Posts from the “Articles” Category

Leif Falk

Posted on 24/02/2019

When people ask me why there is such a disproportionately large amount of musicians coming from my fairly small Danish hometown Aarhus, I have a simple answer: “Leif Falk”. He was the one who revolutionized music teaching in the ‘60s as a young man passionate about New Orleans, Cuba, jazz and all sorts of rhythmic music, he created the institutions, opportunities and frameworks and he installed a feeling of joy, sharing, love of music, interaction, confidence and credibility in several generations of kids from Aarhus, many of whom ended up doing music for a living. Anybody had the right to play music in his world. I didn’t have much direct contact with him, but have felt the ripples of his revolutionary work and Herculean, 50-year long effort in so many ways. He went over to the other side this week along with his loving partner in all of these endeavors, Ivalo. They will be missed! They changed so many lives for the better, including mine!


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TOUCHÉ

Posted on 07/12/2017

A few years ago I was contacted by a small group of people in Paris who were working on a prototype for a new type of MIDI/CV/USB controller. I went to see them and was blown away by it! It has incredible sensibility and adds a lots of expressive possibilities to old school hardware as well as to software synths. Time went by, the team worked very hard and the product came out earlier this year to great critical acclaim. This is not an easy feat, I have a lot of respect for the fact that they managed to bring something this innovative to the market.

We shot a video last year to showcase some of what the controller has to offer. This was shortly after the great Bernie Worrell passed away, so the music is basically a tribute to him and the great concepts he added to synth playing. Hope you’ll enjoy it! You can learn more by clicking here.


Que je t’aime

Posted on 03/01/2017

Here’s a throwback to 2009 when we played the Stade de France in Paris with Johnny Hallyday. 240.000 people came out to the three sold out shows – this was in proportions way beyond anything I’d tried before, and I doubt that I’ll ever get to see these kinds of crowds again. We played in front of a million people at the Eiffel Tower on Bastille day – nobody gets to play in front of a million people! So I cherish this unique memory, as strange as it was. I didn’t grow up with these songs, so they don’t trigger the same nostalgic feeling in me as they do in people from France – much like I discovered the songs of Louise Attaque or Jean-Louis Aubert in front of huge, nostalgic crowds. It’s a true privilege to get to catch up with French popular culture this way!

Johnny is one hell of a singer, can’t argue with that, and I enjoyed playing with this great band a lot.


2017

Posted on 02/01/2017

Happy new year to all, and thanks to everyone who stopped by this blog in 2016. Many exciting things already lined up for the new year, looking forward to sharing it all with you! I hope that all of you will have great adventures in 2017 and that we all can keep pushing things ever so slightly in the right direction. And hopefully have some fun along the way!

Aske Jacoby in Paris 

Posted on 09/05/2016


Raw talent is rare, and if you’re looking for someone who on top of having an extraordinary talent has put in the years and years of practice and focus necessary to become a true master of his or her craft, you’re down to just a handful of people around the world.

In Denmark when I was growing up, there were a few such representatives of the absolute world class of musicians. One of them is a guitar player called Aske Jacoby. He has been active since the early 80’s, has played on more than 400 records and has toured with some of the best acts in Denmark. I have strong memories of seeing and hearing him play as a teenager and just marveling at the sounds coming from his amplifier. Witnessing such powerful playing at a young age was inspiring to the point that it made me dream of becoming a musician one day myself.

A few years ago I became acquainted with Aske through social media. He has established himself as a talented singer/songwriter over the past years, and has made some great albums as a leader in trio with two other members of that rare breed of absolute excellence, Tony Scherr and the legendary Jim Keltner. We randomly talked about maybe setting up some gigs for him in Paris one day. Now the loose talk has turned into hard fact, and we have four club gigs coming up at the end of May.

Aske is bringing some of the top representatives of the Copenhagen music scene, and I’ll be joining them as well. My old friend from back when I just arrived in Paris in the late ’90’s, the brilliant drummer Raphaël Chassin, will be with us on three of the gigs. From my Danish/French perspective this project really makes a lot of sense, and I believe there is a real chance of building a bridge between the music scenes in Paris and Copenhagen.

I sincerely hope that a lot of you will come out and see the shows, and that you’ll appreciate Aske as much as I do. Thanks in advance for your support! And thanks to our friends at the Fondation Danoise who have been instrumental in making these events happen.

MAY 22: CITE UNIVERSITAIRE (Fondation Danoise)
MAY 23: LES NAUTES (Bastille)
MAY 25: LE BAISER SALÉ (Châtelet)
MAY 26: AUX PETITS JOUEURS (19ème)


Louise Attaque: Anomalie Tour

Posted on 18/03/2016

We are a few weeks into the tour now with Louise Attaque, and the response from the audience has just been overwhelming. The energy is incredibly positive, I’ve rarely experienced such kindness and warmth from the crowd. The guys in the band are generous and fun, and the songs speak to some of the best sides of the human nature, so I suppose there is a logic to the fact that the band draws a positive, open-minded audience. Still, it’s a privilege to be a part of.


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François Rauber

Posted on 22/12/2015

I’m a huge admirer of François Rauber. He’s one of the most prolific arrangers in the classic chanson française, working with Jacques Brel from the 3rd album until the end, and collaborating with just about any French singer in the 1960s and ’70s. His arrangements are incredibly diverse, touching on just about any style, always with great taste, great sensibility to the lyrics, and great craftsmanship. Below is a very interesting interview from 1983 with Rauber, when times were changing and synthesizers and multitrack recording had taken over.



Here are some classic Rauber tracks:

Studio Davout

Posted on 15/10/2015

I spent a few days this week rehearsing in Studio Davout for a TV show, and I really like working here. The acoustics in Studio A are just incredible, and the Fazioli grand piano is one of the best in town. Studio A is used mainly as an orchestral room, but there are actually quite a few possibilities, with several glass booths along the sides of the room all facing the center.

Historically, the building used to be a cinema, but was converted into a studio in the 1960’s. The hallway and certain aspects of the room, like the old projector booth, let you imagine what the place was like when it was a cinema. There certainly is a lot of history around here.


I’ve assembled a few videos of some of the great work that was done is this room:

Studios Saint Germain

Posted on 23/09/2015

Last week, I spent three great days in the new Studios Saint Germain with producer François Delabrière for an upcoming project from singer Marc Lavoine. I’ve worked in this studio before, when it was still called Studio Acousti, and have fond memories of what the place used to be. We made Lise’s debut album there in 2009, a conceptual album made exclusively with piano, including drum sounds, effects etc. Fortunately the sensational Steinway piano we used for those experimental sessions survived the change into what the studio has become now. I also did several sessions there for an ad campaign for L’Oréal, that featured the Steinway prominently.

The studio went through some shaky times in the past years, and almost became a Yoga club. Fortunately things worked out much better. An ambitious trio of talented entrepreneurs have turned the place around: Pierre Guimard, Matthieu Tessier and Raphaël Hamburger, with Stan Neff as the main engineer. A lot of good choices have been made already, amongst other things seriously freshening up the place, and most importantly getting hold of a wonderful old Neve console from the BBC. Beside the studio itself, a big part of what makes this place special is the fact that it’s situated in the Rue de Seine by the boulevard Saint Germain, in one of the very neighbourhoods that define Paris.

Times are hard in the music business these days, the entire industry is undergoing something close to an earthquake. Much less revenue is generated; and the way the remains are being redistributed is chaotic and opaque. A lot of people in the industry are going through times of draught; and often legendary studios around town shut down and become supermarkets. In this environment it is incredibly revigorating to have people taking these kind of initiatives. For the moment the studio is off to a great start, I hope that they can keep up the steam and that a lot of great records will be made there.


Hugo Rasmussen

Posted on 02/09/2015

The great jazz double bassist Hugo Rasmussen from Denmark has passed away… He’s been active since the 60’s making great records in a multitude of styles, but like most people of my generation (born in Denmark in the 70’s) I know him best from the many children’s records and TV shows he performed on in the 70’s and 80’s. I think the subliminal influence on Danish kids from his playing, as well as the other great musicians working on those projects, is something to acknowledge. He definately put a groove to the soundtrack of my childhood way before I even had an idea about what that means.


Noumea

Posted on 25/05/2015

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Last night in New Caledonia, the piano at the venue was in a very poor condition. Pianos are hard to come across on this island, and this one has spent most of its life in a hotel lobby. It had only been temporarily removed from the hotel for our concert. The piano tuner spent most of the afternoon taking the piano apart to try to get the mechanics working at least half-reliably. It was a tiny baby grand, which makes for some very short bass strings, which results in a pretty strange sound in the lower register. Everyone seemed concerned about how it would perform, but to my own surprise I wasn’t that worried. And the concert went down very well. I guess there are several reasons why performing on a less than perfect instrument doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

First of all, it depends on your focus. One image that comes to mind is that of legendary pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim performing in a run-down community hall in Ramallah, Palestine. I remember him performing the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven on a ragged, old, uneven piano. This is a man who spends his life in the most prestigious concert halls in the world, playing the most pristine, sublime, expensive pianos you can imagine. Yet he didn’t seem to mind the quality of the old piano in Ramallah. The concert had such an enormous symbolic value: a musical legend of his caliber coming to this troubled part of the world, playing in a neighborhood where people of his status normally wouldn’t even set foot, let alone give a concert. From that point of view, who cares about the quality of the piano? I believe that even if you aren’t playing in Ramallah, and even if you’re not Barenboim, if your focus is on sharing music with people, about trying to bring forth that unique social experience that a concert can be, where people gather around music and temporarily leave their everyday struggles behind them, and somehow manage to connect in a dimension beyond language and divisions, the quality of the instrument isn’t all that important. At least it shouldn’t be your main concern.

Another reason is that limitations can be quite inspiring. Keith Jarrett, besides being one of the greatest musicians alive, is known for being extremely, almost hysterically demanding, including regarding the choice of his piano in any given venue. He’ll usually have two or three Steinways delivered at soundcheck to choose from. But when he was in Rio a few years ago for one of his improvised solo concerts, he was stuck with an old piano that had spent many years in Brazil, in less than optimal conditions for preserving an instrument. This imperfect, unique instrument inspired him to perform an absolutely magical concert, working around the shortcomings of the instrument and highlighting it’s qualities. He was himself so overwhelmed, that he called his label manager, Manfred Eicher of ECM records, the next morning from the airport and said: “Forget about everything we have planned, we have to release a live album of last night’s concert.”

The city of New Orleans also comes to mind. This place has one of the most humid climates you can imagine, it’s extremely hot, and it seems like one of the worst places in the world to have a piano, especially in a world pre-aircondition. Yet surprisingly, it’s one of the piano capitals of the world. People like Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and many more have invented a style of playing that is a wonderful mix of Caribbean, African, and Western influences, and that is perfectly suited to these climatically challenged pianos. Like Keith Jarrett, these people brilliantly managed to find the unique voices of the instruments and build around them, instead of being frustrated by their limitations.

On a broader level, working with limitations is a well-established and mature creative concept. Brian Eno has put a lot of thought into this. He has even made a deck of cards with rules on them, and if you ever find yourself stuck in your creative process, you pull a card and submit yourself to whatever the card dictates. “Work at a different speed”, “Use an old idea”, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention”, things like that. I don’t know if using a less-than-perfect instrument is on one of the cards, but it definitely could be.

This approach works really well in recording studios, as well. If you try to use whatever instruments are lying around, even if they have shortcomings or are dysfunctional in some way, it’s always an interesting process to see what idea you can get out of whatever the instrument has to offer. And it’s a guaranteed way of not repeating yourself, since you’re responding to something that is unique to the place and the context you’re in.

Why not even apply this philosophy to people, relationships, situations? Things are never entirely perfect. But if you accept this fact, and focus on trying to build around the unique qualities that any given individual, place or situation has to offer, and not get destabilized by whatever imperfections there might be, beautiful things could happen. It’s definitely a way to improve the odds.


Fender Rhodes Piano Bass

Posted on 16/06/2014

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Obviously, the Fender Rhodes electric piano is by now a legendary instrument, among the most remarkable instruments invented in the 20th century, and used on so many landmark recordings that everybody knows the sound, even if they don’t know the name of the instrument. The piano solo on “Get Back” by the Beatles, or the raindrop-like sound on the intro of “Riders on the storm” by the Doors, just about any Stevie Wonder song from the ’70s, and so many other tracks in just about any style: Pop, Rock, Soul, Jazz, Latin etc.

An interesting historic fact about the Rhodes piano is that in 1959, when Leo Fender, the highly successful guitar builder, teamed up with Harold Rhodes, the at the time struggling inventor of the Rhodes piano, Leo Fender actually hated the now ubiquitous mid- and top-range of the instrument. He thought that only the bass register could make a marketable instrument. The Fender company released the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass that same year, and until 1965 the Piano Bass was the only Rhodes piano around. Harold Rhodes was assigned to developing other instruments, more in the line of the Hohner Clavinet, while he continued to develop a full-range Rhodes piano in his sparetime. In 1965, CBS bought the Fender company, and this paved the way for a Fender Rhodes full-range 73-note piano with built-in speaker. The rest is history. The Fender name was eventually dropped from the instrument in 1974.

It’s interesting how the in so many other ways visionary Leo Fender missed realising the full potential of the instrument. However, the Piano Bass is a fantastic instrument in its own right; and many of the features later found on the full-range Rhodes pianos were inherited from the Piano Bass – the tolex, the fiberglass top, and the basic structure of the instrument. And the Piano Bass made its own mark on music history, mainly as a fundamental part of the Doors’ innovative sound; the band had no bass player (except on a few studio recordings) – it was keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s left hand that played the band’s bass parts on the Piano Bass.

I’ve had a silvertop Piano Bass for a while now, and while I rarely get to use it (bands almost always have a bass player), it’s always a treat when I have the chance. Below is a video from Nyon in 2008 with Keren Ann. I joined on the last part of her tour, and the musicians were already starting to get other engagements. Consequently the line-up changed a lot depending on who was available on any given date.. Fortunately, this approach works really well with Keren’s repertoire, as everything is based around her songs, guitar and voice. The core material is so strong than it doesn’t really matter whether she’s playing with a full band or just a trumpet player, and the shows stay fresh that way, to say the least. On a few gigs, including the one in Nyon, we had no bass player, so I jumped on the opportunity to break out the Piano Bass.


Fred Chapellier

Posted on 20/05/2014

The blues has a special place in my life. Some people who are into blues have a purist, hardcore approach to it, sometimes even being intolerant to other styles. That was certainly never my case – as a kid I listened as much to Bach, Björk or Michael Jackson as I did to Albert Collins or B. B. King. However, when I decided to try my luck as a musician, the blues came along as an incredible chance to actually make a living playing music. In 1998 I had quit my academic studies in Denmark to give music a chance, but still had to do various daytime jobs to make ends meet. Suddenly I get a phone call from an old friend to come to France to join the band of an old blues bass player from Memphis, Joe Turner, who had played with the best in the blues world. I jumped on the opportunity and moved to France, and spent the next 5-6 year playing in various French and American blues bands in Paris.

I think becoming a professional musician has a vague similarity to becoming a pilot, though the analogy only goes so far – a wrong note never put anyone’s lives at risk (except maybe your own if you were playing in Albert King’s band, he was known to pull a gun on his musicians on stage if he wasn’t happy with what they were doing). A pilot has to go through a certain theoretic training to know how things work, but the only way to learn the craft is to spend thousands of hours actually doing it. An aspiring musician can have a solid theoretic grasp of things and might have spent a long time by himself practicing his instrument, but to become a decent musician you have to spend literally thousands of hours actually playing with other musicians, and preferably in front of an audience. The blues was my way of getting the necessary amount of hours behind the instrument, on top of being a style that I always loved. It’s a style based on rhythm, feeling and melody, so the lessons learned in the blues realm are easily transposed to other styles.

These days I rarely get to play a blues gig, but whenever the chance comes along I never hesitate. Fred Chapellier is an old friend from my days on the blues circuit, an incredible guitar player with a great feel and a fluid, versatile, inventive playing style. Since we first met he has come a long way, and has built a solid career as a blues frontman, as well as backing up several iconic artists, including Jacques Dutronc. In January I got to record a live album with Fred and his band in Alsace, it was recently released, and you can check it out here or on iTunes. Someone in the audience recorded a couple of bootleg videos of the show, below is Fred’s original instrumental “B Shuffle”. I’m playing again tonight with Fred in Paris at the New Morning for the release of the live record.


2014

Posted on 01/01/2014

Happy new year everybody! As the new year begins, I can’t help thinking about all the great people who didn’t make it beyond 2013, including Donald Byrd, Ray Manzarek, George Duke, Nelson Mandela, Daniel Darc, Peter O’Toole, Lou Reed, James Gandolfini, Alvin Lee, J. J. Cale, Dave Brubeck, Claude Nobs, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Phil Ramone, Stéphane Hessel, Jim Hall, Ricky Lawson.. The list goes on and on. I’m not sure whether this was a particularly bad year, or whether I paid more attention to these passings because I also experienced loss on a personal level in 2013.

In any case, all of these people did great things with their lives, and their accomplishments serve as an endless source of inspiration to do the best we can with our time on earth. I’m looking forward to a brand new, hopefully lighter and more dynamic year, so that a year from now we can look back at a long list of great things that happened in 2014, musically, politically, economically, personally… Best wishes to all!

Cartoon Music

Posted on 16/09/2013


I’ve been fascinated with orchestral cartoon music since I was a kid. The stuff you hear in a Tom & Jerry or Tex Avery cartoon is as complex and technically demanding as anything you’ll encounter in the most experimental contemporary music: drastic changes in mood, style, tempo, key, time signature and dynamic almost every bar. Complex runs, atonal noises, deeply serious and completely silly melodies constantly alternate with little or no time in between to adjust. The musicians, composers and arrangers creating these soundtracks had an incredible level of craftsmanship.

The two composers mainly responsible for developing the musical language of the cartoons are Carl Stalling (1891-1972) and Scott Bradley (1891-1977). The golden age of cartoon shorts (1936-1957) was at the height of the Hollywood studio system, when actors, directors, technicians etc. were on a full time exclusive contract with the studios. Each studio also had their own orchestra to record the soundtracks, and when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opened their in-house cartoon studio in 1937, the newly hired cartoon composer Scott Bradley was given access to the studio’s orchestra to score the cartoons. A similar situation happened from 1936 on at Warner Brothers, where composer Carl Stalling used the studio’s 30-piece orchestra for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

Scott Bradley was an admirer of contemporary classical composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, and managed to use some of their compositional techniques in the cartoon soundtracks, such as Schoenberg’s 12 tone system. MGM’s orchestra were known to complain about the technical difficulty of Bradley’s scores, but both composer and orchestra seemed to enjoy the creative freedom the “funny music” gave them. Bradley is mainly remembered today for his brilliant scores to all of the classic “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.

Carl Stalling’s style was slightly different, as he – much more more than Bradley – relied on already written music, having access to Warner Brothers’ extensive catalogue of popular songs of the time. He developed an intricate system of musical quotations, where the action was commented upon by the melodies he used (such as Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude in scenes with rain). Stalling’s style fit nicely with the wacky tone of Warner’s cartoons, like Bugs Bunny and the many Tex Avery characters.

Both composers developed the entire vocabulary of cartoon action – pizzicato when characters tip-toe, chromatic descending lines when characters laugh etc. Along with composer Max Steiner, Bradley and Stalling are also credited with the invention of the click track, a recording technique used not only in film but on practically any recording session these days.


This original recording session by Carl Stalling and Milt Franklin is a rare document as to how the recordings were done. I find that listening to the music without watching the cartoon really shows what a difficult task these guys were up to.


The original Scott Bradley scores were all systematically destroyed in a spacesaving effort in 1969, along with all of MGM’s other scores, including the studio’s classic musicals. It’s quite sad that none of these historic documents have survived. The event has even been refered to as the MGM Holocaust. However, recently the John Wilson orchestra has done a great job of reverse engineering the scores and performing them, as they do here at this years BBC Prom’s with a medley of selected bits from eight Tom & Jerry scores by Bradley:

Neuroscience

Posted on 09/06/2013

Interesting article in the New York Times here about the experience of listening to music from a neuroscientific standpoint. It turns out that if listening to music can sometimes feel like a drug, it’s because it stimulates the same dopamine producing reward centers of the brain that most drugs do. The article also talks about how the stimulation occurs not only during the climactic moments in music pieces, but often in the moments of tension and anticipation that precede them. There are some interesting passages about how the auditory cortex allows us to “hear” music by simply imagining it, and allows us to expect certain harmonies, melodies, scales etc. while listening to music, depending on the conventions of the musical culture that we have been exposed to. And it also predictably turns out we’re more likely to click buy on iTunes if a piece of music is stimulating the auditory cortex or if listening causes dopamine to be released. The research is coming out of a lab in Montreal, and the BBC also did this piece on the work they are doing there.

Scandinavian Jazz

Posted on 28/01/2013

There’s a strong melodic tradition in Scandinavian folk music, and I think this is part of the explanation why there has been so much music and so many musicians coming out of these relatively small countries. Some of the biggest pop hits from the past 40 years have regularly come from Scandinavian writers and production teams – some of them sung by Scandinavian groups, but most of them done by working in the shadow of an endless list of international pop stars. These articles on Swedish pop music – here and here – give an idea, and Denmark and Norway have also supplied their fair deal of worldwide pop hits.

As far as the culture of musicianship in these countries goes, the immigration of a large number of American jazz musicians in the 50’s and 60’s, most of them black, had a huge impact on the music scenes. Their influence went way beyond the Jazz circuit, and I think they can be attributed a good deal of the credit for the success that Scandinavian music has enjoyed since the 70’s. A straightforward proof of this is american Jazz trumpetist Don Cherry, who moved to Sweden in the 70’s, and whose children include Neneh Cherry and Eagle Eye Cherry, two internationally successful Swedish acts. But I think the folk music tradition also has a lot to do with why Scandinavian music so easily catches on around the world.

There are some extremely beautiful recordings of these two historic treads intertwining, that are hugely popular in Scandinavia, and that many of you probably know already. One is Jan Johansson’s historic album “Jazz på Svenska”, which consists of minimalist Jazz arrangements of Swedish folk music tunes. Another is the duo album of Kenny Drew, a black American pianist who moved to Copenhagen in the 60’s, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, the world famous Danish Jazz bass player, who learned his trade backing up a lot of the American Jazz expatriates in Copenhagen when he was barely in his teens. While the Drew/NHOP album features a more diverse repertoire than the Johansson record, there are some prime examples of Danish folk tunes getting a jazz/gospel treatment, and both records provide a look into two of the most important trends that in my opinion help explain the success of Scandinavian music since the 70’s: when black American music and Scandinavian folk music meet. The opening tracks from “Jazz på Svenska” and “Duo” are featured below, sharing the minimal instrumentation of Piano and Double Bass:



Dakar – Basel

Posted on 13/11/2012

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:

Philippe Aglaé
Gisela Razanajatovo
Yves Thiam
Faada Freddy
Sherika Sherard
Bleck Fall, Jordan Kouby & Papa Ka
Michael Désir
Malick N’Diaye



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.

VOX Continental

Posted on 01/10/2012

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.


The Vox Continental

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.


John Lennon on stage with a Vox Continental

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.


Ray Manzarek live with the Doors and the Vox Continental in 1966 at the Whisky A Go Go

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.


Recording Vox Continental for Piers Faccini’s album “Two Grains of Sand”
(photo credit: Jeremiah)

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.


Stéphane at work on my Continental

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.


Some classic tracks featuring the VOX Continental:

Wurlitzer

Posted on 06/09/2012

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I finally got hold of a Wurlitzer electric piano. It is the classic 200A model that is by far the most current variation. I have played countless Wurlitzers over the years in studios and on stage, but never actually had my own. The Nord Stage does a very good Wurlitzer imitation, which I have relied on for years, especially live, but now the time had come for me to get my hands on the original quirky beast, with all it’s analog noise and unpredictable behavior. It is a nightmare to tune. It picks up interference of all sorts. Maintenance is super complicated. But it has a warmth and a depth to the sound that makes it worth all the trouble.

If you don’t know what a Wurlitzer is, it is definitely not because you have never heard one! It is one of the must used electric piano sounds, and it has appeared on a huge number of classic songs. Yet somehow it has managed to not go out of fashion (unlike it’s cousin, the Fender Rhodes, which has had much higher ups and downs as far as trendiness goes).


Here are some songs that feature the Wurlitzer. On many other songs you can hear it somewhere in the back, but I tried to pick some where the Wurlitzer is really up front and part of what identifies the song. To give you an idea of how much this sound is part of modern music, some of these examples even steal off each other… On John Lennon’s tune “How Do You Sleep at Night” from the Imagine album, Phil Spector deliberately went with the Wurlitzer to get the vibe from B. B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”, and there is no way that Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson couldn’t have had Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say” Wurlitzer riff in mind when they arranged her tune “Rehab”. “What I’d Say” from 1959 is by the way one of the first uses of the Wurlitzer electric piano, which seriously helped popularize it.