I recently posted this piece on my blog on Fastcompany.com.

That the New York indie theater scene is drawing forced breaths and the gap between Broadway and off is more pronounced than ever is no news to arts-inclined locals. Sure, performers and writers are still everywhere, but Manhattan’s astronomical rents are quickly molding its culture from gritty bohemia to hipster chic. Actors continue to flock to the city that historically belongs to them, and collective frustration builds. Besides an endless audition circuit and off-hours unpaid readings, a performer’s most viable option is to partake in a theater festival or find a self-made audience online.

Title of Show, a meta-musical that will open on Broadway on July 17, found a fan base through both avenues. And it couldn’t be more fitting that the show, written by its cast members Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, is about the thing itself: Writing a musical, against the pervasive forces of self-doubt, and submitting it to a theater festival.

After a successful run at the New York Musical Theater Fest in 2004 and Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater in 2006, Title of Show has recently connected with a fresh following through eight ‘webisodes’ on its home page. In the spirit of the musical, these YouTube videos document its cast’s efforts to get a Broadway contract. To date, the viewership of each episode ranges from 6,000 to over 17,000.

The idea for this method of self-promotion, writer/cast member Jeff Bowen says, sparked from the cast’s shared antsiness about the future of their creation. A move from Off-Broadway to on was in the talks, but very much up on the air. “We were at a place where we didn’t really know what was going on with the show,” Bowen says, ” and we thought, is there a way that we can set this ball in motion without having to wait for anybody to make a decision for us? So we just came up with the idea to go on Youtube, for the fans who had been asking what was going on.”

The first episode sparked a multitude of fan emails, in which viewers wondered if a Broadway stint was truly a reality.

“We didn’t know; we knew as much as we were telling our viewers,” Bowen says.

As the cast added episodes, its fan base began to include viewers who didn’t know of the musical but had caught on to the web series. Fan letters continued to drop in larger and larger volumes, and the show’s soundtrack sales peaked. The large-scale interest, Bowen says, woke producers up to the show’s marketability.

“[The web series] had everything to do with us going to Broadway,” he says. “It definitely worked, it got the producers much more fired up about this new demographic who were coming in and didn’t know anything about the show.”

During the musical’s 2006 run, some critics appreciated its earnestness and sass but found it too much of a theater geek’s inside joke to resonate with the average patron.

What the creators would have said to the critics requires little guessing, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing,” Title of Show‘s autobiographical characters sing near the end of the musical.

As another self-made success story of the internet age comes true, the cast may have just done what even their most inspired lyrics didn’t count on: Their creation, in a matter of months, has become a hundred people’s favorite thing.

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A gem of a show

February 17, 2008

There are times when writing feels like work, when my lofty aspirations of creating journalism that not just services, but encourages thought, seem exhaustingly far away. Occasionally, however, I’m lucky enough to observe something tangibly fresh and inspiring after one of these moments of doubt. Usually, this something is a creative work–a film, a staged reading, a concert–that reminds me why writing about the arts make me feel like an artist myself. These works need not be groundbreaking, but simply stemming from a passion to create and a drive to make it happen.

Singer-songwriter Dawn Derow’s Feb 12th cabaret show at The Duplex, Shooting My Arrow, was the most recent artistic moment to restore my inspiration.

A graduate of Boston Conservatory, Derow has performed on cruise ships, auditioned around the city, and compiled this assortment of songs to tell her story. Although she mixed in only the occasional original with covers of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and others, Derow lent a personalized spin to all of them. Behind her breathy intonation was a trained instrument, lending her performance a kind of relaxed, confident quality. Her lineup of musicians, including bassist Antar Goodwin and hard-working pianist David Kreppel, was impressive as well. Her backup singer, Lara Janine, was so naturally charismatic in her own right that on certain songs it was downright difficult to not focus on her.

Sure, Derow could have opted for less spoken personal history and instead included a few more original songs in her program, but for a cabaret show, this one was refreshing in its lack of pretentiousness. Derow doesn’t currently have other dates lined up on her web site, but I’m already recommending some of my artist friends to check out her next show. I was inspired for her joy and obvious resilience alone.

The MTA subway system–that claustrophobia-inducing web beneath our sidewalks– certainly encapsulates the grimiest, frenziest and the most democratic aspects of New York City living. Students, mothers, homeless snoozers and Morgan Stanley commuters are all crammed into the same steel tubes, often literally arm against arm, Birkenstock against patent leather. It’s also one place in the city where the performing arts, both sloppy and skillful, maintain a place, no matter how many regulations are tossed their way.

Browsing through Google News today, I came across a slice of life-story by Denis Murphy from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Reading about New York’s notorious and endlessly described rush hour from a visitor’s perspective is always fascinating, because although the observations might be nearly identical from one writer to the next, they are always remarked upon with the same joy of discovery. Murphy notes contrasts between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and, like others, notes both the unique coexistence of classes and the oddly thriving artistic spirit.

Murphy writes:

“Does the subway influence the New Yorker character? Does it not only make people cockier, but also more tolerant of human weakness, less tolerant of arrogance; does it somehow put people on the side of the underdog? Do the long, silent hours in the subway drive people to write, paint, play an instrument, draw graffiti, compose?”

I’m not sure if it’s the silence–I only seem to notice the cacophony of noises–but the inspiration is perennial.

(Image from Wikipedia)

No, it’s not exactly about local music….but it’s about remaining loyal to the kind of music that first pulled you in–even if its public cool-factor is considered nonexistent. And that, in the end, is the key to the survival of a diverse musical landscape.

I hope you enjoy the piece.

Portrait of a Hanson Fan

Back from a holiday hiatus….happy New Year!

Wynton might be the king of popular jazz in New York, but his brother, drummer Jason Marsalis, isn’t about to falsely praise the city’s music scene.

In an interview with the Toronto Star (Marsalis opens the Fair Trade Organic Coffee Jazz Concert Series tonight), he emphasized that his home town of New Orleans is doing a superior job at cultivating this musical form.

“I’m going to be honest, and this is probably controversial, but someone needs to say it: Really, New York being the big time as far as jazz music is concerned is actually over, because the major labels aren’t signing jazz and a lot of the jazz legends that were in New York, unfortunately, have died off now,” he told The Star.

“It’s a great city and there’s a lot of music, but it’s not what it used to be. Ironically enough though, New Orleans is a better learning town. The community is a little smaller and it’s easier to get around and there’s other music that you can learn, like a lot of the traditional jazz music, R&B, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. Those kinds of things go on here. New Orleans has always been a great learning town,” he continued.

As many local musicians have told me, too many fish in a shallow pond makes it hard to stand out in this city–let alone find an audience.

I’d be interested in hearing Wynton’s response. 

Last month, I completed a podcast on Juilliard-trained jazz trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes (read my introduction on Gilkes here). We chatted about the follow-up to his self-financed 2004 album, his training and influences and, as I have with other NYC musicians, his thoughts on the status of jazz music.

I used an external microphone on my Olympus digital recorder and stumbled into some sound feed problems despite testing the contraption at home–as you can hear from the occasional crackle, the mic was turned up too high during my interview (as this was my first stab at a podcast, I suppose that some technical issues were inevitable).

I edited the podcast using Audacity for Windows, and compiled a photo slide show using Windows MovieMaker. The pictures are courtesy of Gilkes, except a shot of the album’s back cover that I took using a Fujifilm digital camera, and a performance photo provided by Juilliard. The Michael Brecker photo is from Verve Music Group. The song on the background is Puddle Jumping, written and performed by Gilkes.

I welcome any feedback.

Another standout indie

November 29, 2007

In my experience of learning about jazz and meeting the players who move it forward, I’ve consistently been inspired by the drive that new music in the scene reflects. Many of the musicians I’ve spoken with have handed me a CD at the end of our interview, and thanks to distribution channels like Myspace and Itunes, exploring the sounds of young jazz composers doesn’t require much effort. In the case of Myspace, you don’t even have to press play.

One of the most outstanding in his creativity is Marko Djordjevic, aYugoslavian drummer, teacher at The Collective School of Music and frontman of fusion band Sveti. The group’s newest album, titled Where I come From, was released this past summer on Firma Video Entertainment, the same company that put out Djordjevic’s instructional drumming DVD. The effort was a result of clever marketing from his part; because Firma Video already stood behind Djordjevic for his solo and educational talents, adding his band to the mix didn’t require much persuading.

Where I Come From sets the bar high and is surely going to be one of the most talked about albums in the coming years,” All About Jazz reported and called Djordjevic “a composer in a true sense of the word.”

Whether a jazz aficionado or not, it’s hard to imagine that a listener wouldn’t appreciate the band’s fearless and vivacious mix of genres. Across the 12 tracks of the album, the musicians jump from pop to smooth jazz to folk, drawing out appealing melodies but also engaging in improvised segments that feel instinctive and effortless. Djordjevic’s instrument is clearly an extension of himself, but its role on the record is never gratuitous. One could see why he’d want to let his band members shine: Tenor saxophonist Eli DeGibri was a member of Herbie Hancock’s group, trombonist Elliot Mason has played with Count Basie and Natalie Cole and bassist Matt Pavolka has jammed with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner. Check out the band’s bio for more details.

“The best a musician can do is just to get as good as they can at what they are doing, and be honest about who they are and their music, and put a lot of good will into it,” Djordjevic told me over coffee a couple of months ago. “I’m still rewarded by seeing constantly an upward line. Every year is better than the last. I do more things, I play with more great people, I get more recognition for what I do. If that’s how it is, then what’s there to be unhappy about?”

Links:

Marko Djordjevic’s web site: http://www.svetimarko.com

The Collective School of Music: http://thecoll.com

All About Jazz’s review of Sveti’s album: http://shop.allaboutjazz.com/shop/release.jsp?r=46612&tn=2

 

 

Saxophonist Michael Blake likes to keep busy. Since moving to New York in the mid-1980s, he has released albums on several labels, including Danish Stunt Records, New York-based Palmetto, Canadian Songlines and Portuguese Clean Feed. His band projects, including Blake Tartare and Slow Poke, have received positive responses from music critics (this fall, Palmetto records released Slow Poke’s first record as an online exclusive). Blake was a member of the Jazz Composers’ Collective until its unofficial end in 2005, and continues to collaborate closely with bassist Ben Allison (founder of the collective) and trumpet player Steven Bernstein. Blake has also released solo albums, toured in Europe, and performed in a range of venues, from the Standard and Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Public Library. Blake and I recently chatted about his most recent album, his insights into the music industry, and his thoughts on the survival of jazz. 

Q: You play in a wide variety of venues, from Lincoln Center and the Stone to the Brooklyn Public Library. What keeps you motivated?

 

“If I do club dates, I’m working for great people and with great people, and I enjoy it, and that’s the first reason why I do it. I can’t call up the Blue Note and say I’m a single dad saxophone player and composer struggling out here. They’d just be like ‘yeah you and a thousand other guys.’ I understand the process of personal connection and getting work. I get work because people are recommending me, hearing about me, or I’m creating it myself. I have an agent here who is helping me find work in Europe.”

 

Q: Palmetto Records recently did an online release of Slow Poke’s first record, 1998’s At Home. Although the recording is nearly ten years old, what do you think draws people in to its sound?

 

“It was a good crossover project because it appealed to people who like rock and it appealed to people who like avant-garde. It was such a special thing. We had a moment in time when we were packing the midnight shows, it became a buzz. We had our own sound. But we had four really intense personalities, we had a flailing record company that didn’t really get it [German Intuition]. Then 9-11 happened, and it was getting harder and harder keeping things together, a lot of times because of scheduling. You get a band it four people, it has to be with those four people to really have the sound, and if they all aren’t able to commit, it all falls apart just like a rock band.”

 

Q: So Slow Poke doesn’t exist anymore?

 

“A year ago, when I worked on this thing with Palmetto, I got everyone talking and they said if we get some gigs we go play, which I still believe. […] The last time I did a Slow Poke gig was in Providence last summer, and I had a completely different group. We rocked, it was awesome, but it just showed me what I told Palmetto: That if things take off, it’s my band, it’s my vision, if those guys can’t make the gig, let’s just do it anyway. I think four or five years ago if I said I was doing a Slow Poke gig with someone else, it could have caused some kind of a rift, but I really get the feeling that everyone is too busy, and it’s just so petty to be like that. I know I can make it function with other people. But I’d like to keep it as close to the original guys as I can, if the work offers come. I’m not sure if the work offers come because you go out and play for crappy money in bars, so what’s the point of getting all these guys who are all way too busy and amazing to do that anymore? If we’re going to do it, we’ll do it because it’s easy and fun, we find a nice place to play, our friends come out and we make a little money.”

   Read the rest of this entry »

My podcast debut

November 16, 2007

I met Juilliard-trained jazz trombonist Marshall Gilkes a few months ago, and recently caught up with him on his follow-up record to 2004’s Edenderry. He’s been recording the album this month.

Gilkes doesn’t put out his records through a label, but his last indie effort gathered some impressive reviews in publications that know what they’re talking about:

“Trombonists built for the speed, jumps and tight turns of bebop don’t seem to be falling out of trees these days (if they ever did), so it’s really refreshing to come across a player like Gilkes,” Aaron Steinberg of Jazz Times wrote in a 2006 review.

Edenderry reveals yet another young trombonist who knows how to create sweet music from the unique instrument,” wrote All About Jazz’s Mark F. Turner.

Although Gilkes has played corporate functions and Broadway shows (he performs with a steady group of musicians he says he has “a great time playing with”) , he is also one of the few young players who spends most of his time performing jazz. He travels and records frequently with big names like Edmar Castaneda and Maria Schneider, and performs with David Berger and the Sultans of Swing every Tuesday at Birdland. He is also expanding his Juilliard BFA into a Master’s degree.

Below is a podcast of my interview with Gilkes–he let me in on his musical influences, the psychological process of marketing one’s album, and his opinion on the role of jazz music. Try not to mind the slightly crackly sound; I stumbled into a microphone issue.

The background music here is Puddle Jumping, written and performed by Gilkes.

Cool jazz

November 14, 2007

When I met bassist Antar Goodwin a couple of weeks ago at Jason Rosen’s Baggot Inn jam session, his fellow musicians introduced Goodwin as the most jazz-oriented of the bunch. In saying this they also pointed out the irony of age; while some of his older band members had gravitated to blues, rock and even metal during their careers, 37-year-old Goodwin had decided to focus on the most outdated musical form.

“Unfortunately,” Goodwin laughed.

We chatted about the city’s overall apathy towards live music, the difficulty of supporting oneself as a musician, and the inaccessibility of jazz. While genre-defining jazz standards of the 1920s and 30s were based on words and melodies, today’s jazz is built on harmonic concepts, Goodwin said.

“You can’t sing the melody back, and if you’re not a jazz musician, you probably won’t like it unless someone introduces you to it, walks you through all the steps and takes the time to teach it,” he said.

During our conversation, he mentioned the short-lived coolness factor of smooth jazz in the 1980s; there was a time when smooth jazz was produced in the minds of innovative musicians, he said.

Today I ventured to Goodwin’s web site to hear mp3s by both his electric and acoustic group. Trained at Berklee, he transitions skillfully between the rhythm of the bass and the soloist nature of the guitar. Goodwin’s training in trumpet also pops to mind; although his main trade is the bass, he writes comfortably for melodic instruments.

Hearing both his electric and his acoustic pieces, our conversation about smooth jazz popped into my mind.  These melody-driven songs stroll along comfortably and unhurriedly, exuding a sense of restrained confidence that keep them from being too showy. An appreciation for smooth jazz definitely seemed to trail through the pieces.

Goodwin is accompanying singer Dawn Derow’s cabaret show at The Duplex this Friday (61 Christopher St at 7th Ave). On December 10th, he’ll be performing at Darius De Haas’s Stevie Wonder tribute at Birdland.

Links:

Antar Goodwin’s web site: http://www.antargoodwin.com

Birdland: http://www.birdlandjazz.com

The Duplex: http://www.theduplex.com

(Image from Goodwin’s Myspace page)