Music of the month

My fantasy gift, the one I never get but really want, is a subscription to Sock Club. Every month you receive a new pair of socks in the mail. And these aren’t just any ol’ socks. They’re top-quality, colorful, and American-made. I imagine that after your first pair arrives in January, you spend the next 30 days looking forward to your February socks. Opening the package, awing over the pattern, slipping them on your feet, and walking around town in a pair of unusually jaunty socks.

Fruit-of-the-month, though not as exuberant, also delivers monthly anticipation. And this is important, having something to look forward to. Even something as seemingly simple as a grapefruit or a pair of socks.

Musician Ben Wendel is serving up his dish of monthly delight with his jazz suite-in-the-making, The Seasons. Every month, Wendel releases a new jazz composition via video featuring himself and an artist who has influenced him.

The inspiration for this project is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed a suite of 12 piano pieces, also entitled The Seasons. In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of a music magazine, hired Tchaikovsky to write the pieces, one for each month, and they were released through the magazine.

Tchaikovsky wrote some amazing piano music. His Piano Concerto No. 1 is a knockout. But The Seasons doesn’t always give you his best. The “June” Barcarolle is probably the most popular, and Rachmaninoff often used “November” for his encore, but I recommend giving “July” and “August” a listen. These two are pretty spectacular. You can find a recording of Lang Lang performing the whole Suite on Youtube, audience coughs and throat-clearing included.

Wendel, a saxophonist from Canada who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Brooklyn, takes from Tchaikovsky the title and the song-a-month idea. The rest is all Wendel and pure magic. If you’re new to jazz and want a Pu Pu platter of bite-sized delicacies to get you started, Wendel’s The Seasons is just right. Nine months of music are posted on his website, and each piece provides a different jazz experience. But each one, when it ends, will have you thinking, “Let’s hear that again.”

You can listen to The Seasons on Wendel’s Youtube channel, but if you skip watching the videos, you’re missing something amazing. One brilliant aspect of Wendel’s project is that it’s not just about great music. It’s also about friendship, collaboration, the uniqueness of each artist, and the influence of the performance space. Wendel’s videos remind us that jazz doesn’t emerge from a void. It’s living, changing, a product of people and place, and how you experience it depends on the moment in time.

Go to his website, watch the videos and read about the collaboration that produced each piece.

Here’s what Wendel had to say about working with pianist Shai Maestro on “May“:

One of the great by-products of this project has been the growth and learning I’ve experienced while hearing each musician interpret the music.  By the time we recorded the duet, Shai had been working on this 9/8 rhythm from many different angles, and ended up teaching me new ways to interpret it even though I had written the piece.  To me, this is musical collaboration at its best– one where the exchange of ideas and inspiration is circular.

Yep, 9/8 time. You can’t not move to this one.

A few other highlights:  “March” with Wendel on the bassoon and Matt Brewer on bass. For me, the opening melody evokes Fauré, but the movement in the bass keeps the piece surprising. Another standout is “April” with drummer Eric Harland. Classic jazz that transports you to a smoky New York basement club. Pour a gin martini for this one.

Finally, my favorite. “July” with Julian Lage on the guitar and Wendel back on the bassoon, playing together in Lage’s apartment. Soulful. Lovely. This is the soundtrack to a perfect day.

Check Wendel’s website at the end of October to find “October.” And “November” and “December” are also yet to come. That’s 3 more months of great music to look forward to.

Listen to NPR’s story on Ben Wendel’s The Seasons.


The president as Chief Change Manager

Photograph by Kayla Rice

I’m not the first to remark on this, but I’ll write it anyway: We have reached a point in American history at which the Pope is more progressive than the Republican party.

As His Holiness brings human kindness into vogue, even non-Catholics are posting pictures of Pope Francis on Facebook and emailing snippets from his speeches to their friends. He’s bringing sexy back to faith, hope and charity, and putting all the forgotten heroes of the Beatitudes into the spotlight.  To echo Eric March:  That is some papal badassary.

But back to the Republicans.  Specifically, the TPR (“Tea Party Republicans”).  Why all the nastiness? Toward the president, their Democratic colleagues, and their fellow Republicans?

I asked a friend this over dinner.  She told me, “Poor change management.”

It’s a brilliant insight. And I completely agree. There is enormous social change going on right now. Same sex marriage, legalized marijuana, transsexuals on television, and the end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Many of us celebrate these changes as evidence of human progress. But many people don’t. And while much of this resistance comes out of bigotry, I wonder if, more often than not, the resistance is simply resistance.

Many people just don’t like change.

It’s scary and uncertain, and we have a tradition in this country of treating social change as a transaction, a political win, a door closing on a loud debate, rather than a process that unfolds over time.

When I hear people down-talking Obama for tearing up the country, I think, “What?  Cheaper healthcare and marriage equality?  Where’s the problem?”  It all makes sense to me.  But for a lot of people, the shifts taking place right now are mind-blowing.  And there’s no national plan for bringing these people along, no forum for talking about what scares them, not without ripping them apart and labeling them “haters.”

Strangely, as our country has become more inclusive, we’ve become more exclusive.  There’s a right way to talk about change and a wrong way.  And we don’t want to hear the wrong way.  We don’t want our change to be messy.

But change, by its very nature, just is.

I’m in the camp that believes history will celebrate Obama for the social progress that has taken place during his presidency. With Obamacare and same sex marriage, we should feel as though we’re headed toward a kinder world, but we don’t.  Political discourse right now is just plain ugly, and as our nation’s leader, Obama needs to take a hit for the bad blood — both in Washington and on Facebook. Change management hasn’t been a part of his political strategy. He has been focused on winning and then on celebrating his winning.  And if you look at where the country has gone over the last 6 years, most “wins” go to the Democrats.

But if only the half the country feels as though it’s part of the winning team, can we truly call all this progress “winning”?

History belongs to the victors, that’s the saying.  But history is also chock full o’ losers who have risen from the ashes to wreak reactionary havoc.  Just look at what’s going on right now in North Carolina.  You can mock that mess as a circus and make fun of the ridiculous claims coming out of the proceedings, but those legislators are threatening to ruin people’s lives, and they’re fighting to ban a medical procedure that has been legal in this country for decades.

Back in 1973, the Roe v Wade supporters probably thought they could call the Supreme Court ruling a win, shut the political door and move on to other issues.  But here are we, more than forty years later, and we still can’t call reproductive freedom a social change that’s “done.”  We can’t seem to get to past tense on this.  The opposition, though it’s a minority, refuses to accept the change and move on.

Here’s the problem:  Effective change isn’t a contest in which the winners get to high-five each other while the losers get stuck cleaning up the locker room.  Majority support doesn’t ensure that change will be sustainable.  And the never-ending victory speeches given by the winners rarely remove opposition; they foster hostility and widen the divide.

When will the TPR concede that Obamacare has increased Americans’ access to affordable health care? Never. Partly because some of them are nuts, but also because this change isn’t theirs.  The Democrats excluded them from its creation and then from its success. And, yeah, it would be great if everyone in Congress would be gracious and statesmanlike in the face of defeat. But they aren’t. And they’re not alone. In corporations, universities, little leagues, garden clubs, and pretty much everywhere, when the majority forces change onto the minority and then treats that change as a partisan victory, rather than an inclusive process to be managed, backlash is right around the corner.

The cliche is true:  Change is a journey. And everybody needs to get on the bus to make the trek successful, even the people who didn’t support going on the trip. Getting a contentious bill passed in Congress isn’t the end of the change process; it’s the beginning. It’s just backing the bus out of the driveway.  If you leave people behind, though, they aren’t going to stand on the sidewalk, quietly waving as that bus goes by. They’re going to siphon off the fuel, slash the tires and pour sugar in the engine. They’ll spend all their creative energy on trying to derail the change, rather than working to make the change even better.

I’m personally delighted to see all this social change. But I’m not delighted that a large portion of my fellow Americans feel that their views are being dismissed and disrespected. I’m not delighted that the resentment they feel is fueling support for reactionaries, like Ted Cruz. No one serves America by threatening to shut down our government. Bullying and blackmail are never good for our country. But we have gotten to this place where Congressional childishness is the go-to strategy, in part, because people are being left behind. And they don’t like it.

Somebody smart recently wrote that the problem with politicians is that they spend all their time trying to get into office but none of their time thinking about how to make a difference once they get there. Something similar can be said about social change. Our leaders love to set it in motion and celebrate change as victory, but they refuse to take on the harder job of managing that change, which requires a large dose of humility and a plan for helping the opposition take part and shine.

Who in Washington is going to drive that bus?

Emerald City Comicom: Steampunk and Superheroes

With San Diego Comic-Con still fresh in our minds, it’s a good time to plug Seattle’s local version, Emerald City Comicom. Different name, smaller event, similar sensibility. But much more intimate. And it’s in Seattle.

There’re lots of reasons to head to the Seattle Convention Center for this annual springtime fest. Some people go just to buy stuff. And there is plenty of stuff to buy. Others go to celebrate a favorite character, showing up in a simple Storm Trouper helmet or rocking a complete Yui Hirasawa costume, right down to the barrettes and guitar.

There’s cosplay, fandom meetups and speed dating. But for me, the ultimate nerd, Comicom is for panel discussions. Oh, that’s right. I go to learn.

I can’t comment on the quality of the discussions in San Diego, because I’ve never been to Comic-Con. (Yet.) In Seattle, it varies. This past March, I sat through a gaming panel that never got deeper than tossing out favorite horror movie titles and a modern monster session that brought together lovable dragons and brain-eating zombies for an awkward mishmash.

But there were two panel discussions that were worth the price of my ticket: one on Steampunk and the other on redesigning comic book heroes. Both excellent and full of ideas worth sharing.

I’ll start with Steampunk…

Fascinating verbal wrestling with the definition of Steampunk. What is it? Panelist Quincy Allen described it as “an aesthetic.” But I liked the three elements that the group finally settled on:

— Techno fantasy — not really science fiction
— Retro futurism — going backward and forward
— Neo Victorianism

Mix all that together, and you have Steampunk.

The panelists also took up the question of “Why the Victorian period?” Steampunk, they said, is built on adventure, inventors and discovery, and the Victorian period is rich in all of these: the opening of the American west, British colonization, the industrial revolution, and developments in science and technology.

All true. But what the panelists didn’t talk about were the era’s darker themes, and these play a role in great Steampunk: sexual repression, slavery, cultural oppression, persecution of homosexuals, and the subjugation of women. So to me, the wonderfulness of the genre comes when writers take advantage of the Victorian Age as a crossroads of human and mechanical possibilities, of great progress and horrific heartlessness. It’s like Science Fiction:  It shows us our potential, what we could become/  But it’s different, because it also reveals our narrow miss, what we could have become…if…

(Panelist Ren Cummins reminded the audience that there are sub genres. Most notably, he said, “Stonepunk,” featuring the Flintstones.)

Feeling Steampunk inspired? Check out Fiddlehead from the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest.

The “Redesigning Heroes for the Modern World” panel consisted of superstars. And what a difference the best in the business can make in a discussion: Kris Anka (Spider-Woman), Jamie McKelvie (Ms. Marvel), Cameron Steward and Babs Tarr (Batgirl), and Robbi Rodriquez (Spider-Gwen). Yep, that’s who was talking.

For those who don’t know, the comic book world has artists who draw every issue and “specialists” (also artists) who do the amazing covers featuring a new or re- design. Both groups are talented (and there is some crossover), but the designers are especially interesting to me because they reimagine well-known heroes and invent new ones. This is tough. Superheroes have to be, well, super, but they also have to capture the current aesthetic and values. We have to be able to relate to them, to see in them vulnerability, as well as our own potential.

So I listened with my mouth open as some of the greatest comic book artists talked about their ideas and inspiration for their breakthrough characters. And I was especially interested in how they approached super women.

I’ve linked above to Andrew Wheeler’s great piece on Kris Anka’s Spider-Woman design. His headline starts with “Oh Thank God,” and he goes on to praise Anka for burying the old look that had Spider-Woman costumed more like a lingerie model than a superhero. Wheeler writes:

“[The old Spider-Woman costume is] ugly, tacky, and it doesn’t match the personality of Jessica Drew, the woman behind the mask. So I’m delighted that artist Kris Anka has given Jess a new set of togs that look chic, modern, and appropriate to her character… The new look is designed to serve Drew’s role as a private detective hero.”

I wrote a few months ago about the Batgirl redesign, praising her sensible shoes, and I’m equally excited that Spider-Gwen, too, has left her stilettos behind. This isn’t coincidence. The Comicon panelists all talked about the change in superhero costumes for women, saying that they’re now more practical and less sexualized, with the design growing out of their characters. This is right in line with a 2012 Q&A on Ms. Marvel, in which Jamie McKelvie wrote,

“[Her costume] is a result of us trying to create something that came out of her character and background in the military. I think the best and strongest costumes arise from the character’s personality, backstory and so on… I’d like to see more consideration for what message a female character’s design is putting across. I think we, as an industry, are getting better at it though, which is heartening.”

Designing my own character’s superhero costume has become a bit of an obsession. And the reason is exactly what McKelvie says: It has to be organic to the unique person she is. She can’t run around in a generic onesie.

Here’s my final thought for today: How does Artemis’ costume impact fashion? If she becomes a cultural hero, what she wears becomes part of her urban legend. But what else in society would her story and her costume influence?

Spider-Man meets Steampunk Girl

Cool Mr. Rogers

Listening to: Shawn Colvin. Another Round of Blues.

I’m currently reading a laugh-out-loud-funny book, Piano Girl, Robin Meloy Goldsby‘s memoir of her life as a cocktail lounge piano player. I’ve only gotten as far as her college years, but from what I’ve read so far, I’m guessing that Goldsby came out of the womb funny, grew up with a funny sister and was raised by funny parents. She had a childhood I thought existed only in movies, full of off-beat characters and quirky adventures.

It’s like the book cover says: “Imagine Carrie from Sex and the City playing the Marriott.”

Early in the book, Goldsby talks about her father’s jazz trio, which was made up of Bob Rawsthorne (her father), the drummer, Carl McVicker, the bass player, and Johnny Costa on the piano. And she briefly mentions Bob’s regular gig, saying, “For thirty years, my dad was the drummer and vibes player for the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program.” Then she goes on to describe Costa’s piano playing, his various eccentricities and her relationship with her father’s friend.

Being a struggling jazz pianist, I wanted to know more about Costa, so I went to YouTube to find videos of him performing. I discovered that Bob, Carl and Johnny weren’t just three musicians who did the music for Mr. Rogers. They were three amazing jazz artists who played live on every show. All that music that I barely noticed as a kid, as an adult, makes me say, “Wow.” One video I stumbled upon shows Costa explaining how he built the music around the song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which Fred Rogers wrote. Listen to it and pay attention to what’s going on. And keep in mind that Costa, Bob and Carl played that song (and all the songs) live for every show. As a kid, I considered “Neighborhood” something I had to sit through to get to the good stuff. Now, I am amazed that kind of music was being created for bunch of kids, like me, who couldn’t consciously appreciate it.

There’s another great video of Fred Rogers asking his audience if they’d like to know where the music comes from. Then he walks off the set and into the sound stage, to the area where the trio sits. Rogers breaks down the “Neighborhood” song by asking each musician to play his part. THAT’S what was going on in the background while we were traveling back and forth on the trolley between Mr. Roger’s house and Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers was a remarkable man. I’ve known that ever since I saw the 1969 video of Rogers defending PBS to the U.S. Senate and the night in 1997 when he brought every member of the Daytime Emmy audience to tears. After learning about his love of music and the jazz trio that played on every episode of his show, I realize there was so much more to Mr. Rogers: He gave us gifts we didn’t even know we were getting. Wrapped up in his puppets and rhyming lyrics, he was treating us to jazz from one of America’s best jazz trios.

Mr. Rogers was a total badass. And we were lucky kids.

Required reading: Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood: Letters to Mr. Rogers.

Cover me

Listening to: Diana Krall. Live in Paris.

I spent the evening with a very large book, Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art, by Alan Cowsill. After reading the Forward by Adi Granov, my favorite Marvel cover artist (if I had to pick one, but don’t make me), and the Introduction by Cowsill, I found myself calling for “more intro.”

But two pages of opening text is all you get. Because, as Cowsill writes, “the art comes first.”

And the art is amazing. But so are the words. Cowsill’s cover descriptions do a great job of capturing what makes each piece special and the unique contributions of the artists. You’ll want to read every word he’s written.

Before opening the book, I thought I knew what my favorite cover of all time was: Iron Man #76, from March 2004, by Granov. But as I flipped through the pages, making a list of the covers I liked best, I began to suspect that I have many favorites. And those favorites change, depending on the day I’m doing the choosing.

Here’s today’s list of favorites:

Granov’s Iron Man. Of course.

Captain America #1 by Jack Kirby (March 1941) — Captain America punches out Hitler (when Marvel was called “Timely”).

Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. #4 by Jim Steranko (September 1968) — Very mod, with a psychedelic thing going on. The bright blue of Fury is set against a black-and-white graphics background. (I also like #6, with the bright colors of Fury’s space suit set against the stark background of space and the exploding Earth.)

Amazing Spider-Man #50 by John Romito Sr. (July 1967) — I’m not a Spider-Man fan. But. This “Spider-Man No More!” cover with Peter Parker turning his back on the superhero life is one of the best. An unusual style for the time, it looks ahead to the designs that emerge in the late ’80s.

Anything by Boris Vallejo, who worked in the ’70s, drawing zombies and vampires

Machine Man #1-4 by Barry Windsor-Smith (of Conan fame). 1984-85

David Finch‘s work with The New Avengers (2005), especially his approach to Captain America. (Generally, I’m drawn to the later covers, when the art gets darker.) And, yeah, Finch does Batman.

The New Avengers #27 by Leinil Francis Yu (April 2007) — Ronin takes on a hoard of ninja assassins led by Elektra.

All the Hawkeye covers by David Aja (2012-2013) — Especially #8 with the character Cherry centered on a red background.

Thor #601 by Marko Djurdjevic (June 2009) — Shows Thor’s home, Asgard, and is just downright gorgeous.

Fantastic Four 1234 #1 by Jae Lee (October 2001) — Ben Grimm on Yancy Street.

Guardians of the Galaxy #7 by Sara Pichelli (November 2013) — Woman artists are rare in this world. But I highlight Pichelli not because she’s a “she,” but because I love what she did with the Guardians.

Marvel Zombies #1 by Arthur Suydam (2006) — All Suydam’s zombie covers are great, but the #1 homage to Amazing Fantasy #15 is a standout (February 2006).

Chris Bachalo‘s Amazing Spider-Man “punch” covers #575 and 576 (2008-2009) — featuring Hammerhead.

I’d be interested to hear what other people pick as faves.


Jazz is for kids

Listening to: Harry Connick, Jr. The NY Big Band Concert.

Learn jazz like a kid. This is what I remind myself when I reach the point at which I feel like throwing in the towel. And it’s always on a night when I’ve been sitting at the piano for hours, trying improvise, because I kind of stink at it. And it seems to be a mental thing: I want to do it right. Which reflects a crazy, grown-up, riff-killing frame-of-mind. Kids don’t swear off Legos because they’re afraid they’ll never build something right. “Creating” and “right” don’t combine in children’s heads. At least, not until they start listening to us, the grown-ups, who pass onto them all the nonsense we’ve been collecting since that first moment someone explained to us, “You’re supposed to color in the lines.”

I suspect a kid would approach learning improvisation in a much different way from me. A child wouldn’t even use the word “learn.” She’d say “do.” As in “do Legos.” Because no one “learns” the steps to creating. We all begin our lives with that knowledge.

The enormous challenge for me, as someone who has been educated in all the right ways to construct sentences and develop marketing plans, is to stop looking for the lines. As I’ve written before and truly believe, “There are no wrong notes in jazz.” And yet, I’m thoroughly encumbered by the fear of them.

I can remember a time when I approached the piano with complete conviction that whatever sound I produced was magic. To quote Gonzo the Great Philosopher, “I’m going to go back there someday.”

I’d love to get advice on improvisation. What do you think about when you sit down to create? Or when you want to add your own sound to a favorite standard? What guides you?


If you haven’t watched Oscar Peterson’s BBC special, do that now. About halfway through the show, Peterson and Count Basie play together and talk about coming of age as a musician. Highlight: their memories of Art Tatum. Basie was a funny man, and Peterson’s keyboard impressions of Tatum are brilliant.

The two men also provide a lesson on improvisation: You don’t need a lot. Just great rhythm and interesting sounds. (That said, Peterson ends the special with a performance that reminds you why people called him the “Maharaja.”)

Super Sting saves the show

Listening to: Sting. Fields of Gold.

Photo: St. Clouds restaurant. Seattle

I’ve been reading about “The Last Ship,” a show on Broadway for which Sting wrote the music and lyrics and that I’d like to see. (No idea how or when, since I sit on the other side of the country. But.) The story is kind of a downer and the production got mixed reviews. So, popular it isn’t, as Yoda would say.

To keep the show alive, Sting has announced that he will join the cast.

The New York Times calls this “one of the boldest gambles in many a theater season,” which seems like a create-conflict-make-news exaggeration. How risky is it to put Sting on stage singing his own songs? Granted, the last time he appeared in a Broadway musical was Threepenny Opera in 1989, and the reviews were terrible. Still, it’s Sting. And we’ve seen this strategy work before. When Billie Joe Armstrong joined the cast of “American Idiot,” ticket sales more than doubled. (But when Armstrong left, the box office numbers dropped.)

If I weren’t 3000 miles away, I’d definitely buy a ticket to see/hear Sting in “The Last Ship.” But since I can’t, the best I can do is watch from afar and follow what happens when he joins the cast on December 9.

I’ve ordered Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art from the Seattle Public Library. My friend Manu sent me a link to a blurb (that the WSJ won’t let me access without a subscription) that focuses on Alan Cowsill’s forward in which he discusses “the groundbreaking approach that allowed [Marvel] to humanize its superheroes.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

About a month ago, I wrote about Elliot Smith and my love of Sad Songs. And I said that I would post my sketch for a song called “We’ll dance like we never met.” I’m still wrestling with the dance in the middle, and today I decided I don’t like the intro. But here are the bones of a verse.