Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 4

So as explained last time, in the four years after high school, I played in two bar bands. The bands did almost all covers, but that doesn't mean I wasn't writing music. Wasn't near as prolific as I wanted to be, but I did manage a few pieces. Some were pop and rock of a sort that the band I was in might conceivably play, though that didn't happen much. Others were farther afield, incorporating other influences both established (metal, prog) and emerging (funk, R&B, contemporary jazz, electronic music)...a couple of big influences I picked up during this period were Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren. It's not hard to hear why I would like both of them: each uses an unusually sophisticated harmonic vocabulary for rock, and my ears love both parts of that equation. A backbeat groove and delicious chords make me happy like a chocolate sundae does. And by learning a lot of that music, I widened my own harmonic vocabulary further, and it was already pretty wide for a rock player.


While I enjoyed playing in the bands I was in, I was also getting restless. A lot of the straight-ahead rock covers we played were the sort of songs a thousand other bands in a thousand other cities might play. We gave the audience what they wanted, and had a great time doing it, and that's fine, but after a few years I needed to branch out and do more of what inspired me to play music in the first place.

The second of those bands, Changes, had about run its course near the end of 1991. We'd gotten a new female singer, Sherri, though we played just a few shows with her. She too had an excellent voice, though she didn't have much club experience (busy raising three sons) and thus tended to be timider onstage than a more comfortable performer would be. She and I got along well and even got together a couple of times for writing sessions, figuring we might want to work together sometime in the future. But then we didn't talk for a while, so the possibility wasn't really much in my mind.

One Saturday night in late December of 1991, I was about to go out for the evening when the phone rang. It was Sherri; she told me a bunch of guys were coming over the next afternoon to jam around and invited me to join in, and I said sure, sounds good, I'll bring my keyboards. Sherri's husband Danny I'd met a few times; he was a very technically adept guitarist who worked as a guitar teacher. The other guys I hadn't: there was John on drums, Will on bass, and Gary on sax. John was a short Puerto Rican guy from New York who had gone to Berklee and had an extensive background in jazz and Afro-Cuban drum styles; Will was a big black guy who could do slap bass mind-bogglingly well; Gary was a young long-haired guy like me who even then had an astonishingly mature and melodic alto sax style, with a strong flavor of David Sanborn. (Everyone in the room was 30ish except Gary and me, 24 and 21 at the time respectively.) I remember the day well, down to the fact that I was wearing my Washington Redskins T-shirt. They ended up winning the Super Bowl that year!

We set up in the cramped room and John kicked off an upbeat groove - a really funky, seriously sick groove, of the sort I'd never played along with except when playing to albums with world-class funk drummers - and the five of us jammed it out for about ten minutes. When we were done, we all just sort of stared in stunned silence for a bit; we'd clicked far, far beyond anything any of us imagined. It felt like flying. Needless to say, we spent the rest of the afternoon doing more of the same, and finished the day excitedly talking about what to do next.

We became the band Middleman. Was that name taken from the name of the Living Colour song? I don't remember - might have been. We started practicing and recording ourselves constantly. In a few weeks we were recording an all-original demo and playing our first short show, in a theater on the OU campus; in a couple of months we were in the studio recording a full-length album and generating some buzz with our very energetic live club shows. That was March - by April we had another quite different gig on the calendar: through a connection we had, we got invited to play a lunchtime concert at the Yamaha R and D center in Manhattan. This flood of big news was coming so fast that we joked about MNN, the Middleman News Network. We made the grueling 30-hour van trip to New York, played the show and got a lot of positive response. There was a lot of talk amongst ourselves of possibly moving to New York and trying to break through the jazz scene there.

By June, the band had broken up. We had a lot of volatile personalities, mine included, and everything was happening so fast. I can't and won't try to speak for anyone else in the band, but I know I bought our hype 100%. I thought, yeah, we're going to break out, we're going to go national, international, this feels too good, this has got to be destiny. There were signs both in our music and in ourselves that it wasn't going to play out like that, but in the moment and being as young as I was, I didn't really understand. We had a boatload of talent, though it needed a lot more polishing than we realized, and no shortage of collective confidence. Maybe if we'd stayed together much longer and all been on the same page we'd have made something really special, I don't know. The end was quite a letdown from how it all felt a few months prior, but I didn't take it too hard - by that point it was clear we couldn't make the band work, so we were better off moving on to other projects.

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