Monday, April 8, 2019

June 2018 Zach's Facts - Ben Franklin's Glass Armonica

Many of you, I’m sure, have sat around a dinner table with a crystal glass, wetted your finger and
rubbed it along the rim to produce a bell like tone and thought to yourself, wow what a cool sound!
Well you are not alone, a Mr. Ben Franklin thought the same thing. Back in his day, while touring
Europe on his civic duties for the colonies of the United States, Ben saw many musicians performing
enchanting melodies on glasses. Inspired by these events the ever-inventive Franklin sought to create
an instrument that would allow the players to produce chords and more complex melodies. Working
with a glass blower in London, Franklin invented the “glass armonica.” It made playing the glasses akin
to playing a piano. The glasses were laid on their sides with a rod going through that was connected to
a foot pedal allowing the player to spin the glasses and with wet fingers could easily produce the sound.
No longer was water required to tune the glasses the different bowls were measured to the appropriate
size and density to produce the right note. The instrument was an immediate success with composers
such as Mozart and Beethoven writing music for it. Franklin called it the most satisfying of his many
inventions, but why then did it fall to obscurity by the 1820s? Unfortunately, some people believed it
was a cursed instrument, the high pitched frequencies caused illness or madness or conjured ghosts.
After the death of a child in Germany during a performance the instrument was banned in several towns.
It’s important to note that none of these claims were ever proven and Franklin enjoyed playing the
instrument until he died without experiencing any of these “side effects.” Despite the popularity,
Franklin never made a dime off of his invention, he said quote ”As we enjoy great Advantages from the
Inventions of others we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and
this we should do freely and generously." Great words to live by Ben!

June 2018 Zach's Facts - Bach's Café

The almighty German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, known for his work expanding the complexity of harmony and rhythms of western music, may have wrote some of his blistering lines and arpeggios while on a serious caffeine high. Yes, Bach loved coffee, so much so that he wrote a cantata (a vocal work, often one that tells a story) about it. The work is popularly known as the Coffee Cantata but is actually named Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht, which translates to Be Still, Stop Chatting—a title that perfectly sums up a twitchy coffee buzz.
The piece tells a comical tale  of a father named Schlendrian, which means “Stick in the Mud”, and his frustrations with his daughter’s obsession with coffee. Coffee was somewhat of a controversial substance at the time, feared by some to be be a devilish drink not fit for children, women, or men concerned about vitality, and coffee houses were considered to be bawdy places not typically suitable for women. Not only did the cantata intend to parody coffee addicts, it also celebrated a strong-willed woman determined to get her fix.

The piece was written and performed for the crowds at the Zimmerman Coffee House in Leipzig, a popular destination for local musicians and artistic types. Bach ran a small “house band” at the cafe and performed concerts weekly. Nowadays, the piece is often performed as a “mini opera” with full costumes and staging. So the next time you’re sitting at a cafe and drinking a dank brew, pour a little out for J.S. Bach.

April 2018 Zach's Facts - Celine Dion and Phil Spector's Wall of Silence

Very behind,  a year behind actually on posting the Zach's Facts here, so I am going to blast em out now.

It was the middle of the 90s, and a French Canadian singer from a humble background was about to record her breakthrough album, Falling into You, and take the pop world by storm. That singer of course was Celine Dion. The stars were lining up for Celine: her previous album, The Colour of Love was a commercial success, she’d had a hit for Disney’s Beauty and The Beast soundtrack, and it looked like the world was ready for a Quebecois pop-star. Celine’s team, lead by her husband and manager, Rene Angelil (who discovered and began working with her when she was 12—creepy, right?), had a lot of pressure to put the right team together. The man they choose to oversee the album was legendary 60’s producer Phil Spector, famous for his “Wall of Sound”.

On paper, the collaboration seemed intriguing. Spector would be emerging from retirement, having not produced in 15 years, and working with a rising talent with an extraordinary voice and who he seemed excited to collaborate. Things started off well enough with Beach Boy Brian Wilson even visiting the mixing studio. However, this story would not have a happy ending. While Spector is a genius, he certainly is not without faults, and definitely isn’t known for compromise. Conflicts of artistic direction derailed the sessions, with Spector allegedly wanting to control everything. After the fallout of the sessions, Spector told Entertainment Weekly: "It became apparent that the people around Ms. Dion were more interested in controlling the project and the people who recorded her than in making history”. The two sides entered a legal impasse that went colder than a Canadian winter and the tapes were locked away in Spector’s vault. But perhaps through time, and through Spector’s many legal troubles (he turned out to be a murderer), the Dion-Spector tapes will hit our ears someday soon.

Monday, June 18, 2018

April Zach's Facts - Skunk Baxter's Shocking Career Change

Zach's Facts is a monthly column published in the Boston Compass.

While Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter may not be a household name, those even remotely familiar with the smooth sounds of 70’s rock have surely heard his tasteful tones grace their ears. A founding member of Steely Dan, Baxter’s silky solos can be heard on songs such as “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “My Old School.” After Steely, Skunk joined The Doobie Brothers while continuing to do session work, even shredding a solo on Donna Summers “Hot Stuff.” He would go on to produce tracks for artists as diverse as Carl Wilson and The Stray Cats, to play on records from Cher, The Ventures, Barbra Streisand, and Joni Mitchell, and to  write music for Beverly Hills 90210. Heck, early in his career he played bass in one of Jimi Hendrix’s first bands, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. But in the 80’s, Skunk had one of the strangest career changes one could imagine.
Skunk had always been interested in music technology and in the 80’s the industry was switching over from analog tape to digital, this lead him to start wondering about data compression systems and large capacity storage devices that were developed by the military. His neighbor happened to be a retired Pentagon engineer and, excited by Skunk’s interest, he bought him a subscription to Aviation Magazine.
Baxter was hooked. He ended up writing a five page paper on missile defense systems and presented it to Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and the rest is history. Since then, he has consulted for many defense companies and organizations and is currently “senior thinker and raconteur” at the Florida Institute For Human and Machine Cognition and was a committee member for NASA’s Exploration Systems Advisory Committee. Why do you think these military types would even listen to a hippie, who played in a band called the Doobie Brothers of all names? It’s his creativity—“We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles.” I guess that’s thinking outside the box, Skunk!

Here's some bonus videos. Skunk has one of my favorite guitar instructional videos in which he shares some industry secrets, if you manage to be a session guitar player, and gives his list of illegal licks.

Also, if you are curious to the other side of Skunk's work, heres a video of him at some sort of conference explaining how he got involved with advanced weapon systems. I imagine he's probably the most interesting guy you'll ever hear speak on the subject.

March 2018 Zach's Facts -Ace's High With Bruce Dickinson

Zach's Facts is a monthly column published in the Boston Compass.

The lyrics, Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines, Remove all the wheel-blocks there's no time to waste, Gathering speed as we head down the runway, Gotta get airborne before it's too late, might seem like a fantasy or metaphor for your average musician, but not so in the case of enterally youthful frontman Bruce Dickinson of British Metal legends, Iron Maiden. Bruce is a full blown pilot. Since 2008 he has been flying the band and their gear around the world on their custom Boeings named,, Ed Force One. He also flew planes for now-defunct UK charter company, Astraeus, even serving as their director of marketing. After that company folded, Dickinson started his own business, an aviation repair company called Cardiff Aviation. In 2005 he hosted the show, Flying Heavy Metal, where he explored and often flew planes from the history of commercial aviation. In addition to being an aviator, Bruce is a bit of a beer snob. In 2013 he teamed up with Robinsons Brewery to create The Trooper, which was a smash success selling 2.5 million bottles within its first year. Fasten your seat belts and let’s hope he doesn’t combine his love of beer with flying.

Now here a couple of videos for your viewing pleasure.
First up is the opening episode to Flying Heavy Metal. I must say I really enjoyed the show, and Bruce Dickinson is an excellent host. I learned a lot about the history of commercial aviation and its fun to see him fly some of the planes, explain how a jet engine works and walk around a weird plane graveyard in the Mojave Desert.

And lastly, here is a great interview with Bruce from the awesome music documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, by Canadian filmmaker, Sam Dunn. As you can probably tell by now, Dickinson is an excellent speaker with a down to earth personality and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Alright hope you enjoyed this one. 

PS. Thanks to Allen Chapman for the knowledge!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Rocket #32

After the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, the artist-performer-composer-visionary-eccentric Sun Ra become very concerned about the advancement of nuclear technology. As the 70s turned into the 80s and the cold war dragged on, Ra recorded the tune “Nuclear War”—a solemn look at the existential threat of technology and pollution, and perhaps one of the first examples of a “protest rap.” Convinced that he had a hit song on his hands, Ra walked into Columbia Records and pitched it. Columbia however wasn’t won over, concerned about its language and length (8 mins) they would not consider it for a release. It was eventually released on the British Label Y Records, as an obscure 12” single aimed at DJs and never reaching mainstream ears. Fast forward to October 2013, Lady Gaga releases a song called “Venus,” the song contains the sample “Rocket #9 take off to the planet venus”, from electronic duo Zombie Zombie’s cover of Ra’s song “Rocket #9.” Since the hook was penned by Sun Ra that means he has a writing credit for the tune, and so he finally made it into the charts as the song reached #32 on the Billboard Hot 100. I like to think of it as poetic justice for Sun Ra. In 1971, Sun Ra was the artist in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and taught a class called “The Black Man In The Cosmos.” The lectures are very whimsical and lysergic, with words and ideas blurring and bleeding into each other creating Ra’s distinctive poetic cosmic slop. One of the lectures can be found on the excellent Ubu Web along with a collection of other interesting recordings, including a collaboration between him and John Cage And while we are here let’s hear the evolution from Sun Ra’s, “Rocket Number 9,” to the Zombie Zombie cover, to Lady Gaga’s “Venus.” Sun Ra—Rocket Number 9 Zombie Zombie—Rocket Number 9 Lady Gaga—Venus Lastly, here is an awesome clip from the Afrofuturist sci-fi movie, “Space is The Place” featuring Sun Ra. In the clip, Ra is the interviewer at the “outer space employment agency,” and candidates walking in have to engage with Ra and his rhetorical wordplay. Like everything he does, the film is a genius fusion of the happy and the sad, the serious and the mundane, high art, low brow, life & death, comedy and seriousness. In short, the whole of the human experience.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Boston Compass Zach's Facts January 2018 - Kenny Gee That's a lot of Money

What do you think when you think of Kenny G? Smooth soprano sax tones? Beautiful curly hair? One of the first investors in Starbucks? That’s right. Kenny G, real name Kenny Goerlick, was one of the first investors of the now omnipresent coffee chain. He was convinced to invest after meeting founder Howard Schultz before the company went public. He also invented the Frappuccino, or at least partially, claiming that he called Schultz early on recommending they make a sort of milkshake drink. I mean, of course the king of smooth jazz would know something about a smooth blended drink. The G man is also one of the most loved artists in China, with his song “Going Home” played across the country at malls, shops and businesses, to signal the end of operating hours. And he is also a +0.6 handicap golfer—which, for those who don’t know, is really good—and won the Pan-Am tournament in 2001 with Phil Mickelson. Oh, and did I mention? Kenny G is a droner and held the world record for longest continually played note (for 45 minutes and 35 seconds) from 1997-2000. Someone book him a show with La Monte Young!

Here is a funny, if not rather blue music video from the G Man, called “Against. Doctor’s Orders”. If anything, Kenny has a good sense of humor about himself.

Also for kicks, here's a Kenny G Remix I made years ago..... trip out

Drawing is by Christina Giovinco