My newest instrument, got it yesterday. An Ashbury Autoharp. Great craftsmanship, a real quality instrument. I still have a way to go before I can play this in public, but the texture is highly atmospheric and sparkly, and I think I might end up using it a lot. It has been used in folk/country settings, famously by June Carter Cash, but works well in many other styles, like the New Weird America trend, Dream Pop, all kinds of Psychedelica, Ambient and what ever other strange names critics have come up with to describe music…
A nice interview with a young Stevie Wonder, at the beginning of his absolute genius run in the 70’s. “Superstitious” is a total playback, not even the vocal is live, but the audience is completely live and kicking! They most certainly had some moves back then. Second half is a live improvised piano bit, with the audience clapping and singing perfectly. He was and is to this day an artist in a class so rare that you only get to see a few each century…
What a great tour this has been! A talented and fun crew, a generous and gifted singer, a debut album that caught on with people in several territories, great audiences everywhere. I recorded Imany’s first demos in my little studio 4 or 5 years ago, and saw her first showcases in Paris around that time, and it’s just extraordinary the way she has evolved from being a shy and insecure novice into the self-assured, rock-solid performer and singer she is now, growing steadily along with the ever increasing reception of her work… I’ll definitely miss this project and these people, until we hopefully go out again sometime in a few years, in support of her second album. Until then, 2013 is looking to be pretty busy, more on that soon. Last night in Lyon was a lot of fun, in the beautiful old Art-Deco Bourse du Travail.
My sister Lea Thau’s Kickstarter campaign for the second season of her radio show “Strangers” met the fundraising deadline with flying colors, so that’s really great news.
The show’s new format is longer, and the stories have time to evolve and go a little deeper in this timeframe. If you have a half hour to spare, I strongly recommend this story from Bill Ratner, who overcame incredibly difficult odds to have a happy and fulfilling life today. The story is beautifully told and edited.
Even though the next season of the show is now funded, Lea can still use your support, through subscribing to and rating the Podcast on iTunes, liking the FaceBook page, leaving comments on the show’s website and elsewhere on the web, and telling your friends about the show.
Back from Dakar! We worked 10 very long days, and didn’t have a lot of time to get around, so I’m still waiting to really get to know the place. But a lot of great performances were recorded, with a consistently high level of creativity and generosity from everyone involved, and I think Faada Freddy’s album is looking to be exceptionally good. We still have a way to go before it’s done, but the project definitely moved up a notch during these sessions. Here is the team:
Bleck Fall, Jordan Kouby & Papa Ka
This weekend we started up with Imany again, in Basel, Switzerland, and that was one of the steepest cultural contrasts I’ve ever experienced, with only a few hours in between… The first and the third world are so far apart, it’s hard to really get your head around, though Senegal is actually doing well compared to many other countries on the African continent. But Switzerland is definitely a very different kind of place indeed. Our show was part of the Avo session series, and it was filmed, so it will be broadcast at some point. If it ends up on the web, I’ll be sure to post it. You never know how these things go down, so much depends on the people doing the broadcast sound, the camera movements, the editing etc., and I’ve experienced more than once having good performances getting a mediocre treatment (and vice versa!). But the Avo guys know their stuff, and I think we came away with a good result. Tonight we’re playing in Toulouse, and the rest of the year will be pretty busy with Imany, touring France and doing a few gigs in Poland early next month.
I’m back in Dakar for a few weeks to help my friends from Think Zik! with the production of Faada Freddy’s first solo album outside of Daara J. We already did some work on this project in July (previous post here), and we’re back here to try to get most of the tracking done. The arrangements are mainly done with vocals, so it is essential to have oustanding vocalists, and fortunately some of the best from Paris will be joining us in the coming days… I’ll post an update sometime next week. Faada is a fantastic singer, so it’s a real pleasure to be a part of this, and I think we’re going to get a great result. Faada’s facebook page is here. He opened up for Imany at la Cigale in Paris in September, here’s a short excerpt:
I was in the studio this week recording for Tété. I think he’s one of the most talented artists of his generation, and I have enjoyed his music for many years now, so I was more than thrilled when the opportunity came along to participate in the recording of his new album. My old friend Julien Delfaud is co-producing with Tété, as well as recording and mixing the record. It was some very creative and rewarding days in the studio, and I think we came up with some cool parts. In any case, the record is looking to be very strong: fantastic songwriting, great playing, and Tété’s vocals are better than ever. This is Tété’s first record working with Julien, and the combination is working frightfully well.
The album should be released early next year on Cinq-7/Wagram. Tété’s Facebook is here, and he is constantly updating it with new content, so it should be a space to watch over the coming months, as the album release approaches.
And now for something slightly off-topic. My sister, Lea Thau, produces a great radio show in Los Angeles: “Strangers”. She’s working in collaboration with KCRW, which by the way is a fantastic station for music. “Strangers” is a story-telling show with true stories from everyday people. Each person tells a story per show, and they can be as funny, crazy and unexpected as they can be intimate, sad or uplifting. I really recommend you check this out, she has done 19 episodes since she started earlier this year, and you can listen to the podcasts on iTunes.
Here’s a recent story from Lyena Strelkoff, “Falling Slowly”.
And another one, “Cop Lover”, from Carl Kozlowski:
The trouble with making a portable version of the Hammond organ, that I talked about in my post about the Clavia C2D, is in no way a recent phenomenon. Way back in 1962, Pop and Rock & Roll bands were starting to use Hammond organs, particularly semi-portable versions like the M-3. Though lighter than a B3, they were still monstrous, heavy machines to carry around. At the time, the Hammond company was still attached to using tonewheels as sound generators, which is basically a set of spinning metallic wheels, one per note, spinning in front an electro-magnetic pickup. Without getting into the details, for one organ you need a lot of spinnings metallic wheels (typically 96), a motor to spin them, a lot of pickups, and the result is a very heavy instrument, no matter how you try to reduce the size and weight. So there was a huge market for an innovative company to come up with a new way to generate the sound, and create a light, portable organ.
That company was JMI from the UK, who by the early sixties were already having an enormous success with their VOX amplifiers. One of the owners of the company had a history in organ production, and came up with a transistor-based design that, while maintaining an interface fairly similar to that of a Hammond organ (including drawbars), was completely different from Hammond’s technology under the hood. This allowed for a much lighter instrument, suited to the many bands touring at the time.
The VOX Continental organ was instantly a huge success, and became an integral part of the sound of the 60’s. One of the most famous users is Ray Manzarek of the Doors – it is impossible to imagine the sound of the Doors without the VOX Continental – and there is a long list of other users that have helped make this instrument a classic.
I have had a VOX Continental for several years now, and while I don’t dare take it on the road (my trusted Nord Stage does a very good imitation for live uses), I use it on almost every session I do. It can create soft, flute-like textures, aggressive chords, psychedelic tones, cheesy vintage sounds.. Used with effects pedals, the applications are endless.
The model I own was built in Italy in the late sixties. JMI could barely keep up with demand in the UK, so to supply the booming American market, JMI licensed the design in 1964 to their North American distributor, the Thomas Organ Company, and the story of the VOX Continental took a strange twist. The Thomas Organ Company started building Continentals in America in 1965 using American labor, but they soon realized that it would more cost-effective to set up a factory in Italy, where workers from accordion manufacturing had the necessary skills, but were much cheaper than their American counterparts. JMI was strongly opposed to this move, but had no legal way of stopping the plan, and though JMI did manage to ban the Italian models from the UK market, by early 1967 the Thomas Organ Company were producing VOX Continentals in Italy in huge numbers. While I have never had a chance to try a UK or American model, I am very happy with the model I own which was built by the inexpensive Italian workers.
Needless to say, an instrument of this age requires maintenance from time to time, and just this week the incredible Stéphane Archambault fixed a dead note on my Continental in less than 2 minutes. This operation could have taken hours or days for somebody not familiar with the complicated wiring of the instrument, but Stéphane identified a dead soldering in a matter of seconds, and the instrument is almost as good as new.
For further reading, I strongly recommend this site: Vox Showroom. They are a very good source of information on every piece of VOX gear ever built.
The Hammond Organ: 310 pounds of heavenly joy. More than 140 kg… and that’s not counting the 60 kg Leslie speaker, the constant maintenance required, the sudden surprises when something stops working during a show. And a price tag in the 5-8000 € range. Needless to say, there is a big demand for lighter, more reliable and cheaper alternatives. I’ve owned a few Hammond organ imitations, starting in the late 90’s with Roland VK-7. It was OK for the time, but when Clavia put out the Nord Electro in 2001, it completely blew the competition away, and I’ve never looked back since. The organ and other electronic keyboards sounded so much better than what anyone else was doing at the time, the interface was much more straight-forward, and it was highly roadworthy. The Nord Stage in 2005 added piano and synth sounds to the sounds from the Nord Electro, at it has been my main keyboard for concerts since the Jean-Louis Aubert tour in 2005/6.
However, there is one thing I always hated about the Nord Stage and Nord Electro… Originally the Hammond organ was built in the 1930’s as an alternative to Pipe Organs in churches and even at home, and the company actually tried to discourage people from using it in other contexts – they never planned for it to be used in Jazz, Rock & Roll, Soul, Hard Rock, Funk, Prog Rock etc. They tried very hard to make it as much like a Pipe Organ as possible. On a Pipe Organ the sound is shaped by pulling out stops to decide through which pipes the air being pumped into the organ is directed. The stops look something like this:
On a Hammond organ the stops are replaced by a set of drawbars above the keys, but it works the same way: you shape the sound you want by pulling out drawbars. A set of drawbars on a B3 looks like this:
There are many ways of playing the Hammond organ. Some players set the drawbars to the sounds they want once and for all and don’t interact a lot with the drawbars while playing. Other players, including me, are constantly changing the drawbars while playing to make the sound evolve with where you are in the song, what the rest of the band is doing etc. When Clavia made the Nord Electro and Nord Stage keyboards, they made the choiche to only cater to the first group of players, and came up with this idea of having LED-based virtual drawbars, that you move by pressing up/down buttons underneath:
It works if you only want to stick with one drawbar setting at a time. But there is no way you can play these virtual drawbars in a musical way during a song. It was a frustrating trade-off to make: To get the best Hammond organ simulations, I had to stop playing the instrument the way I’d always enjoyed playing it. The choice wasn’t difficult, since Clavia’s sounds were so much better than the competition, including some competitors’ models that actually had the physical drawbars I needed for my playing style. But it wasn’t a completely satisfying situation.
Last year, a company in California called Ocean Beach came out with a product, that was essentially a set of physical drawbars you can hook up to the Nord Electro / Nord Stage.
It works very well. It’s very solid, reliable and easy to use. I’ve rediscovered the organ sounds in my Clavia keyboards with this little machine, and I take it with me everywhere I go, studio and live. But it still is a bit of a compromise: it’s not an integral part of the instrument, and you have to tape it on to the keyboard before every show, you have to think about changing batteries, turning it off after each show etc. Not an ideal situation, though a huge improvement over the virtual drawbars.
However, it seems that Clavia hasn’t been ignoring complaints from players like me. After ten years of virtual drawbars, they have finally decided to include physical drawbars on their newest keyboards. And this brings me up to what I wanted to talk about today.
The gig with Imany that I’m doing for the rest of the year is almost entirely a Hammond organ gig. However, the size of the tour isn’t big enough for the production to rent and move around a real Hammond organ, like it was the case when I toured with Jean-Louis Aubert or Johnny Hallyday. So I was looking for alternatives, when Clavia came out with the new C2D organ. I just received one last week and I’ve been rehearsing with it for a few days now. Here is what it looks like:
I am very impressed with this instrument. The real drawbars are a huge improvement, the sound engine is better than anything Clavia has done this far, and it feels closer to a real Hammond B3 than anything I’ve played before. Especially in this live setting, where I wouldn’t have been able to have the Leslie speaker close to me anyway – it’s a big, bulky, noisy thing, that usually ends up somewhere off stage. The times I have played a real B3 with a real Leslie in a live concert setting, the Leslie wasn’t anywhere close, and I had to rely on the sound in my monitors to hear it. And quite frankly, judging from the sound coming out of my monitors these past few days of rehearsal, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the real Hammond I played on stage with Aubert and Hallyday, and the simulated sound from the C2D.
I am particularly impressed with the Leslie speaker simulations. There are three: a model 122 with standard miking, a 122 with close-miking, so the Dopffler effect and stereo image become slightly exaggerated, and a model 147. I think the 147 is the one I’ll go with for Imany’s gig, but I’m not totally decided yet. The percussion is better than ever, distortion/overdrive sound great, reverb and delay are very practical inclusions. Maybe my only two demands for the future would be a tape-echo style delay, and the possibility to have the reverb inserted before the Leslie, as some modified B3’s out there have. But considering what the instrument is supposed to do, these are minor complaints!
Basically, this instrument is one of the best I’ve seen in years, and I hope to see you on the road so you can judge for yourself! We’re playing La Cigale in Paris this week (September 20-21-22), and you can find the other tour dates above.
Last day today on l’Ile de la Réunion. We had two gigs with Imany during our stay, organized by the Wayo Festival. The first night went really well, a full house at the beautiful Theatre de Saint Gilles Les Bains. The second night was a bit more quiet, it was a free show at Vue Belle a bit further up in the mountains, with fewer people and cooler weather! We still had a good time there, and after my first eight gigs I have finally learned all the songs and have no need for the sheet music anymore… We’re getting ready for three shows at La Cigale in Paris next week, 20+21+22 september, with a few special guests, it’s looking to be a lot of fun!
While I was here on the island, I subbed for Fred Renaudin on Friday night with Nolwenn Leroy, who was also playing the Wayo Festival. She had a huge success recently with her pop/celtic album “Bretonne”, selling over a million copies. I played a lot of these melodies in 2003-2004 with Alan Stivell, it was fun to play them again. And she has an excellent band, including my old friend Laurent Cokelaere on bass.