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 New Recording Adventure!  

 

Nothing compares to the thrill and creative energy when an artist is taking new music to the recording studio.  

My band, Micheal Shand, Russ Boswell and Al Cross and I have been developing arrangements for a new batch of songs which we will be testing with live audiences throughout the recording process. Thats what worked so well for me while writing, arranging and recording “New York Stories” and I wanted to follow the same approach with this new batch of tunes. The major difference is that whereas New York Stories was made up of original songs paying tribute to romance and The Big Apple, this new batch is mostly comprised of cover tunes. 

Touring across Canada with NY Stories I’ve had a chance to “road test” a whole lot of the new material. However last spring when I was still struggling to figure out the “spine” of the new recording I had a revelatory moment while thinking about the “stories” these new songs seemed to be telling.  More about that later down the road but suffice to say once the new album had landed in a focused direction making decisions about which songs to try and include started to become easier and thats when I knew it was time to begin the process of readying the music for the studio.  Starting over the summer the band and I got together for arrangement sessions and this fall we’ve begun cutting tracks “live of the floor” at Union Sound Company downtown Toronto. 

We’re also doing a series of Ontario shows to put this new music on it’s feet in front of the public. Check the website for dates and venues!  Its the audiences  who told me which songs belonged on New York Stories and this time around it’s no different! 


 

New York City Jazz: Lullaby Of Birdland 

 


 

Birdland is a famous jazz club in New York City located at 1678 Broadway at 44th Street. Owner Morris Levy rnamed the club Birdland in honor of Charlie “Bird” Parker and it is that club after which this classic Jazz standard of the Bebop era was named.  The legendary venue continues to book the top Jazz acts today, and with it's lushly appointed booths and classic look serves as throw back to a time when nightclubs were  where you found the sophisticated elite of society.

 Jazz Pianist George Shearing, composer of “Lullaby of Birdland,” first played the venue in 1949 the year that it opened.  In 1952 Levy decided to have station WJZ in New York broadcast a disc jockey program from there, and he asked Shearing to record a theme song for the show.  For weeks Shearing tried to come up with something but to no avail. Suddenly one night in the middle of dinner he jumped up, went to the piano and wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes. The pianist explains, “Actually quite a lot of my compositions have come this way--very slow going for a week or so, and the finished piece comes together very rapidly, but as I say to those who criticize this method of working, it’s not that I dash something off in ten minutes, it’s ten minutes plus umpteen years in the business.”

Somewhat later George David Weiss added lyrics to the tune, and Sarah Vaughan recorded it in December, 1954, for Mercury with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It was one of her biggest hits and became a standard in her repertoire. Being one of the first Jazz standards I attempted to learn as a young teenager, Ive always appreciated both the songs Bebop style melody which manages to nicely pay tribute to Charlie Parkers inventive playing style and to the simple poetry of the lyric, which is both imminently singable and emotionally engaging.

 I'm including Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown's classic version of "Lullaby Of Birdland" here for those who haven't heard it!

            

New York City Jazz: "Stompin' At The Savoy"  

 

 The title of the beloved swing standard “Stompin’ at the Savoy” refers to the Savoy Ballroom in the Harlem originally taking up the entire block on Lennox between West 140th and 141st Streets where the Savoy Apt. complex now stand. Incredibly that was our NYC address during the writing of "New York Stories" something I didn't realize until running for the milk one morning and spotting the plaque in front of the apartment complex!  Now maybe thats why the swing music kept infiltrating my dreams at night leading to the writing of so many "old school" style tunes on New York Stories!

The plaque reads: "Here once stood the legendary Savoy Ballroom, a hothouse for the development of jazz in the Swing era. Visually dazzling and spacious, the Savoy nightly featured the finest jazz bands in the nation, and its house bands included such famous orchestras as those of Fess Williams, Chick Webb, and Teddy Hill. The great jazz dancers who appeared on its block-long floor ranged from professionals like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to everyday Harlemites. During a time of racial segregation and strife, the Savoy was one of the most culturally and racially integrated of institutions, and its fame was international. It was the heartbeat of Harlem’s community and a testament to the indomitable spirit and creative impulse of African-Americans. It was a catalyst for innovation where dancers and musicians blended influences to forge new, wide-spread, and long-lasting traditions in music and dance. Whether they attended or not, all Americans knew the meaning of ”Stompin’ at the Savoy.” 

 The song itself  features a melody written by Chick Webb's saxaphonist Edgar Sampson and a lyric by Andy Razof (best known for his collaborations on Honeysuckle Rose and Ain't Misbehavin' with Fats Waller). "Stompin At The Savoy" was introduced to the public by Chick Webb's band featuring vocalist Ella Fitzgerald who gave the song it's first fame.

Here is my favourite version of the song recorded many years later in a  duet version by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald! 

 

What I Learned from A Capella By Former Nylon Micah Barnes  

 

I was singing with my band in Canada when The Nylons came calling and I was suddenly in a three week boot camp on my way to becoming an a cappella singer!  

Having sung lead vocal all my career I was not used to holding a harmony note and blending with other singers, let alone doing so without an instrument in site!  On top of that I also needed to pull off choreography at the same time. As I entered that extremely steep learning curve I made the crucial decision to stay relaxed about getting it all perfect and to just do the best job I possibly could in the moment. The other Nylons were tremendously patient and supportive which helped a great deal and put me at ease. By the time I was singing my first concert with the guys, ( like a deer in the headlights remembering my parts just in time to sing them), I had been indoctrinated into that rare special breed of performer, the a cappella singer! 

A cappella singing asks for a strong inner sense of rhythm, a sturdy sense of pitch and a desire to create music in close harmony with others. Not just musical harmony but a kind of spiritual harmony which a cappella singing needs.  

What I learned from my years touring and recording with The Nylons was how to stay relaxed while working in a disciplined and precise art form, how to trust my instincts as we made the hundreds of decisions that affected our career, and how to take care of my Mind, Body and Spirit while in the middle of a gruelling tour schedule. But perhaps the most important thing I got to learn was how to be part of a tight brotherhood of shared musicality and to share that harmonic communication with an audience of deeply committed fans night after night.  I am so deeply thankful that the universe lead me to become a member of The Nylons!

Crowd Sourcing The Songs! 


Audiences tell you what they like. You just have to listen. 
Many years ago while living and making music in LA a friend took me to a Frank Black concert at the Troubador a legendary venue on the Sunset Strip and I learned a really valuable lesson. Frank Black (the founder and frontman of the hugely influential band The Pixies), tours new material for a year before stepping into the studio to record.  Working out the kinks in front of his die hard fans allowed him to hit the studio ready to record material that had been already lived in and worked out in front of audiences instead of second guessing brand new arrangements.   

Thats how I approached the making of New York Stories, testing each "chapter" of the story in front of live audiences at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto and at venues across the country before cutting songs live off the floor with the trio. The audiences tell you what they like if you are listening and so of course I was able to shape and reshape the album long before stepping into the studio! It worked so well that I'm planning the same approach on the next recording! 

Performing  the"New York Stories" material across the country I have been working cover songs into the set to help communicate the vast musical history of New York from Uptown Jazz and Broadway to Back Alley Blues and Doo Wop. The songs that have gotten the most response have stayed on the set list and Ive brought those tunes home to my trio in Toronto for us to work out the arrangements in advance of upcoming shows where we will test out the tunes some more! 
 Songs by Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Mose Allison and Laura Nyro are all getting their moment to "audition". It's surprising what material is getting the most response, the little known Marvin Gaye tune "The Bells", an old Harold Arlen tune covered by Sammy Davis Jr  from the show "St Louis Woman" called "AnyPlace I Hang My Hat Is Home" and of course "A Sunday Kind Of Love", (an old pop standard that became a Doo Wop hit before Etta James shaped it into an R&B classic)  

The music will be Crowd Sourced in that we're taking our cues from the audiences favourites,  
so come out and make your choices heard!  
The musicians are listening! :)

A Jazz Singer-Songwriter Pays tribute to Bob Dylan  

 


"Songwriter Bob Dylan wins the Nobel prize for Literature"

The thing is that Dylan's powerful determination to find "new ways to tell the old stories" began long before we ever heard of him. First he worked inside the tradition then he began to find his own voice inside of the tradition, then stretch and bend and push on the walls until he had created the kind of freedom that all songwriters who followed were able to work with! 

 In that sense our  Mister Zimmerman is the best template for any artist seeking to find their own voice.     First we imitate, then, if we are serious about finding our own voice we experiment and try and find a way to make the traditions our own.  Then if we truly seek personal expression we dig in to find the way to communicate our most authentic selves through the music.  Thats the gig of being an artist. It doesn't come easy. It doesn't come fast.  Have a read of his masterful autobiography "Chronicles Vol 1" for the whole story. 



I remember sitting down with Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits" LP when I was just a kid and studying what it was that made him the voice of a generation of counter culture grownups. I hated the scratchy voice that I would later come to dig, (have you heard Dylan's recent recordings of standards? They are a revelation!), but understood that somewhere in his beatnik ramblings there was a kind of patchwork map that was helping lead a generation to their own sense of self hood. 

And as a budding songwriter I remember trying to find a way into Dylan's complex songwriting which explored older forms of folk and blues and a kind of rule breaking literary poetry of the street. It made me want to find a new way of expressing myself through Jazz and Blues using the traditions to communicate my contemporary experience (hence "New York Stories" etc) 

 What is it that makes a young artist determined to find one's own voice to add to the culture?
We may never know but Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature answers the questions once and for all whether what we do it simply entertainment.

The Festival Experience  

 Music fans crave discovery. 
Thats why we love the festival experience. And of course Music Festivals are all about discovery. The music lover may be there to see a favorite artist but along the way will have the opportunity to stumble on a whole bunch of other acts! Thats why artists love to play festivals too, we get to introduce ourselves to a whole army of potential fans we would never have reached otherwise!  

Coming together in a community around a shared interest is even more important to us in the digital age. Just witness the communal experience Canadians felt as the Tragically Hip played it's last shows together this summer. At a music festival everyone can feel a part of the atmosphere of the bigger event.  Its not about attending one concert,  it's about our shared love of the music which is why everybody is there in the first place!   

 Jazz festivals are no different. From the big international festivals like Montreaux to the local festival such as the Beaches Jazz Festival there are all kinds of arguments for hearing Jazz in a festival setting rather than only in a small local venue.  There are many challenges to putting on a great festival and one of them is how to attract an audience in a busy marketplace, which is why mainstream music festivals tend to invite international artists that we rarely get to see.     

 

Toronto loves it's festivals.
From the big ones like Tiff and Hot Docs to the local neighbourhood food festivals like Taste of The Danforth  there is hardly a week without a festival happening somewhere in the greater GTA.  
Our newest entry to the Festival calendar is The  Kensington Market Jazz Festival (in my old stomping ground) which has been conceived  of by musicians (our first lady of culture Ms. Molly Johnson) as a neighbourhood-oriented weekend for Toronto to discover and celebrate it's own jazz artists.  

Its happening in a batch of unusual local venues which are just waiting for discovery.   I'm particularly excited to be reunited with Sophie Milman when we share The Round stage Sept 17th. Our Ottawa gig with the National Arts Centre Orchestra singing Cole Porter duets was a pleasure indeed! 

 There is already an amazing street vibe in Kensington Market, and the weekend of Sept 16th, 17th and 18th the air will be filled with Jazz of every kind!  Come and hang out for the weekend. You'll see thrilled to see old favourites and make a few new discoveries I promise! 

 Kensington Market Jazz Video!


 

Is Hamilton The New Brooklyn?  



Well first of all lets just say it up front ... Hamilton folks have always been proud of being Hamilton folks ...so being compared with a  borough of New York City doesn't sit easily with people around here.      However the Hammer has always been a city of rugged individualists and folks who have decided to do it their own way, and in that regard Hamilton people are proud to flourish far from the high rents and hustle of larger cities like Toronto which now feel almost unliveable with it's high cost and over crowding. So the comparison may be loaded …..but it isn't all that off base. 
 In a recent article the Globe and Mail stated that "Brooklyn is booming as an arts hub because Manhattan is unaffordable for artists. Toronto is in severe danger of out-pricing its own creative types. Hamilton, with its cheap rents and supportive arts community, looks better with each visit." 

Its true that Hamilton used to be where people escaped from.            
 But these days its the place where people escape to!  

  

 Why are people moving to Hamilton? Artists of all kinds need space that is affordable so we have time to develop  ideas, try new things and not just scramble for the daily rent.  Typically its artists that move into depressed areas with lower rent, developing the housing and making community in places that allow room for creativity to happen.  And that ladies and gentlemen is how a scene develops.  

The cool coffee house,  artisan beer joint and organic vegetables are never far behind.  Like worker bees, artists create the conditions that attract people to a new neighbourhood or town, digging into undesirable areas and creating an atmosphere that allows developers to step in make money down the road.  

 And that ladies and gentlemen is how cities develop. 

Just thinking of the handful of Hamilton based artists that I know I see the benefits of living in a smaller city where we can grow our big size ideas!

So if  media folks have decided to compare Hamilton to Brooklyn, both being places that are artist friendly and where a healthy local scene ends up influencing  mainstream culture…well then, sure not! Just don't bring it up with your "Proud To Be Hamilton" pals. They're not looking for your approval..(thats why they are here)!

MICAH BARNES & NEW YORK STORIES 
at The Artword Artbar in Hamilton Ont 
Friday June 3 and Saturday June 4, 2016, at 8 pm.  
$15 advance through http://www.artword.net/artbar /  
$20 at the door.