On October 17th, 2014, I got one of the most important phone calls of my life -- I was accepted to the University of Minnesota Medical School! After years spent imagining how -- if! -- music and medicine would come together in my life, I am finally about to take the first big step in making this future a reality. Although there are countless people who have inspired me along the way, there are two musician-doctors whose careers I can only aspire to emulate.
Denny Zeitlin is an American jazz pianist and clinical psychiatrist. While in medical school in the mid 1960s, he performed and recorded extensively, collaborating with many famous musicians, including flutist Jeremy Steig, bassist Charlie Haden, and all-time great jazz pianist Bill Evans, just to name a few. A cool tidbit -- Bill Evans frequently performed the piece "Quiet Now," which was written by Zeitlin.
Upon graduation from medical school, Denny Zeitlin became a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California and opened his own private practice. Through it all, he continued to engage in the music community and concertized all over the world, recording over 30 albums. He has said numerous times that his passions for music and medicine are equal -- he could not possibly choose one over the other.
Another influence is Krzysztof Komeda, a titan of Polish avant-garde jazz. Dabbling in the avant-garde at a time when it was hugely frowned upon (and, in fact, against the law), Komeda also studied medicine and became an otolaryngologist. He recorded highly influential albums such as Astigmatic and had a long-standing collaboration with Polish filmmaker Roman Polanksi, scoring movies such as Knife in the Water.
Despite his prominence in the world of music, he was a doctor by profession; these two passions were never in conflict. Today, Komeda's name is mentioned in reverent whispers among jazz lovers; his contributions to the medical field cannot be forgotten, either!
Here is some beautiful music by these two jazz greats...
This piece, which is a duet featuring my brother Adrian (violin), is dedicated to one particular Knight, who is one of my greatest friends and mentors. In addition to actually being a member of the Knights Templar, a secret order that was at its peak during the Middle Ages and later served as the inspiration for organizations such as the Freemasons, this person is also a Knight of the Flamenco Roundtable. Not only is he an amazing musician, but as a personality, he is truly ‘timeless’. Those of you who know me personally have probably already figured out who I’m talking about.
El Payo Humberto, an accomplished flamenco guitarist hailing from the Netherlands, lived in Minnesota for several years. During his time here, he was my musical and life mentor – an incredible privilege – where our lessons focused equally on an exploration of traditional flamenco, philosophy, politics, and humor. El Payo introduced me to Nino Ricardo, an important figure in the sphere of traditional flamenco and one of Humberto’s mentors when he studied in Spain during the 60s and 70s. He also reinforced my interests in existential philosophy and analytical psychology; many a lesson were spent discussing Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Gerard Reve, and many others…
The Knights Templar is not flamenco, strictly speaking, but rather an amalgamation of influences – a sort of jazz-inspired Renaissance/baroque composition, somewhat in the vein of the improvised chamber music of Rolf Lislevand and Jordi Savall, but also with a distinctly flamenco flavor. I wrote the main theme (what you hear in the sample) in April 2012, with the entire piece coming together in the subsequent months. It was initially a solo piece, however, but an impromptu jam session during which Adrian came up with a second voice changed that…
Upon hearing the final version of the piece, Humberto’s reaction: “¡Muy bien! The return of the Knights Templars.”
I wrote this piece in summer 2011, dedicating it to the Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa. I discovered Yamandu’s music a few years prior, and he has been a huge influence ever since I first heard him play. Not only is he a brilliant composer, arranger, and interpreter of Brazilian music (and beyond), his technique ranks as one of the best in the world. Many of his pieces are tour-de-forces, featuring dizzying, tastefully executed passages and harmonic progressions that firmly cement him as one of the most influential modern Brazilian guitarists. His approach to the guitar is informed most immediately by his predecessor, the Brazilian guitarist Raphael Rabello, who passed away at the young age of 32 but left an incredible legacy of flamenco-inspired, yet distinctly Brazilian arrangements and compositions with a style all his own. Although it is difficult to compare such proficient guitarists, it can be said that Yamandu has gone a few steps further in his approach, engaging in a variety of unique musical contexts such as a jazz trio framework and duets with accordion (Dominguinhos) and mandolin (Hamilton de Holanda). However, Last Dance was inspired most by Yamandu’s solo work, particularly the pieces on his Mafuá album (released in 2008).
Last Dance begins with an ad libitum introduction (featuring my attempt at percussion!) to set the tone of the piece – and of the album as a while – Last Dance jumps right into the samba rhythm, which serves as a segue into a brief solo/improv section with a flamenco-inspired rhythmic accompaniment. The subsequent call-and-response chords and passages transition into the second part (the main theme), which I overdubbed with a second guitar part (random note: the overdub was recorded a year after the original track!). The piece concludes with a recapitulation of the first part that ends on an unexpectedly dissonant chord – a Yamandu trademark.
Also, it turns out that living in Minnesota isn’t all bad (although the recent weather forecasts might lead you to believe otherwise). We have a very active music community that attracts many world-class musicians. Two years ago, a very special musician performed here...
A little less than a year after writing Last Dance, I was able to perform it for Yamandu… luckily, he liked it!
On September 16th, my mentor El Payo Humberto and I appeared on a program called Radio Duende, hosted by flamenco and music lover Emel Sherzad. Good conversation, classic flamenco recordings, and a few solos and duets... check out the following link and click "Listen Now" to stream it from the KFAI archive!
The great American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa once asked: "Does humor belong in music?" The answer to that question was, according to Zappa, a resounding yes. As someone who primarily focused on rock music, particularly as a form of social/political commentary, he incorporated humor into his music at almost every opportunity. Many of the songs he played with his band The Mothers of Invention are incredibly funny; using humor as a way to catch the audience's attention was a brilliant move on his part since it also had the consequence of people paying more attention to the lyrics and noticing the underlying message.
But does musical humor exist outside of lyrics?
As you guys will find out with the coming blog posts, I am a huge fan of the ECM record label. They release a lot of very high quality European jazz, and their back catalog features some of the greatest recordings of all time (more on those later). Several years ago, I came across a recording by the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani called Stone In the Water, a pretty serious and musically mature work (P.S. Check out who wrote the top rated review on Amazon!). Shortly afterward, I bought a few of his other records... one of which surprised me in how not serious it was (in a good way). And, with one track in particular, how funny it was!
Tico-Tico No Fuba is one of the most famous Brazilian songs of all time, having been covered by artists from across the world. Unfortunately, with so many covers out there, a lot of them tend to sound the same. However, this particular cover, which I first heard on Bollani's album called Carioca, is anything but orthodox. The theme kicks in at 2:07, and Bollani has done something very clever with it. Every couple of measures, he changes the key by half a step. I literally laughed out loud when I first heard it just because of how utterly bizarre it sounded. But, oddly enough, it works. And what's especially ridiculous is that Bollani is able to improvise on the reworked theme, a testament to his incredible musicianship.
So, to return to Zappa's original question, does humor belong in music? Do experiments like Bollani's key-shifting Tico-Tico have musical merit, or are they nothing more than gimmicks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Hello and thanks for stopping by the new website! As the name implies, this blog will be about 'the good things' in art, whether they are traditional or modern. As my mentor, flamenco guitar instructor, and dear friend "El Payo" Humberto Wilkes so astutely noted -- and to whom I give credit for the blog's name -- truly good things are timeless, and can be from "yesterday, today, or from tomorrow". I will be posting as regularly as I can, so please check back often!.
To start with, here's the title track from legendary flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia's latest studio album, Cositas Buenas (translation: good little things!).
I had the good fortune of seeing the master live twice -- once in Chicago in 2004 during the CD release tour for Cositas Buenas, and another time in Minneapolis in 2012. Although I wasn't able to meet him in 2004, apparently the second time was the charm!
I also had the privilege of playing for Paco and his group after the show -- a nerve-wracking experience to say the least, but one that I am immensely grateful for!