The Bad Night

rene

From time to time it happens. The angels desert you and you have a bad night. Last Sunday was bad. There were a few moments when the bar was entirely empty. Zack smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just another rehearsal.” This was the consolation offered. I had to take it.

We didn’t have the excuse of the rain. We have been teetering back and forth this season. A good week then a bad. Sometimes we fill the joint. There is a convergence. I thought the good weather and the super moon would be the breath in our sails. They sure were for me.

We rocked the joint anyways. I took the opportunity to take several extended solos, blasting the amp, as I attempted to tame the it’s snarling, wild-cat feedback. Kosi took up the gauntlet and employed her full range of ghostly, jazz vocalizations and screaming rock incantations. Zack tripped out with us on the bass as we descended on LOVE, tearing it to pieces and then reassembling it.

An old man at the end of the bar applauded dutifully. His eyes were downcast on the watery bourbon before him. In a distant booth a lone couple also sprinkled on their appreciation. The high point was the woman outside. Not having a dime for drinking, she danced and jumped and sang along on the side walk just beyond the door. At intermission she dashed into the bar to hand us a dirty, crumpled dollar. “I love your music.” she gasped, her eyes darting around for Jerry the bouncer.

It’s been a long slog building an audience here. We have many more good nights then bad. But the bad ones are vivid reminders of how it was just a year ago. Back then I told Kosi that the joint was like an audience black hole: “The problem with Paris Blues is… ” I said. “Is that you invite 100 people, 20 say they will come, 10 actually show up and still you only have 5 people in the house.”

Bass Notes

zack-kosi

Zack is leaving mid may. That will be bass player number 7.

Jeff was the first. A stout guy with Clark Kent glasses and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts  it was actually Jeff’s idea to start the band. I was playing guitar and singing at a party in my house. Jeff liked what he heard and offered to be the bass player, that is, if I ever wanted to start a band. I had been thinking about doing that for some time but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. So I decided to just let it manifest. It did.

The second Bass player was David. David is a slender, handsome, black man in his mid forties, who prefers wife-beaters, dark sunglasses and khaki army surplus pants. I met him walking down 123rd st. He had a guitar bag slung on his back. I asked him what he played. I told him I lived down the street and if he wanted to jam sometime to let me know. He plays the bass like a clock, you can literally set your watch by it. A few months later I looked him up and called him to sub for Jeff a few times. Jeff was now on a decaying orbit. David learned quick. That was also when we came up with Kosi’s signature hand signal routine. A trick that has helped us get through this period of personnel turmoil. If the bass player gets lost, Kosi holds up the number of fingers that indicate what chord we are on. The beauty of this system is it works in any key.

After David left for Texas I got Alison as a sub. Alison is a breezy kind of a Janis Joplin type. She learned two sets worth of original material, made charts and then never showed up for the gig. An hour late, she texted me with her lame excuse. J. Y. the gifted guitar player who had recommended her jumped in to save the day. Kosi was able to guide him through. Somehow we managed to perform.
Then there was Otto who subbed for a Wednesday night gig at Shrine. Otto, tall with long dark hair plays in a metal band. My eccentric song list was a stretch for him. He was not as schooled as the others and it took several rehearsals to get him up to speed. He did a fine job though and contributed some new musical ideas. I offered him the chair when Jeff finally left for good, but he declined. One day, weeks later, while I was loading gear into the car he stopped by on his bicycle. He told me he had realized that he was not ready to make the kind of commitment we needed to be successful. Fair enough.

Then there was Joanna. Joanna is a nerdy girl. She is painfully shy and never looks you in the eye.  She played melodic bass lines that made me feel like we had Paul McCartney in the band. When I told her that she beamed. It turns out McCartney is her favorite bassist. But Joanna is just another gun for hire and plays in several bands simultaneously. She was constantly having to cancel rehearsals for gigs. With attempting to write a rock opera I needed somebody who could rehearse.  I finally convinced her to let go of the chair.

That was when Zack came on board. When I first met Zack he told me he was 19. A few months later he told me he was 18. Zack has an angel face with curly brown and a perpetually deadpan expression. He subbed a few times with us before joining the band. 
I was in Dubrovnik, sitting at the restaurant in the Excelsior Hotel, when that went down. The Excelsior has free internet which for the price of a cappucino I was availing myself to. Beyond the terrace the ocean crashed against the medieval walls of the fortress city. Behind me the lobby wall was adorned with a picture gallery of the celebrity guests who had stayed there. That coterie included the likes of; Queen Elizabeth, Yul Brynner, Jean Paul Sartre, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Carlo Ponti and Orson Welles . Joanna quit and the whole thing was arranged from thousands of miles away via email messages on my smart phone. Zack was in.
Zack plays with a mad intensity. At various times we have called him “Killer” and he has also earned the appellation “White Nigga”. Zack’s only problem is he has too many ideas. He is climbing up and down the fretboard like a sailor on a ship’s mast during a squall. It’s hard to pin him down to a groove. He was making some sweet contributions to the space opera though. And I loved how he fought for 6/8 time when Kosi was saying it was no different from 3/4. But now Zack is leaving. He is heading back to Seattle and home for the summer.
 Right on cue David returned from Texas. He called me a few months ago to tell me he was heading back. He said he hated it down there. There were no gigs to be had in the tiny berg where he had landed. He told me that a house was a liability. The first time I ever heard that. Right now he has nowhere to go and he and his wife are living in their car. I told him we could use him again in the band again and we set up a rehearsal for next week. I hope he makes it.

Recently while traveling I saw a documentary about Nirvana. They had a secession of drummers. It took awhile before they got someone who could really play. That was when the band took off. The rhythm section. That’s the key. Rock lore is rife with tales of the right drummer or bass player at long last making their appearance. A Ringo or Keith Moon manifests and shortly after that, anything is possible.

manuscript paper

brillbuilding

That is me outside of the Brill Building. I passed by it as I was leaving Colony at Broadway and 50th. This time I am going to remember where it is. It is one of those legendary NY buildings that I keep misplacing only to have it unexpectedly pop up again.

I was hunting for manuscript paper. It has all but disappeared with the advent of online printable music paper. One would think that if someone was creating a piece of music that they would want the document to be a object of art itself.

I remember seeing Cecil Taylor at the Village Vanguard and peering at his manuscript as it sat unattended at the piano. Torn and tattered, smeared with pencil marks, diagrams, charts and arrows offering scant guidance through it’s impenetrable maze. It was like some holy document that had been rescued from a cave in Jerusalem.

I wonder what somebody like Phillip Glass or Steve Reich does? Do they special order bound, acid free books from the last distributor on earth? I am told that it is Judy Green in California.

Hunting around Times Square I got a glimpse of its past glory when it was the northern-most arrondissement of Tin Pan Alley. Colony Records, right next to the Brill Building. Dowling Music, just above the magnificent Steinway Hall and a stones throw from Carnegie Hall. Franks Music, hidden away on the tenth floor of an obscure building filled with rehearsal halls, The Bridge Theater company and a flamenco dance troop. A place where a little bell tinkled as you entered its dusty archives.

I got a discount on a gum bound book of cream colored stave paper at Colony. It’s cover, torn off long ago, it had lain at the bottom of a drawer for who knows how many decades. I am hoping it is acid free. Already Kosi is illuminating it with her magnificent script.
More News

Recently I was asked to write a statement regarding the my space opera. There is the remote possibility that we might be included in this years opera festival in Bremen, Germany. Complete text follows:
Kepler 22B. Statement

The initial concept for Kepler 22b first came to me as a matter of ambition. I was watching The Rolling Stones “Rock and Roll Circus”, an obscure video from the late 1960s that had rëemerged in the 1990s after languishing for decades in a barn in upstate NY.

The Stones had shelved it after a dazzling performance by The Who, whom had just returned from touring. The Who performed a 7 minute piece entitled “A Quick One While He’s Away” that is essentially a miniature Opera.

It fascinated me to see this sectional piece of work, that was years later to be included in their grand opus, Tommy. It inspired me to attempt something similar.

I began searching for a theme. A news article about the discovery of a “habitable” planet 600 light years away, filtered through to me. I began to work on a synopsis about a journey to such a place, who would go, how they would travel and why.

The first draft of the resulting tale was completed in Frankfurt Germany during the winter of 2012. It is the story of Noah Blumstein, a young worker burdened with astronomical student debt. He is doomed to a life of labor as a cog in the corporate American machine.

He assuages his misery by volunteering for a local animal shelter and loses himself in the task of refurbishing a mysterious steam-punk device.  That machine has lain dormant for decades at the top of the skyscraper at 100 Commerce St. where he is employed. That building, built at the dawn of the 20th century, largely with manpower is more akin to the pyramids than contemporary structures and similar mysteries lie within.

His life is changed when he meets Akuba, a descendant of African slaves and a present day cabaret singer. Their turbulent romance of seduction and rejection begins. She wears an amulet passed down from her great-grandmother that bears the crystal which is The missing component of Noah’s machine. When he wins her, he wins the stone.

Together, with the aid of the completed astral-projection device,  they gather the animals of the earth, shed their corporeal selves and travel together to found a new world on Kepler 22b.

The opera covers a variety of downtown New York locations and a wide swath of musical genres including; metal, blues, jazz, gospel, funk and soul. Quickly it has expanded from its original concept of 10 minutes to 45 with perhaps more to come. It has been one of those rare creative experiences where everything in one’s life can be poured into a single vessel. I look forward to sharing it with you.

Kind regards.

Rene Calvo, Harlem NYC, Spring 2012

Turn off your TVs and Turn to Jesus

DSC01629

Turn off your TVs and Turn to Jesus is a tune I wrote many years ago. It was for a downtown serial theater piece that I had created entitled Ailanthus Grove. It had a nice hook and I wanted to bring it back but the lyrics were dreadfully dated. I think the original lines went something like this:

There’s a muff licker named Nancy on Rosanne lord
It just goes to show there’s no shame at ABC
And on Donahue transsexuals are acting bored
What ever happened to Christ-ti-an-it-y


Turn off your tvs turn to Jesus
Throw your remote into the sea
Turn off your tvs turn to Jesus
Get up off your couch and you’ll be free.

The problem is that I had extracted myself from television’s relentless barrage of twaddle years ago. My set, which I suspect no longer even functions due to changes in transmission modes, has been lying dormant in the cellar for over a decade.  I had no idea how to update it.

Then, while working on my Opera Kepler 22B in Frankfurt, a spot in it opened up for a tune of that sort. I began to look at the lyrics and for some reason I began to treat the piece as if the refrain was no longer dripping in sarcasm.

I mentioned this development to my host Michael, a professor at a German arts academy. He smiled and said:
“Yes. There is no time for irony anymore. We have run out of it.”

The Beggar’s Tune

MG_7521_Rene

Sometimes you have a tune sitting around inside your head for months. Nothing to do. It was a sweet chord progression that I was especially proud of because it modulated between Jazz and Folk. I wanted to put it to work but nothing happened and I began to worry forgetting about it.
Then one day I was heading downtown on the D train. A man came on and said:”Can anybody please spare a little change today. I do not rob or steal but I make my living this way.” “Great.” I thought. “What a great lyric that would make.” Maybe you have heard him?I jotted it down in my book. The words were so powerful that they choked me like an incantation. 
It fit as effortlessly into the tune as a fisherman getting into his boat. We rehearsed it and the rhythm section, Zack and Jerome, added a samba beat beneath my bluesy fingerpicking. Kosi added an Anglican riff that hangs above the melody like icicles.  Like a welcoming mother a space opened up for it in my rock opera Kepler 22B (coming this spring). If you are around this Sunday come have a listen.

Transmolecular Teleportation Terminal

MG_7500_Rene

Last Sunday, as I was sitting at the bar in Paris Blues in between sets, I was transported to a distant time and place.  The cause of my sudden deportation to another era was not The US Homeland Security office but the Jukebox. Glowing, shining and vibrating in the corner the Juke there is obviously a intergalactic teleportation device. My Hypothesis is that it was deliberately left by Sun Ra’s Transmolecular Arkestra.
The Juke spins a web of recorded music that spans the decades, providing glimpses of worlds that now only exist in alternate universes. As I listened to its catalog of destinations an Elvis Presley number that I was previously unaware of came on. The title “Little Sister”.

“That’s it.” I gasped. “That’s the sound I need for “Tell Me What To Do”.
“Which one is that?” Was Zack, our newest band member’s flat reply.At this point that is pretty much Zack’s response to everything.

Later through emails and then in rehearsal we narrowed it down.
“It’s straight eight.” was The Sublime Ms. Kosi’s observation. I like the sound of that. Apparently before, I was swinging it.
“Ok, it’s like a sixties thing.” Jerome exclaimed as the clouds parted above his furrowed brow. We hit it again and Blakes eyes grew wide. He nodded to the beat in approval… and with the help of our ancestors the tune was reborn.

Little Blue Dress

singer Kosi Gyebi and bandleader René Calvo  Photo: Paul de Lunasinger Kosi Gyebi and bandleader René Calvo Photo: Paul de Luna

SoM6ody’s hOuse is buRn1ng, doWn, dOwn, dowN.

Photo:  Jafe CampbellPhoto: Jafe Campbell

Last Sunday Elliot Pineiro showed up at Paris Blues and blew the house down on Calvo original “Leave Me.” Pineiro and his band Sumba Swing have been fixtures in Harlem’s latin jazz scene for some years and resident band The Goddess Lakshmi was honored by his presence.

The Goddess Lakshmi performs
Sunday evenings at 8pm
at Paris Blues
2021 ACP @ W121st
Through December 18th

Lakshmi featured in The Uptowner

This excellent video created by By Elizabeth Harball and Yumna Mohamed  was featured in  The Uptowner.

A war is over.

mekosikevin

At long last the Iraq war is over with all of our troops set to be home in time for the winter solstice.

I did what I could. I signed and circulated petitions. I attended the few and far between protests that a generally disinterested public could muster. I emailed obsessively to my representatives. I composed and posted anti-war songs. I left home for Pennsylvania in 08 and campaigned for Obama (naively believing his anti-war rhetoric). I am proud to announce that all of my efforts amounted to zero.

I am happy this episode in American history is over. I will be happier still when things are wrapped up, allegedly by this coming summer, in Afghanistan.

I wish I could say that a lesson has been learned.

At least now it seems like the youth of this country have woken up. The OWS protest have provided me with faint a ray of hope. I have been down there several times now. It is inspiring to watch history turn once again on it’s axis just a few hundred feet from it’s last pivot point: The World Trade Center.

One of the most elegant and moving fixtures of OWS is the “mic check”. It begins by the orator calling out “mic check”. Those nearest to him repeat that phrase and each subsequent thing said after that. The outer circle does the same and thusly the content of the entire speech is disseminated in ever widening circles.

There is a repertoire of defined hand signals that are employed by the audience to indicate generalized responses such as; I like that, I don’t like that, I’m confused, that is completely unacceptable and wrap it up.

I have heard varying reports on why the “General Assembly” conducts itself in this fashion. Some sources say that it was originally imposed by city restrictions against megaphones. Others sources say that it is an attempt to humanize the oratory in an Aristotelian fashion and consequently the decision making process as well. Either way, the latter is it’s effect.

Some Enchanted Evening

This Sunday we will be introducing a coda that I wrote for I Want You For My Man.  It will be sung rubato and acapella by The Sublime Miss Kosi. I liked how in the original version it ended so abruptly but after a few go’s I began to feel like I was cheating the audience. I know the mechanical Broadway tricks of ending a song in a way so that applause is automatic and always endeavor to resist them. But, I also like it when the composer takes me along on the journey and gives me sufficient cues on where and when to show my appreciation. I thought and thought about how to do this. Eventually I took my inspiration from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score of South Pacific, specifically Some Enchanted Evening. After it crescendos, there is a lovely coda which has always moved me, even as a child. I hope you like my version of it.