the arts, is confounded with challenges that could get in the way of his music and livelihood, how much more will it be for me, an unknown musician from a third-world country, who is barely at Mr. Townsend’s level?

I ask myself now, what should I try doing next if I am to move forward and achieve some form of progress? After completing my studies, what’ s the next step? It’s something I have to plan carefully and, more importantly, pray about to the Lord.

To Shred or Not To Shred?

It’s been established that most of Devin Townsend’s work does not feature guitar solos. Case in point is that in the Strapping Young Lad album “Alien”, only one song gets a guitar solo. As you can see in the video above, Devin Townsend can shred (or, in his own terms, wanky wank wank), although the point of this video is sort of a mockery or a parody of the guitar hero phenomenon. In fact, in one of D’Addario’s videos featuring Mr. Townsend, he goes on to say that, “Anybody and his dog can play wanky guitar,” which I would think means that anyone can go on and play a gazillion notes without any semblance of meaning other than to impress people. So the question now is the title of this entry: To Shred or Not to Shred?

If Mr. Townsend would perform what can be called meaningful shred, it would be something like this:

 

It’s a medley of Devin Townsend songs with a title that let’s people know what his opinion is about shred guitar in general.

I remember reading that Mr. Townsend always puts the song in mind and that more often than not, wanky guitar doesn’t work well in a song (in his songs at least) and it does not add anything to it. It sort of echoes Claude Debussy who once said “The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous may happen.” So, if we are only trying to communicate “danger” through shred, is that all there is to it?

Perhaps a sort of balance must be always kept in mind. You can shred as long as it will add something to a song or musically make a point, making shredding inevitable to the music. It would certainly be the case in other kinds of musical work. In other cases, we have to accept that shred will not work well. For example, in Dream Theater (a band known for shredding prowess) songs like “Lifting Shadows of a Dream” or “Disappear”, shredding on a guitar would be a worthless exercises because it will not add anything to the song. Clearly this shows that John Petrucci knows when to say “pass” to shredding even if it is one of his strongest points.

So, if we can forego shredding in music, then why even attempt how to do it in the first place. One reason is that there are occasions where it will work and it will add wonderful things to a song. I can’t imagine a song like “Highway Star” or Mr. Big’s “Addidicted to that Rush” without all that shreddy guitar work. Second, learning how to shred improves motor skills and reaction time in music. Steve Stine usually says in his instructional videos that the point of learning how to shred or play difficult stuff is not the goal itself. But rather practicing such things builds skills and confidence that will enable you to do things easier and more effectively. If you can play difficult material then lower level material would be easier to play. It builds skill that will enable any musician to accurately reflect what should be expressed. It’s kind of like functional musical gymnastics.

I remember my piano teacher, Prof. Richelle Rivera, saying something to effect like, “Playing fast is not the goal. We already know you can play fast. Producing a good tone is.” I am of course paraphrasing my piano teacher’s words but in essence meaningful expression is always more paramount than superficial flash. I remember getting a bit impatient about myself playing slowly on pieces by Bartok and Beethoven and so I decided to speed up a bit (especially on the Bartok Bagatelle I was assigned to work on), only to be reprimanded by my teacher who insisted that I play the piece at an almost dragging pace. In such a manner, I was again reminded that playing slow is actually more difficult than playing fast. Articulating the notes in a way that accurately represents what you want to communicate to an audience is harder than impressing an audience with a gazillion notes per second. To this day, despite no longer being a piano major, I still work on my piano skills as my teacher had instilled upon me.

So, to shred or not to shred? To shred, as long as it is done meaningfully and appropriately, the opposite of shredding as a means of self-indulgence.

Second-Hand Musical Instruments, Surplus Items, and Good Company

The second-hand musical instrument and equipment market never fails to fascinate me. At a superficial level, it opens up opportunities to acquire instruments that you would never have the chance to acquire from established retailers. Beyond the surface, however, such encounters often come with the opportunity to meet new people, hear interesting stories, and make new friends. Within the few years that I have been purchasing and selling second-hand equipment, I have always found myself to be with good company and was able to widen my perspective little by little. Saying that each piece I buy from the second-hand market gives me new stories to tell and fragments of history to think about would be a mere understatement.

Just a few days ago, I was on the hunt for a better classical guitar for my son, which led me to meet a man named Oliver Bugho. He had an ad posted on the popular buy-and-sell site olx.ph (formerly Sulit.Com.Ph) that described a vintage Japanese-made classical guitar, all-solid-wood construction (spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fretboard) for under $200. It seemed like a good deal so I requested for an appointment.

I met Oliver last night after sending off my son to a vacation in Cavite with my parents. As with most of my second-hand-instrument encounters, it quickly became a getting-to-know-you session. I told him a little bit of my backstory and he told me his. As such, I discovered that he also knew some of the people I have encountered before like Japanese second-hand musical instrument dealer Marlon de Lara among others. It was also the debut of his musical instrument venture, something new for him after years of selling Macs as well as home theater equipment from Japan. After testing the guitar and chit chat, I got more than what I paid for.

The guitar itself had a mysterious air to it. Oliver had previously sent the guitar to Mike Sison (critically acclaimed Filipino guitar technician) for assessment and minor repair. He said that Mike thought the guitar could easily fetch $250 or more. As I inspected the guitar, I saw that the sticker or label was entirely written in Japanese, Kanji I believe, and so I had no clue as to who made the guitar. It seemed like a hand-crafted piece rather than a mass-produced one, and it seemed to be that way as I played it. I knew that instant that I had a really good instrument in my hands and so I decided to buy it for my son. Oliver offered refreshments afterwards. I wholeheartedly and graciously accepted his hospitality.

Over a few drinks, I discovered that Oliver specializes in computers (Macs) and was capable of selling them like hotcakes. He knew turntables, vinyl records, and audiophile equipment very well. He also considers himself a hobbyist solar energy technician (although he has done solar power installations professionally). We talked about a number of things such as music (he watched me play guitar as I tested his stuff and then played a little bit of Chick Corea’s “Spain” on a Yamaha PS-55), the politics of visual arts (e.g. painting, etc.), a George Clooney movie about art, war games using air soft guns, a little bit of politics, etc. It’s worth noting that he hails from Tacloban hence he had very good insight as to what went on after the Yolanda tragedy (a topic for later writings I suppose).

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at Oliver’s. I will most likely go back there for a number of other items as well as to enjoy good company. If you are in Metro Manila and you are looking for musical instruments, home theater systems, Apple products, alternative energy installations (solar), turntables, and imported items from Japan, please visit his olx.ph page (members.olx.ph/nickat)

And so, how does this vintage classical guitar sound like? Here’s an unprocessed video clip featuring yours truly playing a rough sketch of a composition idea I have entitled “Dapit Hapon”. Now, it’s time for me to work on something else. Until next time.