Quick Review: Jon Benjamin, Jazz Daredevil: Well I Should Have… Learned To Play Piano

Comedian H. Jon Benjamin released a jazz album (Well I Should Have… Learned To Play Piano) in November of last year, but I didn’t notice until this week, when it was suddenly all over my Facebook feed. You may recognize Benjamin as a voice actor from shows like Bob’s Burgers, The Venture Brothers, and Home Movies. 

The premise, as you may have figured out from the title, is this: a comedian plays piano on a jazz album without having learned how to actually play the piano.

The punchline of the joke, as you may have also guessed, is that it actually kind of works. But to accept it as a robust critique of the genre would be to discount the contributions of Scott Kreitzer on sax, Jonathan Peretz on drums, and David Finck on bass. Finck in particular does a lot of heavy lifting by creating wonderfully melodic lines. The combo as a whole makes it obvious, even to someone without musical knowledge, when it’s time to solo. To be able to have that conversation without discussing anything verbally – and for listeners to enjoy it, even when one of the participants is hilariously inept – is one of the best features of jazz music.

My overall impression: This is definitely worth listening to. For added giggles, put it on at work or a party and see if anyone notices. Also – comedians Aziz Ansari and Kristen Schaal are great in the intro track.

Favorite Christmas Music

‘Twas two days after Christmas, and all through the land

Holiday music still played, all joyful, though bland.

If you know me well, you probably know I don’t like Christmas music. Maybe more than any other genre of pop music, our experiences and traditions shape what songs we put on once Black Friday starts. For me, a few years working in retail – with its crazed, often rude customers and non-stop cheery Christmas playlist – was enough to turn me off most of it. But I’m not being entirely truthful when I say I hate Christmas music. There are a few songs I need to listen to every year before it really feels like Christmas. Here they are, in no particular order.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Christmastime Is Here”

I listen to the whole soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas a few times every holiday season, and though “Skating” is a runner-up, “Christmastime Is Here” is my favorite. Like most people, I grew up on the Peanuts holiday specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s melancholy-tinged soundtrack grants the music an extra bit of nostalgia. What I love best about “Christmastime Is Here” is its unusual melody, which descends through a major triad. The song features a lot of major 7 chords (in this case, “major-major” seventh chords), which give you the feeling of wanting to linger. It’s different from most Christmas carols, which have more more predictable chords and ascending melodies: think of the first few notes of the choruses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”.

Leroy Anderson, “Sleigh Ride”

When I was in college, the wind symphony played “Sleigh Ride” every year in the holiday concert. The one year that it didn’t show up on the program, a petition circulated throughout the band, but we were unsuccessful at getting it in the concert. I think every wind band person loves “Sleigh Ride” because it’s a fun, well-written song, and it has something for everyone. The percussion parts are great, of course (like the best whip part in history, first appearing here at 1:07), but everyone envies the low brass when the song slips inexplicably – and wonderfully – into a swing feel for one refrain (starting around 1:54). And of course, there’s the amusing horse whinny played by the trumpet at the end.

Bob Wells and Mel Tormé, “The Christmas Song”

I have memories of MTV doing a Christmas special on a sunny beach every year, and for some reason the perennially-cool Mel Tormé was always there with a digital keyboard to perform “The Christmas Song”. I love the laid-back nature of this one. I recently learned that Wells and Tormé wrote this one on a very hot summer day. Wells had jotted down some phrases like “Folks dressed up like eskimos” in an attempt to cool himself off. He and Tormé made it into a hit song in less than an hour.

Stevie Wonder, “What Christmas Means To Me”

This is one of the few songs I actually enjoyed from my days working in retail. I worked at Old Navy for a little while, and this was on the regular Christmas mix (along with some good Brian Setzer covers). Though it will always remind me of Polar Fleece, I like this one.

Mariah Carey, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”

Don’t judge. At least it gives me an excuse to link you to this amazingness. (h/t Tenley)

Goodbye, Beats.

As you may have heard by now, Beats Music announced recently that Apple will be closing it down on 11/30. Beats users can transition their accounts to Apple Music.

While we knew this was coming for a while, it’s definitely bittersweet. We’ve put in many long hours with Beats since they were a little startup. Everyone is moving on to other projects, but it’s still a little sad to see the sun set on Beats. It was a good service, and I’m proud of the work we did.

As an homage: a cheesy final playlist. Since you have to be one of the few people still on Beats to see the track listing, I’ll paste it here:

“The Final Countdown” – Europe
“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – R.E.M.
“The End Of The World” – Skeeter Davis
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” – Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald
“Rainbow Connection” – The Muppets
“A Brand New Me” – Aretha Franklin
“I Will Survive” – Cake
“Phantom Limb” – The Shins
“Skinny Love” – Bon Iver
“Death With Dignity” – Sufjan Stevens
“Outro” – M83
“The Suburbs (Continued)” – Arcade Fire
“Someone Great” – LCD Soundsystem
“Your Silent Face” – New Order
“Once In A Lifetime” – Talking Heads
“Digital Love” – Daft Punk
“If I Should Die Tonight” – Marvin Gaye
“End Of The Road” – Boyz II Men
“Tha Crossroads” – Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
“Cross Road Blues” – Robert Johnson
“The Thrill Is Gone” – B.B. King
“Why Did You Go” – Ray Charles
“Miss You” – Alabama Shakes
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” – Led Zeppelin
“In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” – The Allman Brothers Band
“Don’t Speak” – No Doubt
“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
“By Starlight” – The Smashing Pumpkins
“Gone Daddy Gone” – Violent Femmes
“Can’t Do Without You” – Caribou
“Wide Open” – The Chemical Brothers
“The Sound Of Leaving” – Veruca Salt
“Last Goodbye” – Jeff Buckley
“All Over Now” – Washed Out
“Come Down” – Sylvan Esso
“You Are My Face” – Wilco
“Let It Die” – Feist
“The Funeral” – Band Of Horses
“A Dedication” – Washed Out
“End Of The World Party” – Medeski, Martin & Wood
“Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
“Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
“Linger” – The Cranberries
“Forgot About Dre (feat. Eminem)” – Dr. Dre
“Tron Legacy (End Titles)” – Daft Punk

Behind the Scenes: Back to the Future

Wednesday was “Back to the Future Day”, meaning it was the day Doc, Marty, Jennifer, and Einstein visited in 2015 in Back to the Future Part II. So, in other words, we’re further in the future now than they ever were in that movie. Let that sink in.

HitFix has a great piece with some behind-the-scenes info about the iconic use of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.

“We didn’t have an alternative,” Gale said.

The 1958 Chuck Berry song was in every version of the script from the earliest draft. (Though the first draft also had Marty transitioning from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Rock Around the Clock.”)

Gale recalls there being a period of two or three weeks when they worried they wouldn’t get the rights to the song. But Howe came through, and the production paid somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 for the rights, as Gale recalls. “However much it was, it was very expensive in 1985 to pay that much for a song,” he said.

It ended up being worth it. The scene was a hit with test audiences in the months preceding the release and remains a fan favorite moment 30 years later.”

What Is Tidal’s Problem?

Since Jay-Z relaunched his music streaming company Tidal in March, I’ve watched their progress with interest.

The streaming music market is a crowded space. In order to succeed, a business can’t simply be a “Me Too” service. It has to be easier to use, have more and/or exclusive content, have better features, be cheaper, or – even better – have more than one of these qualities.

Tidal has HD audio and some exclusive content. According to some, their interface is better than other services. That should be enough for them to at least have a small but dedicated user base, but I think there are two reasons they’re struggling (so much so that Jay-Z has forgotten about it): a) Higher price, and b) Mismanaged PR.

Today’s NY Times piece by Jon Caramanica hits the nail on the head when it comes to Tidal’s mismanaged PR woes:

“It’s hard to see Tidal as something other than an oligarchic hustle when it primarily engages in oligarchic behavior. At this show, Damian Marley was introduced as “the newest artist-owner of Tidal” — the room shrugged. People generally don’t root for corporations.”

October Sixteenth

There’s nothing more surreal than waking up in a hospital bed in a morphine haze, turning on the national news, and seeing the charter bus – mangled by an impact and the jaws of life – that you’d boarded 10 hours previously.

Ten years ago today, I was in college and working several part-time jobs. One of my gigs was instructing front-line percussion for my old high school’s marching band – a decorated, tightly-knit, huge band of bright and motivated kids. The band had just performed at the state championship competition in Whitewater, WI the previous night. They’d performed well, received high marks, and enjoyed a brief, energetic celebration before climbing on the buses. We were scheduled to get home by 3 AM. I took my spot on “Bus 1” and hoped to get some sleep before my college wind ensemble concert scheduled for the next day.

Thirty miles from home, unbeknownst to our bus caravan, a young truck driver a few miles up the road from us over-corrected after his semi started to veer into a steep ditch. The truck ended up on its side, jackknifed in such a way that it blocked all the westbound lanes of I-94. The bottom of the truck, the side without reflectors, was facing oncoming traffic. Based on a later NTSB re-creation, it would have been nearly impossible for our bus driver to see the truck in time to apply the brakes.

My bus, the first in the caravan, slammed into the truck at about 70 mph. Nearly everyone other than the bus driver was asleep at the time. I was sitting in the fourth row of the bus. I suffered life-threatening, disabling injuries. My right ankle and all the bones in that leg were broken. My right foot was dislocated (which is a thing that can happen, believe it or not). I continue to suffer from soft tissue damage that was done to my knee and ankle.  I had a fractured finger, a fractured bone next to my eye, a bad concussion, bruises, contusions, upholstery burns, and – most serious of all – deep lacerations on my scalp which severed an artery.

I was tended to by some brave first-responders and EMTs. When I got to the hospital, I received a massive blood transfusion and careful surgical work which saved my life. In my first couple of hours there, while they were prepping me for x-rays and surgery, the nurses answered my questions. I found out there were many people injured, some hurt as badly as me. I knew everyone on that bus: they were close friends, fellow staffers, former teachers, and students of mine.

I learned what I already suspected: There were fatalities. Five, actually.

Doug Greenhalgh, known to his students as “G”, was my boss and former band director. More than that, though, he was a great mentor and friend to myself and many, many others. He was 48 years old. His beloved wife Therese, 51, and their granddaughter Morgan, just 11 years old, also lost their lives that day. The bus driver, 78-year-old Paul Rasmus, was a retired veteran who had continued to drive our band because he liked working with us so much. Branden Atherton, who turned 24 that day, was a skilled educator, a classmate at my university, and a new friend to me.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it definitely offers a salve. It has been ten years, and it sure has felt like ten years. Three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days. Sixteen surgeries, performed by six different surgeons. Countless days on crutches and in physical therapy; quite a few mornings when I need to use my cane.

But I’ve been keeping track of other stuff, too. In that ten years, I’ve achieved a BA and an MA. I met and married a great guy. We bought a home and added another kitty to the household. We’ve traveled quite a bit. I landed a job I like in a city I love. I’ve made a lot of friends, tried new foods, and taken up new hobbies. Throughout it all, I’ve had unwavering support from the people who care about me.

To all my other Cardinals today; to all the UWEC people; to my friends, family, and everyone who was touched by this tragedy in some way: May the good of your next ten years outweigh the bad.

And because this is a music blog, here’s a mini-playlist of music that always makes me think of my time at Chi-Hi:

Forever Cardinal Bound.

Tracking Down Publishers

Wall Street Journal’s Ethan Smith has a good piece today, written with admirable clarity, about some of the difficulties in tracking down publisher royalties. A proposed solution:

“The NMPA is contemplating a proposal simply to apportion the unclaimed royalties based on its members’ market share.”

I think it would be more productive to ask or compel record labels to share publisher/songwriter information for their recordings.

“Songwriter and publisher information isn’t typically included in the “metadata” that record companies include with songs when they upload them to services making it difficult for the service to know whom to pay.”

Labels do have this information for some (if not all) of their catalogs, but since they don’t have to share it, other companies have to piece it together. It would be helpful for services to have this information. In the meantime, companies like mine are working hard to track down every rights holder.