Why listen to live music?

There is a treasury’s wealth of recorded music available to listeners, especially with the advent of online streaming. Recording technology allows musicians to overdub, rerecord over mistakes, and produce music in its best form before releasing to the public. Why would one bother going to see it live?

New music

No performance of music is identical. In fact, in lots of genres, improvisation is a big part of the music. If you already enjoy a particular musician’s recording, going to see them play live is a chance to see new music created right in front of you. Sometimes alternate takes of tracks on classic jazz recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard are released and you get to hear the same song in a different light. Going to a live performance means hearing a new and unique perspective.

Watching musician interactions

Watching musicians interact with each other on the bandstand is like a behind-the-scenes look into how music is created. Live performers will trade meaningful looks, directions, and even laugh about musical jokes as they play. Visuals give yet another layer to the music to be enjoyed and appreciated. Even watching body language and facial expressions can give you a window into the emotion of how a performer relates to their music.

Identifying where sounds are coming from

Sometimes a big part of music is not just the sound, but how the sounds are created. Pat Metheny, in his Orchestrion Project creates rich and layered textures from a large collection of music playing robots called orchestrions, but you wouldn’t be able to tell without seeing it in a video or in person.

Josh Dion from Paris Monster plays drums and synthesizers while singing all at the same time, but without watching, you’d never know. And when you hear sounds you don’t know how to identify, being able to see can help identify where it’s coming from.

Interacting with musicians

Music, especially improvised music, is always affected by the context in which it’s performed. Live performances allow you to hear music that’s created for a specific time and place. Sometimes, you may even get the opportunity to speak with the musicians directly and hear them tell you what the different songs mean to them.

Focused time for listening

It’s often really easy to be distracted when listening to recorded music as you go about your day. We often listen to music as background noise while working or studying and much of the detail that makes music beautiful is lost. Attending a live performance allows for a focused time and space for appreciating music.

Unrecorded music

Lastly, much of the world’s music is just never recorded. Live performances mean more opportunities to hear music that will either have not yet or will never be available otherwise!

There are myriad reasons why seeing live music, whether large touring acts or smaller local bands, is a good idea. Go check out what’s happening in your city and support live music!


GroundUP Music Festival 2018


Immediately after leaving New Orleans, we flew to Miami for GroundUP Music Festival 2018. Last year was such an incredible experience that we had to go again. The format was pretty similar to last year. The biggest change was that performances didn’t start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, as opposed to a noon start-time last year. Noon-time in Miami was entirely too hot as an audience member and I’m sure the performers were sweltering. Pushing the start by a couple hours was really helpful. They ended up having workshops (in a sheltered area) frontloaded on the schedule, which was cool.

There were too many great acts to write about, but here are some my personal highlights:

Harold Lopéz-Nussa Trio was a piano trio from Cuba. They led kicked off the festival as the first performance on Friday. The whole trio interacted as a fun and energetic unit, playing rhythmic ideas off each other like a percussionist jam (the cool kind) in a piano trio. I haven’t been able to find recordings of them as a trio online, but I’ll be checking out Harold’s other albums for sure.

C4 Trio, confusingly comprised of 4 people, were a mostly acoustic band from Venezuela. Three of them played the “cuatro”, a traditional Venezuelan instrument that looked like a small guitar with 4 strings (bigger than a soprano ukulele, a little smaller than a tenor, I think). They were accompanied by an electric bassist. It’s always really impressive to me when bands are able to have that many multiples of the same instrument and never have them clash with each other. They traded roles of playing melody, strumming accompaniment, and percussion by hitting the body of cuatro. They’d occasionally switch to playing rhythms on the strings too, kind of like how montunos function on piano in afro-Cuban music. Their repertoire consisted largely of traditional Venezuelan songs, but they played a couple fun arrangements of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. They had fun arrangement tricks where they’d split a melodic line playing little sections one after another. They also pulled a really entertaining stunt where the three cuatro players sat close to each other and each strummed and fingered each others’ instruments in a circle.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Trio with Victor Wooten on bass and Futureman on drumitar and percussion played the final set of the last night. Flawlessly tight and dizzyingly radiant solos from all three musicians. I first listened to the Flecktones in high school and it was really great to get to see them live for the first time.

Bob Reynolds

Bob Reynolds (Snarky Puppy saxophonist) has a vlog that I follow and really like. For awhile he’s been talking about this bebop band started by Jay Jennings (Snarky puppy trumpet player), the Yay Yennings Quartet. I was really looking forward to hear this band, as the only recordings they’ve put out have been short clips on Instagram. They played at the late set starting at 3am, which was a little rough to stay up for, but boy did they bring it. The quartet (trumpet, sax, bass, drums) played all originals, and they played fast. It was cool to hear them play without a chord instrument (guitar or piano) comping behind them; Bob would usually play targeted long notes or light hits behind Jay’s playing, and Jay would respond in kind for Bob.

Roosevelt Collier, pedal and lap steel guitarist, played in a band called Bokanté last year, but he led his own band this year. I’m a sucker for gospel-y funky groove bands (especially ones with Hammond organs), and his set did not disappoint. So much funk, so much groove. His debut album comes out in March and I’m buying it.

Knower is the weirdest band and has the weirdest lyrics. Louis Cole (drummer, composer) wore a muscle shirt, literally a spandex shirt with muscles printed on it, and a giant gold chain. Genevieve Artadi (singer) hyped up the crowd, jumping around. She sings like a drummer. I loved how the vocal rhythms were really complex and she delivered with the utmost precision. The band originally consisted of just those two, and their recordings were overdubbed and produced in bedroom studios. They have a really layered and complex sound, with very precise funky rhythms and lines. Since going on tour, they’ve added a bassist and two keyboard players, and it’s impressive how well they’re able to play it live, especially at the breakneck tempos that Knower likes.

Eliades Ochoa (left), unknown percussionist, Sammy Figueroa (right)

Eliades Ochoa, from Buena Vista Social Club, played a set with Sammy Figueroa. I’ve been a big fan of Buena Vista for a very long time and it was amazing to get to see these two Cuban heavyweights play a set. They played a lot of well known Cuban classics (Chan Chan, El Cuarto de Tula), which was really fun to hear live.

Hosting band of the festival, Snarky Puppy, played three sets, each showcasing a slightly different roster of musicians. Just as with last year, I loved watching bassist and bandleader Michael League conduct the band while playing, either with a shake/nod of his head or a quick gesture. The compositions are layered and beautiful, yet flexible enough to handle instrumentation changeups on stage. All musicians are great listeners and instinctively know when to react to each other, which meant League could switch each instrument “on” and “off”, making for unique on-stage arrangements of groove/vamp sections. My favorite soloists of the three sets were: Bob Reynolds on sax, Shaun Martin on Hammond organ, Zach Brock on violin and Bill Laurance on keyboards.

The workshops this year were a range of semi-directed conversations between artists and Q&As. Victor Wooten and Michael League had an hour long conversation about music, politics, and bass. Most of the workshop involved Michael asking Victor questions. Victor talked about how he disagreed (but understood) why a lot of people want musicians to “stay out of politics”, but he felt that if he had a platform to speak for something they cared for, it’d be irresponsible to not use it. He also spoke how he thought it was ridiculous that governments tend to pour a ridiculous amount of money into militaries and warfare which divide and kill, yet continually slash budgets for arts and music which bring people together. Victor also spoke of the importance of finding your own voice in music, that there imitating others (he was quick to differentiate between imitating and being inspired by) was a disservice to the world because deprived the world of another unique voice. I like how he talked about finding your voice as a lifelong quest of discovery. He discussed how powerful simple bass lines are and how silly it is that bassists spend so much less time practicing simple lines versus complex stuff, since bands more often want simple lines that support the band well. Lastly, he asked the audience to give one word descriptions of what music meant to them. Answers included life, love, and purpose. “Notice that none of you said scales, technique, instruments. These are tools for making music. Never mistake them for being music.”

Béla Fleck (banjo) and Lionel Loueke (guitar) played some improvised duets and had a conversation about exploring your individuality. Béla mentioned about exploring different kinds of music that I really liked, “If you hear something that you really like, that’s your inner voice telling you to explore it more”. He also reassured that if you like a style but there’s too much to learn and it’s overwhelming, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with just learning one thing, one phrase, and letting it “infect” your playing. Lionel expressed about practice that you should “go for something you like, not just what you already know”. He stated that he felt that practicing what you don’t know helps make what you already know stronger.

Bob Reynolds and Chris Bullock (Snarky Puppy saxophonists) moderated a discussion with Josh Redman (sax) that was really cool to hear. On learning music, Josh spoke of the importance of depth vs breadth of learning, how young musicians often jump around too much yet don’t spend enough time with a small piece of music. He admitted to only having transcribed or learned only twenty or so solos, but really spent a lot of time digging into them. He spoke of preparing for shows by memorizing music, in order to be as in the moment as possible when playing, yet caveated that there are times one can be more in the moment if there was sheet music available. He stated the importance of listening first, and playing second. He very transparently spoke of how he’s a very self critical musician and how was lying awake the previous night, fretting over messing up a 16 bar trade with Lionel Loueke. I was amazed at his willingness to be as vulnerable as he was and once again heartened that world class musicians like Josh Redman have the same insecurities as a musician that I do.

In another amazing workshop, Michael League sat with two record label executives and spoke about the state of the music industry. It was pretty bleak. Big takeaways: selling records does not and will never again break even, much less make money. Streaming doesn’t make money; Snarky Puppy makes more money selling merch in one night than 4 or 5 months of streaming revenue (and this is for a 3-time Grammy winning band!!!) Touring is incredibly expensive, and out of 15 GroundUP artists, only 3 make money on tour. There’s some legislative things in place to make the situation a little better for songwriters, but for artists that aren’t writing songs, nothing is changing. At the end, Michael said that this entire discussion was about monetizing art and monetizing art sucks. He implored the musicians in the audience to never do anything artistic for the purpose of making money and promised to post online an actionable list of things musicians should be doing to improve their financial situation.

Yet again, the festival was an amazing array of a wide range of styles of music and I’m coming home with a stack of CDs and an even bigger list of musicians to pay attention to. The workshops were inspiring and it was such a treat to hear some of my favorite musicians speak about the music making process, as well as getting to speak to meet some of them while wandering the festival grounds.

New Orleans

Last week, Rosanna and I went to New Orleans for a week. Neither of us had ever been before but we had a grand time exploring as much of the city as we could. It happened to be the week before Mardi Gras and the whole city was decked out in beads, lights and decorations. There were multiple parades per day; all the paraders were decked out in elaborate costumes and waved from fantastically large floats, tossing strings of plastic beads to parade-goers.

With New Orleans having such a rich musical history, we went to as much live music as we could get to. There were jazz venues all over town, and buskers were littered about. Sometimes a singer-guitarist, sometimes a full trad band, and occasionally there’d be a sousaphone player wandering about playing 2-feel bass lines.

We went and saw the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall. “Hall” is a bit generous, it was really a tiny room only slightly bigger than Egan’s Ballard Jam House in Seattle. There were 7-ish rows of seating for those who bought tickets beforehand ($40-$50, yikes!). 20 bucks cash at the door got you standing room or sitting on the floor right in front of the band. It was a really tight squeeze, but doable for an 45 minute set. As I understand it, the lineup for the band changes from night to night. The instrumentation we saw was a pretty typical trad setup: trumpet, trombone, sax, piano, bass, drums. The band was tight and did nothing wrong, but I didn’t find it particularly exciting. Trumpet and piano solos were fun but the trombone didn’t play anything very interesting and the sax solos were mostly variations on the melody that didn’t go anywhere. Solos were always played in exactly the same order too (sax, trombone, trumpet, piano, bass and maybe drums), and since they were playing all old standards, the set felt very predictable. I did admire their ability to balance volume though; nothing was amplified, yet I never had trouble hearing the bass even when all three horns were going.

My favorite part of the city by far was Frenchmen Street, just a couple blocks from the French Quarter. Over ten different music venues line both sides of the street along two or three blocks, and each venue had music nightly. Most venues had no cover but would have a drink minimum. It’s my understanding from talking to a couple professional musicians in the area that musicians often work for tips only. I have to wonder how sustainable a living that is, especially for a city that places such great importance on music. We sampled a couple venues over the week; there was a lot of music (seemingly mostly trad jazz and jazz manouche), but a number of the bands felt somewhat mediocre albeit competent. I did see more banjos and sousaphones in a week than I have in probably the past year, which was exciting.


I chatted with a banjo player in one of the trad bands after they finished a set. He was telling me that most banjo players in New Orleans either play 6 or 4 string banjos (tuned either like a guitar, or the top 4 strings of a guitar). Given how they play jazz, I suppose this should be unsurprising, but I still noticed it as different from the mostly 5 string banjos I’ve seen around Seattle.

One night after leaving one of the venues on Frenchmen, we heard brass and drums up the street and headed up to investigate. There was a ginormous brass band busking on a street corner: 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 sousa, 2 snares, 2 bass drums. They were loud but so infectious that they drew a crowd of close to 100 people, spilling out into the street blocking traffic well past 10pm. The music was super happy second-line sounding and incredibly fun. Speaking to one of the trumpet players later on, I found out they called themselves the Young Fellas. They seemed to be a really informal hang/jam; the trumpet player said they mostly hung out and played brass band standards.


Snug Harbor appears to be the cool fancy club on Frenchmen. While most of the other venues had their bands playing near the entrance to attract passersby (yes the whole street is super noisy), Snug Harbor’s stage is in a closed off room deep past the restaurant area. They had a sizable stage, about Jazz Alley sized (another Seattle venue; I compare everything to Seattle 🙂 ) and had tables and seating right in front, as well as a little balcony area wrapping around.

We saw two acts at Snug Harbor, the first being the Stanton Moore Trio. I’m mostly familiar with his band Galactic (funky jazz) so it was actually pretty fun to hear him play in a piano trio with more straight-ahead material. All three musicians were really powerful players; the band put out a lot of bright energy. The upright bassist kicked in effects pedals in one of his solos, which was entertaining.

The other band we saw at Snug Harbor was Delfeayo Marsalis (of the Marsalis jazz dynasty) and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra. I’ve been listening to a bunch of big band recordings lately and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a big band that swung this hard, so this was a real treat. They played a couple Benny Carter arrangements, a Basie chart for “All of Me”, and a couple of Delfeayo’s compositions. Everyone on stage was a very accomplished instrumentalist, and as a group they were a blast. They had a great stage presence, joking and teasing each other both between and during songs. Delfeayo had no problem yelling “2 and 4, people, 2 and 4!” when an audience member started to clap on 1 and 3. All in all, solid arrangements, fantastic solos, great fun.

Joe Doria Trio at La Copa Cafe

CC Image courtesy of ArtBrom on Flickr

I went and saw the Joe Doria Trio (Hammond organ, guitar, drums) play at La Copa Cafe in north Ballard. Unassuming from the outside, the cafe is a cozy little room with cool paintings hanging on the wall. The cookies are fantastic.

The trio was really cooking tonight. Joe, ever the virtuoso, flew over the keys, adjusted drawbars, and flipped switches like mad scientist in a lab, all while holding down a bass groove solidly in the pocket. Colin Higgins accompanied on the guitar beautifully with well designed complements to Joe’s fire. Guitar solos were clean and elegant. Ehssan Karimi played a minimal four-piece kit (bass, snare, hi-hat, ride cymbal), but you wouldn’t know it by the sound; his snare+ride solos spoke volumes.

I love the Hammond organ. I love its tone, its wide range of sounds, and its great versatility in roles it can fulfill. Joe was kind enough to let me sit in again for a tune (he’s let me sit in before at other shows). I don’t often get to play a real Hammond, but it’s a fantastic treat every time I do. I spend a good amount of time listening and reading up on how organs work and try to apply what I learn on my Nord Electro 3, but it’s never quite the same.

The cafe was decently full when I arrived, but as soon as the table right next to the organ cleared, I grabbed a seat to watch Joe’s hands (and feet!). From reading, I knew which sets of drawbars corresponded to each manual, which helped me understand what he was doing a little better than last time. Drawbar settings I noticed he liked to use included:

  • 88 0000 000: quiet and mellow, often for comping, but some melodic work as well
  • 88 8000 000: similar to previous, but a bit more punch
  • 00 0800 000: I only saw this a couple times, but it had a nice mellow tone, but not as deep as the other settings. It reminded me of the clarinet register on an accordion.

There were some playing techniques that Joe used tonight that stood out to me as things I want to work on:

  • Repeating a melodic figure in different octaves. I’m not entirely sure why I never do this, but it’s a useful device and I’m gonna try to work it into my playing.
  • Short, clipped and percussive “stabs” at chord clusters. These felt a lot like “drumming” in between melodic sections. They’d often precede a big gliss up to a sustained chord.
  • Switching drawbars settings mid solo, especially while sustaining a note or chord


The accordion is really similar to the organ in a lot of ways: unweighted keys, post-attack expression, the ability to change the tone of the instrument using drawbars or registers. I’m looking forward to trying these techniques out on accordion, as well as the next time I get a chance to play another organ.

Debugging a Persistence Bug in a Mongo/Rails App

This blogpost originally appeared on the Substantial blog in 2014. I forgot to cross-post then, so I’m doing it now.

TL;DR Using the $push operator in mongo fails silently on null fields. Turn on safe mode in your mongoid.yml.

The problem

One of our Rails/mongo projects recently had a bug where one of the array data fields we were appending to was not persisting properly. The app uses Rails 3.2.x (one of our older projects) and Mongoid as an object document mapper. The following code snippet shows the has_many relationship between Fleets, Garages, Motorcycles and Automobiles. I’ve omitted the Motorcycle and Automobile classes here, but they have basically the same structure.

class Fleet
 include Mongoid::Document

 embeds_many :motorcycles

class Garage
 include Mongoid::Document

 embeds_many :automobiles

We’d recently converted a bunch of fleets of motorcycles to automobiles in garages (they needed some mechanical work done). The script looked like this:

fleets = Mongoid.default_session[:fleets]

fleets.each do |fleet|
 id = fleet.delete_id

 garage = fleet.deep_dup
 garage['_id'] = Moped::BSON::ObjectId.new
 garage['automobiles'] = fleet['motorcycles']
 garage.delete 'motorcycles'


The problem we were having was with the newly created Garages. We were able to remove an automobile from a garage fine, but if there was a garage with no automobiles that was created from a fleet with no motorcycles, appending a new automobile to the garage wouldn’t save properly.

Writing a test script

Ordinarily, I would write a unit test to create a repeatable test scenario so as to automate the testing process. In this case, I wasn’t sure where in the code the problem was, so this was not an option. Manually adding and removing entries in the web app directly got tiresome pretty quickly, so I whipped up a quick script to run after every change. Every time we reloaded the model, g.automobiles would be an empty array again, no matter how many automobiles we appended to the Garage.

g = Garage.find('5165ea04abc5c2b85f00004a')
puts g.automobiles.inspect

g.automobiles << Automobile.new(name: '2009 Ninja 500R')
puts g.automobiles.inspect

puts g.automobiles.inspect

Going through mongoid logs

A coworker suggested going through the mongo logs to see if the app was sending the correct updates to the database. Mongoid allows you to set two variables within Rails’s application.rb to set the log level to DEBUG. See here for more details on Mongoid and logging.

module MyApplication
 class Application < Rails::Application
   Mongoid.logger.level = Logger::DEBUG
   Moped.logger.level = Logger::DEBUG

After tracing through each database query, I could see that the app was indeed telling mongo to $push a new Automobile document to the Garage’s :automobiles field. Finally, after googling “mongo array push not persisting”, I found the issue. In mongo’s documentation on the $pushoperator there is a note that says:

  • If the field is absent in the document to update, $push adds the array field with the value as its element.
  • If the field is not an array, the operation will fail.

When I pulled up some of the problematic Garage records to see what the :automobiles field looked like, sure enough, they were nil instead of unset like their corresponding Fleet records. I dug back into the earlier script to see why there were a bunch of nils hanging out in empty Garages and discovered the problematic line:

garage['automobiles'] = fleet['motorcycles']

If a fleet had no motorcycles in it to begin with, the script set garage['automobiles'] to nil, which caused any mongo $push operations to that field to fail silently.

We’ve now set safe: true in mongoid.yml as per the Mongoid’s documentation on safe mode, so these types of exceptions will be caught faster in the future. That being said, the docs do mention that mongo sometimes logs an error on the server, but sends a message back to the client that the operation was successful, so I’ll be watching the mongo logs more closely in the future.