on life, music etc beyond mainstream


2018 31 Mrz

Andy Sheppard Quartet

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What is it about this quartet that makes them so special and such a pleasure to listen to? First of all, it’s the chemistry. These four players know just how to play together. Total compatibility. Then I think it’s the honesty. It’s not easy to make simple music this beguiling. It’s not easy to make music this harmonically stripped down, yet so texturally complex and melodically seductive.

At first, I thought, well, it’s so diatonic I will be bored in 10 minutes. But I wasn’t. Was it Andy’s breathy lyricism, or Elvind Aarset’s magical colors? Michel Benita’s sensitive support on bass, or Seb Rochefort’s perfectly intuitive drumming? Whatever it is, I keep finding myself longing for more of this music. Listening on the trail, it reflects the beauty of the natural world, those rare states of consciousness where one experiences the direct apprehension of nature without the descriptive mind having to constantly dialogue about it. That’s what this music does: It sounds like what it is, a direct communication of beauty, reflectiveness, with occasional moments of fire amidst the immense seas of tranquility and melancholy. It’s therapeutic in that it washes the mind clean, a sound purification filter for the soul.

So I checked out the earlier, Surrounded by Sea and found a similar, inviting world. I think of them as bookends, twin worlds, or at least parallel worlds.

Living quite happily with both of these, I ask fellow manifonistas if this group has any other recordings prior to these two ECM releases, and if so, where I can find them.




I just watched this fantastic documentary last night.  Director Emma Franz lets candid conversations and live footage tell the story in lieu of narration, revealing an artist who has never stood still, constantly reinventing himself yet, paradoxically, always sounding exactly like himself. It’s funny, surprising, occasionally dramatic, personable and engaging,  just like Bill’s music. A diverse group of great musicians from Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon to John Zorn, Jim Hall, John Abercrombie and Michael Gibb talk about the universal appeal and influence of Bill’s music. Many of the people he plays with, such as Joey Baron, the late Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Ron Carter, share stories and thoughts about their collaboration. What emerges is a portrait of one of the most dedicated players/composers alive, who also happens to be one of the nicest guys in the business. Essential viewing.

This film is available for purchase here:

It’s also available for viewing if you’re an Amazon Prime member. (It’s probably rentable as well.)


2018 13 Mrz

For Misty

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Beyond the lost past,
Beyond all fading memory,
Beyond the smell of decaying leaves
And the half remembered taste of warm bread one winter’s morning in late December,
and how you laughed in delight at our delight,
I love you
Beyond the frail tendrils of dying cells
Flaming out in super novas of forgotten embraces
I love you
Beyond the loss of your very self,
And even your own name,
Beyond the loss of your senses,
And the loss of making sense-
And Memories disappearing behind you
Like trains uncoupling and abandoned on empty snow covered tracks,
fading into darkness,
silent and still,
I love you
Beyond hope,
Beyond reason,
Beyond the loss of everything precious,
I love you
Now, now and now and for always,
Beyond time,
Beyond the body,
Beyond unspeakable pain,
Beyond the horrifying recognition of
The broken mind,
The heart is alive, intact
And perfect
This is how I see you,
And I will love and hold you in my heart forever
And always.

2018 8 Mrz

Satie for Two

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Erik Satie has been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading Mary E. Davis’s excellent biography, Erik Satie (Reaktion Books, 2007), as well as listening to and playing some of his music for piano.

Satie was a complex man who struggled with opposing parts of his nature. He was at various times a bohemian, a religious zealot (he formed his own church,) Dadaist, bourgeois wannabe, and on rare occasions, a romantic. Like the late Frank Zappa, he shared a yearning to be taken seriously, injecting satire and humor into his pieces just in case he wasn’t—as if to say, “Hey man, it’s all a joke anyway.” And maybe just because, at heart, he was simply an absurdist.

Satie admired and befriended Debussy, who admired him back and borrowed liberally from him. Debussy proved to be the better orchestrator and a master of the long form, but Satie’s ear-inspired miniatures live on, continuing to delight and baffle musicians and music lovers. Debussy often gets credited for being the first modernist, (as he was in a recent NYT article,) but Satie was playing in the same harmonic sandbox at least a decade before „Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.“ Furthmore, it could be argued that Satie was the first minimalist as well.

One such piece, „Vexations“ was written in answer to his feelings of anger and grief over the loss of his one true love, Suzanne Valadon, an artist and fellow bohemian. Completely taken with the young painter and ex-circus performer, Satie asked her to marry him the day they met. She politely demurred, but shortly after, moved into the room right next door to Satie’s apartment in Montmartre. He called her Biqui and once wrote, “Impossible to stop thinking about your whole being: you are in me complete, everywhere, I see nothing but your exquisite eyes, your gentle hands, and your little child’s feet.“ Their turbulent fling lasted all of 6 months, and after that, it is said Satie never took another lover. Summing up his experience, he said that he believed love to be simply “a sickness of the nerves.”

„Vexations“ is a short, slow little piece of which Satie asks the player to perform no less than 840 times. Last September at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, it was played for almost 20 hours by 20 pianists in something that resembled a marathon relay race or an ancient, esoteric ritual: One by one, as one pianist was finishing their hour of repetitions, another would slowly step up and seamlessly begin the piece over again without missing a beat. Incidentally, just to mess with the player a little more, „Vexations“ is written with strange enharmonic spellings, and no matter how many times it’s played, somehow one still feels it’s anyone’s guess what the next note might be. It is rife with tritones, an interval traditionally thought to be extremely dissonant – every beat contains one. Perhaps this was Satie’s way of venting, or doing penance for his transgressions. (He blamed himself for the falling out with Valadon.)

Satie’s music is full of eccentric directions to the player. One of  the most famous of these is the direction to play a passage “like a nightingale with a toothache.” Satie was also fond of writing little stories beneath the music. Sometimes they were programmatic, other times they were seemingly completely unrelated. The text serves as a subtext that subtly informs the player’s interpretation. At times, while reading these, one gets the sense that a crazy but harmless grandfather is whispering in one’s ear. There’s even a piece which explicitly admonishes the player never to read the text aloud while being performed—because it might precipitate the Apocalypse.

Looking recently for a complete set of Satie’s piano music, I found that there really isn’t one; every “complete set” is missing something. On top of that, there are many posthumously unearthed piano pieces, some of which have only been published in the last 50 years.

I just came across a fairly comprehensive recording of Satie’s piano music, performed by the very gifted Cristina Ariagno. She has the touch and gets the tempos just right, not too slow as many pianists, such as Leeuw, make the mistake of doing, and never rushed. Unfortunately, this collection doesn’t include any of the pieces Satie wrote for 4 hands. In an inspired bit of programming, this set is organized by thematic material (Greek-inspired, Rosicrucian, whimsical humor, Sports and Divertissements, music for theater, etc.) as opposed to the usual chronological order. As such it really sheds light on the different sides of both the man and the artist. (Ms Ariagno also plays the aforementioned Vexations 42 times, filling up disc 6.)

My first introduction to Satie’s music came in the form of  the lovely and appropriately quirky album, The Velvet Gentleman, Music of Erik Satie. Performed by the Camerata Contemporary Chamber Group, this strange and surprisingly beautiful album came out in about 1970; thus far it has never been released in digital form. Capturing both the beauty and humor of his music, it features a number of his most popular pieces and some lesser known compositions,  arranged for a small chamber orchestra with Moog synthesizer. It’s a little dated today, but that’s part of its charm. And after all, we’re talking about Erik Satie here, so charm is an essential ingredient.

The Camarata made a couple of other Satie albums. One that’s almost impossible to find (and which I’ve yet to hear,) is called Through the Looking Glass. Another, The Electronic Satie, is available for free in MP3 format here. It’s not nearly as good as The Velvet Gentleman, though, relying far too much on the Moog synthesizer for my tastes.

As I mentioned earlier, Satie struggled to find a sense of artistic legitimacy; he desperately wanted to be respected by his peers. At 39, he went so far as to enroll in the conservative Schola Cantorum to study counterpoint with Vincent D’Indy. After about 5 years of study, he made it through the entire program, securing his degree. But when he went back to composing, although his new pieces were rigorously constructed, employing strict counterpoint in fugal, chorale, or sonata form, he soon realized his music had suffered at the hands of his hard-earned academic rigor. “What on earth have I been doing with D’Indy?” he wrote. “The things I wrote before had such charm! Such depth! And now? How boring and uninteresting!” Eventually, he abandoned these labored efforts and went back to a more natural writing style.

Which reminds me of a story:

I once had a composition teacher who, the first time I came to see him, asked me to play for him. After my nervous performance, he said, “There once was a man who lived in the middle of the forest. He built a little cabin in the woods, where he cleared the trees and planted a garden. He lived in the middle of this woodland paradise with his lovely wife. But it wasn’t enough for him. Instead of staying in his peaceful forest retreat, he went on a quest, looking for answers, the holy grail, more knowledge—even he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Meanwhile, his beautiful wife sat alone in his secluded forest home, pining away for him.”

It appears eventually Satie returned home to a tiny suburban retreat outside Paris, where he set up house with his muse and continued to compose. For the last 20 odd years of his life, he never let anyone enter his apartment, which after his death, amidst the squalor, was found to be filled with drawings, writings, and quite a number of unpublished pieces, both unfinished and complete.

2018 19 Feb

Local Boy Makes Good

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Julian Lage was just a kid when I first heard him play, maybe around 12 or 13. He would get onstage with some heavyweight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival and just blow everyone away. His dad took him to all the shows, where he met everybody and often got to jam with them onstage. He was a bonafide wunderkind.

At the tender age of 15, Julian went on the road with Gary Burton and the rest is, as they say, history. He has since released 6 solo albums and it turned out that not only could the kid play – he can write.

I saw him for the first time as leader of a trio a couple years ago with Scott Colley on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Dave Holland, Charles Lloyd and Richie Beirach were among the jazz luminaries in the audience, but it didn’t faze the 28 year old prodigy: he played a confident and loose set, smiling much of the time as he performed his no tricks guitar pyrotechnics without breaking a sweat.

I just saw him last night at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg CA with his current touring trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Erick Doob. They tore it up, playing tunes from his rootsy and diverse Arclight as well as the new release, Modern Lore.

What I get from watching Lage is he has this great love affair going on with the guitar. He makes it sing, growl, scream, shout and croon. He played slow, slinky ballads and wild uptempo Ornette inspired free pieces, and just about everything in between with aplomb. He played the craziest intro I’ve ever heard to the old standard I’ll Be Seeing You, sounding as my guitarist friend said, Bach on acid. No shit, it really did. He has this way of rocking out, that reminds me of some of the early rock guitar legends, such as Johnny Guitar Watson, and rockabilly maestros such as Carl Perkins, not to mention country (and sometimes jazz) guitarist Chet Atkins. In this regard, he has a kindred spirit in Bill Frisell, a guitarist who often sounds very country when he’s not reaching for the stratosphere with loops and other effects.

But Lage uses no effects whatsoever, yet he manages to coax an extraordinary number of diverse sounds out of his Telecaster and a Fender amp, with just his fingers and a tone knob. The word ‘resourceful’ comes immediately to mind: He seems to be inventing techniques on the fly, as he grabs the middle of the neck and strums it while picking a separate line, or plays muted arpeggios while managing to lay a beautifully rendered melody on top. He does these wildly accurate chromatic runs up the neck, often ending in little screech that has a signature sound, reminding me of Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn squeals. One minute he can be as down home and bluesy as B.B. King, the next as heady and melodic as John Abercrombie. You can hear the entire history of the guitar, sometimes in one song, sometimes in one solo.

Another thing that really sets him apart from his peers is his amazing range of dynamics. It’s as though most players have something like maybe 5 gears of loudness; Lage has perhaps, 25 levels. He uses his dynamic sensibility to create musical tension that draws the listener in, sometimes coming down to an absolute whisper and then roaring back with a single powerful strum.

It’s great to hear such music, so filled with good feeling, humor, wit, humanity and optimism, played live. He was clearly enjoying himself, playing two 45 minute sets and after a standing ovation, coming back for a sweet encore with a ballad off the new album.

I just found out Julian will once again be opening the next Healdsburg Jazz Festival, this time playing duos with Bill Frisell. Perfect. Now that is a show I won’t miss.


2018 10 Feb

ECV – Sticks and Stones

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Just a footnote to my post about Marc Copland, not really a full blown review:

The new trio album, ECV by Canadian guitarist Roddy Ellias, Marc Copland and bassist Adrian Vedady really hits the chamber jazz sweet spot for me. It’s an all acoustic, superbly recorded album that blends folk, jazz, classical and avant- garde compositional techniques with plenty of room for blowing. This is a highly pleasurable listen from start to finish. There are mostly melodic pieces, but also a few that are pretty abstract, and even one that uses what sounds a lot like 12 tone techniques.

Overall it’s a downtempo affair, but it’s anything but sleepy background music. Lots of odd time signatures, contrapuntal writing and very deep listening going on. Copland responds perfectly to everything his band mates throw his way, making him a consummate accompanist. His solos are especially on point in this setting. Bassist Adrian Vedady, who I am unfamiliar with, has a bright tone and aggressive attack, similar to Eddy Gomez. He’s a supportive player, though his solos don’t immediately grab me, but will perhaps sink in over time.

As there are so few jazz players who have made the acoustic guitar their main instrument, it would be facile to describe Ellias’s writing and playing as similar to Towner’s. Towner’s writing has a signature sound that can be broken down into his neoclassical work, his world influenced writing and on occasion, a straight-ahead sound. While Ellias seems to mine those same veins of musical ore, somehow he comes up with a sound that doesn’t bring Towner to mind as much as one would think. His melodies are more angular, and his chord structures just don’t sound like Ralph’s. It’s like two master painters with slightly different palettes. As I’m not very familiar with Ellias’s work, it will take time to get to know his individual sound. I do like his writing, very much. As a soloist, Ellias is generally more spare, and his improvisational approach tends to be a bit more abstract than Towner’s.

The best thing I can say about this new recording is that I listened to it no less than 3 times yesterday.  It can be purchased (and at the best price I could find,) through


Sometimes an artist just sneaks up on you. You know about him, listen to him on different recordings, and one day, you just realize just how special he/she is.

I first became aware of Marc Copland on Songs Without End, a 1994 duo album with Ralph Towner. Copland was the perfect partner for Towner’s evanescent guitar. It’s not always easy to find that balance between piano and guitar, two chordal instruments that share a lot of the same sonic space, but these two found more than balance – they found the creative flexibility to sound almost orchestral, not just avoiding stepping on one another’s toes, but finding a synergistic platform that goaded each of them on, a good example being their interpretation of “Nardis,” which ascends to greater heights with every chorus.

When I think of Copland’s playing, words like elegant, understated and lyrical come immediately to mind. Copland uses his head and thinks on his feet, yet never loses touch with his heart, making for an appealing listening experience that is at once both intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling. Although he continued to record through the 90s and into the new century, I lost sight of him until he began recording on the ECM label with John Abercrombie. Abercrombie found the perfect foil in Marc Copland. The two seemed to have a telepathic connection, and Copland delved deeply into Abercrombie’s obtuse harmonies. He was on only 2 quartet albums with Abercrombie on ECM, 39 Steps and sadly, John’s very last album, the stunning Up and Coming (easily of the best albums of 2017.) Both are essential albums for any lover of contemporary jazz.

Copland is one of those pianists who is forever on the road to new discoveries. He never seems to go for the obvious thing; he is simply incapable of playing a lick. A supple and elastic player who can be surprisingly muscular at times, he is also one of the most melodic pianists on today’s scene. He is one among a shortlist of players who, over the years, have honed their unique voice in an overcrowded field of post-Evans sound-alikes.

After rediscovering Copland, I was dismayed that there were only two albums of him with John Abercrombie. Or so I thought – then I happily discovered there are earlier associations with Abercrombie that go all the way back to 1990. I recently spent an unnaturally warm winter afternoon cycling to Sebastopol, listening to Marc’s album Another Day (Pirouette-2008) which features Abercrombie, Drew Gress, Billy Hart, and it’s every bit as rewarding as either of the ECM quartet albums. (Incidentally, there’s also a duet album with Abercrombie, titled Speak to Me, which I am trying to get ahold of.)

I also discovered Alone, one of several solo titles on his Pirouet label. Nestled between reimagined standards such as „Soul Eyes“ and „I Should Care“, are completely reharmonized versions of three early Joni Mitchell tunes, „I don’t know Where I stand“, „Rainy Night House“ and „Michael from Mountains“. Not many jazz pianists are drawn to folk artists for inspiration, but here Copland finds a lot of play with. Above the subtly applied dissonance and metallic voicings, it’s all about melody. In her early days, Mitchell wrote beautiful melodies and Copland finds much to dig into. His originals, such as the mysterious „Night Whisperers“ and the evocative „Into Silence“, fall nicely between the cracks.

I discovered another gem on TIDAL, an album he made with the late Michael Brecker, entitled Marc Copland And … It’s a real find. Oddly enough, the aggressive post-bop sound that characterizes much of this recording is punctuated by three distinctly different versions of Paul Simon’s “Old Friends”. Each of his reharmonizations of one of Simon’s most heartfelt tunes is a little miracle.

Another association worth mentioning is the collaborative trio with Abercrombie and Kenny Wheeler. They made two excellent albums for the Challenge label, Brand New (1999) and That’s for Sure (2008.) It’s a treat hearing these masters laying down Wheeler and Abercrombie tunes in an intimate trio with no drums or bass. Both are well worth picking up, especially if you’re a rabid Wheeler fan, as I am.

Before closing, I must also mention the Gary Peacock Trio, whose album Tangents was one of 2017’s best trio releases. I saw them in concert last spring at SF Jazz ECM festival, sadly in a way, because the Abercrombie Quartet had originally been scheduled, but John was quite ill and had cancelled his west coast tour. It was an incredibly dynamic performance, and one of the highlights of my concert going adventures last year. It was my first time seeing Copland live – a powerful and moving experience. Copland manages to be both delicate and visceral, his flowing lines fly like magical arrows that always hit their target.

At times I hear a little Richie Beirach, other times I hear the late John Taylor, yet the more I listen to Marc Copland, the more I hear Marc Copland. I’ll be exploring his back catalog for many years to come.

[Footnote: there’s a new trio album called ECV, with guitarist Roddy Elias, Copland and bassist Adrian Veddady that I’ve been hearing good things about. John Kelman reviewed it recently on allaboutjazz. Will report back after I live with it a while.]


2018 27 Jan

Brush with Life

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[Suggestion: Try reading this piece while listening to the MP3, (with headphones if possible,) which although recorded in my studio, is typical of the kind of atmospheric free Eel River music we play down in the Yolla Bolly.]



“The trouble is, you think you have time.” — Jack Kornfield

Every year for more than a decade, my best friend/music partner and I have gone backpacking into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness region, a stretch of some 284-square miles of open country nestled deep in the Mendocino National Forest in northern California. My friend Pablo, a classical guitarist and singer who teaches music in elementary schools in the Bay Area, makes his home in the Bolly for a month nearly every summer to clear his head. He makes multiple trips down to the middle fork of the Eel River, where he sets up a luxurious campsite, complete with beach guitar, chairs, novels, sheet music, and plenty of amenities. There he practices Bach and composes with nothing but the river as his accompanist. When he is not practicing, the silence is only broken by the occasional sweet falling song of a bird calling in the wee hours of the morning and again at dusk.

About halfway through his solo trip, I come up to meet him in the little, colorful, sun-drenched town of Covelo, where the residents are a mix of Native Americans, hippies, and farmers. There we stock up on supplies at Keith’s Market before heading into the forest. It’s a 10-mile drive to the fire road, and then, to get to the trailhead, another 25 miles or so of rutted dirt roads, so funky that without four-wheel drive, one must go no faster than 15 mph – any attempt to drive faster will undoubtedly result in a flat tire. (I speak from experience.)

The drive in is breathtaking. Leveling off at around 4000 feet, the road winds through steep back-country, a near straight drop on one side revealing open land and distant mountains covered in fir and pine. Except for the rare lake, it’s a dry, rocky, and foreboding world.

Our ritual is always the same: We camp close to the trailhead the first night, grill some fresh chicken or salmon and veggies, and drink a cold bottle of Chardonnay. After breakfast we trek down to the river before the sun gets too high.



The walk to the river isn’t really that bad for a couple of older guys, even those with full packs and hangovers. A fire road for the first several miles, the trail to the river becomes a series of switchbacks straight down to the campsite. Across the river, rocky canyon walls dotted with trees reach straight for the sky. The river isn’t too wide here, no more than 30-feet across. Lush water plants and smooth rocks create small eddies, transforming the area into a peaceful sanctuary. Surrounding the campsite on two sides are low rock walls, which provide protection from the river as well as convenient food-preparation areas and a natural built-in fireplace. With its shade tree and sandy ground, it’s an ideal spot to pitch a tent.

Once we settle in, the routine is a simple, relaxing one: It’s often cold in the morning, so upon rising we don our down jackets and long underwear, get a fire going, and heat up water for coffee. The usual jokes are made after the previous night’s meal of notorious Indian Tasty Bites. I remark that the brand name of Pablo’s sleeping bag, “Windy Pass,” is apt. Soon we are sipping mugs of hot coffee and dipping spoons into bowls of oatmeal sprinkled with nuts and raisins. We are old friends and happy campers.

A typical day goes like this: For a while, Pablo will practice classical guitar while I tune up my chromatic thumb piano. Then we will dutifully head over to the sunny beach with the swimming hole next door. We will bring camp chairs, towels, a camp stove (to make a fresh pot of coffee later in the day), and a bag of biscotti, special treats crafted at the legendary Wild Flour Bakery. They are like the elven Lembas bread in Lord of the Rings: They seem to last forever and provide spiritual if not actual physical nourishment.

The rest of the day will be spent alternating between sunning ourselves on the beach, playing spontaneous kalimba and guitar duets in the shade, gazing at the “Tree of Life” (a vibrant tree that grows by the river and brims over with life force), napping, snacking, and doing yoga on the sand. Rinse and repeat. It is a good way to spend one’s time. All too soon, the sun will set over the top of the canyon, and we will head back to our campsite to make a fire and dinner. More jamming around the fire ensues before we head to bed.

Over the 15 years we have been visiting the area, there have been many day hikes. There are miles and miles of beautiful river and beaches to explore, not to mention mountain trails. Just upriver are multicolored fudge-cake layers of rock that hug the riverbank, and mysterious “moon-rocks,” sculpted over time by cascading waters, which create miniature pools that feed into a series of waterfalls—a natural fairyland.



Occasionally, we run into wildlife. One hot afternoon, while exploring, we came across a hidden pond in the woods, its surface covered with green algae and lily pads. Right in the middle of the water was a black bear, peacefully soaking, his head and shoulders exposed and eyes closed. We left quietly so as not to disturb his meditations.

Over the years, we came to think of the Yolla Bolly as our backyard and playground. Of course we were aware that it is, after all, wilderness. But we had grown to know it so well, we became inured to its very real dangers. Rattlesnakes are commonly found all over the area, and one has to be especially careful when climbing the rocks that a handhold isn’t a resting place for a sleeping viper. And then, one could conceivably fall and break a leg—it would be tough to get out of there. It is never a good idea to become complacent in such a place.

Just one year prior to the events laid out here, I was reminded that one must remain alert. I was driving behind Pablo on that 25-mile stretch of bad road and was almost to the campsite when, for some reason, I decided I simply had to check the title of a track off of Foxtail Brigade’s Bread and the Bait album. I steered towards the hill side of the road as I looked down to the display on my stereo. All of a sudden the car jolted and I heard a loud crash as the front of the vehicle dropped several feet and the car came to an abrupt halt. The road had quickly narrowed, and I had driven directly into a deep ditch. The car was stuck and had sustained serious damage; it wasn’t going to come out without assistance.

Eventually Pablo got the idea something was amiss and returned. We had to drive all the way out that night and camp in a public campground just across from the park entrance. The Coleman stove wasn’t working, so we ate a cold dinner. Then, in the middle of the night the campground sprinklers turned on, waking us and soaking us to the bone. We laughed at the absurdity of it of all. Suddenly, we were in a Chevy Chase movie.

The following morning I discovered AAA had a new policy: Their tow trucks would now only go 100 feet off the paved road. In desperation, I called unaffiliated towing companies in the area and received quotes of $1,500-$2,000 to retrieve my battered vehicle. Disheartened, we headed over to the ranger station in Covelo, where a tough Native American park ranger got on the phone with the local AAA boys and gave them a piece of her mind. Next thing I knew two cowboys showed up with a tow truck, leaving us in a cloud of dust. By the time we returned to my car, they had already pulled it out of the ditch.

All of which is to say, the Bolly is not your average backyard.



Two summers ago we were down in the Bolly doing our usual thing, when we decided to take an adventurous hike to Wright’s Valley, some 6 miles away. A fleet of fluffy white cumulus clouds was quickly moving east across an indigo sky as we made our way upriver. The weather changes quickly in the Bolly, but it was completely still down by the water. After making a right turn at a nearby fork, wading through neck-high waters, Pablo decided to take a short cut up the side of the canyon to a trail that ran parallel to the river. It was a steep climb, but there were plenty of trees and boulders to hang onto. Once we got to the top of the ridge, we began hiking high above the river.

There had been extensive wildfires through the region a few years back, barring us from entry to the Bolly for a couple summers until the area recovered. Trails in the Bolly are sketchy at best, and signage is rare. The fires had obliterated the few remaining signs, and the undergrowth that had grown back had totally obscured the trails; we were basically bushwhacking. Most of the trees were dead and blackened; it was a bleak and unwelcoming landscape. As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel fatigued. I was trying to avoid two scarred branches when I slipped and stumbled, finding myself awkwardly pinned between them. I barely avoided being impaled by a sharp branch. My leg, however, had fared less well: I had sustained long lacerations along my left thigh and calf. I rinsed the dirt off my wounds with drinking water, and we trudged on.

Soon it became apparent we weren’t going to make it down to the valley, now plainly visible in the distance. The cool beaches and idyllic swimming holes Pablo had been waxing rhapsodic about would have to wait for another day. It was getting late, and we still had a long trek back. Due to the ongoing drought, the springs we encountered were muddy and clogged our already failing water filter. It was hot, and we had used most of our drinking water. Now there would be no more until we got back down to the river.

We were faced with the choice to either backtrack via a long trail down to the river—a route that led away from our site—and then river-walk home, or try to find the same shortcut we had used on the way up. We chose the latter. Pablo, who had uncharacteristically swallowed a small cannabis brownie that morning (an activity usually reserved for our more stationary river/jam afternoons), seemed a bit confused as to its precise location.



We walked over to the side of the canyon to get our bearings. Directly below us stretched a nearly featureless wash, a 200-foot wide, steep, sandy ravine dotted with clumps of low-lying scrub. For no apparent reason, a strange sense of misgiving came over me. Before sitting on the edge of the ravine, I said out loud, mostly to myself, “Well, if I’m going to die out here, at least I’ll get in a good piss first.” After relieving myself, I shambled back to the edge of the wash where Pablo was sitting. Together we surveyed the desolate landscape below. Devoid of trees, the steep ravine underscored the depth of the canyon. The river looked very far away.

While sitting on the edge of the ravine, still engaged in a heated discussion as to the whereabouts of the shortcut, without warning, the parched ground beneath me literally cracked and gave way; a low branch I had been holding onto for support snapped, and I was sliding down the ravine on my butt, still holding onto the broken branch. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to feel fear or think. The only thought going through my head was “tree.” Because the wash turned out not to be entirely featureless after all: For the first time, I registered a young pine tree, no more than 2 1/2 feet in diameter and about 100 feet below me. And I was heading directly for it. It was almost as if the tree had been standing sentry all these years, patiently waiting to receive me. I was picking up speed rapidly by the time I hit the tree trunk dead on, feet first. I watched as stones, sand, and debris I had dislodged continued their descent down the ravine, smashing against the rocks below.

I surveyed my surroundings, looking down first at what would’ve awaited me had the tree not broken my fall. About halfway down lay rows of large, toothy rocks; they would’ve nicely tenderized me as I accelerated toward the tangle of sharp branches and boulders strewn about at the river’s edge. To my left was a long stretch of unbroken slippery sand that ran for at least 150 feet. No escape that way. To the right, nothing but more sand and a small, scrawny baby pine tree about 8 feet away. Beyond the sapling lay a spiky, dead fir tree facing down the mountain some 15 odd feet further away from it. I was safe for the moment, but what to do? I couldn’t stand up in the sand; it was so fine it would immediately uproot me and send me down the ravine.



Pablo was above me, frantically running back and forth, trying to figure out a passage down. After a while he disappeared. It was quiet. All I heard was the high wind and the faint sound of the water below. A kite flew overhead, his white belly exposed, calling out just once before swooping down to the river to hunt. I pulled out my water bottle and took a long drink. I was already very dehydrated. I ate the other half of the apple I had left in my daypack; I had brought no other food. The sun was still hot, and I felt my legs baking. I dug in my backpack and applied sunscreen to my arms and legs as I waited. If I was going to fall to my death, at least I wasn’t going to have a sunburn.

Suddenly, Pablo appeared, scrambling down the fallen tree. We chided ourselves for not bringing a rope with us—what little rope we had was back at camp. He suggested a jump. “I don’t want to die out here, man,” I said. As far as I was concerned, it seemed the most prudent thing to do was to stay put. “I could head back to camp, get both ropes, tie them together and pull you out,” Pablo offered. I declined, partially because by the time he got back, we would’ve lost the light. I also knew Pablo’s knot-tying lore left something to be desired. The only other option would involve Pablo heading back to our campsite, hiking all the way back up to the car, and driving out. He would have to camp out somewhere overnight, and head over to the Ranger Station in Covelo the next morning with the intent to bring a ranger in to help pull me out. For a moment, I had a vision of the tough bespectacled Native American ranger, who had helped us with the tow truck coming to my rescue in her crisp unwrinkled uniform, throwing down a rope from the top of the trail, and single handedly pulling me out, all the while chastising me in her no nonsense voice for being stupid enough to get myself into this predicament in the first place.

But that plan would require me staying put on that tree overnight and at least throughout most of the next day. It got down to the low 40s at night and I had no jacket, just the short-sleeved shirt and shorts I was wearing. And what if I fell asleep? I could easily wake up hurtling down the ravine.

It was getting late and a decision was finally made: Pablo would go back to the campsite and grab the rope. He would hopefully return in time to pull me out before dark, that is, if he could find me. Just as he disappeared from sight, a part of me screamed, “I want this to be over now!” I looked to my right and once again noticed the small, spindly pine tree: It was only about 3 feet high and no more than 4 or 5 inches in diameter. Could it hold me? Without thinking, I jumped to it and just barely grabbed it. I pulled myself up, and tenuously straddling the scrawny sapling, shouted, “Pablo, I jumped to the little tree!” Footsteps, scrambling, and then Pablo reappeared on the downed tree. “Alright,” he said breathlessly. “ Now we are going to get you out of here.”

I had jumped—I had committed. There was no way I could hang on to this tiny tree overnight. After taking stock of the situation, Pablo pointed to a small, damp patch in the sand, about halfway to the downed tree. He suggested I jump to it and push off from it to the fallen tree. It was quite a leap and I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But I knew I couldn’t stay where I was.

After some 10 minutes of terror-induced paralysis, I summoned enough courage to make the jump. I pushed off with my left foot from my perch on the small tree and hit the damp spot dead on, pushing off of it with my stronger right leg. I fell short of the dead tree and began to slip downhill. Pablo had climbed to the edge of a branch of the fallen fir tree and was leaning all the way out with his arm outstretched. I reached out and felt the firm grasp of his extended hand. His grip seemed to say, “No way am I going to let you go.” He pulled me to safety.

Hand over hand, we climbed up the dead tree. But there was no safe passage to the top – how Pablo had gotten to the downed fir tree still remains a mystery to me. (I do know he injured himself in the process and limped for several months after the ordeal.) We were going to have to hike horizontally across the ravine until a way up revealed itself. We crawled on our bellies along a sandy stretch, holding onto low-lying scrub. At the end of the line of brush, Pablo tried to stand—instantly, his feet went out from under him. He would’ve plummeted down the ravine had he not grasped onto a nearby bush, which barely held as he repositioned himself on the slippery ground. He stood up once again, this time jumping from one small rock to another, successfully clearing the sandy strip. I followed his footsteps to safety. We found ourselves in a field of flat slate rocks and began to slowly climb up to the trail. At the very top, the hill became nearly vertical. Pablo grabbed onto the black, flat rocks embedded in the hillside and pulled himself up to the trail. I followed suit. “Climb like a monkey. Use all your limbs,” Pablo said encouragingly. Just then, one of the rocks I was using as a handhold came out of the hillside – I was falling backwards. I dropped the rock just as Pablo reached out his hand to grab mine and pulled me up to the trail. We were finally safe.

We walked in silence towards the trail down to the river, away from camp: There would be no more attempts to find the shortcut today.

After entering a wooded area, we came to a small forest clearing. Late afternoon sunlight dappled the trees and the verdant forest floor. The middle of the clearing was covered in long, deep-green grasses, and we heard the sound of running water. We had found a spring! Pablo pulled out the pump and managed to get it working. As we sat and drank the cool water in the peaceful glade, a thought came to me. “Pablo, what if I’m in a ‘he’s already dead’ movie, you know, like in The Sixth Sense or Jacob’s Ladder, and this is just my weird dream as I leave my body?” “Then, why am I here?” Pablo shot back. A few moments went by in silence. “Do you think I would’ve lived had I missed the tree?” I asked. “You might’ve lived, but if you had, you probably would’ve wished you hadn’t,” he responded tersely.



The walk back was difficult in the failing light. We must’ve walked right past the bottom of the ravine above which I had been marooned only a couple hours before. So intent upon getting back to camp, neither of us thought to stop to get a view of it.

By the time we returned to our campsite, it was already dark. We were famished and ate an early dinner. As we played music around the campfire, I felt grateful and happy to be there, instead of on the side of a cold, lonely mountain. A few minutes later, the sky opened up, and we were caught in a torrential downpour. Laughing, we scurried to our tents, hastily put up our rain flies, and went to bed. I couldn’t sleep and lay there for a long time, listening to the rain. Every once in a while a large rock would dislodge itself from the canyon wall and come tumbling down, crashing into the river. My thoughts kept returning to the moment the ground went out from under me; this time in my mind’s eye I missed the tree, and watched helplessly as I tumbled all the way down to the boulders and scattered broken limbs below. I relived the incident several times before drifting off to sleep.

When I came out of the Bolly a couple days later, I was a changed man. I felt a renewed joie de vivre that had been missing from my life for a long time. I felt more willing to take risks and be more courageous and open to life. I made sweeping resolutions: I would start afresh with projects I had put on the back burner for years. I would write more music and finish my next album, write more stories, love my family more deeply and be a better partner, a better friend.

I tried to hold on to this renewed resolve, and for a little while I was truly happy just to be alive. But not long after, the vivid memory of the event began to fade, and I gradually returned to my habitual neutral state. I went back to my old ways of procrastination and self-doubt; the vague sense of dissatisfaction that had haunted me most of my adult life returned.

So If I didn’t stay a changed man, what real impact, if any, did the experience have on me? When I was stranded on the tree, it was like getting a whiff of cosmic smelling salts. There’s nothing like the threat of losing everything—and having your best friend save your life—to wake one up to the importance of love, connection, and community.

At my best moments, I let that knowledge inform my interactions with my partner, family, and friends, and when I remember, even the girl at the checkout counter. I may have lost the depth of the experience, but not the message.

Mundane life has a way of reasserting itself. This is what it’s like to be human. Yet “between the forceps and the stone,” the way we spend that short span is entirely up to us. The rest is grace.


Note: the mp3 is of the first time we attempted to record one of our free „river jams“ in my studio. We had just returned from one of our trips, and Pablo had just gotten his new custom guitar. There are now dozens of such recordings, vastly improved in both quality of performance and recording techniques, but despite its rough edges, this one perhaps best captures the spirit of what we actually do by the river, albeit played on much nicer instruments. For this recording, I’m playing an Array Mbira, a 4 octave, 128 note chromatic instrument built by Patrick Hadley and designed and tuned by Bill Wesley. For more information, please visit

Pablo’s classical guitar was built by Richard Prenkert, Sebastopol CA.




A couple of days ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary think tank located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains in Santa Fe, NM. Once a private home, it’s a beautiful, airy building with large picture  windows that offer expansive views of the surrounding area.

Complexity science is the primary concept that brings scientists, researchers, mathematicians, philosophers, writers, artists, and economists together here. Their mission statement says it better than I can:


“Our researchers endeavor to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds. Our global research network of scholars spans borders, departments, and disciplines, unifying curious minds steeped in rigorous logical, mathematical, and computational reasoning. As we reveal the unseen mechanisms and processes that shape these evolving worlds, we seek to use this understanding to promote the well-being of humankind and of life on earth.”


„Barbie Art“ (Video)




Our friends, a married couple, run the graphics department. Here they design publications in the form of books, magazines, and striking posters advertising talks given on and off campus. The offerings and topics are highly diverse: using the science of predicting earthquakes to predict stock market fluctuations; a class with underground cartoonist Lynda Barry on Biology and Creativity; a panel discussion on what it will take to become an interplanetary civilization, including a talk on the process of music composition for sci-fi films.

Our tour guide, Laura, informs us that one of my heroes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, keeps an office here, mostly to take a break from the isolation of his home in nearby Tesuque. She shows me a handsome table he commissioned and donated to the library. She tells me he often comes into her office to borrow her guitar.

There have been a number of celebrities who have frequented the Institute. Laura tells us that recently film director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar) and his brother and collaborator John recently spent some time there, participating, along with esteemed sci-if author Neal Stephenson, in the InterPlanetary Project. The late playwright, director, and actor Sam Shepard was once a fixture at the Institute.




As we walked through the sprawling structure, to which additional “pods” have been added over the years, we peeked into offices where men and women hunched over whiteboards covered with calculations. Laughter rang out of a conference room where a small group was intently gazing at images of stars and planets, which shared the screen with what appeared to be advanced astrophysics formulae. Even some of the exterior windows were covered with arcane calculations.

In one large conference room, which featured a giant movie screen, a series of framed celebrated physics calculations were displayed. “Uber-nerd artwork,” I said out loud. In another office I came across a collection of deconstructed Barbie-doll art, which I took to be a form of ironic social commentary. Later that afternoon, when we were introduced to the IT guys, I noticed that along the back wall of their office was a shelf which proudly displayed miniature models of the evolving incarnations of the USS Enterprise. Directly above the shelf, a Klingon weapon, known as a batlaff, was prominently mounted on the wall. Large computer monitors displayed planetary weather-change models, which were constantly updating.




I confess that I have no idea what was going on in those offices and conference rooms. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to any of the scientists and artists working in them. My overall impression, however, was one of unbridled creative foment. Even during our group Chinese lunch, heated discussions were going on over dim sum and cashew chicken.

I honestly can’t think of a more exciting and aesthetic environment in which to work and play in the field of ideas and creativity. I left in awe that such a place even exists, much less thrives, in today’s terminally unimaginative and malignantly anti-science political climate. Just knowing it’s there gives me hope.



2018 12 Jan

New Mexico Rambles

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Traveling thru New Mexico, we hung out in Albuquerque, taking the Tram up to the top of Mt Sandia. Hiking at 10,000 feet, with a little wind – no snow here – so far, the ski resort is closed this winter. All is still except for the rare golden finches swooping around the closed visitors center.

We take the back roads to the little art town of Madrid. The air is crisp – a dry winter with no snow on the ground here either. Music on the road with Melissa is always a tricky thing – we settle on the Brian Eno / Harold Budd classic, Plateaux of Mirrors. (Budd was one of my first teachers back in my CalArts days – he always wore a denim suit and swooned at the chords he played on the piano.) Heavenly sounds wash over the arid landscape.

Coffee at Java Junction in Madrid – the tired barista doesn’t engage with my banter. We walk the empty streets and breathe in the cool, brisk air. Onward to Santa Fe where we will be visiting friends who work at the Santa Fe institute, an interdisciplinary think tank frequented by one of my heroes, Cormac McCarthy. Getting the full tour. Should be interesting.

As we arrive in Santa Fe I have sneaked Omar Sosa / Paolo Fresu’s lovely “Alma” on the box. (Gorgeous album – will have to buy it and Eros). Surprisingly, she allows it to play! All is harmonious as we arrive in Santa Fe at sunset.




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