12 August 2008

It’s been two days since I returned from Camp MMW, and I still feel like I haven’t returned to reality yet. The experience was kind of like joining Fight Club — everything at work has had the volume turned down.

When I was first accepted, I wasn’t really sure I was going to go. I had been amassing a decent-sized pile of debt, and I wasn’t sure if it would be wise to get that much deeper, but conversations with friends and family convinced me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and besides, “when was the last time you took a vacation?”

For me, the days leading up to camp had been filled with a surprisingly large amount of musical activity; rehearsals with two bands, various excellent shows in the city, and of course my trip to the Rothbury Festival in Michigan. Seeing MMW there really got me pumped for camp, and I could really tell they were really on fire this summer. All this excellent music had me well-primed for the events to come…

When the day finally came, I packed my stuff (including far too many guitars and effects), and made a short jaunt up to the Catskills. The drive was beautiful, of course, but I had some anxiety about the trip. I had practically no idea what to expect; although we’d been given a tentative schedule, I had endless questions about how things would work. However, I made a promise to myself not to let my usual social anxiety interfere with getting the most out of this experience. I was determined to talk to as many people as possible, and planned to stick myself into any jam situation I could, even if I ended up making an ass out of myself.

Arriving at Camp

When I arrived, I could immediately feel a sort of energy in the air. I could tell that all the campers were feeling the same way I was; a bit nervous, but also thrilled and determined to meet everyone — and get down to some musical business. I met my roommates Pravin and Jamie and we immediately got along, so one weight had already been lifted off my shoulders.

By this time there was already music drifting from afar, so I followed my ears to the Barn where a jam session had already coalesced. I stuck to my guns and took the first opportunity to jump up there and groove out with the other campers. Camp had officially begun!

The opening meet and greet and subsequent dinner gave us all a chance to congregate and learn about each other, where we were all from, and the influences that brought us to camp. Everyone seemed to be in a state of disbelief, all the while being absolutely pumped to be there. Even though we all came from different places and musical backgrounds, the connecting thread of a love of MMW gave us all some common ground to stand on.

The Band

Before camp, I had seen MMW play maybe 8-9 times, and had amassed a collection of bootlegged recordings that I always made sure got rotated into my daily iPod shuffle. Still, I knew practically nothing about them, other than the usual stuff you can glean from Wikipedia or Allmusic. In fact, I didn’t even know what John Medeski or Chris Wood’s voices even sounded like, and knew nothing about Billy except that he was “Billy Martin, I play the drums”.

The opening MMW master class immediately gave us an idea of the offstage chemistry of the group. It seems so clich├ęd to say it, but you instantly knew that although these guys were clearly brilliant musicians, they were still “regular guys.” Obviously, you can’t really get to know someone in five days, but I feel like I now have a bit of an understanding of the character types that make up MMW.

First of all, John Medeski is like a mad scientist. Not the evil megalomaniac kind, but more of a “Absent-Minded Professor” type. Although there was endless information that he wanted to convey, he did it all in a manner that was immediately accessible to me. I was most pleased to learn what would become a recurring theme over the week, that although he had an amazing grasp of theory and a technical mastery of his instrument, that wasn’t what was most important to him, but simply a tool to help him reach improvisational heights.

Chris Wood had a similar skill at conveying complex ideas, but it was contained in a different personality. The best way to describe it is like an older student helping out a younger one. I remember when I first was learning guitar, and meeting older guys who had been playing much longer than I had, but who were eager to help me out with tips and techniques to get the most out of my playing. Chris’ style was much like this, although combined with a sort of professorial style that made advanced concepts seem really clear and accessible.

Billy Martin…hmm…well, I’m going to quote Frank Zappa when talking about Pierre Boulez, and say that Billy is “serious as cancer.” Okay, I know that sounds extreme, but over the weekend I was just struck by the energy that Billy exuded; it wasn’t that I was intimidated by him, per se, but any time I interacted with him I felt like I wanted to prove that I was just as serious about music as he was. ;-) I appreciated his candor and his vast knowledge of rhythm and world influences, but was also pleased to discover that he wasn’t really into reading or writing western notation.

The Campers

Possibly one of the most shocking things about this whole experience was how completely awesome all the other campers were. Perhaps it was because we were all so thankful to be there, but everyone I met was totally cool and unique in various ways.

There was a great mix of instruments, lots of drummers and bassists, and a reasonable number of guitar and keys players. Due to sheer numbers, we all had to be mindful of giving others time to play and not monopolizing jam sessions, which were basically self-governed. Pretty much everybody was good about this, and those that weren’t were really just so excited to be there, I could hardly get mad at them.

I got a little inside info about how the sleeping arrangements were figured out. The ‘official’ word was that they were most concerned about the younger campers getting wild, so they put them all with some of the older campers in hopes of “keeping them in check.” However, considering that they put most of the 22-35-year-olds in the lodge that was across the street, secluded from the main camp area, suggests that they might have been more interested in keeping us from corrupting the nation’s youth. It was probably a wise decision. ;-)

Master Classes

Every day one of the band members or guest speakers would present a master class to all the campers, going into detail about their influences and ideas about music, different ways they would practice, songwriting techniques, and general life lessons for musicians.

John’s was the first one (apart from the full band master class on opening day), and was focused largely on the metaphysical aspects of music, with a separate emphasis on how musical ideas can be found in practically everything.

Billy was up next, and got really into some of his world influences. It was interesting to compare his teaching style to John’s; although with Medeski I could pretty easily take notes just from what he was saying, Billy’s style was a lot more informal. I realized that I just needed to listen and try to derive my own “knowledge nuggets” from what he was discussing.

Chris Wood’s master class was probably my favorite. He began with an amazing video of Dr. Jill Taylor’s experiences during a stroke in the left side of her brain. It was a great introduction to a talk about right-left brain functionality and how this affects you as a player of improvised music.

By the time we arrived, there had been a schedule change, and there was to be a “special guest” giving a master class over at the performance space. Rumors circulated all week about who it might be, but by Saturday afternoon we had our answer when John Scofield got in line for lunch.

Unfortunately Sco wasn’t able to stay for the whole day, so they merged his master class with a MSMW performance. Hearing them all jam together and open up with “A Go-Go” was an amazing experience, though, and was making the face cramping I had (from excessive smiling) that much worse.

Sco took a few minutes in the middle of their performance to take questions from the audience, but I think audience and band alike just wanted more jamming. They brought it back with a killer Little Walter, and finished up with a Miles Behind.

Ensembles

One of the coolest aspects of camp was the ensemble groups. We were split into three groups, and each would have a sort of rehearsal with each of the band members over three days. Although there was still a lot of us in each group, this gave us all a chance to play, and also made things more productive, since each band member acted as a conductor to keep things fresh and interesting.

My first ensemble meeting was with John Medeski. This was my first exposure to Billy’s ‘riddims’; after being taught these clave rhythms through group clapping, we all had a chance to go onstage and play them on our own instruments. This featured one of the more significant highlights of the week for me, when I (and about five other students) got to jam along on these riddims with John wailing away on the Wurlitzer.

The next ensemble I had was with Chris Wood. In this case we were split into three groups, and while two groups would go off with Chris to work on more riddim exercises, the rest were left with 20 minutes to create an arrangement of a field recording/spiritual, illustrating how you can find compositional ideas in many different places. Our group was actually the last to go up, so we had the fortune of learning from everyone else’s mistakes, and got to use the remaining time to talk with Chris about arranging techniques.

Billy’s ensemble was more freeform than the others, which was a nice contrast. He built small ensembles out of the players in the class, and conducted them through various free playing exercises. There was a focus on playing ‘gestures’, a concept first discussed by Steve Bernstein during his master class, and which became another recurring meme throughout the week. Our goal was to play a small cell of music or sound that we felt represented us each as players.

Another highlight for me was during Billy’s ensemble where we got to play a new MMW composition that he had created to be released on their next album. Camper Larry Legend was on the ball, and got a great video of us working on this tune.

Workshops

The workshops were a bit more hands-on than the master classes, and also happened simultaneously, so you had to pick one of three or four different ones to go see. The first one I attended was Marc Ribot’s “Extended Techniques for Guitar and Alternate Improvisation.”

I thought I was familiar with Marc’s work beforehand; I knew him as MMW’s ‘preferred’ guitarist (I think Sco is evaluated separately), but I had little to no understanding of the level of his expertise. In addition to being a respectable classical or jazz player, Marc’s blues chops are amazing, and his devotion to experimentation and “avant rock” is pretty much unparalleled. I thoroughly enjoyed this class, which featured a six- or seven- guitar choir conducted by Marc using hand signals he developed for use with Modified Cobra.

Next up for me was Medeski’s workshop, “The ‘Ins’ of ‘Taking It Out’.” John talked about an approach to extended harmony that I hadn’t encountered before. It ran along with one of the themes of the camp, which was the importance of learning theoretical concepts in a way that allows you to use them naturally, without thinking. One approach focused on learning the sounds of the more ‘out’ chord combinations by stacking triads against each scale degree, while another gave us a foundational understanding of how the ‘rules of improvisational harmony’ (the ones that say you “always” play a Dorian scale over a minor 7th chord) were created.

It was hard to pick between Billy and Chris’ workshops for the last one, but I went with the second of Chris’ “Making Music On a Fret Board” classes. Here I learned a number of new exercises to help improve my fretboard fluidity as well as improve my note reading (an area in which I continue to be sorely lacking). Since this class my practice sessions have been far more productive, but I was glad to hear again the emphasis on forgetting that stuff when you’re actually in performance mode.

Jam Sessions

In many ways, the jam sessions were my favorite part of camp. It seemed like a lot of the players there were either disinterested or intimidated by the jam session environment. I heard some people say they didn’t like the “competitive” nature of the sessions, which was weird to me. These sessions felt like a bunch of close friends jamming compared to the cut-throat attitudes I’ve encountered in other scenarios. Remind me to tell you a story sometime about friends of mine getting berated onstage at this jazz club in NYC called “Smoke”.

Anyways, at first, it was a widely discussed problem that most of the jams were leaning towards one-chord funk and blues jams. It shouldn’t have been surprising; since there were so many players, most jamming situations involved a large number of musicians. This is not an easy thing to deal with, and it took awhile for this stuff to settle down.

As I mentioned previously, all the campers tried to be good about giving other people the chance to play. During these first few jams, however, it was clear that you had to be reasonably assertive, and willing to walk right up ask to hop on for awhile. This might have been part of the problem for a lot of people; no amount of passive-aggression was going to get you a chance to play. Of course, as we got to know each other, even this lightened up, and people were calling out for anyone who wanted to take over.

After a couple days, things had really come along. Far more exploration was happening, and people were really being conscious of how much space they were taking up in the mix. My only criticism in the end was that since everyone wanted to play so bad, and usually had to wait for awhile to get a chance, no one had any interest in trying out a new set of changes, or having any kind of pre-jam “planning” discussion.

Still, it was a very educational experience for me. For one thing, when I play improvised music with people, I always seem to end up being the leader. I’ve theorized several reasons for this, from basic personality types to the fact that I play guitar (which as a soprano instrument really just ends up cutting through everything). Still, at Camp MMW, getting the group to follow you was a strictly meritocratic process, since they weren’t going to take up that groove you hinted at or accent that rhythm you played unless they really liked what you were doing.

At various points, people would try to take on the role of conductor. This was a good idea, but a few conductors didn’t really understand the nature of what they were trying to do. A popular comment was that doing this was a lot like “herding cats”; it was best not to expect miracles.

Performances

The highlight of nearly every day, however, was the nightly performance. Now, I’ve seen MMW play some small venues, but the performance space at camp can only be described as a ‘cabin’. The stage was so small, John couldn’t even have his piano there, but they raged it up every night without fail.

There were some special sessions; one night started with Steve Bernstein putting together a huge ensemble of students. This was pretty good, but I was glad to see Steve and MMW take the stage for a closing set. After a whole day of jam sessions and thinking about jamming, my standards had been raised pretty high, and only MMW could cap the day off properly ;-)

Marc Ribot’s set with MMW was probably my favorite (if you believe it’s possible to pick a ‘favorite’ out of four nights of mind-blowing performances). The thing that’s craziest about hearing him play with the band is that he fits in so seamlessly. When he wasn’t intentionally standing out (like during a solo in a raging blues number they did), and assuming you weren’t watching closely, it would sometimes be hard to differentiate between his lines and some of Medeski’s.

The last night was billed in the schedule as “Students featured into MMW performance.” Everyone was wondering how this was going to work out — the band had been so good at not ‘playing favorites’ that it seemed impossible for them to just select a few people. In the end, things were set up like a larger version of Billy’s ensemble, where the band members conducted the group through a hour-and-a-half long collaboration. People who wanted to play just sat at the front, and would be rotated in and out by the band.

I had come prepared to play, but in the end I screwed myself by trying to be too clever. MMW had pretty much told us that the focus was going to be on the students for this show, but that they would “try to interact” with us when possible. I wanted to listen for a bit, and see how things were working up there, but I also figured that my best bet for getting to jam with one of them on stage was to wait a little while, and try to get on towards the end.

Eventually I made my way to the front, and after a few minutes, John called me up. I walked up there, but by that time, something had changed, and he said something to me that I couldn’t hear, but it seemed like they weren’t ready yet. I sat down to wait it out, and little by little the players were replaced by the members of the band, except for two guitar players (who, of course, had no one to replace them).

I was sure they were going to nod these guys off any minute now, so I figured it would be inappropriate to tap in (one of the guys was barely playing at all, and I could have snuck up to him easily). I kept waiting, but before I realized it, two other guitar players had tapped in, and joined the band in one last raging blues number. I had missed my chance.

Still, the replacements were pretty great, and after they had brought the blues jam to a close, MMW took the stage for one last trio performance, and brought the house down.

Incidentally, up until this point people had been pretty restrained during the performances, with everybody sitting in a bunch of folding chairs in front of the stage, and those of us freaks who wanted to dance towards the back. This time, however, the freaks took over, and pulled people up out of their seats, pushed the chairs out of the way, and everybody started to get down.

It still wasn’t over, of course, and we closed the night out with a number of great jams at the cafe, and a certain amount of responsible debauchery.

The Aftermath

The last day of camp was pretty anti-climactic. We all got to sleep in a little more, and the morning was filled with the swapping of contact info, and plans of what to do with ourselves when we got home, now that we’d become “enlightened.”

They always say about vacations, that you should be excited to leave and glad to get home. This was definitely the deal for me; after a week of high-intensity musical immersion, I needed out. I was glad that I was one of the fortunate ones who had a fairly quick drive home; as soon as I arrived, I called up the band and arranged a rehearsal.

Playing with the “old crew” was exactly what I needed to bring me back down to earth (or somewhere close to it), and I started to be able to process all the stuff that had happened. There was so much to think about, even to this day I’m still having epiphanies about things we talked about, or observations I made.

I felt like while a learned a huge amount at Camp MMW, the biggest impact it made on me was showing me that I was on the right track with regards to improvisation. At so many different times I would hear something that I had been thinking about, or discussing with the band, and I would have my original thoughts validated and clarified.

Sometimes when I see really amazing musicians, I go home with this feeling of “why do I bother even playing at all?”, and want to pack my guitar away and give up. This time, however, despite getting an even clearer picture of how amazing MMW is, I went home thinking “okay, I understand what I have to do. it’s hard, but at least I understand it.”

Now let’s see how long this feeling lasts.