Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Musical Adventures - Part III - Scotch-Irish, and All that Jazz

(This is part iii of my musical adventures. The first two parts can be found to the right under my posts or below...)

My first World Music obsession was Scottish-Irish music. This began when I was in Moscow. Though surrounded by Russian music, which I found interesting, I started really listening to Scottish-Irish music.

My friend, Willie the Belgian, had a fantastic collection of music. He was Flemish, and told me that the Flems are Celtic, and he even had a Flemish bagpipe that he played now and then. He made me some tapes of a Scottish Band called "The Battlefield Band," which I listened to in my walkman while we worked.

British Airways was having a contest, my wife told me. You had to write an essay, in Russian, about why you might want to go to England, and you could be entered into a contest. I laughed at her, and then we won!

The "Up and Away Day" caused a bit of a crisis - British Airways ran all of their flights for free that day, and many of the people were contest winners who were arriving from all corners of the world, many with little or no money and no place to stay. The ended up having to open shelters to put up the 'third-world' citizens who arrived in the city.

Fortunately, we had made reservations.

It was an interesting experience. I have quite a bit of English and even more Scottish blood coursing through my veins, and my genetic memory was kicking in strong. I was able to navigate the city by intuition. I knew the streets and main features of London with an odd familiarity. But my Scottish blood was calling me even more.

We went to a travel office and made reservations to go to the Brigadoon of a town, Pitlochry, in the Scottish Highlands. But before we traveled, I had to do something: I had seen some bagpipes in the window of a music store, and a price tag I could afford. I knew (and Music seemed to went me to) I had to play bagpipes for the first time in Scotland. I didn't know if I would be able to find them in the little Highlands town, so I walked out of the London music store with a very cheap set of Pakistani Highland bagpipes.

Pitlochry was as lovely as the travel agent had said. There were lochs and walking trails, and they served high tea at 4 pm.

We went up to a castle to take a tour, and I was intrigued by the opportunity to go on a pony ride through the heather, as was indicated by a sign at the stables. The only catch was that the tickets were available at the 'caravan park' a couple miles away. Considering myself in pretty good shape, I jogged over to the caravan park not even knowing what the caravan park was.

Well, it was where the Travelers, the Scottish Gypsies lived. The nomadic people of the region moved between the caravan parks, carrying out the vestiges of this ancient lifestyle. And moreover, they looked like me - think nosed, tall and lanky with curly brown hair. I knew I was among my people. I couldn't linger, however, because I had left my wife hanging around the stable, helping prepare our ponies for our ride. I quickly bought the tickets and left.

After our ride, we dragged my bagpipes out into the woods, by the edge of a loch, and I knew it was the right, romantic place for me to grace the world with my beautiful tones on the bagpipe. I assembled them, struggled to hold them up on my shoulder, and awkwardly contorted, I took a deep breath and blew as hard as I could. There was a release of air, but otherwise was silent. I had succeeded in not producing so much as a squawk from them. I tried again, and again, and finally was able to produce a feeble, duck-like tone for an instant. Somewhat defeated, we left the area before it got dark.

I had my bagpipes, but was unable to play them for the next year, as living in an apartment where they pounded of the wall the minute I started playing the saxophone did not seem conducive to practicing the bagpipes.

I had, however, also purchased some tin whistles, which were soft and could be played, and I found that they played quite easily and the fingering was very similar to the saxophone. I had also purchased some books of bagpipe music, which easily translated to the penny whistle.

Upon returning home from Moscow, I quickly assembled a band of people I had played with in the past to play Scottish and Irish music. I wrote out some guitar arrangements, and would play the tune, improvise, and return to the tune, a la the traditional jazz style of playing.

It was near Christmas time when we were getting up and operating, and one of the members of our band had become fascinated with Wassils, and knew several, and so we put together the "Wassayle Bagpipe Band," playing an odd combination of Christmas music and Scottish-Irish music. By the way, I had been taking bagpipe lessons since arriving home in July, and was becoming fairly proficient at the instrument. Part of my lessons included bagpipe maintenance, which allowed me to basically rebuild the pipes from the bag up, so that the drones were the only remaining, original part. This made the set of bagpipes I had purchased finally playable.

We played Scottish-Irish music for quite a few years, first with the "Wassayle Bagpipe Band," and then with an emerging group, "The Cornerboys," which would later become "Before the Rain." We frequently played outside, often in the bitter cold of Christmas, but also during the summer when I had time off from teaching. My favorite part of this era was the game we played called "name this tune that was never intended to be played on the bagpipes," where I would play such songs as "Like a Virgin" and "Another Brick in the Wall," and themes to popular movies, and so forth, on the bagpipes, and people who could identify the songs could win gift certificates or coupons to local stores, and other such goodies.

The Christmas after I got divorced was to be a life-changing one. Music had a task for me:

I had been frustrated that I was only writing fragments of songs, and had not really composed anything decent since college. And so, with the prospects of three weeks off from work for winter break, I vowed to lock myself in my house and not have any contact with anyone until I had written an entire album full of music. Breaking only to go to my parents' house for Christmas morning, I wrote and recorded music. I recorded it on a karaoke machine, bouncing tracks back and forth until I had a muddled recording of a dozen or so songs which reflected my story of my failed marriage and continuing recovery.

I presented these songs to Dick and Dugg, 'The Cornerboys,' and we set about learning them. We later recorded them on a cheap four-track machine, of which there are 3 or 4 very nice takes that I should put up on Bandcamp. A year later, we re-recorded them on a 16-track machine, and many of them, along with many new pieces, became our first CD "Hitchin' to Santa Fe."

I now was writing music at a level I enjoyed, and was back to playing jazz.

The challenge that this created was that 'The Cornerboys' were not jazz musicians. And so we embarked on a process of learning to play jazz together. They, incidentally, responded very well. Dick has continued to take jazz guitar lessons for about 15 years, and is becoming a very skilled improvisor. We did have the luxury of being joined, for quite a few years, by Tyson, a very gifted jazz pianist. He has since had two children and lives in Boulder, and so it was no longer conducive for him to play with us, hence the change to the "Walking Eagle" band we are currently developing.

We continued to carry on the Scottish-Irish tradition for quite a number of years. we played along the race course for the Freedom Run until I finally could just not bear the sound of the bagpiped for one more instant. They are now retired, at least until Music instructs me to pick them up again. With Music as my boss, nothing is predictable.

To be continued...

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