Hyperdrive on the Piano


The Ruthless Shapes of Paradise

A hyperpiano is, for the most part, the same as any other piano with one difference. Instead of just hitting the keys to create sound, a multitude of different objects are placed on different strings of the piano. Many of these sounds seem to come right out of an eerie horror movie soundtrack.

While playing the piano, everything from copper bars, rubber blocks, cow bells and even plastic cassettes can be placed on the strings as well as slid up and down for different effects. For example, by placing a rubber block across the strings, higher pitched sounds are created. Sliding the block will make audible rubbing or whipping sounds. By listening to just the sounds being created by these objects, it’s hard to tell that you are actually listening to a piano. In fact, it sometimes sounds like you are listening to another instrument like a guitar or banjo. These different sounds can also be combined with playing the piano traditionally, which adds structure to the music and creates a more cohesive piece.

Hyperpianos are not widely used throughout the musical world and this could be attributed to their odd sound as well as the risk of damaging the piano. Strings are fragile and placing and rubbing objects on them could ruin them. Specific sizes of objects are recommended as to not damage the strings. This recommendation comes from the creator and main player of the instrument Denman Maroney, who lends his sound to Steve Olson’s album, The Ruthless Shapes of Paradise.

Despite its relative obscurity, the hyperpiano is able to create numerous sounds by changing which objects are on the strings. While it may not work as well in mainstream jazz, it could find a home in Avant-Garde Jazz or by providing the soundtrack for the next blockbuster horror or suspense film. If you are in the mood for some truly experimental jazz, check out the hyperpiano. You can learn more about it and the different techniques used to create its unique sound at Maroney’s website:


Joon Lee, proprietor of The Blue Whale.

In Los Angeles, An Immigrant’s Dream Becomes A Jazz Hub

In the middle of recording his debut album, jazz vocalist Joon Lee received a phone call out of nowhere that made him stop, quite literally, in his tracks. A dark, run-down karaoke bar in the corner of a Little Tokyo strip mall was on the market — would he like to have a look?

It was the fall of 2009, and Lee was still a relative unknown in the Los Angeles jazz community. A Korean immigrant, he had been studying architecture in New York City when he heard a recording of pianist Chick Corea and vocalist Bobby McFerrin. He promptly quit school and moved across the country to study jazz singing.

Lee had also fantasized about opening a small performance venue, though initially he didn’t find the karaoke bar particularly captivating. “The only really attractive thing about it was that the elevator was really close,” he recalled. “That way, the musicians can bring their gear.” The timing couldn’t have been worse, either — it was, after all, the middle of a major economic recession.

But the appeal proved too powerful. He gave himself only two months to redesign the room. “I had so little time and so little money,” he said. “The only stuff that I bought was the ice machine, toilet bowls, stuff like that.” Even the elevator proved unreliable. Continue reading

Theo Bleckmann.

Kate Bush, As Heard By This Dude Who Sings Jazz: A Conversation

The singular vocalist Theo Bleckmann released a new disc today dedicated to the songs of English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. In other words, it’s an album where one inimitable singer with a small but dedicated fan base reinterprets another.

There’s not much in the way of ding-ding-a-ling on Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush. But there is, perhaps, a jazz aesthetic: It grooves, and makes room for interactive improvisation from a talented band. Have a listen to the first track, “Running Up That Hill” (the full album is on Spotify too):

I sensed a number of sympathies between Bleckmann and Bush, starting with their mutual taste for gorgeous idiosyncrasy. But like many Americans, I wasn’t too familiar with the source material. So I wrote to a big Kate Bush fan who happens to be my colleague: the esteemed pop critic Ann Powers, of NPR Music’s The Record. Here’s the discussion we had, in four emails: Continue reading

For jazz musicians, transcribing from recordings is often a huge part of learning the craft.

Translating Ether To Paper

The headline of this feature story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette is “Saxophonist transcribes jazz to printed notes.” Especially if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of the craft, it is a rather amazing thing:

“There will be one measure with 65 notes in it,” he said. “First of all, I have to write out every note and then divide each beat into however many notes until it hits on the next beat.

“And you have to do this in real time. So I’m doing it by pressing the pause button.”

Now, the musicians reading this are saying, “big deal,” and wondering why this is the basis of a feature story. For most jazz improvisers, transcribing recorded solos is a valuable way of studying the greats in depth. Writing down every single note and rest in even the simplest solo forces you to listen closely and repeatedly. And because musical notation has inherent limitations — how to represent that trumpet growl, or that tricky flurry of notes? — you must translate with great precision. (Sixty-five notes in a measure seems like a bit of hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Continue reading

Mad Curious, with drummer Lenny Robinson, saxophonist Brian Settles and bassist Tarus Mateen, performs at a Capitalbop house show.

Why A Jazz Festival Is Asking Musicians To ‘Do It Yourself’

The Undead Music Festival has grown every year. In 2012, it outgrew New York City.

This jazz festival typically seizes small pockets of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, building immersive urban playgrounds where largely young audiences flood venues with colored admissions bracelets. It is jazz as both heady experience and social happening. But on Friday’s Night of the Living DIY, the venues scatter across five Brooklyn neighborhoods, as well as a half-dozen cities across the U.S.

Still, the festival’s expansion — and its use of “do-it-yourself” spaces rather than traditional clubs — is really a way of asking audiences to think smaller, to look closer to home. To turn off (computers and stereos), tune out (from your MP3 collection) and drop in (on a snug, local gathering).

As the head of Capitalbop, an organization that seeks to engage local jazz audiences in Washington, D.C., and presents informal shows in service of that goal, I find this development exciting. Search & Restore, one of the groups responsible for Undead, has decided to feature living-room venues simply because they are already thriving: A quiet movement of artist-produced, anti-corporate jazz concerts is creeping across the country. Here are a few of the motivations that I’ve perceived for this idea, and for Undead’s decision to embrace it.

1. Jazz thrives in unmediated spaces. The venues at the Night of the Living DIY range from artist studios to musicians’ lofts. Some don’t have event permits, let alone liquor licenses. One, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is the living room of Search & Restore director Adam Schatz’s friends. In these settings, “You’re just in a room with the music, and that’s what’s important,” Schatz told me earlier this week. “On the artistic side, that’s usually where it starts — people playing this music in their homes — and it’s kind of cool to perform it in a similar, raw setting. Not just physically raw, but emotionally raw: There’s a kind of vulnerability to [these spaces] that I think really magnifies the humanity of the music, which is what makes it so special.” Continue reading

Jason Crane.

Crashing On Couches To Talk To Musicians

Usually, it’s the musicians who go on tour, and the journalists who write about them for local publications. But one journalist is taking to the road to talk to musicians where they live.

Jason Crane produced 374 episodes of The Jazz Session, a podcast of interviews with top jazz musicians. Last week, he announced he was going on a “World Tour.”

He interviewed musicians in cities large and small throughout the eastern and southeastern United States, all the while reading and writing original poetry. (He hoped to eventually make the tour actually international, or at least to go west of the Mississippi River.) He had only a loose itinerary; he planned to buy a Greyhound bus pass and eventually end up in New Orleans, crashing on couches of friends, acquaintances and strangers.

Crane, 38, once supported himself as a working soprano saxophonist and later, as the station manager at Jazz90.1 in Rochester, N.Y. He recently moved to New York City in part to be closer to the jazz scene. So why is he taking to the road again? Over e-mail last week, I sent him a few questions to find out, and he was happy to respond: Continue reading

Christian Scott (left, playing himself) and Rob Brown (playing Delmond Lambreaux) perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the program Treme.

Art Imitates Life, And Vice Versa: Christian Scott And ‘Treme’

Fans of the trumpeter and bandleader Christian Scott may know that he’s done a little acting, appearing briefly in feature films like Rachel Getting Married and Leatherheads. Fans of the HBO program Treme know that he not only appears on camera: His life story partially inspired the character Delmond Lambreaux, a jazz trumpeter who has left New Orleans to pursue a career in New York. In fact, in episode one of season two, the character Delmond and the real Scott appeared on screen together, “performing” in New York City.

But if art imitated life, then life might just be imitating art in return. With the impending release of his new album Christian aTunde Adjuah, which you can currently hear via NPR Music’s First Listen series, Scott’s actual career now appears to mirror that of his fictional counterpart.

It’s far from an exact parallel, of course. But here are a few of the details. (Spoiler alert applies for those who haven’t seen the show.)

Christian Scott now lives in Harlem, but is from a musical family in New Orleans. His grandfather, Donald Harrison Sr., founded the real-life Guardians of the Flame Indian tribe; his uncle, Donald Harrison Jr., took over as Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, and is a noted saxophonist. Scott is clearly talented; he was drafted into his uncle’s band as a teenager, assuring that he has a strong command of the jazz tradition. But compared against the New Orleans canon, he has insisted on his own distinctly modern artistic direction, one which “stretches” the conventions of jazz. Continue reading

Laurie Frink takes a moment to practice during a recording session for Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.

Remembering Laurie Frink, The ‘Trumpet Mother’ Of The Jazz Scene

Sometimes, the most important musicians are the ones farthest away from the spotlight.

Laurie Frink was a great trumpet player. Great enough to tour with jazz big bands led by Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan (where she played lead) and Maria Schneider; to be one of the first female trumpet players on the Broadway pit orchestra circuit in New York. As a freelancer, she was known for her ability to execute just about anything, no matter the level of difficulty. Continue reading