Category Archives: Albums

7 Tips for Overcoming Songwriter’s Block

The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”

If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:

Rewriting is Easier than Writing

Beatles Abbey RdPaul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.

I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.

Capture Every Idea

I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.

Walk Away and Come Back

Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.

There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.

Write Some Bad Songs

Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.

Change Your Routine

I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.

Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different

Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.

Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.

Pete Fountain (1930 – 2016): Every Note Has a Smile

In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).

fj2-2008_Pete-FountainIt was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.

For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”

I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.

Pete Fountain 0005Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.

Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.

A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.

Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”

After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.

Pete Fountain 0009
(L-R) Pete’s Son-in-Law/Manager Benny Harrell, Craig Cortello, Pete Fountain, and former Where Y’at editor Chris Thacker

Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.

Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.

“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.

It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.

In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.

Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.

People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.

Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.

“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”

Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”

“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”

“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”

Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.

Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.

As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”

Every note with a smile.

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: Climbing the Wall Together

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYS (courtesy Billboard.com)

I read a business book once that said (paraphrasing) that increasingly in the 21st century, rather than competing against each other to see who can climb the wall of success first, businesses will join hands and scale the wall together (I apologize for omitting the reference, but now that I’m AARP eligible as of last week, I suppose instances of memory loss will become more frequent). The metaphor essentially emphasizes the importance of collaboration in our economy, for a number of reasons – ease of purchase from the customer’s perspective when multiple businesses offer a wider array of services, project teams with a broader perspective generating ideas, greater geographic reach, cross-training, etc.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of collaboration is the ability to reach out to new customers by sharing customer and contact lists. The introduction to new customers through your business collaborators brings a sense of credibility.

Take the case of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

The duo’s collaborative effort, the recently released Cheek to Cheek album has hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. According to USA Today, the joint jazz album sold 131,000 copies in the week ending Sept. 28 (Nielsen SoundScan), making Bennett, 88, the oldest living act to earn a No. 1 album.

Lady Gaga’s youthful fan base and her pop success might have given older generations pause when she crossed over to jazz standards, categorizing her as simply the next passing trend in the pop world. But Bennett’s seal of approval provides a reason for mature fans to take a closer look and listen with an objective ear. Conquering different genres can be a key to longevity for many in the music industry (Elvis Costello, Christina Aguilera, Elvis, Sting, Pat Benatar, to name a few).

Likewise, Lady Gaga’s participation brings a continued sense of “hipness” to jazz standards, and exposes Tony to a new generation of potential fans.

Have you thought about collaborative partners for your business or artistic endeavor?

 

A Little Wisdom on World Events…From Billy Joel

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden

In increasingly turbulent times globally speaking, a few briefs thoughts today.

Regardless of the nation in which you live, the one from which you came, your political affiliation, or your religious beliefs, there is a troubling trend – Our world seems to be losing tolerance – an acknowledgement that contrasting viewpoints can come from reasonable, intelligent, good-hearted people.

Musicians and comedians are often capable of incisive, honest commentary on the human condition, made more palpable masked in their chosen artistic medium.

A little insight from a great songwriter on the aforementioned topic:

“Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out

And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts

Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for

I won’t be righteous again, I’m not that sure anymore”

~ Billy Joel from “Shades of Grey” off of his album River of Dreams

Hugh Laurie and his Musical Visit to New Orleans – “Let Them Talk”

Actor Hugh Laurie, star of the hit TV show House, is quite an accomplished musician. For years he admired and emulated New Orleans pianists and their sound – Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint to name a few. He recently traveled to our great city for the first time to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Crescent City first hand, a pilgrimage that culminated in a PBS special/concert and his first album. Laurie collaborated with Vocalist Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint).

Here’s a brief excerpt that includes a few kind thoughts regarding New Orleans.   

“I feel like this is a city that doesn’t fear death. It’s looked death in the eye. Los Angeles on the other hand – everybody’s absolutely terrified. Terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying.

“Music fills the streets and clubs of New Orleans like nowhere else. It’s a city that sings itself to sleep at night, and sings itself up in the morning. I’ve never known a place or people who so massively exceeded my expectations. It is more than I hoped it ever could be, and I hoped for quite a lot. This has been my Jerusalem.”

Link to the PBS Special/Concert Let Them Talk

Amy Winehouse (1983 – 2011) and the Merits of Artistic Expression

I recall watching Amy Winehouse perform during the GRAMMY awards in 2008, and I watched her get showered with awards and accolades shortly thereafter (5 GRAMMYS that evening). There were 2 things that were plainly obvious to those inside and outside of the recording industry that night: 1) This is an immensely talented performer with enormous upside potential 2) Winehouse was on a dangerous path and perhaps the tip of a downward spiral, given her problems with addiction and the underlying emotional issues that all too often derail the careers of emerging artists. I couldn’t help think that there was something terribly afoul and enabling with the idea of heaping praise on a woman in such peril after she declared in song, “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, no, no, no.”

We speak of the power and merits of artistic expression in this forum a great deal, but the story of Amy Winehouse is a cautionary tale. Exposing children to music and the arts provides a valuable outlet for their emotions, and is a tool in teaching them to live productive and healthy lives – but it’s just a start. It’s important to realize and acknowledge its limitations as well. I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to say that Winehouse’s underlying issues could not be resolved by a piano, guitar, or microphone.

I’ve spoken to music therapy experts, and they’ve echoed these sentiments as well. We must be realistic and practical in espousing the power and benefits of music and music education. Those who oversell its potential provide ammunition for the skeptics and sabotage the scientific advances made by the true practitioners of music and sound therapy, arts integration, and arts education in general.

Lost in Music of the 80’s: The Buggles, Madness, and Mood

I have a certain affinity for the music of the early 80’s and the dawn of the music video era. The new wave era on balance will not be remembered for the virtuosity of the musicians nor the sophistication of the music, though it’s noteworthy to mention that The Police, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Pretenders, and The Tubes were born of that time. Yet there was an energy and excitement that captivated the music world back then.

The disco age was dead. Punk rock had shaken the music world out of its doldrums, but had faded as brilliantly as it had emerged. More importantly, music has the ability to connect us to other times in our lives.

I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to music therapists regarding the connection between music and mood. In the simplest sense, even a non-trained musical ear knows that certain (major) chords or sounds seem “happy,” while others (minor chords) evoke sadness or are more appropriate for horror movies. Of course, their science goes well beyond those basic theories, allowing breakthroughs with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, and Autism.

That brings me to yesterday.

I was having a bad day – No particular tragedies, just a series of life’s little aggravations. Then, while strolling through the grocery store, a tune played from the speakers above. The recognizable intro to “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. It was the 1st video ever played on MTV back in the day, and the video production levels were so primitive that there was an innocence that permeated the music videos of that era. The song “Our House” by Madness followed. From what moment forward, my day and my attitude changed for the better.

What music changes your mood?

Hidden Music Gems from the iPod

Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently:

All That I Need is Love by Melody Gardot

Express by Marilyn Harris

Eternal Love by Utopia

Skylark by Kim Prevost and Bill Solley

Esplanade by Tim Laughlin and Hank Mackie

The Continuum of Jazz: Article/Profile of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield, Jr.

This week my cover story for local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine’s  New Orleans Jazz Fest issue: Interview/profile of legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.

Read “The Continuum of Jazz” from Where Y’at magazine

Thanks again to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment. Photo credits: Romney Photography

(From left to right: Ed Petersen (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Harold Battiste), Harold Battiste, Irvin Mayfield, Jr., Victor Atkins (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.), and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

My profile of Irvin Mayfield, A Golden Trumpet and a Midas Touch (2010)
My profile of Ellis Marsalis Encouragement, Support, & Exposure: The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (2007)

Peace of Mind, Boston, Stonehawk, and a Lifetime of Memories

I can remember my first day in a rock band like it was yesterday. I made the life-changing decision to pursue guitar lessons in the summer of 1978, just prior to my 14th birthday. From that day forward, I spent 2 years with a singular goal as my source of motivation – to reach the level of proficiency that would allow me to play in a rock and roll band. “Oh, Susanna,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” were simply a means to an end.

Then after 2 years practicing on my Acoustic guitar, the planets aligned. Cousin Steve, a drummer knew Kevin who could sing. He asked me and cousin Jay (another guitarist) if we wanted to start a band. Stonehawk was born, and the rest is history.

A couple of second-hand guitars (as Bachman-Turner Overdrive once sang), an amplifier from American Rent-All, and we were on our way. The first song we attempted was “Peace of Mind” (Video below) by the band Boston. Jay strummed the intro chords for 4 measures, and Steve and I kicked in with the drums and lead. “Now you’re feelin’ kinda low ’bout the dues you’ve been payin’…”

I can say that the “high” of making what I considered real rock music for the first time was one of the greatest memories of my adolescence. New band members and another band would come and go over the years (Mark and Darryl and Darrell and Joe, then Private Joy with Rocky and Mark). We knew that the odds were long on success, but the possibilities were endless. So when a few of my former bandmates started a comment thread of reminiscings on Facebook recently, I found myself frustrated – I wanted to find a hidden transcipt of every conversation, every joke – a diary of every band practice, every silly discussion we had about selecting a band name or a songlist – planning the details of our imaginary world tour.

“It sometimes occurs to me that the thing that scares us the most when we’re young is the unpredictability of the future. Then, the thing that scares us the most when we’re older is the predictability.”

Here’s to the unpredictability of youth, and to all of the past members (at one time or another) of Stonehawk: Band for the ’80’s.