Resolutions and Rivulets

Two years ago, at a New Year’s Day brunch in New York City, my partner Tim and I made a resolution:

Write a book.  Record an album.  Enjoy.

(Somewhere, there is a video of us resolving this.)

These weren’t resolutions we expected to accomplish in one year, but resolutions for our largest and most important goals as artists.  And for two years, they’ve been the guiding forces of our lives.

On New Year’s Day this year, we whiled away the entire day in Cambridge — first at Starbucks, perched above Harvard Square, then for several blissful book-browsy hours, at the Harvard Coop.  As I have done most days this year, I worked on my book.  And sitting looking out over the Square, I thought about those resolutions we made.

Tim’s album Rivulets was released today.  Five years in the making, Rivulets is his best work yet.  Dynamic new jazz compositions, filled with a sense of expansion and play.  Check it out:

Announcing Rivulets!

Rivulets is a dynamic album of new compositions from jazz pianist and composer Tim Peck. In support of this release, Tim Peck Trio will take Rivulets on tour in March, with anticipated tour stops in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Nashville, and other cities. Visit www.tpeck.com to learn more.

Building on the strengths of the trio’s 2007 release, Ms. Matched, Rivulets explores intersections between composed and improvised music in the trio format. By combining influences from modern jazz, contemporary classical, and international music genres, Rivulets creates a series of dynamic new vehicles for improvisation.

The members of Tim Peck Trio are in-demand musicians in the greater Boston jazz scene, and have performed with such musical luminaries as George Garzone, Bob Gullotti, Charlie Kohlhase, and Ben Schwendener. The trio has developed an engaging group sound, and Rivulets showcases its lyricism and conversational interplay.

Tim Peck Trio is Tim Peck, piano; Sean Farias, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums.

 purchase Rivulets on 
iTunes • Spotify • CD Baby • Bandcamp
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Listening Lately: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

On the way down to my VCCA residency last month, I caught this interview with Rhiannon Giddens and have been listening to her new album Tomorrow Is My Turn ever since.

She’s so open in talking about her own creative growth and the development of this latest project.

The album is potent: comprised of a diverse range of songs, it feels cohesive, and therefore radical in its multifaceted, holistic rendering of women’s voices.  And beyond that there is the pleasure of Giddens’ singing and the album’s deft arrangements, the coherence of her various influences.  We can hear on this album her passion for old American music and folk songs, her classical training and the years she’s spent developing and honing her particular talent, the imprint of spirituals and country and swinging downbeat grooves, and the occasional Celtic lilt of her part-time life in Ireland.

Giddens’ choices create an album at once intriguing and provocative, wideranging and empathetic and profoundly evocative.  In honoring this particular assemblage of women and their songs, she crafts what feels like a contemporary mandate.  This album insists on a certain, far-expanded and complicated understanding of where we’ve come from; it makes demands of us now.

(“Waterboy” feels like a particularly apt song to listen to this week as we all struggle to listen better and more empathetically.)

I’ve been particularly loving her renderings of “Black is the Color” and “Last Kind Words,” which sent me into a spiral of research the other night.  This recent piece of long-form journalism from the New York Times Magazine offers particularly valuable insight into this staggering song and the fascinating story behind the two women singers and guitarists who made it.

Victoria Vox on Taking Artistic Risks

A few months back, I saw Victoria Vox in concert at the Garrett Jacobs Mansion.  (Have you all been to a concert there?  It’s one of my favorite spaces — and scandals — in Baltimore.)  Victoria has a great energy on stage — she’s open and dynamic and fun to watch.  And her music, played on instruments spanning from ukulele to mouth trumpet, reveals a lyricism, playfulness, and musical breadth.   This summer, Victoria and I had a chance to get together and talk more about her album — and the two years of creative risks that led to it.

Victoria’s album Key started in the wake of a breakup.  After spending Christmas with her family in Wisconsin, she came home alone to her new house in Baltimore.  “It was kind of like that opening scene from Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Victoria says.  “You know… she’s just a mess, tissues everywhere.”  That January 8th Victoria just lay in bed and sang Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” all morning.  “Then finally I’m like, ‘Get up.  Do something today,'” Vox says.  “Even if it’s just learning that song, because it’s a really great song.'”  She started working out the melody on the ukulele.  By the end of the day she’d decided to record the song and post it on YouTube — and to turn that first January recording into a year-long creative project.

You can still find the video of that Newman cover recording on Victoria’s channel: in it, she’s wearing a red and black flannel shirt, the sleeves cuffed, her fingers laced beneath the fretboard of her ukulele.  In the background, you can see the nighttime darkness through her house’s stained glass window.  “I decided,” she says at the beginning of the video, and then looks to the side and purses her lips,”that I would extend that learning to other songs this year: that I will post one song a week.”  The announcement marked the start of a year-long project and an artistic shift.

PhilipLaubner_VV_NightUnravels-65FINAL

Photo by Philip Edward Laubner

By the time she recorded that first Randy Newman cover song, Victoria had been playing ukulele for nine years and had already released several successful recordings.  Her album Exact Change alone had raised $22,000 in crowdfunding, and she had an extensive and loyal fan following.  But she wanted to push herself in a new direction.  And her cover song project represented a new kind of exploration.  “This was my chance to really study other songwriters’ work,” she says.

Every week for an entire year, Vox learned and recorded a different song by a wide range of artists she admired.  Thousands of existing fans and new listeners followed her weekly video recordings, and by October, this growing fan base started to worry.  “People started e-mailing in and saying, ‘We’re really going to miss this weekly project,'” she says.  They asked her what she was going to do in January, when the cover song year was over.

As soon as they asked, she knew what she wanted to do.

“That year was about gathering all this information,” Victoria says.  “And toward the end — even halfway through, I was getting this itch, like I want to write something.  And I just had to keep reminding myself: you’re gathering musical information right now, and you’re at school.”

But as the new year approached, she knew she wanted to mirror the structure of her 52-week cover song project: that she wanted to write and record a new original song every week that next year.  It was an ambitious goal and, she says, “It was a really scary thing to announce.  I thought about it for over a month, …weighed the pros and cons of that kind of project, of that kind of dedication.”

In the end, she decided to take the risk.  But to make it happen, she needed some support.  She’d learned and recorded 52 cover songs while maintaining a full-time tour.  By the end of the cover song year she was so sick it was hard to sing.  In her videos from weeks 50 and 51 you can hear her getting progressively sicker.  She knew there was no way she could maintain her tour schedule while writing a song each week.  She needed to raise funding to support this new project.

After an unsuccessful self-designed subscription program failed to generate sufficient resources to fund the project, Vox landed on Kickstarter and hit 80% of her goal the first day.  Eventually she wound up raising $22,000, the same amount she’d raised for her previous album — and enough to make the project financially sustainable.

“I was almost brimming with ideas by the end of the year,” Victoria says.  “I was like, ‘Just wait.  Just wait till January 1st.  Just wait until the project is funded.’  It felt like everything was going to outpour.”  And she proved to be right: The information and material she’d studied all year sparked a creative burst in her songwriting.

Photo by Philip Edward Laubner

“It was a lot of work, but it was a different kind of work,” Vox says.  “I was living life a little bit more.  I called it my ‘yes’ year.  Someone would say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to something?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’  Because you never know what’s going to inspire you, or what you’re going to see, or who you might meet.  For filling my creative well, I really needed to go out and experience things.”

The resulting 52 songs were recorded and immediately released to Vox’s Kickstarter subscribers each week as she wrote them.  They have since gone on to comprise her album Key and 4 songs on a new album,When the Night Unravels, which is slated to be released in January 2015.  “It was a very emotional year,” Victoria says of the intensive year of songwriting.  “I was giving myself complete creative freedom.”

 

For more on Victoria Vox, including her upcoming performances and her albums, visit victoriavox.com.

Old Records

As I write one of the last stories in my book, I’ve been listening to a lot of music.  On a trip to the Poconos this weekend, I took advantage of a record player at the Airbnb house I rented — and a sale at the music shop in town — to stock up on a few records from the 1930s and 40s.  Yesterday morning I listened to some late-20s Bessie Smith recordings.  It felt good to listen to Bessie on this old album, through tinny speakers.  Music has wound up having more of a presence in this book than I’d anticipated.  I’m waiting to see how it manifests in this new story.

Listening Lately: Seu Jorge

The past few months, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions.  For the album, Jorge recorded new versions of David Bowie songs, all in Portuguese.  These songs, while unmistakably born from Bowie’s originals, become also unfamiliar; beautiful and new and strange.  They are lower-key than David Bowie’s versions; Bowie’s songs, expressive and anthemic, often held us at arm’s length.  But relaxed into Jorge’s new acoustic interpretations, the music becomes contemplative.  Inviting.  This is music Jorge asks us to inhabit, to live alongside, sit with.

I love the way Jorge’s album fills my space, his rich Portuguese intonation, the relaxed guitar strums and meandering voice.

In the months since my cousin moved to Brazil, I’ve also liked this sense of connection to Brazilian music.  As we all spend more time in the televised spaces of Brazilian life and in its soccer arenas, perhaps this is a good moment to visit Jorge’s cross-cultural collaboration, which belongs a little bit to a broader world, and also is so intimate, so much his.

Listening Lately: Eureka Birds

When he’s not in our shared office giving out artist grants, my colleague Dan is a drummer.  His band Eureka Birds released their new album last week, and I have to say, it’s incredible.  If you don’t already know Eureka Birds, just wait: you will.  And trust me, you’ll be glad to get ahead of the curve on this one.

Eureka Birds - Strangers

{Album cover art by Bridget Cimino; Image courtesy of Eureka Birds}

For those of you fortunate enough to live near Baltimore, the record release show is this Saturday at Metro Gallery.  Meanwhile, you can listen to the album on their website, and then go buy your copy here.  I think my favorite songs from Strangers at the moment are “Not Coming Home” and “Come On.”  But the whole album is so great that I’ve actually changed my mind several times since starting this post.

Which tracks do you like?  Any great new albums you’ve been listening to?