An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

 

A Stroll Through the Belly of the Beast

Recently in lower Manhattan, an astonishing new attraction/eyesore was unveiled. A massive white marble mausoleum, it’s what officials quoted in newspapers like to call a “transport hub”, which makes slightly more sense, but has vastly less terrifying supernatural impact than, its official title: THE OCULUS. Built in the hole left by the twin towers, a respectful 15 years later, it connects my beloved/behated PATH train (which sometimes runs under the Hudson river to Jersey City), with the NYC subway. Check this thing out:

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Excellent photo by Champian Fulton

Apparently designed to resemble a just-released dove, it feels much more like wandering around inside a bleached whale, which is surely a boon to lovers of biblical re-enactments, and hopefully doesn’t attract the attention of too many psychotic Ahabs. At 5PM daily, a wave of humans gushes though its gaping doors, from which New Jerseyans are filtered, like loud pushy plankton, and swallowed up by the PATH station. They are then discharged from the back of the whale and deposited in New Jersey where New Yorkers don’t have to think about them.

I’m sure the Oculus is meant to represent freedom, or liberty, or justice, or one of the other American-owned abstract concepts that make my adopted homies well up with national pride. But predictably, it’s really there to showcase that one overarching western idea: consumerism. When I first wandered through the space, none of the shops was occupied, and I very naively imagined an array of friendly welcoming independent purveyors of goods and services aimed at the commuter. I envisioned a bakery, a bookshop, maybe a fishmonger, meatmonger, Flowermonger Dude!- places useful to a working person on their way to or from work. Instead the’ve installed Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, John Varvatos, and various other high-end boutiques with people names. And of course, they’re always empty. Who’s buying a thousand-dollar suit at a train station? But I suspect the shops aren’t there to be patronised. It might be worth Hugo losing that presumably astronomical rent to have his storefront seen in such a high-profile building. At least he’ll show up in the background of a million Instagram photos each day.

It also occurred to me that putting such recognisable brands in a new and slightly intimidating building might be to reassure the populace; to soothe our panic at the sight of something weird and foreign. It’s like when I cook my family something exotic for dinner, I always include something recognisable so they don’t run and hide in my skirts. Like my celebrated Croatian Goulash with Hot Dog, or Vietnamese Pho with Oreos. This strategy has proven successful in many areas, like when Beethoven put that da-da-da-dummm thing that we all know so well into his 5th Symphony; and instead of painting just anyone, da Vinci chose Mona Lisa because he knew we’d all recognise her. Those guys had Seamless Familiarity Integration sewn up before breakfast!

I’m hoping that if this Oculus is deemed a success, it will spawn a chain of Worldwide Oculi, each more terrifying and, erm, megapterine than the last. The Oculus Down Under: It’s Humpback for More! And so on. But until then, it’s another vulgar, overblown, outsized New York speciality, and I have no choice but to tiptoe timorously through its turgid intestines every day. It’s a colossally ostentatious waste of public money, and I think it’s way cool.

 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

Afternoon Has Broken, Also Brain: The Price of the Jazz Life

Firstly let me apologise if this post descends into indecipherable drivel. But that’s my writing style, and it’s got me where I am today. Aside from that, I just read a disturbing article informing me that my late-night lifestyle is making me sick and stupid; my ability to form coherent sentences is diminishing, and my days of comprehending simple arithmetic may be numbered. I don’t even understand that last bit!

I spend most of my nights in jazz clubs, and have done so since I was in my late teens. Back in Australia, this wasn’t so bad, as the action would generally wind up by midnight or 1AM (we all had to be up early to feed the wombats). Then I came to New York. On my first trip here in 1996, Smalls Jazz Club was open until 8AM, and often later. I’d get my arse handed to me at the jam session, go to a diner to berate myself over breakfast, and be in bed by noon. These days, I’m older and wiser, and am tucked up by 6AM.

Inaccurate band T-shirt from my youth

Conventional wisdom says that we eventually adapt to a change in sleep patterns; that if we keep our hours regular, and turn in at the same time every day, the sleep will be just as beneficial. I even dimly recall reading articles that claimed our most creative work is done after midnight. But recent studies refute all this, and moreover, suggest that staying up all night and sleeping all day, while undeniably awesome, has some pretty serious downsides, namely type-two diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a “significantly shorter lifespan”. Additionally, these studies show that, “the brains of workers who’d done 10 years of night shifts had aged by an extra 6 1/2 years- they couldn’t remember as much or think so quickly.” And at 4AM, apparently my ability to think is the same as if I was drunk. Of course, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but it sounds serious and fun.

Anyway, I thought I’d prove all these so-called experts wrong by doing a bit of investigative googling and coming up with some brainy achievers who share my habits. Unfortunately, many people known as “night owls” (Freud, Churchill, Tolstoy, Mozart, Nabokov, Obama, etc) are nodding off at a relatively respectable 1AM. For real day-sleepers, here’s what I came up with: pianist and hypochondriac fusspot Glenn Gould; gloomy ponderers Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust; literary lunatic Hunter S Thompson (check out his insane daily routine), and maniacal dingbats Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The only glimmer of hope is Rolling Stones madman Keith Richards, and it’s looking more and more like he’s not actually human. I’m not in healthy, well-adjusted company.

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The most frustrating part of these reports is that they offer no solution other than doing what every minuscule fibre of my body is desperately pleading with me to do. I want to hear that I can reverse the negative effects of my boogie-loving lifestyle by, I don’t know, eating carrots? Finishing the occasional cryptic crossword? Curbing my consumption of the blood of comely young virgins? But no. It seems I’ll have to resign myself to incremental idiocy and an early demise.

Are you an all-nighter? Someone you know? Want to cheer me up with tales of healthy, alert, intelligent, productive, long-living nocturnalists? Use the comments box below, but not too many big words please. Anyway, got to go- it’s nearly midnight and lunch isn’t going to make itself.

Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick

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

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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Mostly Froot Loops, A Bit Bran Flakes: C&R So Far…

We’re on the home stretch of this caper, and I thought I’d take a quick look at how things are going so far. When we eventually get to the end, I’ll do a thorough dusting of the crime scene, but for now, here’s where we stand.

Musically, I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve come up with so far. The cats have really outdone themselves- musically outstanding, super supportive of the project, and tolerant of my fluctuating emotional state. And I couldn’t be more thrilled with the generous contribution of our special guests Peter Bernstein, Rossano Sportiello and Bruce Harris- and there are more surprise visitors to come!

It’s not all a bowl of Froot Loops though. The biggest challenge I’ve been facing is fatigue- certainly my own, and quite possibly yours too. I don’t think I really grasped the magnitude of this thing when I started- it’s one thing for a whole freaking year! What was I thinking!? Promotion for a normal project might run for a month, and talking about oneself for that long is exhausting. Now it’s been nine months of trying to think of new things to say, new video ideas, new places to stick that effing plastic fish, all with out making one of us want to beat me senseless. And there’s another three months to go…

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Reception has been mixed. I’ve had a great response from journalists: I think the concept gave them something to write about, and we’ve had articles on at least a dozen websites and blogs. Most notably, the wonderful Something Else! has been on board since the get go, putting their knowledgeable ears to each track as it dropped, and I thank them whole-heartedly for their continued interest. And I was well chuffed with E.J Iannelli’s in-depth profile at All About Jazz. Radio, on the other hand, has not been quite so receptive. With a few notable exceptions (Radio Adelaide, KSDS San Diego), radio stations have been reluctant to jump in. It seems they’re not moving to the digital format as easily as I’d thought. I don’t think it’s a sound issue, because the tracks I send them are higher than CD quality; so it’s either that they’re dragging their feet in the system-upgrade department, or they just think the music stinks.

But response from friends, acquaintances, and passers-by has been wonderful. Folks have been stopping me at gigs to ask how it’s going, when the next track is due, why haven’t I sent them their free track when they signed onto the blog three weeks ago; all signs of actual interest and enthusiasm. And this feedback, this genuine show of curiosity, is what’s going to put the fire into these last couple of installments. And I have a feeling we’re going to finish big. The next track is going to be a change of pace, something on the abstract side; and track #8 is going to see us going out swinging (with the potential aid of a very special guest. I’m going to get nervous, or not,  as soon as he tells me whether he wants to do it. Sizzle!!)

So there we have it, approximately three quarters of the way through, and far more ups than downs. Thank you for being a part of it so far; I hope you’ll stay with us, and tell your friends! Cheers, Nick

“Nordberg Suite”: The Moving Picture!

Here’s a little video to accompany tune #6, “Nordberg Suite”. It features Bruce Harris on the trumpet, Jeremy Manasia at the piano, Dave Baron on the bass, Minnow the Smalls cat, and the Catch and Release robot fish in a jar. Hope you enjoy!

Dig the tune? Buy it for a buck from iTunes or Amazon!

Tinkling Tune #6 All Over The Ivories

Tune #6 is in the can! It’s called “Nordberg Suite”, and will be available Monday! Here’s a quick look from the new Steinway at Mezzrow in NYC!

(Missed one of the earlier tunes? Grab ’em here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/nick-hempton/id449388179)