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.

Advertisements

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.

Gig On The Coast

Last summer, Chico Chica played a function gig in Folkestone, Kent. Barbara and I, as we walked along the Sandgate Esplanade to where her car was parked, noticed that the Sandgate Hotel hosted live music on Sundays. So we popped in and left a card. The result of that small action was a gig yesterday.

It was Remembrance Sunday and Barbara had a Last Post to play in the morning. Walking to Shepherd’s Bush station with my guitar and cavaquinho, I stopped to watch the remembrance parade. There was a brass band to my right and a bagpiper to my left and I wished one of them would stop. To avoid offence I won’t say which one.

 

The Sandgate overlooks the English Channel. When we arrived, the westering sun was to our right and we looked out at the sea. That’s what people do when they travel to the coast. For some reason I thought of the Russian aircraft carrier which had passed a couple of weeks ago on its way to Syria and wondered if the great plume of black smoke emitting from its funnel  had been visible form Sandgate. Probably not.

 

But we were pushed for time so quickly set the PA up, ordered two glasses of water (one still, one fizzy) and, after ensuring all the cables were in the right sockets and the knobs at the right levels, started playing. The room overlooked the channel and we had our backs to France. There was a log fire and a warm appreciative audience. As the evening progressed the drinkers became drunker and louder and one man wanted to play Barbara’s bongo drums. We ploughed on through the Chico Chica set because that’s what we do. The journeyman musician is often tempted to change according to the room and in the past I would have done this. But Chico Chica is different – we do what we do and that’s it.

 

The show finished at 6pm by which time I was hungry and began to think about what I’d eaten that day – one bowl of porridge and a service station tuna sandwich plus coffees but they don’t count.  There was no rider at the gig so we went in search of fish and chips which I only ever eat when I’m at the seaside. We drove slowly and found a shop. We ordered a portion. Barbara had the fish and I had the chips which reminded me of Mr and Mrs Spratt. We ate in the car and it was a most satisfying repast.

 

Driving back to London after distant gigs gives us an excellent chance to talk and reflect. We chat about our families and then move on to Chico Chica – how to improve the performance, the best way to deal with drunks who want to play the bongos, business matters and the overall artistic direction. On this occasion we decided that getting signed to a record label is our highest priority and we resolved to approach certain individuals over this.

 

But the journey was long and at around the Maidstone turn-off, the conversation lulled. On these occasions I talk about the book I’m reading which happens to be The Story of O by Pauline Reage. I bought a copy the previous day. It was in the Romance section at Foyles, a shelf which I usually ignore.  The story is indeed about love , at least it is so far – I have read ninety pages.  I started describing the story and quickly realised it could prove embarrassing and awkward. It’s not the kind of book to bring up in conversation and I was thankful the M25 junction came into view and we had to concentrate on reading road signs instead. We fell silent again and I reflected on The Story of O and how suffering can be an expression of love and how Christianity and indeed Western civilisation are based on that very idea. And then we discussed next week’s mixing session at Porcupine Studio.

 

Chico Chica’s next show is at Bull’s Head, Barnes, 8.30pm, Thursday 17th November 2016.

Nice Guy With an Edge

There’s something compelling about an article consisting of ‘do’s and don’ts’. A couple of years ago, I saw one about online dating and being a complete sucker with too much time on his hands, I clicked it. The reader was told not to describe himself as a ‘nice guy with an edge’, presumably because the phrase was too common and it’s important to stand out. The phrase gave me the idea of a setting a fictionalised online dating profile to music. The result is Nice Guy With an Edge, track three of Chico Chica’s album The Glow of Havana released earlier in the year.

 

 

I has absolutely no hand in the either writing or performing the music. Barbara Snow was the composer and she even translated my choruses into Spanish, albeit with the help of bass player Andres Lafone. When performing the song I put the guitar down – I feel I can get a closer connection with the audience when I’m not hiding behind my instrument. 

 

 
The Glow of Havana is an unusual fusion of spoken word with an English sensibility and salsa, complete with percussion, horns and Spanish coros. The album was recorded at Cowshed Studio, London by Joe Leech. Joe has since moved to Western Australia with his family so it is likely to be the last of that happy and fruitful relationship. It can be purchased here

 

Chico Chica will be appearing as a trio at Sicily Restaurant, 2a Elizabeth St, London SW1W 9RB 8pm, Friday 11th November. Roberto, the owner, is really committed to live music and Sicily has now become a key component in the London jazz scene.

 

 I personally will be back at the Nova Restaurant, Chiswick High Rd 1pm tomorrow Sunday 30th October. 

If I Ever Lose This Heaven + I, Daniel Blake

 

 

Song of the Week is not really a feature on this blog but I make an exception in this case because this week I have been learning, playing and thinking about funk/soul classic If I Ever Lose This Heaven by the Average White Band.

 

 I left school in 1975 and in order to celebrate that glorious crossroads-of-my-life feeling I bought AWB’s Cut The Cake album and listened to it constantly throughout most of that carefree, long-ago summer. The song that particularly struck me was If I Ever Lose This Heaven. Recently I decided to return to it. Much of my playing at home has been song focussed – where I learn a song I love and see how it fits together and analyse why it appeals to me. More often than not, it’s a certain twist in the chord progression where it takes a less-travelled road yet still manages to sound natural and pleasing. The chords for If I Ever Lose This Heaven starts with a III  V  I movement which I have used in Chico Chica’s yet-to-be-recorded Red River. It also happens at the start of the verse in Marvin Gaye’s Sunny 

 

For years I assumed The Average White Band wrote If I Ever Lose This Heaven – I’ve never been one for reading credits so alas, will never become a ‘buff’ in anything.  In the previous year, Quincy Jones released Body Heat which features Minnie Ripperton, Al Jarreau and the song’s composer Leon Ware so it was natural for the boys from Aberdeen to pick it for Cut The Cake‘s sole cover. They borrowed a few of Quincy’s arranging ideas and I suspect they got the free blowing section at the beginning from Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay which came out in 1970.

 

Staying on the nostalgia theme, I remember as a boy going to the cinema to watch a film and I can’t remember which. It was common in those days to put on what in rock concert terms would be called a supporting act. The film was about a boy with a pet kestrel called Kes – a bit like calling your dog Doggy but there you go. I hated it for the first few minutes and then I slowly became drawn into the characters and story. The film was by Ken Loach. I had never seen another of his films until last night. I am not an avid film watcher and my cinephile friends are appalled at how few I have watched over the years. This is something I want to put to rights so last night I went to see I, Daniel Blake. This lack of cinematic education made me nervous about organising a cinema trip. Originally I wanted to see American Honey but the timings didn’t suit. The genre of  I, Daniel Blake is social realism. And it certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. Daniel Blake is a man going through grim times, and in the course of the film they get ever grimmer and then (spoiler alert) he dies. Today I read a review. The writer said she cried. This made me feel bad because I stayed dry-eyed throughout which probably means I’m an emotional cripple.

 

Tomorrow (Sunday 23rd October 2016) 1pm-4pm, I will be performing solo guitar at Nova Restaurant and Bar,  20 Chiswick High Rd, London W4 2ND.  I may be performing If I Ever Lose This Heaven. I do hope you can support me. Nova have a very good, weekly Sunday carvery – highly recommended.

Marimba

Marimbist Rob Millett has just delivered his tracks for the new Chico Chica album. Rob plays tuned percussion and recorded the marimba for the song Birds. The marimba (a wooden xylophone of African origin) is no longer the obscure instrument it once was. In fact we hear it several times a day in the default ringtone for the iPhone . I fell in love with the sound of the  marimba on Donald Fagan’s The Goodbye Look  When I made up the demo for Birds, I, for no obvious reason,  put a steel drum sound on the keyboard. Barbara liked it but we didn’t know any steel drummers so we decided to go for marimba instead. Hilary recommended Rob Millett. She works with Rob in Big Band Metheney. Marimbas are large and unwieldy so Rob recorded at home. We loved what he did and look forward to working with it at the second and final mixing day this Friday 21st October at Porcupine Studio.
Last Wednesday I saw Luna Cohen at the 606 Club, Chelsea. Chico Chica’s percussionist Jansen Santana plays with her so it was interesting for me to hear him play in another band. Luna has a warm expressive voice and presented us with a selection of original songs, some from her album November Sky as well as a few she hadn’t written and which I didn’t recognise. The guitarist was Robert Loft whom I hadn’t heard before but made a good impression on the audience – his style involves repeated parking of his plectrum in his lips even for the shortest of phrases.   Christian Brewer played some alto saxophone and I had a brief chat with Christian. We tried, unsuccessfully, to pinpoint the year we last worked together. I have tremendous respect for Christian – an absolute jazz pro – never sacrificing his principles and always playing with honesty and integrity.
It’s also good to seek inspiration from outside one’s genre. So the following night I went to see The Kaiserchiefs at Kingston Hippodrome. Friends had a spare ticket and I thought what the hell, why not. I didn’t know the music because I never listen to indy rock. And I’d never heard of the Kingston Hippodrome. Before the show, security men were working their way down the queue asking for names and ID.  Only under 25s carry ID so we couldn’t provide any. Then they asked to photograph our bank cards. Naturally we refused – but still got in to see the show. It was good fun. If I started a Kaiserchiefs tribute band, and please don’t leave any snotty comments about this,  I’d call it The Handkerchiefs.