Barbies, Big Bands, and Bolting from Bar Tabs: Sydney, Week 2

Note: this all happened ages ago. N

When we left each other last, I was dealing with my 40th birthday with calm, philosophical, zen-like acceptance. And four jugs of Illusion and a tattoo. This dubious landmark fell, as have so many before it, on New Year’s Day; and as this was a big one, my younger brother, exhibiting his trademark generosity and questionable judgment, threw me a barbecue. The barbie is a big part of Australian culture, but I can’t see much to separate it from backyard get-togethers anywhere else.

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I don’t care much about cake, but this thing was freaking amazing. Ta, Rossana!

There’s lots of charred meat, usually a couple of forlorn, neglected salads, lots of beer, and talk about weather and sports. The only difference here was that the food was seriously top-shelf (cos my bro doesn’t fuck around once he’s strapped on the apron), and a lot of said food was kangaroo. If you’ve never eaten our national symbol, it’s lean and gamey and delicious. If you can find it, try it. As a rule, I dislike gatherings of more than one person, but this really was a lovely gang of people, and I grudgingly admit to enjoying myself. Although, after everyone left, I held a private birthday ceremony wherein I stripped naked, smeared myself with kangaroo fat and charcoal, climbed a tree and sang “It Was A Very Good Year” very quietly to myself, for several hours.

 

I used to play in big bands a lot when I lived in Sydney. I don’t get called for that kind of work much in New York, and I miss it. So I was well chuffed when my old boss Dan Barnett called me to sub in his band. Dan’s a great trombonist and vocalist, as well as a charismatic and entertaining bandleader, and his gigs are always top fun. Once a month for years he’s played at the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain- one of those classic inner-city pubs that Sydney used to be known for. Recently the gig has moved next door, to the much more comfortable Workers’ Bar- a top little venue in the former home of one of the city’s first workers’ unions. It’s a friendly joint, decorated with kitschy reminders of its Labor party heritage, and this afternoon was packed with smiley folk downing beers and piling onto the dance floor. This is really one of the most fun gigs in Sydney, and if you’re in town on a Sunday, I heartily recommend it. Here’s some of Dan’s band in action at the Unity:

and if you want to find out about the band’s new album (recorded just a few weeks ago), you can check it out here: http://www.danbarnett.com.au

I filled in a few quiet days reintroducing mIMG_2341yself to various family members, eating meat pies, drinking beer, and being a tourist. I even went to look at the harbour. I felt like a bit of a schmuck- like a New Yorker going to Times Square- but I had to remind myself of its loveliness. It was idiotic of me to attempt this during the summer holidays- from the bridge, ‘round Circular Quay, to the Opera House it was elbow-to-arsehole sunburned shouty English tourists. I gazed serenely out across the water, dreaming of flinging a few of the whining buggers in, but eventually had to seek refuge in
the cool and beery Orient Hotel.

 

And suddenly it was my last night in town, and I had a gig! Legendary Sydney drummer Andrew Dickeson is one of my oldest mates, musical cohorts, and teachers; and he’d very kindly lined up a show at a relatively new club called Foundry 616. Run by renowned jazz impresario Peter Rechniewski, it’s a well appointed, well designed jazz club in the classic supper club style. The band was Dicko and me, with bassist and old mate Brendan Clarke, and guitarist Dave Blenkhorn- a Sydney lad now plying his very swinging trade in Europe. The joint was packed to the rafters with family and friends, which was initially terrifying, but ultimately heart-warming and somewhat overwhelming. It was a terrific hang, we played as much bebop as we possibly could, and as a salute to my Sydney salad days, I ended the night by skipping out on my bar tab. Sorry about that, Peter.

Here’s a tune from that very gig!

I managed to fit in another 24 hours in Hong Kong on my way home, where I attempted to eat this:

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Righto, more soon! Cheers, Nick

Bonkers in Honkers Part 1

The following was written in Hong Kong, but posted in Sydney. I’m really not very good at this. Enjoy!

If you’ve been enduring my incessant social mediafying, you’ll know we’re about half way through our Hong Kong escapade, and I thought a rundown was in order. I’m here with a gang of killer musicians from New York to play with Hong Kong pop star Bianca Wu. We’ve all worked with her many times over the past six-or-so years, and this is our third visit to the area. Bianca’s a pretty big deal in these parts, and we’re here doing three shows at the 1200-seat Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong’s Academy for the Performing Arts. The shows are big- 26 songs over two and a half hours; it’s a real workout for the rhythm section, and an absolute doddle for me. The horn section is only on stage for about two thirds of the show, and much of that is spent adjusting our music stands and losing count of bars of rest. The rest of the time I’m offstage, wandering the labyrinthine hallways shouting “ROCK ’N’ ROLL!!” in a bad cockney accent. Never gets tired. There’s altogether too much rehearsing and sound checking, but we’ve had a bit of time to get into some trouble.

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To start at the start, we were met at the airport by our producer Patrick, and bundled into cabs to the city. It’s a fair hike- the airport is located on the always-satisfyingly named island of Chek Lap Kok (yep, still there), and the trip takes you through several islands, Kowloon, and under Victoria Harbour- none of which is visible from the endless freeway. We were all pretty dazed after the marathon flight, but steeled ourselves for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. My spirits lifted noticeably with the discovery that the joint’s specialty was roast meat. Suddenly, it became clear that the only things missing from my life were dead animals and weak Chinese beer. I mentioned this to our host and was presented with a whole fatty, crispy, juicy, life-affirming roasted goose, which I ate. I would have ordered another one, but fellow diners were starting to look at me with genuine concern. I wiped enough goose fat out of my eye to wink reassuringly at them, then lay down under the table. Eventually I slid back to the hotel where I took a handful of Melatonin and slept like a greasy baby.

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Next morning, I jolted my addled brain into action with a visit to one of the excellent coffee shops which are multiplying throughout the city. Traditionally, China has been associated with coffee in the way the US has been associated with thin healthy people, but this is changing fast, and I had numerous quality caffeinated options in walking distance from our digs. Alert and teeth-grindingly jittery, I joined the band for a hair-raising van ride through the city to our first rehearsal. For an hour we were thrown about like sneakers in the clothes dryer, while our lunatic driver veered across lanes and ploughed through vegetable carts and stacks of empty boxes; all the while juggling a dozen cell phones emitting incessant, piercing alerts and ringtones. When we arrived at rehearsal, it was all I could manage to crawl to a couch, close my eyes, and do nothing for two hours. Fortunately, that’s what I’m being paid to do.

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The Afterthought Horns and the rhythm section. Both doing what they do best.

Honkers is a glutton’s paradise, with noodles, dumplings and delicious animal parts of every imaginable species within arm’s reach. I had a bit of time on Thursday, so I went searching for a couple of joints that had come recommended. I wandered down to the stunning Victoria Harbour, surely one of the loveliest city harbours in the world, and hopped on the ferry to Kowloon. It’s madness over there- an engorged, throbbing, quivering mess of humanity. Tourists, locals, hawkers, beggars, millionaires, all conspiring to stop me getting anywhere. I had some pretty amazing dumplings at the famed Din Tai Fung, then fought my way back through the throng. By the time I got back to the harbour, I’d somehow managed to buy a dozen watches, four suits, and a Filipino wife. Don’t know how I’m going to fit them all in my bag.

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Ferry and junk

Then it was another ferry over to the part of town creatively titled Central, where I was aiming for a little noodle place endorsed by Anthony Bourdain. I slogged up and down tiny alleys till I found the spot Google had assured me was the one. Three mouthfuls of impenetrable, leathery noodles were all I could get down before I pushed my plate away in defeat, grudgingly paid the bill and plodded home, cursing Bourdain, that lanky, septic bugger. It was then I discovered that I’d been at Mak An Kee, ONE BLOCK from my noodley holy grail, Mak UN Kee. I’ve just checked my Cantonese-English dictionary, and it seems “Un” means yummy, and “An” means rubbery tasteless shit reserved for idiot westerners.

That night we had our first crack at the stage of the Lyric, about which I will tell you… next time. Cheers!

Uppity youngsters, a sentimental Journey, and a belt rings a Belltown

Back on the tour bus, with a whole new entourage. Glad I didn’t learn the names of the last one. So confusing- I don’t know how Willie Nelson does it! And these groupies really seem to have no idea what the job entails. Very poor.

 I’m headed down to Portland, Oregon from      the lovely Seattle, and I’m kind of sorry to be leaving. It’s one of my favourite towns to visit, and I look forward one day to seeing some of it… My sightseeing this time consisted of hauling my gear a mile or so through impenetrable fog from the bus station to the hotel. By pure luck, I’d chosen the charming Belltown neighbourhood in which to base myself- it’s a quirky spot with a nice mix of hipsterish bars and very picturesque homeless people. I fed and watered at the Belltown Pub, and got dolled up for the gig.

 Friday’s gig was at a joint callled Boxleys in North Bend, a half-hour drive from the city. A musician-run club, it’s heavily involved in jazz education, and is part of a developing cooperative with a few other clubs in the area, the idea being that eventually touring players will be able to do a circuit of the region, instead of playing just one club. We had a very enthusiastic crowd in attendance, including a lot of kiddies, which meant I had to tone down some of the intense, X-rated portions of my patter; and the goat got the night off. After the show, one of the kids came and asked if my album was available on iTunes, because he doesn’t own a CD player. I took my dentures out and threw them at him.

  
After I got back to the hotel, I thought a wander through the neighbourhood was in order. The first bar I went into looked strangely familiar. Bars two through seven rang a bell too. I eventually realised that I’d stumbled into the same neighbourhood my mate Dan and I had bar-crawled through two years earlier. I figured that made me a local and breezily told the bartender to “put ’em on my tab” as I sauntered out the door. At least, that’s how I remember it. It would also explain the bruises. 

  
Saturday night found us in a town called Renton, just south of the city. A pretty new club, Shuga is a sprawling pile with bar, restaurant and music room all separate from eachother. The owner had sent me panicky emails for weeks prior, concerned that we wouldn’t have an audience. I didn’t tell him that the time spent writing me these emails could have been spent promoting the show. He also hired a singer to sit in with us, to increase our allure. Normally if a club owner did this, I would tell him to sit on it, but I’m the out-of-towner here, so I took it. Turned out she was very nice and a good singer; and the crowd was fine, and all stayed to the end, so everyone was happy. On a break, I took a stroll through Renton’s deserted streets to get some cash. Suddenly I tripped, and found myself in a neighbourhood bar where I ran into every resident of Renton. Packed it was. And for karaoke. As I walked in, someone in the corner was dismembering Frank Sinatra, while the crowd ignored him enthusiastically. Then the next tune started and my ears pricked up to the opening strain of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. With a cheer, 100 or so Rentonites raised their Budweisers and started singing along. I joined in, and for a minute, the good people of Renton and I were one. I went back and finished out the gig, playing my part as a sophisticated, jet setting jazz musician. But deep down, I knew I was just a small town girl, living in a lonely world. 

Next up: homemade clothes, craft beer, strip clubs, and the mustiest hotel room this side of the Mustiville! Cheers, Nick

 Don’t Knock the Knob Jockey

The other day I spent several hours in a tiny windowless closet. Don’t judge me- sometimes we all need a quiet place to contemplate life while lying in a shivering ball, wide-eyed and whimpering. But in this case, I was in an engineer’s studio in Midtown Manhattan, remastering the Catch and Release tracks for the upcoming CD release. And it occurred to me that we’ve never really talked about the post-recording process. Not that that’s any reason to start now. But someone’s got to cater to your insatiable appetite for sizzling new content. Begin.

 The first step after recording a tune is picking a take. Usually when recording an album, we’ll play each tune two or three times, then move on. But because we had all afternoon for each tune, we usually did five or six. Then I had to pick the best one. Now I don’t have children, but I imagine this process is akin to picking which one of your offspring you dislike the least. Actually, I find the whole listening-back process to be pretty unpleasant- it’s kind of like rubbing your dog’s nose in its own poo. But it’s got to be done, and eventually you settle on your favourite pooey child.   

 Then comes mixing. This is fairly mystifying to me, but it seems to involve manipulating the sound of each instrument within the recording, to try to recreate a real live performance. A saxophone played directly into a microphone doesn’t really sound anything like a saxophone aimed at your head from the stage of a jazz club. So we have to fiddle with it. Different frequencies are toyed with, and effects are added to mimic the sound bouncing off walls and people. Then we fix the levels: bass softer here, drums a bit lower here, saxophone louder here. And here. And in this bit. And I think that’s mixing: getting the instrument sounds, the “room” sounds, and making sure the saxophone is loud enough. 

  

 The mastering process is even more mysterious to me, and I have to confess I’ve dropped off in more than one mastering session. But basically, this is the last step in the process before the album goes to print. Some jiggling is done with overall sound, beginnings and ends of the tracks are tidied up, appropriate spaces are wedged between tunes, and the whole mess is sent to the printers. 

 I have great respect for the folks who devote themselves to this discipline. They sit for hours on end in an airless box, with an intensity of focus which I can’t maintain for more than a few minutes. I try. Really I do. I talk in really abstract terms involving colours and depths and weights. I watch for when the engineer twiddles a knob, and I say Hm or Yeah. I even invested in a pair of those glasses with the open eyes painted on the lenses so they can’t tell I’ve drifted off. That’s how much I care. And when people ask me who did the mixing, I tell them, and then add that I was there. I was involved. I was putting in. A lot of people snore when they’re concentrating.

 Anyway, next time you’re listening to an album, take a second to notice the “sound”. Somebody made that. 

 Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick

What Now?? (Or, Breathing New Life into a Dead Horse)

The Catch and Release Experiment, as it was originally envisioned, has limped over the finish line, exhausted and disoriented, and is now curled up and panting in the nearest bar. It’s finished, and not a moment too soon. And depending on your perspective, it was either a roaring success, or a dismal, soul-crushing failure. Personally, I prefer not to dwell on the more than seven billion people who didn’t download the tracks; or the resounding lack of interest shown by jazz radio stations (aside from a few standout exceptions); and I really try not to think about how much hard-earned coin I’ve thrown at it… Instead, the Hempton Band’s Department of Selective Memory is insisting I focus on eight tracks of good music, some exciting musical collaborations, loads of great press, a devoted handful of satisfied customers, and a bold attempt at something new.

One thing has become clear over the past year. When we started this harebrained scheme, the race for supremacy in the music delivery business was between downloading and streaming; and they seemed about neck-and-neck. And it would seem, to persist with an overused metaphor, that my horse has taken a somewhat philosophical view of the race. Download numbers have dropped dramatically across the board, in all genres, while streaming services are gathering speed (and money) every day. And in just the last few months we’ve seen the launch of two big new streamers: Apple Music and Tidal (hahahahahaha!). And it makes sense: almost unlimited music for a small monthly fee. As soon as they sort out a way to compensate artists in a decent fashion, I’ll probably sign up myself.

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But all this aside, I’m now left with the questions of what to do with this music, and what to do with this blog. Firstly, I’ve decided to take a second run at the wall, and put the music out on CD. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of radio stations are resistant to playing digital tracks, so if they won’t play the Catch and Release CD, it just means they don’t like the music. Fair enough too, but I reckon we’ll get some airplay- it’s all pretty radio-friendly stuff. Still the best place to sell music is at live shows, so this will give me a chance to hand over some of the new gear to folks who’ve enjoyed a gig (there are all sorts of gimmicky ways of selling digital tracks in person- download cards, little USB drives- but I’ve never seen anyone buy one.) And let’s not forget there are some weirdos who just like CDs.

So the plan is to remaster all the tracks (because they were recorded/mixed/mastered separately, they all sound a bit different, so we need to get a uniform tone for a CD), get some artwork done, write some liner notes, and have a release in November. This brings me to the blog.

This site was set up to have a finite existence (one year) but I’ve enjoyed scribbling my nonsense here, and don’t really feel like giving it up. So here’s the plan: I’ll describe goings-on related to, and leading up to, the release of the Catch and Release CD; but I’m also going to cast the net a bit wider, and have a natter about matters not directly related to the project- gigs, venues, musicians, etc.- all music-related and hopefully interesting.

So that’s it. I hope you’ll stay with me on this thing, and let me know- what kinds of things would you like to read about here?

More soon. Cheers, Nick

Change for a Dollar!

In all the excitement and relief of putting this part of the Catch and Release project to bed, I forgot to put the final installment up on the blog! So here it is- Change for a Dollar, featuring the great Jerry Weldon on tenor. Have a listen, and if you like it, buy it for a buck! iTunes and Amazon links are below, as well as a review from our friends at Something Else Reviews. Hope you dig!

Review at Something Else

Change for a Dollar at iTunes

Change for a Dollar at Amazon

A Big Finish: Tune #8 in Pictures

We made it! The last tune in the Catch and Release series is in the can! It’ll be up online next week, and I’ll put up a video outlining the tune tomorrow. But in the meantime, check out some pics from the session (as always, thanks to the brilliant and talented Una)! And we can reveal our special guest for the big finale: the great Jerry Weldon!!

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Hempton Band in Arty Noir Masterpiece!

It’s been action central here at Catch and Release HQ, which should really mean lots of posts on this blog. Unfortunately most of the goings-on are unsuitable for broadcast. So instead we bring you BY FAR the coolest video we’ve ever been a part of.

Our resident videographer, the all-around awesome Una, growing tired of my ham-fisted attempts at music videos, took the tune and her footage from the session, and whipped up this arty little ripper. Thanks Una! Hope you dig it…

Like the tune? Buy it for a buck on iTunes: Catch Up

or Amazon: Catch Up

Get Caught Up With Catch Up!

Tune #7 is entitled “Catch Up”, and it’s now up on the grid! Have a listen to the clip below, and if you dig it, pick it up from iTunes- it’ll cost you a dollar! (And don’t forget to tell your friends…)

iTunes: Catch Up

Amazon: Catch Up

Here’s what the good folks at Something Else Reviews thought: Catch Up

An Internet First: Cat Pictures!!

Tune #7 went down a couple of weeks ago, and as usual, the fabulous Una was on the scene, trusty camera in hand, to show why music is not a visual medium. But Minnow the cat’s a looker isn’t she??

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