Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Final Firenze Weekend

9:00AM May 12

Saturday started out like any other weekend day in Florence. I finished a complete rough draft of my politics paper and ate up the leftovers of my arrabiata pasta from the previous night before heading up to campus. With access to the internet there, I was able to double check many of my online sources for the essay and catch up on my email. I also got a chance to practice piano, which I desperately needed to do for the upcoming final. There are only two rooms on campus with pianos, and it is difficult to find time in my schedule to practice, let alone at a time when other people aren't already using the rooms. On the weekends it is much easier to find time, as most of the music majors aren't up on campus.

It felt like a very productive day for me, and the girls were hosting a "Great Gatsby" party that night, so I headed home to concoct a dessert to take with me. I figured that my apple pie over Easter weekend was such a big hit that I'd try to work around that idea, although I didn't have time to put together a batch of pizza dough. Instead, I got a bunch of ladyfingers to make a doughy base to cook the apples over. I then whipped up a some mascarpone with sugar and cinnamon to lay over top of the baked concoction.

By 5:30 I headed over to the girls' for what would turn out to be quite a grand party. They did a great job of getting into character with their 1920's style outfits, and the apartment was decorated with stars and streamers hanging from the walls along with post-its of quotations from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. They were pleased to see that John and I also dressed up in suits for the occasion, but they jokingly dismissed Sean and Adam for not coming in costume. The two of them immediately left, disheartened, and I think Sean took it a bit personally, coming back in a full tuxedo—Adam didn't care that much and returned in his same street clothes.

The girls all dressed up for the "Great Gatsby" party. From left to right, Brittney, Yvette, Jaimie, Lauren, Rishma, Kate, Jen, Alex, Marielle, and Emily.

By 11:00, at national quiet hours, the apartment was filled with more people than ever before. I saw everybody that had ever been to that apartment on any occasion and then some. It certainly overwhelmed the girls and their expectations. At this point I brought out my dessert, and I got several comments from people I didn't know saying it was "really awesome," or "completely made the party." Some of our friends who live on campus had a little too much to drink, so John and I rode the bus with them back to campus to see that they got back safely, and then we walked back home in a light drizzle—the last bus of the night only got us as far as the bottom of the hill.

I was still up early on Sunday, studying music theory terms for our final the following day. Around 11:00 I headed back over to the girls' to retrieve my pans from the night before, and they were still trying to recover from the mess the party had created. They've hosted many events before, but nothing had ever been nearly as big as that, and I'm not sure they were ready for that kind of responsibility.

I then went up to campus to work a bit more on piano and my politics paper, and I was pleased to find that there was a group of students from my music theory class there who were getting ready to study for our comprehensive exam. We headed over to Villa Ulivi (top), where I got to see the library for the first and only time. Our session was extremely helpful, figuring out the easily confused terms that go along with serial music and discussing how to approach the essay questions comparing different types of music we'd studied that semester in both conceptual and theoretical terms.

That night I met with my politics class in Fiesole for communist pizza. The Italian Communist Party runs pizza parlors and cafes—as does the Catholic Church—where they sell a good product for cheaper than normal prices. For that reason, they have good business, and the party gets to make money. We thought this would make a good field trip, and our teacher knew just where to go. As our teacher had informed us, there were no pictures of Stalin or Lenin hanging on the walls. It looked like any other pizza parlor, without any real attention to decor. The party did not use it for propaganda, but simply as a way to make money. I'm sure if you sought it out, you could get more information on the party, but that wasn't the goal of the place.

I ended up getting a pizza with Italian sausage, "salsicia," and onions, which was maybe the best pizza I got in all of my time in Italy. I was never particularly impressed with Italian pizza. I found it consistently very good, but rarely, if ever, great. This was that exception. Everything about it, from the sauce, to the toppings, to the dough, was stronger in flavor and tastier than any pizza I had in Italy, with the possible exception of the pizza I got in Venice.

As usual, I had a great time discussing politics with my teacher and classmates. Our class has only four students, and it has been a great forum for discussion. Given the chance, I also bounced off some of the ideas from my paper on Lega Nord to my professor, who always gives me good feedback and direction. I feel that I've been able to take a balanced look at Lega Nord largely because he always taught it that way. He introduced them as a radical party, but he always acknowledged the validity to their main positions, something I've never heard from a Tuscan. One of my classmates, from China, and I discussed the merits and demerits of communism on the ride home, and although I believe she took everything a bit too personally, it was a really fascinating discussion. It's nice to be able to share such ideas with people in a cool manner without getting into the heated arguments that have become all too common when chatting about American politics.

Fiesole (the clock tower sticks out at the dip in the hills), as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo, on the south side of the Arno in Florence.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blue Note Milano

10:30AM May 10 (EST)

On Thursday we had our last quiz in Italian class, which was essentially a practice run for the final exam. This was comforting, as I felt really good about the whole test. There have been times this semester when we've crammed in a new concept or load of vocabulary right in before the quiz, and that has made it difficult, but this one went really smoothly. I'm feeling really confident with my Italian now.

Most of the Italian classes had gone out for gelato at least once this semester, but given all the singing we'd been doing, the gelato field-trip slipped right by. For the past few weeks we'd been trying to get our teacher to take us somewhere for gelato, and she finally gave in, saying we could do it after the quiz, a point when she rarely wants to teach anyways. We went down the hill on the backside of La Pietra, following Via de' Bruni past the elementary school our teacher's daughter attends. We waved and called out her name, Amanda, as we passed, as it seemed she was outside at choice time.

This gelateria which we went to would be out of the way for me if I were walking from home, it's very near to the recording studio where we played for the film scores, but I'd heard great things about it for a while. I hadn't been to many gelato places in Italy that I felt were better than gelato I could get in America, but this was definitely one of those rare cases that stood out. I'm not sure it was the best gelato, but it was completely different than any other I'd had before. The flavors were richer, and the cioccolato peperoncino which I got had a spicy kick to it that I was still feeling after I'd thrown my cup away. The key was the texture though, this gelato was much softer and creamier than any other I'd had. It was definitely great to get a different spin on the Tuscan tradition.

Following gelato, Isamu, John Bishop, and I all walked back towards our apartments together, as we had to get ready for our gig at the Blue Note in Milan that night. I met Antonio, his girlfriend, Domenico (the camera man for our youtube videos), Andy, and my fellow peers in the jazz department at the train station a few minutes after 2:00. At times the school may skimp on providing us transportation and hotels, but that was not at all the case this time, for the prestige event of the season. Apparently we were even listed as significant news on the NYU website for playing at Italy's biggest club. To get there, we were taking the Eurostar on NYU's treat, and we then stayed at the ultra-snazzy four-star AC Milano Hotel—it has no relation to the soccer team owned by Prime Minister Berlusconi, but the AC hotel brand had the unfortunate luck of inhabiting the same name.

I tried to work on my politics paper, due the following Tuesday, on the train, but it wasn't the best environment to work, around all of my friends in the jazz department. Before long, I did get into a discussion with Antonio about the subject of my essay, Lega Nord, the radical populist party that wants to break off, or at least gain more federalist power for their northern nation of "Padania." I find the whole concept of a secessionist party in such a prosperous country fascinating, but the party is extremely divisive in their political tactics, stirring up strong sentiments on both sides of the issue. I have had a great time talking about it with Italians, who, in Tuscany, see them as crazy racists in the north. I believe that in coming from abroad, I've been able to look at the whole situation more objectively though, and I was even able to challenge Antonio's preconceptions of the party while talking to him. Yes, I believe they are crazy racists in the north too, but they take this position in order to draw votes and play with peoples' emotions. I'm not sure just how racist they actually are, but they pull on divisive issues like immigration, much in the same way as Karl Rove, cultivating an immobilized voting population and transforming the general electorate to their advantage—their polling as the third strongest Italian party for the upcoming EU elections. Also, Italy was never a unified state between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1861, and it has always been a collection of nations that share a language. I don't think federalism would be such a bad thing, as currently, the various regions have essentially no power.

John having fun on the train

Antonio and I discuss politics over Jeff (above right) and Domenico (below left).

They soon got tired of political discussion and retreated into traditional Italian sleeping-on-train pose.

The gorgeous sights of northern Italy and the Apennines

To give you an idea, this is one of Lega Nord's posters. It depicts the north of Italy, "Padania," creating all the wealth, laying the golden eggs, and sending that wealth down to Rome and the lazy south, never to return.

This one shows a very caricatured Asian man, a gypsy woman, an African man (brandishing a sword no less), and a Muslim, physically getting in the way and holding back a poor elderly Italian man.

When we got to Milano Centrale, we immediately departed for the subway. Two stops later, we were outside another big train station, but Antonio didn't really know where to go from there. Antonio has proven time and again that he's not good with directions, and we waited around for ten minutes as he tried to find which way we needed to go. This perpetual state of confusion makes trusting Antonio ever more difficult, but he rarely leaves us with another option. With little help from Antonio, we eventually turned the corner and noticed an 18-story building with large sign saying "AC Hotels" at the top.

We spent about half-an-hour at the hotel, dropping off our belongings and getting changed before heading off to the gig. It did seem that Antonio knew the way to the Blue Note though, as we walked right over without getting lost.

Milano Centrale

Approaching our swanky hotel

Looking up the side of the hotel

In our room

Entering the club was quite an experience, as we encountered a giant two-story room full of tables and a bar, three HD cameras set up on podiums to film us, and a grand stage at the center of it all. Our group was on second, so we sound-checked first, working in particular on one of my tunes, "What Now?," which had been a staple of our practices early in the semester, but we'd never gotten to perform. It was pretty special to be up there, and we just let it all soak in before the performance.

Walking through Milan to the Blue Note

"Maybe some day your name will be in lights sayin' [NYU Jazz] tonight"

Inside the club

Afterthought sound-check

We had a pretty good meal before the set began, and I got to talk a good bit with David Travis, the director of NYU in Florence, about the Eurostar and the goings on of TrenItalia. He came up for the performance along with Dave Schroeder, the director of the jazz department in New York. The meal was a buffet with at least two different types of pasta, and two or three types of meat. Little of it was memorable, but the turkey scaloppini was some of the best I've had.

Origin Blue has been playing together for at least a year now, and per usual, they played a really solid set. I think I've seen them play better before, certainly with more energy, but it was still a pretty great performance. We went on directly afterwards and opened up with "What Now?." I usually take a really good solo on it, and I thought what I played was solid, but it had been a while since we'd worked on it, so it didn't quite come together as well as I'd hoped. This kind of feeling summed up the entire performance for me. I felt like I played pretty well because I really knew the pieces we were playing, but I rarely pushed towards anything original in my solos. A lot of this stemmed from the fact that I never felt completely in tune, so I was constantly adjusting, and that extra attention I put towards my intonation drew away from my focus on what I was playing. The last part of the set I finally started to get it together. I felt really good about what I was playing on my tune "Done," but again, when playing with Andy, we have stricter arrangements, and although I wanted to take an idea I was playing into a second solo chorus, we had to continue on to another part of the piece. The last tune, "Lotus Blossom," was the best. I really like what I played, and I'm glad that we were able to close the set on such a high note. At that point I just wanted to play an encore or two though, to keep the momentum going.

I wasn't at all nervous during the show. If anything, I felt a rush of adrenaline that I hoped would propel me to a great performance. The intonation issue really got in my head though, and in the end, I felt that I didn't play up to my potential when we got our chance on the big stage. In listening back to the recording later, neither my intonation nor my solos were as off as I felt in performance, but I know it could have been that much better had I in fact been completely focused during the show.

Origin Blue with Francesco Bearzatti

Afterthought Quatet with Andy Gravish

Afterwards, David Travis bought us each a drink at the bar—I know we're legal in Italy, but that's still an oddly pleasing situation. I got to see my parents briefly as well, as they'd come up for the gig after their week in Cinque Terre. We discussed some of what they'd been up to on the scenic Italian coast, but we knew there was plenty of time to catch up on all accounts a week later, when I returned to America. Mostly, it was really cool to have them there, watching me play at the biggest club in Italy. They had one more day in Milan before flying back to America themselves, so we said our goodbyes, and I went back to hanging with my peers.

The Blue Note Bar

Domenico tries to conduct a serious interview with us after the show.

Unfortunately, he delegated interviewing responsibilities to Evan and Isamu, so we couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculous questions, of which we didn't have any for each other.

So we took ridiculous pictures too. Clockwise from the top: me, Jeff, Evan, Isamu, John, and Dave.

The next day I got up fairly early and got to work in peace on my politics paper for a bit. It was nice to feel like I was finally getting somewhere with it. Then, when everybody else got up, I joined them for breakfast downstairs at the hotel cafe. Considering that it was a four-star hotel, the breakfast was pretty mediocre. I find it hard to complain about anything, as school was putting us up, but I'm more surprised that the hotel would have such low standards of food quality.

We had to check out by noon, but we all wanted to get back to Florence as soon as possible, so we were out just after 10:00 and headed back to Milano Centrale to see if we could exchange our tickets—arranged for a 5:30 Eurostar—for something earlier. Unfortunately, it was the Italian equivalent of Labor Day, and everything was booked, so we resolved to spend the day at a park not too far from the station. When they bought the tickets, Antonio and David Travis had figured that we would want to spend some time sight-seeing around Milan, but as I had my guitar and laptop, and both drummers had heavy bags with cymbals, we weren't exactly in a position to go walking all around the city. We spent nearly five hours in the park lying around and playing an epic game of Ghost (a spelling game).

On the way back I got some good work done on my essay again, and I made plans to go out to dinner with John Spencer and some other friends that night. Unfortunately, by the time I got back, he let me know that he wasn't able to get the reservation, so he was eating up at school. Being a holiday, most things were closed, so I had to buy my food at the ninety-nine cent store, where I purchased a bag of pasta and an arrabiata sauce. Ironically, the two items only cost a Euro and a half, but I didn't argue, and I went home to make my dinner, which I supplemented with some mascarpone. It was actually better than plenty of the pasta and sauces I've found at the normal grocery stores, which will charge you at least twice as much. By that point, I was pretty burnt out on working on my politics essay, so I just curled up, watched some of a movie, and then went to bed early that night.

The very modern Italian city of Milano

Milano Centrale, a grand fascist monument.

Isamu towers over John as he struggles to come up with a word in the finale of our epic game of Ghost.

Inside the great Milano Centrale terminal

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Final Week Of Classes (Performance Week)

3:50PM May 8

Monday morning I went out for one last cappuccino and pastry with my parents before they headed off to Cinque Terre for a few days. This time I let them find their own way to the train station though, assuming they'd figured out the system well enough by now.

In the afternoon we had our final music theory class and we spent most of the time reviewing what we'd done this semester. I've known that we were moving at a faster pace than in previous semesters, but in doing the review, it finally hit home just how much we'd covered. I remember complaining the previous two semesters of music theory at the slow pace of class; it seemed as if we worked on three concepts or so each semester, which gave my teachers plenty of time to extemporate about whatever was on their minds at the moment. This semester, however, we followed the evolution of music theory from Wagner all the way up to Schoenberg and the 20th century serialists. It's incredible how much the music changed in that time, and our teacher got us safely through all of the material without making it feel overbearing.

After class, I rehearsed once more with the Afterthought Quartet and Andy Gravish. Unfortunately, it felt a bit like a step back for us, working with Andy again. He is a great trumpet player, and having a horn really adds to the group, but it feels like our chemistry is broken when he is added into the mix. Before, I could blame it on the difference between the repertoire we did with him and on our own, but now, most of the tunes we play with him are also in our set when we play as a quartet. I think we play stricter forms when we work with Andy because there are more instruments, so everything is more arranged, from solos, which we take less of, to melodies, which are played more rigidly. As a small ensemble we get more opportunities to spread out, and as a result, we can get more creative and evolve the music beyond the traditional structure we've worked out. I think we'd all love to play with the same abandon when Andy's around, but the atmosphere doesn't always allow for it.

Andy also brought in a new tune this week, which I didn't like very much. It was a re-arrangement of a standard with an awkward-sounding harmony part. I know he wanted to give us another tune for our last two performances where the two of us got to play in harmony, but it felt forced, especially when we have so many more interesting tunes already in our book. That being said, we did try to work Andy into the things we were doing as a quartet, and things felt better with him than it has before.

After rehearsal, John, Dave, and I dashed over to the Limonaia (top) for one of the week's final music recitals. The composition majors were having their pieces played, and then we were giving another performance of the Gershwin songbook revue. I really enjoyed the first half of the program. In particular, one of the students, Michael Bennet, wrote two scenes for an opera which I thought were really great.

Before one of the final performances at the Limonaia

This time the other ensemble, Origin Blue, played the first set of the Gershwin revue. When it came time for us to go on, there was only one music-stand though, as the other group had only needed one for the bass player. Our quartet needed stands for both bass and guitar though. I asked Antonio if he'd brought over anymore, but he had not. He just paused for a few seconds, glancing over at the giant lectern in the corner. There was no way we'd be able to use that though, so we worked it out so that Evan would use a stool to hold his music, and I would get the stand. After coming to this solution Antonio felt proud of his problem-solving capabilities—rather than acknowledging the added stress he was putting us through yet again—and told me, if this had happened to a German, they would have been running around, freaking out. "They always lay out strict plans," he said, "and when something doesn't follow accordingly, they have no idea what to do. We Italians though, we do not get scared. We find solutions."

I think we played our set even better than the day before. At least for those of us in the backing band, we'd only played through the music three or four times before, so there was still room to let the music grow. Taking Dave's suggestion, I tried to play less and give him more room to fill in behind the singers, which I believe made the times I did play that much more effective. The guitar would join in as a new voice to the mix, and I played more inspired material at those points. We went from a very good performance, to an excellent one.

The highlight of the night was hearing Dave play with Isamu, the piano player from the other ensemble. In advance of the concerts this week, two grand pianos were brought out of storage to be tested by the pianists. They'd never played together before, but that was not at all apparent in their performance. It was incredible how well they worked together, especially with two pianos, which can often make a clutter of sound if not done correctly. They played "When Your Lover Has Gone," and just brought the house down. It was evident that they were in mutual admiration of one another, and the performance was a real sight to witness. It is only a shame that nobody recorded the affair.

In Italian class on Tuesday we watched the video that one of our classmates recorded of the "spettacolo" the previous Thursday. It was pretty funny to watch some of my classmates completely letting loose in the dancing for the entertainment of the kids, including my teacher, who was a bit embarrassed a few times.

Waiting for the kids to file in and watch our "spettacolo."

After class I went over to Antonio's office, as I often do, just to check in, and he asked me to draw up a sketch of how we wanted the stage set up for our performance that day downtown. When I returned to his office after lunch he asked if I could draw up the same sketch on the computer so he could email it to the Blue Note in advance of our gig there on Thursday. I said "no problem," and within two minutes I had a pretty good outline of the stage which I made up in "Paint." When I showed it to him, he just looked at me and said, "you're done already?" to which I responded, "Antonio, this how Germans do things." He didn't even know what to say after that, and just gave me a look that seemed to say, "you got me this time."

That evening we had the final performance of the Afterthought Quartet without Andy at the Auditorium Regione Toscana downtown. This was a gig set up by Il Trillo, the music school where we usually rehearse with Andy, and although it wasn't a big show, it did bear the grand title of "Florence International Music Festival." If nothing else, at least I was a headlining act at the big stage of what can easily be seen as a major event. The funny thing is, Il Trillo made up lots of posters to promote the event (below), and because our name is difficult to pronounce in Italian, they spelled it as "Aftertough." For weeks, we've been trying to figure out how we could construe 'aftertough' to mean something interesting, but we couldn't come up with anything. Antonio assured us that they'd since fixed the spelling error, so on the program it read "Afterthought" in the inside next to our bios, but on the cover of the program they came up with the new derivation, "Aftertought," which is how it sounds whenever Antonio tries to say it.

The show itself went really great. It was our best performance to date. We felt so comfortable as a quartet, playing a solid hour-long set. We had two standards which Andy brought in and two pieces each from Dave and I. In particular, our last two tunes, Dave's "To Be Determined," (our performance of this from the Festival can be heard here) which has a great long form with several interweaving sections, and my "Happy-Go-Funky," have become real staples of our program that I know Origin Blue really likes. Unfortunately, the gig was moved up from its original time in the evening to 6:00PM, which is way too early for anybody to come see us. Most of my friends are just getting home from school, and few people are around at that time who are available to go see a concert. I don't know many people who go out to a show before dinner, so we played to a meager audience of ten to fifteen people. On the positive side, the audience we had was responsive and appreciative of the music we were making, giving us considerable applause despite their numbers, and we didn't let the lack of audience get in the way of the music. We played with as much intensity as ever, regardless of who was their to listen.

Wednesday was the big end of the semester performance at school, and all of the art classes were also displaying their various paintings, sketches, and photographs. While that was going on, David Travis, the president of the Florence program, had asked if our Italian class could perform the Tuscan folk songs we'd worked on in the entranceway to Villa Ulivi during the art gallery. We actually drew quite an audience, with some thirty students lined against the walls and up the grand staircase to watch us. Besides the Tuscan music, we closed out with our big number, "Mambo Italiano." In the middle of the tune there's a dance break, but no one ever felt comfortable doing a little mambo there, as our teacher had hoped, so it's just evolved into a guitar solo, which is a lot of fun. I've even thought about transcribing the tune to play as a regular jazz standard in other groups, maybe with "Aftertough."

Performing our Tuscan music in the entranceway to Villa Ulivi. As you can see here, many members of the class are musicians, including John Bishop (Afterthought drummer, far left), Frank Garcia (film scorer, center left), Isamu McGregor (Origin Blue pianist, center right), and John Spencer and I (back left).

Also here are Molly Gachigard (composition, far right), Jennifer Bissel (actor-singer, back right), Mimi Parroco (who sang "'Swonderful" with me for the Gershwin Revue, center), and Michael Bennet (composition, back center). My teacher and her daughter are singing in the front right)

Later in the evening we had the recital, giving many of the classical students their first and only chance to perform—they all had opportunities at the classical aperitivos, but few of them jumped to do it. After the classical performance, we had, as David Travis put it, "a quick break for dinner," which lasted some fifty minutes or so. Only in Italy would a fifty minute break be considered "short."

Following "dinner," we played three songs as the "Afterthought Quartet featuring Andy Gravish." We opened with "To Be Determined," which we were able to elevate from our quartet performance with the addition of trumpet. Then we did a tune I wrote called "Done," which follows the traditions of Thad Jones and the Village Vanguard orchestra, so it was great to play with muted trumpet. We closed with Kenny Dorham's "Lotus Blossom," after we'd convinced Andy that it would be a better selection than the new tune he'd brought in on Monday. "Lotus Blossom" is a real upbeat tune by Kenny Dorham from the peak era for Blue Note Records. We always play great solos on it, we've got a great drum break, there's room for Dave to open up a lot during the intro, and I get to play tight harmonies with Andy on the last melody. It's a perfect closer, and we really nailed it. That was definitely our best performance of the semester in any configuration.

Origin Blue played an equally great set after us, and then they opened up the stage for a jam session. At first it was just the faculty, which was great to watch, with Francesco, Andy, and our aural comprehension teacher, Greg Burk, among the musicians. Then I got to join in for a rousing take of "Blue Monk" that must have lasted fifteen minutes or more as musicians that weren't on the stage to start with, such as Dave Schroeder—the head of the jazz department back in New York, who was around for the week—and my roommate, Adam, joined in with us for a few choruses. It's always fun to play the melody on a blues with that many instruments because everybody goes for a different harmony line and we get a really big sound. It was quite an evening, and I was happy to represent myself well on stage in such good company.

Below are pictures by a professional photographer from the final Limonaia performance:

The Afterthought Quartet with Andy Gravish. From left to right: Andy, Piero Spitilli, and John Bishop.

At the jam: Francesco Bearzatti, Ares Tavolazzi, and me.

Isamu McGregor, with Origin Blue.

My roommate, Adam Price.

My other roommate, Sean Huston.

And yet another roommate, John Frederick Spencer IV.

Afterthought bassist, Piero Spitilli.

Afterthought pianist, Dave Mainella.

Francesco Bearzatti

Afterthought, with me and Andy.

Introductions from president David Travis.

Dave Schroeder, left, and Greg Burk, right.

Francesco Bearzatti

Francesco Bearzatti and Greg Burk

Francesco Bearzatti, Ares Tavolazzi, me, Andy Gravish, and Jeff Hatcher.

Adam Price, me, Evan Crane, Jeff Hatcher.

The Afterthought Quartet featuring Andy Gravish