Touring Plans – 2019

As a child, I remember a board game called Touring Scotland. It’s a racing, dice game. Each player has a metal car and starts off at Berwick-on-Tweed. He is dealt cards with the names of the towns he has to visit before going back home. touringscotlandA bad hand would include a town which needed a ferry to get to and that meant having to throw a six. The game is out of print but can be bought second hand.

This early training has stood me in good stead because I am in the process of organising a Chico Chica tour. We will have an album out later this year and, as is the convention, the release will be followed by a series of dates – starting on 21stAugust, culminating in the Bull’s Head on 15thNovember. This last date would part of the London Jazz Festival.

I have earmarked fifty-two potential dates and this will be my target. We will be returning to venues that know us well but there will be a few new ones.

When organising tours it’s important to make a decision on where the band will be at a particular time and stick with it. This may mean turning down offers from places which are too far – in this sense it’s a bit like Aboriginal songlines. Something can be good, but only if it’s at a particular location and point in time.

So the plan is, (notice I said ‘plan’, not ‘hope’ – a plan is more likely to happen. A hope is just that – it could be forlorn). There will be six legs to the tour. I’m trying to include a head, thorax and abdomen but I’m unsure how to do this. And yes, it will have wings. Chico Chica will be creating a buzz in these areas:

21st– 25thAugust: Wales

27th-30thAugust: Cornwall

1st– 7thSeptember: West and South England

Every Wed-Sun between 11thSeptember – 13thOctober: London and Home Counties

19th – 27th October: other regions (North East, East Anglia, Kent, West country again.

Every Wed-Sun between 30thOctober and 15thNovember: London and Home Counties.

The album will be called Café d’amour though this has yet to be formally agreed. All the songs are in French and it seems only natural one leg of the tour should include France. The will is there but alas, I couldn’t get the figures to add up. Chico Chica has yet to sing a song in the land whose music has inspired us so much. It will have to wait for another year. To tour at a loss is easy – a bit like writing free verse. Chico Chica is a professional band. Making a profit concentrates the mind and improves the music. We live in London and there are thirty million people living with a two hour drive so we’re sure to find our fabled 1,000 true fans within this radius.

Setting up all these dates is something most musicians would run a mile from. But, in a weird way, it appeals to my nerdy side. To minimise travel costs, there has to be a geographic logic and for this reason, I am forever referring to maps.

When the dates are organised, and I look at the long itinerary, I feel a certain pride of accomplishment as well as excitement about the fun ahead.

Once the dates are in place, aspects such as logistics, accommodation and travel arrangements are handled by others. This is because, in my anxiety to minimise costs, I ‘m quite happy to slum it and this may cause friction even among the easy going members of Chico Chica. Also, I don’t drive.

So if you know any promoters in those areas, and who may relish the opportunity to be part of this memorable and exciting adventure, do put them in touch with me.

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

gogol dead souls coverI’ve been aware of Dead Souls for many years. It is deemed a classic of Russian literature and Nikolai Gogol is a writer who is talked about with such esteem I had to find out why this is so. Up until the end of December 2018, I hadn’t read a line of his, and it appears Gogol hadn’t written much – Dead Souls is the only famous work he produced. Likewise, Chico Chica are not a prolific band, but I maintain this is because we exercise strict quality control. Robert Graves said a poet’s best friend is the wastepaper basket. For Chico Chica, it’s the delete button. In our current recording sessions, that button is wearing thin with over-use.

The title Dead Souls suggests something grim. But the book is in fact I kind of comedy. The novel is episodic. The hero, Chichikov goes around the Russian countryside visiting various landowners asking if they had any dead souls to sell. Land value was connected with how many serfs worked on it. In this context, serfs were known as souls. Taxes were paid on the number of souls as counted in the last census. In the interim many may have died so their names could be bought and sold as an elaborate tax dodge. I didn’t fully understand Chichikov’s business model and neither did the characters but that’s beside the point as it was a vehicle by which Gogol could satirise Russian bourgeois life.

The nearest equivalent I can think of is Pickwick Papers which was published six years earlier (1836). That was a light-hearted romp through English bourgeois life and I suppose if it wasn’t light-hearted it wouldn’t be a romp. I wonder if Gogol was influenced by Pickwick Papers. It seems so.

Publishers of the novel are confused about whether to include a sequel which Gogol abandoned and wanted destroyed. The sequel contained some of the best passages but Gogol’s wishes should have been respected. Like many musicians, I harbour a conceit that I will be the subject of study by some future musicologist (I know, I know). I hate to think my outtakes, mistakes, doodlings and experiments will be published.

I found the whole experience of reading this stalwart of the Russian canon less than satisfactory which is why I will stop writing about it. However, I have titled this post after the book because I see books, recordings and concerts as milestones in my life.

My mind is much more focussed on Chico Chica’s new album in particular my getting to grips with the intricacies of Logic Pro, an insanely complex pice of recording software.

It’s a paradox of modern times that the more labour-saving devices we possess the less free time we have. In the seventies people seemed to have the more free time. I wrote about this many years ago. It is in fact my very own Second Law of Leisure:

‘The free time of an individual is inversely proportional to the amount of labour-saving machinery he uses.’

So nowadays, musicians are forever struggling to find the time to write and rehearse. Barbara Snow and I have assigned Mondays as our time to bring the next Chico Chica album to fruition.

There’s a documentary of Captain Beefheart (the presentation is annoyingly dated but it’s still worth a watch). The Captain took his band to a remote Californian location and kept them there on a diet of beans for seven months. They then went on to record his greatest album, Trout Mask Replica (warning: it’s an acquired taste). Oh how I wish I had could do the same. But I’d probably be arrested for cruelty or forceful imprisonment, such are the intolerant, anti-art times we live in.

Sibelius – 7th Symphony

Chico Chica have a tour coming up later in the year as well as an album launch. As a result, marketing will form a major part of my management duties. I know the basic principles. The most important is to describe a product’s benefits rather than its features.

But when it comes to listening to complex music, it’s best to start with features. This is more than merely the naming of parts such as Development and Re-capitulation. It is noticing what the melody does, how for example, the flute may take it in another direction, the french horns may play a variation, there could be a tempo change here, a modulation there. After a while, as I become familiar with the lay of the musical landscape my admiration for the craft gradually evolves into a love for the art. Now to describe this emotional response would mean reaching for the thesaurus and using adjectives – but they’ve all been used and over-used so much I can’t bring myself round to doing this. It’s why I’ll never make it as a music critic.

There is an LSO programme at the Barbican called the Half-Six Fix. The concert lasts an hour and tickets starts at a meagre £12 – that’s for a world class orchestra under the baton of none other than Sir Simon Rattle.

The programme is aimed at some who don’t want to get home too late and others who like to go on to do other things while the night is still young. It also suits those who, after a hard day’s work, may find it hard to concentrate for much longer than an hour.

And with classical music, concentration is the key. How can my brain process the relentless succession of musical ideas as it cascades into my consciousness? Music is meant to trigger thoughts but a wandering mind inhibits a deep, sensual appreciation. Listening to music is not as straightforward as we like to think but with practice and time, we become experienced listeners. It is an exercise in mindfulness and for me – a kind of substitute for meditation.

thMy appreciation is enhanced if I make sure I already know the piece well before I see the concert. Luckily I live a mere 15 minute No 94 bus ride to Music and Video Exchange in Notting Hill. It’s been there since the late 70s. As a streaming-averse listener, I’m so pleased the shop is still thriving because I rely on it so much. Downstairs is an extensive and well categorised collection of classical second hand CDs. The pricing is in the form of a Dutch auction so CDs are reduced by a pound every month. For £5 I bought Sibelius Symphony No 7 and Brahms Symphonies 2 and 3 – all are to be featured in up-coming Half-Six Fix programmes. My Sibelius album (pictured) was by the same orchestra but with Sir Colin Davis conducting.

 

On emerging from the classical basement I heard Captain Beefheart playing. I was amazed, firstly because I hadn’t heard that music since the seventies and also because I remembered it. There’s something about the sixty somethings who inhabit the Notting Hill Gate and Portobello Road that is still imbued with the memory of the seventies and with good reason, in those days W11 was the centre of things – at least it felt like that. I could almost smell the patchouli oil.

At home I listened to Sibelius 7 through my 1970s Philips speakers (these details are important) at every opportunity. That is, whenever I was at home and not writing, sleeping, playing guitar and working. But mostly it was me on the sofa giving the music all the attention I could muster. The music inhabited the rooms of my mind’s internal architecture so when I arrived at the Barbican last Wednesday, I was ready.

With the new bite-sized format, Sir Simon gives a short talk before each piece. He’s a natural at this task. He has an easy charm and humour as well as knowledge and emotional commitment. The first piece was a Berlin Philharmonic commission, Let Me Tell You by Hans Abrahamsen – a shimmering and restrained song cycle and then came Sibelius’s 7th Symphony. Jean Sibelius has set up camp in my musical memory and it will stay there forever. Thank you Jean.

The Next Album – Making a Start

On the off-chance you might interested in this sort of thing, I’m going to describe where my musical attentions are currently being directed. Chico Chica are long overdue an album. Birds came out at the beginning of last year. We were meant to follow up directly afterwards but money constraints prevented us from doing so. The income from streaming services such as Spotify is insufficient to justify large outlays for studio time and session fees. Hence the delay.

But I’m determined to push things forward because in order to get gigs it’s important to have an ever-evolving story – a new album, a new show and a new sound. It also keeps me motivated and stops me getting bored.

Six of the songs we have in our set are in French and this collection will form the new album which I hope will be released by early summer 2019, ready for Chico Chica’s gigging season. The working title is Cafe d’Amour.

Some may say six isn’t enough but there are no rules – an album can be as long or short as the artist wishes. Albums are getting longer at a time when attention spans are shortening. A small collection is easier to produce because I can keep a sharp focus on the material. In my hands, a large amount of recording can become unwieldy and unmanageable.

Chico Chica is a professional band comprising musicians who play for money. This is proving harder to do for a band performing original material. It’s easy to keep a full diary if you’re not worried about fees – the challenge is to get paid. For this reason it’s imperative I keep control of costs. That may be ok for genres which have an electronic backing but Chico Chica inhabit the world of jazz and acoustic music. We’d rather be playing our instruments than sat at a computer screen.

On previous albums, we had the feeling we could have planned our expensive studio time more carefully. We made up ideas and arrangements as we went along and that’s a luxury we can no longer afford. The answer is to record a version of the album at home – we can then try out different keys, instrumentation, tempos and structures until we come up with something we’re happy with.

This procedure means I have to get to grips with complex recording software (Logic Pro). It’s a long learning process but now I’m managing to use it well enough.

With this new skill other ideas are coming to me. I could, one by one, replace the artificial-sounding midi tracks with real instruments. I can do this by going to the musicians’ houses thereby reducing session fees.

It may seem a bit long-winded and lacking the spontaneity of a group playing together in the same room but needs must. The album will probably be more tightly arranged and less jazzy but that is by no means a bad thing. A budget defines style not quality. Rest assured, we will not be crowdfunding this venture.

The aim is to get the whole project wrapped up by Easter 2019. This will give us a good run-up to a planned Chico Chica tour starting in August 2018. I will keep you informed how things develop over the coming months.

Devon and Cornwall Tour – August/September 2018

It was mid afternoon on August Bank Holiday. Sun visors down, the two cars set out for Chico Chica’s Devon and Cornwall Tour. Double bassist Alison Rayner is driving her leather-seated Volvo, instruments in the back, me in the shotgun seat.

As the mobile world of leather rolls along the M4 I discover Alison, as a bandleader herself, is a useful source of advice and sympathy. After coffee at Newbury I enter a reflective mood.

Tours take a lot of time to organise. Fees are no higher then those that can be earned within our usual gigging radius. The added expenses of travel and accommodation make a serious dent in the earnings.

And yet…there’s something that compels a band to strike out into the unknown. It might be that no-man-is-a-prophet-in-his-own-land thing. Or wanderlust. Could it be, what in the corporate world they call, a team building experience? Perhaps we’re subconsciously inspired by the wandering troubadours of long ago. There seems to be a feeling that a band is not really a band unless it tours.

Our first stay was in a forest in deepest Devon. Using a star to guide us (it was actually a satellite which is a kind of star) we find our AirBnb destination. We drive along a rough forest path, passing piles of logs. Twilight adds to the general Hansel and Gretal/Blair Witch mood. We were greeted by Fred who is in the process of converting an abandoned mill compound into something habitable, one building at a time. Fred keeps birds that don’t fly much. Swans and ducks in the pond, a peacock which wanders around the yard who’s frankly a bit arrogant and a cock who does a proper crow at around 7 am and then again twenty minutes later as a kind of snooze alarm.

In the morning we head to The Bude Jazz Festival. Every band needs friends and champions. Chico Chica are lucky to have Rosie and Matt who come to the gig and treat us to pasties and whitebait at The Brendon Arms. We stroll to the beach and watch the waves, imagining what it would be like to surf them.

The set list for the tour is:

This is My Heart

Mon Oiseau C’est Enfui

Cuando Sali de Cuba

Casa Flamenco

Vanity

Cue the Cucumber

On Va au Bois

Private Hands

Final Safari

Cinderella

Falling, Falling

The Lizard

Quand Tu Me Touches

Son Tresor

Fingers in The Dark

C’est Ta Chanson

L’Abeille Dansante

Goodnight

The mainstay of the set is Chico Chica’s French collection which the band plans to record in the near future. There are a few old favourites from previous albums, others from a future flamenco project and one cover. Variety is key to the Chico Chica show: in singers, instrumentation, keys, feels, moods, tempos, languages and subject matter.

But would a Cornwall jazz festival audience accept such a radical departure from the usual mainstream jazz? Happily, the reaction is positive. The pattern here is set for the rest of the tour: surprisingly large audiences and CD sales.

After Bude the band drive to The George, South Molton. and then back to our forest den chez Fred. On the next day we motor west once more. Destination: Penzance. It is Chico Chica’s most westerly gig to date. Now there’s a fact you won’t find on Wikipedia.

On the following morning, on our way to Falmouth, I’m on BBC Radio Cornwall but the presenter has his interviewees muddled up and I am introduced as the man who has survived seven lightning strikes. While waiting for my time to speak I learn that Cornwall is England’s longest county.

A tour feels a little bit like a holiday but of course it isn’t. The schedule is tightly packed with little space for downtime. But it’s Devon and Cornwall in August so it’s hard not to feel like a holidaymaker and resist the urge to visit beaches. The picture shows Hilary and Barbara in front of the St Michael’s Mount which is Cornwall’s rather lacklustre answer to Brittany’s Mont St Michel.  

The 31st August is often regarded as the last day of summer. This year it coincides with caravan turnaround day and we celebrate it by travelling most of Cornwall’s fabled length, through Devon and into Somerset. The tedium of the traffic jams is mitigated by the spectacular scenery.

The last gig was St James Wine Vaults in Bath and from there we returned home to do a cluster of dates in London including the Bull’s Head which is a kind of homecoming gig for me.

Birds – Chico Chica’s Third Album

Birds is Chico Chica’s third album and we have to say, we are inordinately proud of it.

Here is a sample:

 

You can buy downloads here: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/chicochica5 and CDs here or else purchase a copy at one of our upcoming shows:

 

22nd-27th May 2017:  Brasserie Zedel, Sherwood Street, London W1
1st June 2017: Bull’s Head, Barnes.

 

You should be able to listen on Spotify as well. And while you’re listening you may like to read these album notes:

 

Since the band’s inception in 2010, Barbara Snow and Tom Hannah have been diligently combining original song and spoken word with textures, sounds and rhythms from around the Western Hemisphere. Snow has a very direct approach to her composition, eschewing obscurity and aiming to please the public while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.

 

For this album, Chico Chica enlisted the help of an all-Brazilian rhythm section to help bring about a truly exceptional work. It marks a growing maturity in this song-writing partnership. Tom Hannah’s perceptive and well-crafted lyrics are the perfect companion to Barbara Snow’s beguiling melodies and arrangements.

 

Falling, Falling is a lament for the demise of what was once a soaring love affair. The creamy vocalising here is reminiscent of Sergio Mendes.

 

The idea for title song Birds came about after Barbara Snow had a period of convalescence. She was lying on a bed next to a garden window. It was May and she listened to birdsong all day. The song is about what birds already know and that is, the limitation of words. The song culminates in a ‘la la’ section alternating with instrumental solos including one on marimba by Rob Millett.

 

Ever Since You Found Me starts with bold percussive brushstrokes and leads on to catchy instrumental sections and a spirited flute solo from Hiilary Cameron. She and Barbara Snow share the lead vocal and this gives the song a soulful emphasis. The song is an expression of  anticipation and desire.

 

The Happy Pain of Love is a tightly arranged pop song is an expression of new love from the viewpoint of a world-weary realist. Barbara Snow sings the lead and plays a flugelhorn solo which is a model of pace, poise and energy.

 

Flauta Charona is a rare Chico Chica instrumental. The interplay between Carlos Straatman’s bass guitar and Hilary Cameron’s flute is the essence of this jaunty melody which sounds as if it could be a theme tune for a light-hearted children’s cartoon.

 

Words and music by Chico Chica

 

Chico Chica are:

 

Hilary Cameron – voice, piano, keyboard, flute
Tom Hannah – voice cavaquinho
Barbara Snow – voice, flugelhorn

 

Additional musicians:

 

Carlos Straatman – electric bass
Jansen Santana – percussion
Xande -Oliveira – drums
Rob Millett – marimba

 

Recorded at Porcupine Studios, London
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Nick Taylor with the help of Barbara Snow and Carlos Straatman.

 

Picture by Phil Bartle


Continue reading “Birds – Chico Chica’s Third Album”

Transformers

For last week’s Chico Chica gig at the Long Room Bar and Mitre Hotel, Tooting,  I arrived early and ordered the Cumberland sausages. The plate arrived and I was delighted to see how the three of them were arranged in a Mercedes Benz logo pattern. The sculptural qualities alone would make the dish worthy of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Instead they had to sate my more immediate appetite. Butchers in Cumbria are applying to have their bangers given Protected Geographical Status as is afforded to Champagne and Camembert, and I wholeheartedly support this. I’m not so keen on Richmond sausages and I am unaware of any pending PGS application from west London butchers. For drinks I decided to go for something locally sourced so chose the Wimbledon Lager, also very good.
I was giving my dinner more than usual attention in order to stop myself being distracted by the possibility of something going wrong. The little black box needed to power Hilary’s electric piano was missing so a replacement needed buying. Urgently.
Now this may sound conceited, but I do try to live the life of the artist which some people call ‘being lazy’. I am a long-term devotee to beditation which is basically having a lie-in without feeling guilty. This surfeit of free time means I get called on in emergencies. So I was despatched to Maplins to buy something which I wasn’t even sure what to call. Is it a power supply, an adaptor or a transformer? Hilary texted the specifications but, like a lot of artists who affect a lack of interest in the prosaic wiring behind a star-bursting performance, she and I were confused about the difference between an amp, a volt and a watt.  I chose something with multiple settings and sockets but left the shop wondering whether it would work.
Hilary is a Very Busy Woman which means she is sometimes late. This adds drama and tension to life as well as to her performances and I greatly appreciate that. But contractual obligations need to be honoured so we started the show while she was still trying to get her keyboard working.  I opened the singing with The Perfect Moment. This is a guitar-driven, slightly rocky arrangement so the piano wasn’t essential.
 The song starts with a metaphysical mood where the tense is ambiguous:.
‘The future and the past won’t exist’
I looked to Hilary to my left and her face was a picture of despairing concern mixed in with a hint of concerning despair.
‘Not if this moment we kissed’.
The negativity in the two opening lines was reflected in Hilary’s demeanour. In the final chorus I decided to channel my anxiety by making it more rousing than usual.  With an emotional quivering in my voice I sang:
‘The perfect moment is now’
I looked again and a magical, radiant, red light shone forth from the Technics SX-P30, evincing a properly functioning AC DC current, an input of  100-200VAC 50-60Hz
and the transformative power of transformers.