Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Jamming Solo at Fermento in Milan

September 6, 2013
bradspurgeon

fermento milan

fermento milan

MILAN – Playing together with other musicians is the essence, even the definition of a jam session, and how it differs from an open mic, where individual performers may take to the stage and do their thing solo. But the one thing that an open jam and an open mic do share in common is that word “open,” and the musical freedom that it entails. Last night in Milan, the open jam session at the Fermento Art ‘n Pub proved to me once and for all that it is really, and truly open.

Last night was my fourth year in a row at which I have attended the Fermento jam during the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix in the nearby suburb of Monza. But it was the first time that I was invited by Lucio Omar Falco, the cool bass-playing MC and organizer of the jam to take to the stage all by myself with just my voice and guitar.

In fact, it was the first time I have seen any solo performance at the Fermento jam. Of course, wiser readers than I might interpret this as Lucio’s way of saying, “OK, Brad, we’ve heard enough of you in the past three years to know that we’d rather not play with you!”

In fact, no. I don’t think so, given that Lucio kept on signalling me on from the wings to do another song. In the end, I did four, two of my own and two covers. I probably chose badly the last one, “Wicked Game,” and depressed them all, and thus lost the stage. But it made my night.

No, wait. What also made my night was the level of the quality of the jam session, both with the regular musicians of Lucio’s band, and those of the participants.

I forgot to mention another thing on the “open” theme: Although this jam session is primarily blues-based, Lucio knows I don’t really play any classic blues, and he let me play anyway. And that’s another aspect of the “open” thing. There was a lot of the music that was more rock and even a little fusion jazz stuff. All in all, a fun night at a cool restaurant/bar and art space.

Jammin’ at the Classy Blues-sphere Venue in Liège, Belgium

August 24, 2013
bradspurgeon

blues-sphere

blues-sphere

Liège, Belgium – On this, my fifth year of my worldwide open mic adventure, I think no other city that I visit has the distinction of providing me with a different place to play almost every year the way Liège has. And that is not necessarily a good distinction: Unfortunately, each year that I come here a place I jammed at the previous year no longer exists.

But so far, the good thing is that each time I come here I DO find another place to play. Last night, I actually had two choices, on the same street, less than 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel. Last night, I visited both the Surlet bar and the Blues-sphere bar, both located on the rue Surlet, in downtown Liège, in Outremeuse.

I was with a work colleague after a long day at the track, and so I felt I had to decide between to the two venues and not do both of them the same night as I would otherwise have done. So we visited both of them, and I was welcomed warmly by each.

Each of these bars holds an open jam session on the Friday night in Liège. The Surlet is a little more open, from what I could tell, allowing any music anyone wishes to play. But last night I had the sense also that it was pretty much loud rock and pop oriented.

The True Open Jam Approach at the Blues-sphere

When I arrived around 10 PM, it was not particularly well attended, either, but the musicians were just warming up. I went to the Blues-sphere and found it deep in the action. The downside was it was geared specifically to jazz and blues, and I’m not adept at either. But the delightfully friendly and encouraging Jean-Paul (I think his name is!) who runs the bar and the jam, said I was welcome to play something as long as it approached the jazz blues area, rather than something purely in the pop vein.

The room has a fabulous feel to it, the stage in the corner was irresistible and the sound was excellent. The walls were decorated with photos of musicians, there were tables spotted about the place and a very well attended open jam with many spectators and musicians made it so I had an easy choice to make: I settled for the Blues-sphere.

As I said, I would have performed at both places under different circumstances. But as it was, I was really pleased with my choice, as I got to do two songs – Wicked Game and Mad World – and I had a drummer, bassist, lead guitar player and pianist (on the first song) play along with me. And a receptive, warm, audience.

Th Blues-sphere, according to Jean-Paul, has been in operation in this spot for about a year, and before that they had organized jams in two or three other spots over the last two years. The place hosts concerts at other times, mostly blues and jazz, like the jam. It has very much the look and feel of a New York jazz bar, and I was delighted to play there.

A Better Musical Scene Than Meets the Eye in Liège

The level of many of the musicians – there was a very good 15-year-old guitarist, by the way – was such that it reinforced my feeling about the musicality of Liège, and made me realize that if I could spend more time in the city and seek out more places, I’d probably find a much richer musical scene than the one I have found so far with each successive bar closing down or jam stopping. I was very sad to see on Thursday night, for instance, that the famous Bouldou bar and venue in the center of town where I had played two years ago was now boarded up and looking like a ghost house. All done. Just like the Café L’Art from 2009-2010. I am now hoping that the jam I attended at the Cuba Libré bar last year is still around and holding a jam and that I will finally be able to play in the same place twice!

Worldwide Open Mic Thumbnail Guide: Nice (& Monaco) Edition

May 24, 2013
bradspurgeon

Cote d'AzurMONACO – For my seventh city installment of my worldwide open mic guide today I am loading my Nice (& Monaco) page. As a reminder, it all started with my now very popular Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and due to that guide’s success, I decided this year to do a similar guide for each of the cities I travel to during my worldwide open mic tour.

Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy

The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.

More Experience Than Existing Open Mics

Unfortunately, given the ephemeral nature of open mics – and bars themselves – in virtually all of the cities in the guide my own personal experience of playing open mics in the city in question usually goes way beyond the number of venues listed, since they things arise and close very frequently.

Mostly Open Mics and Jam Sessions in Nice, Not Monaco

I do not claim that this worldwide open mic directory is anything other than a quirky Brad Spurgeon centric guide, based mostly on my travel as a journalist following the Formula One series around the world. It is for that reason, in fact, that I include Monaco on this latest list: Monaco is where the race takes place, and most of the people who attend the race stay in Nice, because it’s cheaper than Monaco. It is also more conducive to open mics and open jam sessions. Over the years I have always been able to play in Monaco, but usually as an invited guest by generous musicians. So there is no real listing for Monaco!!! McCarthy’s Pub was a mainstay, but I heard it was all over now, and I have not yet confirmed if that was an illusion… I no doubt will, though, so keep posted…!

So here, now, in any case is the Thumbnail Guide to Nice (& Monaco) Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. Please do help me whenever you have information to give me on the venues – i.e., especially if they close down!

Playing in the Jazz Jam at the Shapko Bar in Nice, and Running Out of Batteries, but not Steam

May 23, 2013
bradspurgeon

shapko jam

shapko jam

NICE, France – I mentioned in my post yesterday that one of the places I stopped off at looking for a jam was the Shapko Bar in old nice. So last night, I stopped off there again, and who should be standing in the doorway with his sax around his neck and greeting me but Mr. Dimitri Shapko himself.

“Come in! You’ve come to the right place!” he said, when I told him I was looking for music. “It’s a jam session – we’re just taking a break.”

“With that sax around your neck, I can see it’s a real break,” I said, or something like that.

Shapko is the coolest Russian sax player I know – OK, the only one too – and he lives in Nice – which if you go back a century had a lot of other Russians – and he owns and operates this extremely cool and laid back music bar. Wednesdays, it turned out, was the vocal jam night, open to anyone, but with some very fine musicians on the nice round stage to back up any singer brave enough – or with a big enough misplaced ego – to join them.

It Was an Open Jam at Shapko and Not Just Jazz

I say misplaced ego, because although it was clearly a jazz jam, I decided after at first rejecting the offer from the guitar player, to take to the stage to sing a song. And after all, Dimitri, in his career has played with people like Wynton Marsalis, Al Grey, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Ali Jackson, Jeniffer Vincent, Steve Kirby, Doug Sides and Debora Carter. But in fact, I had reasoned that some of the songs – like “Route 66,” and like “Summertime” – did not necessarily have to be interpreted as jazz. So I reached into the deep well of my easily-played popular song bag, and I came up with the entirely non-jazz song of “Wicked Game.” I just knew that if I played those three chords throughout, then Dimitri, the lead guitarist, the pianist, the woman drummer, and the upright acoustic base player would be able to work magic behind my three chords, and I’d get to sing in Shapko’s with these insanely great musicians.

SO that’s what I did, and I loved it. So much fun, and so beautiful to be able to play with such talent, especially when it is NOT a pop/rock night.

And the Batteries Died on My Recording Devices for the Jam Session

AND especially when the evening had actually begun in a very inauspicious and stupid way. My batteries on my Zoom recorder ran out after I had recorded only two songs. And when I reached into my guitar bag to get the extra batteries I always carry with me, I found them gone. AND then I decided to record some stuff with my iPhone, and before I could even get to the camera on it, the iPhone ran out of battery power.

So I was left with just the two videos of a night full of fabulous performers and vocalists. But it was a great, great evening anyway. This venue is one of THE venues to visit in Nice if you happen to visit – either to play or simply to listen. There is no cover charge, and for music of this quality in most major cities, there WOULD be a cover charge.

Thanks Dimitri and the gang at Shapko, I’ll no doubt drop by again before the weekend is over, even if not to consider playing….

Melting into the Scene at the Melting Pot in Shanghai

April 17, 2012
bradspurgeon

Brad Spurgeon at the Melting Pot jam in Shanghai

Brad Spurgeon at the Melting Pot jam in Shanghai

The Melting Pot jam sessions in Shanghai have been among my favorite the last two times I came to this city. I first managed to discover it in 2010 when I was spending an unscheduled extra night in the city thanks to the panic of the Icelandic volcano ash that prevented me from taking my flight out of the city. This year, I had a scheduled stay in the city, but the ash cloud of the unrest in Bahrain sits over me and my colleagues as we wait to travel to that country for our next race. I could not think of a better when than to attend the Melting Pot jam and plug in and play and sing with the new house band.

In fact, the house band seems to have changed each year I have gone. It was in the Melting Pot two years ago that I saw Joe Chou do the weirdest thing with my Seagull guitar, turning it into a sitar… when he was the guy running the show. Then last year it was someone else. This year, it was a very hot bass player from the U.S. named Dnotes. Dnotes played some wicked six-string bass AND sang some classics, more jazz than I found at the House of Jazz & Blues, in fact. And on keyboards last night was the breathtaking playing of Robert Turner.

It also turned out that JJ Davis, my friend Jeff of Bee Dee’s, showed up to play and sing throughout the night. I managed to take a few videos, and I tried desperately today to get them all up, but I managed only to get one of them onto YouTube. I really wanted to put up the video of the Chinese dancers, for instance. But I finally got goosed by Chinese Internet policies, and no matter how hard I tried or what tricks I used, I could only find the wherewithal to get the one short video up.

I also have some photos of me playing there that were taken by one of my F1 journalist colleagues, Simon Arron, whom I thank profusely. I’d have wanted to put more of those up too – but goosed again.

By the way, I was amused to hear Dnotes introduce the dancers as Chinese “Lockers.” He was refering to the trailblazing group of American dancers from the 1970s, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and appearing on the same TV show with in 1976…! (Bang, Bang, You’re Alive!)

I learned today that Dnotes and Robert Turner have some pretty impressive CVs, which explains why I and my F1 colleagues were so impressed – with Simon pointing out that Turner sounded a lot like Billy Preston.

Oh, almost forgot! My two songs – What’s Up! and Mad World – went OK, and I can thank my other colleague, Mark Hughes, for figuring out how to turn on my Roland R-26 and record me playing with the band as part of my year’s effort to record me playing with musicians in each country I visit this year.

Lame (and Expensive) Time at the House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai

April 15, 2012
bradspurgeon

I do not see myself as a music critic, I wouldn’t be qualified enough to do that, and this blog is meant only as a kind of web diary of my experiences wandering the earth and playing music or listening to it in unique and unusual places and situations. But if I only wrote glowing, fantastic stories about everywhere I went, that would be pretty lame and unreadable. So I might as well say that I was terribly disappointed by my visit to the House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai last night.

I just stumbled across this venue next to my hotel and after my wonderful meal at the Shanghai Grand Ma restaurant in the Bund. With a name like House of Blues & Jazz and a facade worthy of the name, and a newspaper spread recounting the greatness of this legendary local venue, I knew that I had to go in and check it out, even though there would be no chance of playing there myself.

I had had two sensational evenings before that, as I reported on the blog, so I was content to finally make an early night of it and take in a scene at the local legendary blues and jazz club. The first disappointment was the 50 yuan cover charge, but that’s only around eight or so euros, so I thought it was not exactly going to break the bank.

I paid the cover, went into the place just as the band began its set, and saw a nice comfortable stage, high ceilings, photos of jazz musicians in black and white all over the place, tables high and low, a long bar, ornate wooden finishings, a cool and comfortable place. And it was so packed there was no place to sit. The fact that it was the cocktail drinking afterwork crowd with some suits and ties and a few other monied-class signature ornaments did not entirely put me off, even if it was a huge contrast say, to Bee Dee’s, where things felt much less posh and much more comfortable.

But when I found my old friend, Kilkenny beer on tap at the counter, I thought, “Great, I’ll take a pint of Kilkenny, as I do in Paris or all over the world.” When they then charged me 80 yuan for the beer, or just over 10 euros, I thought, wait a minute, what is this? I’m in Shanghai where a pint of regular beer should cost a fraction of that, where I did not have to pay a cover charge the previous night for a first class show of Chinese music, and where I got beer for an expensive half that price and absolutely superb and real music the night before that at Bee Dee’s, and here…

Suddenly I started comparing things in my mind already with Bee Dee’s, and inevitably, looking around at the crowd in this joint that pays 80 yuan for a Kilkenny… then I moved over to a pillar and stood there to listen to the band. It was the Greg Luttrell band from Boston, and I am very sorry, because Greg can play a mean electric guitar, and from what I read on his web site, he must have a mean singing voice too. But my perception was hugely colored by the fabulous guitar playing of local boy Joe Chou at Bee Dee’s, and I thought that personally, in terms of value for money, I’d take Joe Chou and Bee Dee’s any day, over this venue that in my opinion goes right against the grain of the jazz and blues tradition. It was also a real pain to wonder what Greg’s voice really sounds like, because from where I stood the mic on his voice, or the amp or PA it came out of, did not make it possible to pick up any understanding of the grain of that voice, or what it really sounds like.

I thought of staying around long enough to tell Greg that he would do well to see if someone could do a better job on the mic, but I got too bored, and returned back to my hotel and made an early night of it. Fortunately, my Zoom Q3 HD is a good filtering recorder and you can actually hear his voice much better in the videos than I could live. In the end, the other thing that perturbed me was that this was not even jazz or blues, really. Oh, I was amused and interested that he performed Pink Floyd’s “Time,” just a week after I learned that song myself! I hadn’t heard anyone doing it until then….

It’s one thing to feel you’re robbed by attending an expat’s Blues and Jazz room, but I realized it only made me appreciate even more stuff like Bee Dee’s and Dreams of old Shanghai. There is a true difference between a bona fide, music-loving, grass-roots joint and a successful business catering to the monied classes. I’ll go for the former any day.

Marianne Bp Gives Me a Jazz Lesson

March 1, 2012
bradspurgeon

I grew up with jazz in my home. My dad was a jazz lover, I ended up seeing live performances by people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Keith Jarrett. I heard and met Gene Krupa when I was seven, in a jazz club in Toronto. Later, I sent myself to concerts by people like Weather Report, and Jaco Pastorius in solo…. I have NEVER tried to play or sing jazz, considering it impossible. Last night over dinner with the beautiful and talented Marianne Bp, I had an important lesson in what makes up a jazz standard, and it actually changed my idea of what jazz is.

Basically, the wide-ranging conversation – Marianne writes poetic texts, songs and she is just finishing a book – ended up leading into talking about her debut music video that she just released a week or two ago. I told her again how much I loved the video, and how cool it looked and sounded. But I also sort of spoke aloud a thought I had on my mind for a long time, even before she did the video.

She had told me a couple of months ago that one of her projects was to take the lyrics from jazz standards and to put them to music and just completely turn them on their head, modernizing them and doing them her own way. The first video, in fact, was one of those songs: “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.”

She not only uses original lyrics in English, but she also throws in some French lyrics. The whole is very inventive, and I loved both the idea and the execution. So in dreaming aloud about it last night, and thinking about the potential of the song, I said, “One of the thoughts I had about this was that it seems too cool to have not been tried before, this idea of taking the lyrics of a jazz standard and doing it completely your own way, sort of improvising out something new.” And I was thinking that I was wondering just where that could fit in with the acceptance on behalf of jazz lovers and jazz musicians.

Before I said anything about that latter bit, she said: “Oh, but that is exactly what doing a jazz standard has always been about. Taking the old song and completely reinterpreting it and doing it your own way.”

Huh?

“The history of jazz music is made up of that precise thing: Taking the original and changing stuff, adding stuff, dropping stuff, doing your own music, improvising.”

Really?

“Yeah,” she said, “check it out on Wikipedia, if you want.”

The English wikipedia item on Jazz Standards does not emphasize that aspect, but the French wikipedia item on Jazz Standards certainly does. And so does a site devoted to jazz standards. In fact, all I had to think about was also how John Coltrane completely transformed “My Favorite Things….” (Even though he did not use lyrics.)

So suddenly I realized that not only was Marianne right about that, but that her interpretation of Gee Baby was not only one that I loved and thought very cool and far out, but it was actually super acceptable as part of a tradition of making standards new and different and personal.

Thanks for the lesson Marianne, and for the music.

P.S. By the way, Marianne also told me some interesting things about the filming of the video. There are parts where she seems to be walking in an odd way. She is: She filmed herself and a chauffeur walking backwards, and then the reversed the film in the video so it actually appears as if they are walking forwards…but weirdly. You see the cars behind them all going backwards. Just as original as the sound of the music.

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