In Pursuit of Virtuosity

I have nothing against DJs, turntables, programmed music, or hip-hop culture. I recognize these are legitimate modes of creative expression, and there are many men and women out there doing great things within each of these modalities. That said, I do hope that the sacred reverence for truly mastering traditional instruments in various genres remains a priority for our future generations, as well. True, there are many young musicians out there right now, carrying a torch for this very notion. The challenge – as I see it – is that there is an increasingly smaller “market” out there for audiences who will appreciate and support this kind of musicianship, and also that the music industry itself is in the middle of a crucial reinvention in terms of how musicians can actually earn any kind of a living.

Me? I come from a different era. And for all I love about modern technology and the way things are now… I would not – under any circumstances – trade my experiences “back in the good ol’ days” for what we have now. Again, no offense to the present.  I love so much about how things are these days.  It’s just that… man! The 70s and 80s were such a primo time to be a music lover and a young musician.There was a profound simplicity to our process of experiencing music. Driving to the record store; filing through all those albums before finally selecting one or two; heading back home; tearing off the plastic; sliding that shiny vinyl out of the jacket before placing it on the turntable; easing the stylus onto the record and listening as the crackle of the needle to wax merges into the opening song; then reading every word and devouring every photo on the album cover and inner sleeve. Damn! It was always an experience.

And for that matter, so was closing the door to the inner-universe of the practice room and practicing all those hours. Headphones nearby, perhaps a drum book or two, the ever-present metronome, a gallon of water and a towel… and all of those uninterrupted hours of monotonous woodshedding.  No one calling or texting (no cell phones back then!). No 800 channels on the tele or world-wide web beckoning. Just endless hours of time to devote to your craft. Ahhh, the good ol’ days, indeed.

To this very day, I still love the idea that a great player of any instrument can spontaneously create a performance that actually raises the vibration of all who experience it. This is the essence of great art… that we are, in at least some small way, forever affected, inspired, and uplifted by something created by another… as a direct result of the crazy amount of hours, life experience, and due diligence they have invested in their craft. To me, it is a noble, altruistic, and worthwhile notion… this idea of dedicating a big part of your life to such a thing.

My latest book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia, explores this notion in many of the journal entries that comprise the book. Zentauria is essentially a detailed journey into the mind, body, and soul of an enlightened society, where music, art, and all forms of such creative expression hold as high a place in their world as anything else. Today’s excerpt features an extensive interaction with one of the world’s most gifted musicians… as many of my influences and inspirations are revealed in the process.

All hail the virtuoso!

ZentauriaKindle

Virtuoso

Day 30 – 3:13 AM (Guest Quarters)

Entry Preface: It was the early eighties at a crowded nightclub in Houston, and I was slouched down in my chair in stunned silence. As my father paid the tab and the rest of the crowd slowly shuffled out of the smoky joint, I was attempting to digest what I had just witnessed. From an aerial view in the balcony, we had just been treated to the great Buddy Rich and his orchestra, and I had watched every move he made on that modest set of white pearl Ludwigs. The hummingbird left hand, fluttering about the snare; the liquid right hand, a blur on the ride cymbal; the jackhammer bass drum pedal, the dancing hi-hat foot, the exploding crashes… the thundering toms, the swinging grooves, the Zen-like effortlessness… all reverberating in my mind’s eye with crystal clarity. I had just been to the mountaintop.

BuddyBW
The main man… Buddy Rich

It was a quiet ride home because, after all, what can you say in the aftermath of an experience that would have such a profound, long-lasting effect? I was trying to process that unique combination of furious inspiration and hopeless discouragement. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, you either want to practice eight hours a day or pick up another instrument. I chose the former.

There was no doubt that the Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple triumvirate got me into the practice room and behind the drums. But it would be an elite cast of virtuosos who would keep me there for hours at a time. This love affair with the practice room led me to this observation:

There is an old cliché that is centered around having something about your life that
makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. I say, there should be
something about your life that keeps you from getting to bed at night…

* * * * * * * *

This afternoon, I witnessed one of the single most impressive musicians I have ever seen. Her name is Bella Musashi, and she is just ridiculous. Here’s the quick rundown.

My first week here, I was walking by a small café off of 7th Avenue one evening, when some of the craziest contemporary solo classical piano imaginable came spilling out onto the street. I stepped in and asked the first person I saw, “Who in the hell is this?”

Some guy explained that it was Bella Musashi, one of Zentauria’s most celebrated artists, and that they were listening to her latest release. He then told me where and when her observation periods were and encouraged me to go and check her out. “To see her play this stuff live, my friend,” this guy said, “…it’s unreal.” I didn’t doubt it.

So finally, after running into her around the Drexel several times now, I navigated my way through a maze of hallways, practice rooms, and offices to eventually find Bella Musashi seated on a small stage behind a massive black grand piano, holding court in her studio with three dozen music students seated around her.

With classic Japanese features and a petite build, her shimmering black hair spilled down to her waist. She was dressed casually in jeans and a plain orange T-shirt, already in the middle of a piece when I grabbed a chair in the back of the room. Her spidery hands were pummeling the keys with such blunt force, blinding speed, and emotional fire that it was almost shocking to hear such a wall of fury coming out of such a fragile physical presence. The stuff she was playing was so advanced, both harmonically and rhythmically, it was difficult to discern at times what key or time signature she was in. Both hands seemed fully independent from the other, creating the illusion that, quite literally, two people were wailing away at that piano simultaneously, each playing a different song.

And yet, it was far from atonal or free-form. There was a searing musicality to all that she played, and several repeated motifs throughout the piece ensured it was a composition with a fairly standard form. But the trippy thing was, she looked mildly possessed as she played, with her eyes either crinkled shut or transfixed on something against the back wall the whole time, not even watching her hands.

Afterward, everyone politely applauded, but I stood up in the back, shaking my head, clapping loudly.

She looked over at me and said, “Oh, Bobby Rock! So nice of you to drop by.” The students all turned around with smiles and nods.

“Wow… what you just played was crazy!” I said, taking my seat.

“Thank you,” she said with a clasp of her hands in front of her chest and a subtle bow. “Make yourself comfortable here.”

She proceeded to answer questions from the audience and, when appropriate, demonstrated things at the big daddy Bösendorfer. Her voice was calm and clear as she spoke textbook English with perfect enunciation.

Boesendorfer_crop
photo by Rüdiger Wölk

Then, when a student asked about how her early jazz influences affected her approach today, she talked a bit about legendary jazz pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, and then launched into a blistering version of the Charlie Parker classic, “Scrapple From the Apple.” She played most of the head in octaves before kicking into a few choruses of left-handed walking bass and right-handed soloing. It was killer! I was immediately transported thirty years prior to my own time as a college student, watching a young virtuoso Japanese pianist burn down the house at the Berklee Performance Center a few times per semester. I just had to know something.

I raised my hand. “Bella, I’m sure this is a long shot, but did you ever know of a Japanese pianist named Makoto Ozone?”

Her eyes widened. “You know about Makoto?”

“Yes! We both went to the same conservatory for a time, but he was a few years older. You know him?”

“Oh, my God!” she said, spinning around on her stool to face me. “Makoto was a legend! One of my early teachers used to visit the east coast of America every year, and he would return with cassette tapes of Makoto playing at Berklee!”

“No way! I was probably at some of those shows!”

I then asked her about a particular concert he did in a duo format with an upright bassist, and made reference to their scorching version of the classic Dizzy Gillespie tune, “Salt Peanuts.”

Again, her eyes widened, “Wow, Bobby, I can’t believe you know that!” Then she spun back around on her stool, stormed through the head, then began playing the piano solo—as best as I could recall from my worn-out old cassette copy—note-for-fucking-note as Makoto played it, pausing intermittently if she needed a moment to remember some part of a passage. Astounding!

After she finished, we all clapped our heads off; then I asked her how she possibly still remembered it.

“Well, I have kind of a photographic memory when it comes to music.”

I guess the fuck so.

makoto
Some of the most jaw-dropping performances I have ever seen
were complements of this guy right here; Makoto Ozone

For the next fifteen minutes, Bella talked at length about Makoto’s influence on her playing. She demonstrated key examples of his technique and improvisational style, then tied it all back to more Tatum and Peterson references. It was a hell of a segment. And again, it was time warp central around here as my common bonds with these people continued to surface… even in the most unlikely and unusual ways. Makoto and those old Performance Center tapes were a huge source of inspiration for me. What are the odds that both Bella and I, living on opposite ends of the globe, could’ve been so moved by such utterly obscure recordings?

After class was over, I joined her onstage to give her a hug and tell her how blown away I was with her playing. As we stood and talked for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice how large her hands were, relative to the rest of her body. I casually reached for one of her hands and placed it palm-to-palm against one of mine. Her fingers were actually longer. Incredible, given that I outweigh her by 100 pounds! She laughed it off and said that she’s tried to make the best of her “deformity” through the years.

She invited me back to her spacious private study for a cup of green tea. It was adjoined to the presentation room, much like mine was, and wall-to-wall with old vinyl records, tapes, CDs, scores, and method books. We’re talking thousands of titles here. There was another grand piano in this room, along with a small bank of keyboards, a couple desktop computers, and a small monitor system. I could tell she spent a lot of hours in here every day, so I asked questions about her process.

She said that she meditates from 4:00 to 5:00 AM every morning, eats a light breakfast, then practices piano from 5:15 to 11:45, taking a fifteen-minute break every two hours. After lunch, she spends the afternoon teaching, doing kung fu or yoga, going out for a jog, or taking care of other “normal life stuff.” Then she has 5:00 to 8:00 PM earmarked for composition, violin practice, or doing sessions, followed by her final two hours of piano practice, starting at 9:00 PM. That’s eight hours a day of piano, six days a week, plus all of her other musical activities. Her efforts bore the sweetest fruit. Saturdays, by the way, were completely “free form,” as she called it.

I asked her more specifically about what she’s been working on with those keyboards, and she sprang up to give me a demo. She hit a single power button and everything lit up, including the two separate computer monitors. She told me she’s been composing music for a documentary about Joseph Campbell and was having “a blast” blending a variety of musical styles with samples of authentic instruments from the respective mythological eras the film covered. Just then, an interview of Campbell popped up on the screen, and a richly textured orchestral piece with a decidedly Asian undertone kicked in. She then began improvising on a keyboard with a remarkable Chinese flute patch; it sounded both breathy and hollow, as if someone was actually blowing into it.

This led to a discussion about some of the advanced technologies they had created here in Zentauria to replicate key sounds. “For example,” she said, “we’ve actually had pretty good luck with guitar tones. Here’s a decent replication.” Then she dove right into the middle of Van Halen’s “Eruption,” manipulating a small bar on the side of the keyboard to mimic Eddie’s vibrato and wammy bar moves. She played about half of the original solo note-for-note perfect, then stepped off into the stratosphere with another thirty-two bars of Van Halen-style improvisation that, technically speaking, was a whole other level. But this wasn’t just some keyboardist’s skilled attempt at emulating a historic guitar tone and performer. This was spot-on, next-level re-creation! It was astonishing.

From there, she clicked buttons, accessed patches, and played perfect excerpts of Jimi Hendrix with his crackling Marshalls, Jeff Beck with his screaming solo sound from “Led Boots,” and a healthy slice of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” majestic tone intact. She nailed each of their distinctive lead sounds to the wall and held true to their individual phrasing, vocabularies, and subtleties. I thought her flawless representation of these guitar icons was alarming, given her roots as a virtuoso classical and jazz pianist.

ericB&W
Watching this bad motherfucker (Eric Johnson)
with his trio back in the early days, would inspire me
to pursue my own trio-based solo direction later

Next up was a blazing Paganini caprice, played with a patch that was created from an early 18th century Stradivarius. You could hear the rosin of the bow, the timbre of the wood. And Bella would gently manipulate that bar to emulate the delicate vibrato of a master violinist.

“Bravo,” I said as I clapped. “Damn… sounds like the real deal.”

“Well, I’ve been playing a bunch of Paganini on my violin lately, so I guess I have a decent insight into what it’s really supposed to sound like.”

A pianist playing Paganini? On a violin? As their second instrument? This woman was killing me.

As a flagship example of both this technology and her freakish musicianship, she pulled up a John Coltrane tenor patch that was so uncanny it gave me chills. And again, most impressive was her performance… her deep knowledge of the nuances of Coltrane’s playing and her ability to manipulate the keyboard to make it sound like the main man himself was present in the room with us. She clicked a few switches on another keyboard and pulled up that smoky Jimmy Garrison upright bass sound, then launched into a brisk walking progression of “Impressions” with her left hand while playing the melody, followed by two choruses of Trane’s exact solo from the original Impulse recording, with her right hand. I swear my eyes got watery, it was so fucking good.

On the third chorus, she veered away from Coltrane’s original solo and continued with a more frenzied version of his signature improvisation. I presumed she had merely swapped out a few choruses from some later recording of “Impressions” when he really started taking things outside. But when I asked her afterward, she said she was just “doodling” for those last few choruses. (Shit!) Then, when I asked her what the transcription process was like in copping Trane’s original solo, she looked confused.

“Transcription? I just remember what he played.”

This woman was reproducing John Coltrane, in meticulous detail, on a plastic fucking keyboard, from memory! Unreal.

I told her that if I were forced to live out my days on a deserted island and could only listen to one artist for the rest of my life, I would choose Coltrane. She smiled and said, “Good choice.”

tranesoprano
Coltrane: mastery of one’s instrument
to the point of absolute transcension.
A worthy goal for any musician…

She clicked another button and started playing the piano intro to “My Favorite Things,” with that huge McCoy Tyner sound. Then, while somehow maintaining the vamp with her left hand, she clicked another button on the other board and simultaneously launched into some opening improv with that angelic Coltrane soprano tone before settling into the melody. It literally sounded like Tyner and Trane were standing before me, doing an impromptu duet. Now my eyes really began to water over. This was crazy. And not just because of the dexterity, the recall, the knowledge of the genre, the tones, and all the obvious mechanics required to pull this off. It was because of the absolute stone-accurate authenticity with which she executed their parts. It was like being at a séance.

This whole experience brought to mind how I am oftentimes envious of those who have the luxury of a single-minded focus. Sure, Bella is a true Renaissance person with multiple interests and talents, just like everyone else around here. But her primary mission every day is to set her ass on that piano stool and play. I miss the simplicity of those times in my life. Perhaps the full “harem of muses” I always talk about will leave me the fuck alone at some point so I can enjoy a monogamous run with just one… the one who would have me play drums all day, every day.

_______________________

Check out the Bobby Rock Store here to grab your autographed copy of Zentauria.

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About Bobby Rock

Bobby Rock is a world renown drummer, the author of seven books, and a recognized health and fitness specialist with certifications in exercise, nutrition and meditation. He has recorded and toured with a variety of artists, released three CDs as a solo performer and is recognized as a top drumming educator. (He is currently touring with rock icon, Lita Ford.) Through speaking, writing and activism, Bobby remains committed to a number of animal and environmental causes. Bobby lives in Los Angeles.
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One Response to In Pursuit of Virtuosity

  1. Keri Knott says:

    quite a novella, enjoyed!

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