Thursday, July 3, 2014

Tunes on the road

But maybe not the kind of tunes you're thinking of.

I used to like to listen to the radio, a lot, on road trips, skimming around the dial seeing what was interesting enough to land on for a while.

When noon came around I would frantically scan the AM band looking for Paul Harvey's report. If I was lucky I got to hear that famous ``HELLO AMERICANS! THIS IS PAUL HARVEY! STAND BY FOR NEWS!!!!" And if I was even luckier I would be able to hold the signal all the way through to the end of "THE REST OF THE STORY".

In the morning I would listen to the local hog report, (Yes, on purpose!) followed by the call-in want adds (Extra puppies looking for a home; a Craftsman riding mower, runs good; baby sitter available.)

In the afternoon I would stop spinning the tuner at an interview with the head cheerleader and quarterback encouraging people to come out to the pep rally before tonight's high-school game which, of course, would be broadcast live on this very station.

At night it was the trucker's show with it's mix of country tunes, talk and the occasional rant about cops, or the smooth talking of one of those midnight owl shows where people call in dedications and occasionally rant about the cops. (I once spent a very long surreal, icy, fog bound night following dim, blurry taillights across half of New York, Ontario, and almost into Michigan listening to the same syndicated show all the way by tracking down local stations carrying it.)

In between the local AM shows I would switch over to FM and listen to 50's, 60's, 70's and sometime even 80's rock, occasionally switching to country for a while and maybe even a few minuets of classic where, once in a very great while I would be rewarded with a rare airing of an Ennio Morricone composition. (Fantastically emotional and evocative compositions so often dismissed by the high and snooty because they were associated with spaghetti westerns.)

But along the way something bad happened to radio. Top 40 became the catchphrase as the locals were bought up by the big boys expanding their markets while at the same time dumbing it down for the masses, which meant they could get away with playing the same thing over and over again or endlessly spouting grade-school level drivel that is supposed to pass as intelligent talk radio. On top of that, in the name of progress they took the dial away! No longer can I slowly roll my way through the band, delicately tweaking into each little chirp and flutter. Now I'm reduced to punching a button and accepting whatever the radio decides is good for me.

So now I use my dash radio primarily to listen to university courses on CD produced by The Learning Company. Though once in a while I'll still load up one of my select few music CD's such as Harry Chapin's Greatest Stories Live, Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell, Lenard Cohen's The Essential Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond's Hot August Night  (Before CD's I wore out several cassettes of this album as well as Chapin's Live), Chris Rea's The Road to Hell, Los Lonely Boys self titled album, Oh yeah, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band's soundtrack to Eddie and the Cruisers, even though I was shattered when I found out Eddie and the gang were fictional. But even so, how can anybody resist those sax riffs?

Even though I listen to the music CD's sparingly now I can still sing along with nearly every word of every song - OK, sing is probably an optimistic description of the noise I make but there's nobody else to hear so I'm saying I sound pretty damn good!

But back to the misleading title of this post. I'm actually talking about making my own tunes while on the road.

Not that I'm a musician or anything but I did learn to play clarinet and read music while in band during junior high. (I'm sure it wasn't anything particularly special but I wouldn't mind having that old wood-bodied clarinet back in my possession. . .)  Over the years since I've collected a few more instruments and a big stack of sheet music and I filled a lot of evenings when I was alone and living in the parking lot after work making my own noise. I still carry some of those instruments in the van today.

OK, I admit the sax is an extravagant over-indulgence. In fact I could buy a half dozen duplicates of all the other instruments put together for what I paid for that sax, but when I saw that black lacquer Yamaha alto I was doomed. I listened to the voice of reason for a few weeks after that first sighting but kept cheating and pulling up photos of it on the web to drool over; with the inevitable results.

But can you blame me??! Look at this thing! It's making music even before you clamp a reed to the mouthpiece!

And yes, since you asked, I can play it. But this is one of those instruments that must be lived with for hours each and every day to play really well. It takes focused commitment to get the rich, soulful sounds that will melt your knees out of this collection of brass tubes and felt lined valves.

So when I saw Dino Soldo playing one of these on stage in London with a 73 year old Lenard Cohen and making the rich, live performance quality, sounds of a woodwind with it, I had to do some research.

It doesn't require as much commitment in order to maintain decent 'chops', (The conditioning of mouth and lungs.) isn't near as sensitive to knocking around on the road as a real sax and packs into a much smaller space.

It does require plugging into something with MIDI software on it, my favorite being the Mr. Sax T software, but I carry a laptop with me all the time anyway. And another plus is, no mater how hard I look, I can't find where to plug headphones into the Yamaha but I can with the laptop, so now I'm not subjecting innocent bystanders to my - well let's just call it music.

Anyway, now the EWI does the traveling and the real sax stays home.

I think it's a given that the flutes would be along for the ride. I don't know of any other instrument that plays and sounds so organic and has more right to be there in the woods under a starry sky.

These are one of those instruments that require no sheet-music, in fact I think you'd be hard pressed to find sheet music for them and even if you did it would be a poor substitute for just picking it up and playing whatever is riding in the breeze or dancing in the campfire or singing in your heart at the moment.

And then there's the keyboards. I'm not a particular fan of the piano by itself but the electronic keyboard is not your grandmother's piano! Here, with a little fiddling and experimentation, I can sound like an entire band. I can play my favorites from Chapin, Nelson, Diamond, Morrison, Cohen, the Righteous Brothers, Streisand or anyone else that catches my ear.

Which is why, even though it's large and awkward, I continued to cart the big Yamaha PSR 275 around with me for many years, regularly feeding it D batteries and moving it out of the way countless times every day as I went about the business of living in a very small space.

But as a follower of musician and van dweller Glenn Morrissette's blog I was turned on to the Korg MicroKey seen here.

The keys, as the name hints, are smaller than standard which changes the spacing but, not being a classically trained pianist with indelible muscle memory pounded into my fingers, that hasn't proven to be a problem. Though it would appear the Korg has only a three octave range compared to the Yamaha's five, those little white buttons on the lower left allow me to shift the range up and down for a total of something like 7 octaves. And I've only just started playing around with the KORG M1 MIDI software bundled with the keyboard but holy cow! I doubt I'll ever figure out everything this thing can do, but I'm going to have fun trying.

So next trip the Yamaha stays home (But not forgotten. As I type this the Yamaha is sitting on a shelf right below my laptop.) and I'll give the KORG a road test.

So that's the kind of tunes on the road I'm talking about.

And no, I'm not a complete idiot, (Well - not very often anyway.)  I'm fully aware of the harsh reality  that most of the noise I produce with my instruments sounds like a cat caught under deaf grandpa's rocker, but the mind is a wonderful thing and to me they all sound like singles with a bullet, and that's what counts.

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