Monday, April 28, 2008

Top 10 Musicians

Recently we held vocal auditions at church and one of the questions I glibly added to the questionnaire was something like "List your top ten favorite musical artists or groups (secular or Christian)."

We had a good time reading through the list and got responses that ranged from James Taylor to Reliant K to Aaron Copland. As I was driving home, I began to wonder how in the world I would answer that question. For sure the answer is an ever-evolving one, but for now, I have come up with ten names, in no particular order that I would consider among my favorites and the best musicians I've ever heard or studied. Here we go:

Bill Evans - [dead] It's hard to know where to start with Evans. I can listen to his stylings all day long. A true master of harmony and structure. One of my "most favorite" recordings of him is his this performance of "Here's that Rainy Day." Just about every beat has a passing harmony that is rich and intentional. His voicings are so efficient. Some day I hope I can play like he played. If you're into harmony, one of the most enlightening and revealing recordings is his appearance on Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. This, I believe was recorded just months before he died in 1980.

Oscar Peterson - [recently died] I was sad to hear that Oscar Peterson died recently. A truly amazing pianist, who I think lives completely on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bill Evans. As a pianist, he could swing hard. He was fluid and flashy. His technique was dazzling. One of my all-time favorite recordings is The Oscar Peterson Trio Encore at the Blue Note, and this is my favorite cut from that recording.

Rob Mathes - [very much alive!] I've had the privileged of meeting Rob. When you hear the phrase "consummate musician," picture Rob. He's a marvelous guitarist, pianist, singer, song writer, orchestrator, performer, arranger. He has done and continues to do it all. He has arranged music for "The Three Tenors" productions, the "Kennedy Center Honors" music for the last few years, and I believe he's also the current music director for Vanessa Williams. You've heard his string arrangements on Christian and popular recordings. I love that he is not a Christian musician, but a musician who happens to be a Christian, rubbing shoulders with a lot of people. This and this are two of my favorites from him.

Gustav Mahler - [dead] If you've ever taken the time to sit and listen to one of Mahler's expansive symphonies, you'll understand why he's on my list. I live his orchestral color. I love how he stretches harmonic expectations (non-harmonic tones one expects to hear resolve a certain way are prolonged unexpectedly until the harmonic context around them changes and in turn the context ends up resolving). Mahler lived from 1860-1911. He conducted the NY Philharmonic for a time and (unrelated) was obsessed with death. Mostly his own death. After completing his 9th symphony, he was really worried that "fate" would deal him the same blow it dealt Beethoven, his German predecessor of the previous 100 years, who died after completing his ninth symphony. He wanted to avoid his end desperately (so the story goes) so he began working on his 10th symphony. He died, however, well before he ever completed it. Still, he composed enough of a slow movement to give us a glimpse of where, had he lived, he might have taken tonality. You may find what appears to be a complete 10th symphony, but it was expanded upon by others based on his thematic sketches. Probably my favorite Mahler, which I find so beautiful and haunting, is the slow movement from his fifth symphony. Listen to it when you can do nothing else but sit and take it all in.

Darcie Roberts - [alive] Who? Yeah, I know. This may be unwise of me, but I was smitten by this girl's live recording for a radio show of Moon River. I first met her (figuratively) when Jason took us to see "Thoroughly Modern Millie." She was Millie. Great voice, great sound, great artistry. I downloaded the mp3 of her singing this song from her web site several years ago, but it is no longer available. If you ever get a chance to hear her, don't pass it up.

Stevie Wonder - [alive!] What a great writer, singer, and player! I love his music. So soulful and a blast to play. Several of his songs have migrated into the jazz standards book, and no doubt many more will be played as "American Standards" for generations to come. Some of my favorites: "Ribbon in the Sky" "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" "For Once in my Life" "Isn't She Lovely"

Roger Bennett - [dead] When I was a kid, like 11 and 12 (and a little older) I completely wore out a cassette of the Cathedral Quartet. "The Cathedrals: Live in Atlanta." I think it's out of print now. Roger was a really good pianist. To be honest, I never really listened to him much outside of this album. It was very recently, however that I realized that he influenced me far more than I knew. I hear myself imitating his fills and licks quite frequently. When I flip into "Southern Gospel" mode or even "Black Gospel" mode, some of the things I play are inadvertently what I imagine a good pianist would play. And those ideas are rooted in my memories of the piano parts from that album.

Johannes Brahms - [dead] I love Brahms' works. His music often is a convergence of metric confusion and grace, harmonic complexity and melodic simplicity, and always a mastery of orchestral balance. Two of my favorite from him are his second piano concerto in Bb and his piano trios. This one in particular resonates with me for some reason, No 1, Op 8 in B. I really like the voicing and the melodic material.

Miles Davis - [dead] Miles could say more with just a few notes than most players would try to say in an entire chorus. His music was always evolving and I like him because he never kept doing the same thing, even though many wanted him stay locked in to the 1950's era style. He kept pushing the envelope. Another thing to like about Miles is how many people he directly influenced by moving people in an out of his groups. Bill Evans, Canonball Aderly, Herbie Hancock (who should also be on this list!), Chic Corea, even Jimi Hendrix! Listen to this great recording with John Coltrane of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale." Now listen to a cut from one of his last albums, "Amandala." This is moving closer to what we would probably think of as "smooth jazz."

Van Cliburn - [alive] It was 1987 and I turned 15. My dad got me my very own CD player. And four CDs to go along with it. One of these CDs which was unknown to me at the time, was the classic recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in Bb minor, and Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto in C minor, both performed by Van Cliburn. Cliburn, it turns out was a bit of a celebrity in the 50's. He went to the Soviet Union as a kid--maybe 20 years old or so, to compete in the first ever Tchaikovsky competition. This of course was during the cold war and the competition, though international, was designed to show the cultural superiority of Russian music. The problem was that Cliburn was too good. He won it and was given a ticker tape parade in NYC upon his return, the only time this has happened for a classical musician. This was the first of many purchases of Cliburn's recordings for me. He is influential to me because not only do I think of his performances when I think of a work, but I know many works because of his performances. I listened a LOT to those concerti, Brahms (above), Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Listz, etc. It's a good thing you can't wear CDs out from playing them over and over because I surely would have have had to replace LPs or cassettes of these recordings by now. When I was 17 or 18, I got to hear him play some of these works with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center. That was very memorable. He played several encores of Chopin Polonaises.

So those are my top 10, what are yours?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Followup Philly Cheese Steak:

There just may be something to the assertion that part of the unique qualities of the Philly Cheese Steak being proprietary to Philly is in the water. Check out this article from Wired Online about NY pizzas being unique to NY because of the water!

"Water," Batali says. "Water is huge. It's probably one of California's biggest problems with pizza." Water binds the dough's few ingredients. Nearly every chemical reaction that produces flavor occurs in water, says Chris Loss, a food scientist with the Culinary Institute of America. "So, naturally, the minerals and chemicals in it will affect every aspect of the way something tastes."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Facebook Chat

I awoke to find that chat has come to the Raleigh/Durham network on Facebook. Is it in your area yet?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Philly Cheese Steak

If you've ever spent any time in the Philadelphia area, you probably have picked up on a local food tradition that is unique to that region: The Cheese Steak Sandwich. Now, before you object, let me just set the record straight on this issue. You will walk into national chain restaurants such as Subway, or Applebee's, and you will see a menu item that they call a Philly Cheese Steak or something like that. But be warned. It is not a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich.

The formula is not complex, nor are the ingredients scarce, yet for some reason, folks outside of a, say, 60 mile radius of South Street have no idea what they're doing. What you need is a roll. Just the right kind of roll too, not hard, not too soft. Locals claim the secret to making the rolls just right is found in the Philly water. (or "wuter") as it often comes out.

Next you need thinly sliced beef, onions, tomato sauce, mushrooms* (these are optional, of course) and let's please not forget the CHEESE. This is where so many others falter. You cannot forget the cheese. And it must be melted. Not little squares or triangles neatly lined up on the side of the bread.

Why am I investing a post on this glorious food item? First, because every time I go visit my parents in West Chester, I make certain to get one. Second, I the last time I was there, I was so excited about indulging I took a picture of it. For you.

Now I don't know what is worse, really, the fact that I took a picture of a sloppy (but very delicious!) Cheese Steak Sandwich before I ate it or that I ate the whole thing on the day after Thanksgiving. As if I hadn't had enough food to eat already that weekend. Thanks dad for being easy to convince that I need proper nourishment!

*This is the pizza steak variety found with mushrooms and tomato sauce. Mmmmm....

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Disposal Reversal

A while ago I posted about the city of Raleigh's decision to ban new and replacement garbage disposals. Now there is word that the city council may vote to reverse this decision next week.

Jerry Ryder, the president of disposal manufacturer InSinkErator, who flew to Raleigh from Wisconsin last month to lobby for ending the ban, brought reinforcements Tuesday to support his effort.

Kevin Keener, a Purdue University professor of food science, and Kendall Christiansen, a member of New York City's water board, both told Raleigh council members that there was no link between ground-up food scraps and clogged sewer lines.

Some council members said Tuesday that they felt they didn't have all of the facts when they voted for the ban on March 4.

Seems like we should try to get our facts before we make a vote on an issue, yes?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Can You Name the Elements of the Periodic Table?

I just spent the last 15 minutes of my life trying to recall what I had once completely memorized my junior year of high school: the periodic table. I remembered plenty of obscure elements and forgot some of the most obvious ones. If only I had a chance to review before I took the test, I probably would have gotten twice as many. Don't cheat. Name as many as you can in 15 minutes. Just start typing the element names in and if entered correctly they will appear in the table.

Take the test here.

I could recall only 27 of 118 elements. How did you do?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Plaxo solves my sync issues

If you have multiple computers in several locations, and portable "smart" devices that carry a lot of the same information as your computers, you'll drive yourself crazy trying to keep the data on all devices current.

Keeping my data current has been an ongoing quest for me since working on a Windows PC at home and a Mac at work. At first it didn't matter much to me. Then I saw how valuable keeping mailboxes synchronized could be. Soon bookmarks became an issue. For a while, I would export my bookmarks from my work computer by html to a zip(!) drive, carry it home, import it into my home browser.

Over the years, my expectations have grown regarding keeping my devices in sync. My device quantity has grown as well. I currently work from a PowerBook G4, a desktop G5, a Windows XP P4, and now, thanks to my dad off-loading his Treo, a Windows Mobile device.

I have already written about the value of using the Google Browser Sync plugin for Firefox. This not only uses your existing Google account to keep your bookmarks synchronized across however many computers you want, it also will sync your history, cache, and site logins and passwords. This is very handy!

I also sychronize my Mac iCal data with my Google calendar using Spanning Sync. This allows me to update shared calendars that are shared with our staff, published publicly for our volunteers to see, and personal family calendars with my wife.

Further, my iCal, Address Book, Yojimbo, Mail settings, Transmit Favorites, Notes, Dashboard Widgets, and Keychains between my two Macs are synchronized through .Mac.

All this synchronizing is a delicate balance to maintain. One innocent failure and entire calendars are duplicated, erased, or corrupted in some other way. The problem to date has been the Treo. Windows Mobile does not make any software to synchronize data with Macs. Third party apps I have tried (three to be exact) have failed miserably to sync to Windows Mobile.

I don't care about my calendar or bookmarks syncing. All I care about is my contact list. I just want to see that show up on my phone and then when I make an edit on my phone, see it reflected back into my address book on my computer(s).

After trying yet another attempt at syncing with a third party app, I decided it wasn't meant to be. I seriously began considering the iPhone. (But I'm with Sprint!)

So PLAXO steps in. A bizarre web site that syncs all of your social web apps: blogger, facebook, flickr, twitter, even Amazon wish lists and puts them into one place. It also synchronizes your calendar (perfectly, I might add) AND your contact list. This wasn't important to me, and frankly scared me a little bit when I pushed the sync button the first time (what if it disrupted my perfect little world of sync harmony?), but I like to try new gadgets and services, and couldn't resist. I pushed the "go" button.

I'm glad I did! It worked perfectly, and continues to work with no troubles. Then I discovered this little sync tab on their site that included all these other services--including Windows Mobile. Really? I thought. Since it worked so well with my Mac, I thought I'd try it. So I took my Treo cradle home, put it on my home computer, found my copy of Office 2003, installed Outlook, downloaded the updates to outlook, and ....success! I now have two-way syncing from my phone to my Address Book in a very unusual way.

Track this "signal path" for adding a new contact to my Address Book beginning with my desktop at church:

Desktop -->thru .Mac --> Laptop
Laptop --> thru Plaxo --> Outlook on PC at home
Outlook --> sync services --> Treo

The cool thing about it is that if I make an edit or a change on my phone, I can stick it in the cradle, and within 30 seconds, my laptop is updated with the new data. I feel like in some ways the whole thing is a hack, a huge bandaid that really only partially works, because it only synchronizes my contacts, (so far) nothing else.

However, if you are not on Plaxo, I would recommend checking it out--even if you only use the sync services.