Tag Archives: Piano

Album of the Day: Hauschka, “What If”

In the HBO series Westworld, one of the most intriguing characters wasn’t a human—or even an android for that matter. It was the player piano inside the saloon in the center of town, which plinked out old-timey renditions of modern faves by the likes of Radiohead, Beyonce, and Amy Winehouse, serving as the only link to the outside world for the guests of this strange resort.

Also known as the pianola, the player piano continues to enjoy a resurgence thanks to the unique way by which its been utilized on the excellent new album from Academy Award-nominated composer Volker Bertelmann, known to the underground masses as Hauschka. In addition to employing a pair of vintage synths, namely
an old Roland Jupiter 4 synthesizer and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, as well as his trademark utilization of every nook and cranny of a grand piano, it is the way the German musician manipulates the mechanics of the pianola that makes What If such a mesmerizing listen. The way he reprograms the meters of these ancient instruments on tracks like “My Kids Live on Mars,” “Nature Fights Back,” and “Trees Only Exist in Books” split the difference between Satie and Squarepusher to create a one-of-a-kind headphone trip.

As Hauschka continues to forge his name as one of the most inventive and exciting new voices in modern film composition, What If stands an innovative taste of what is to come.

Ron Hart

The Prolific Howe Gelb on “Erosion Rock” and the Tucson Indie Scene

Howe Gelb. Photo by La Tête Krançien.

Howe Gelb. Photo by La Tête Krançien.

When Howe Gelb appears on my computer screen for our interview, he is wearing dark sunglasses, turquoise rings, and holding an “I Heart Dad” coffee mug. “You don’t mind the sunglasses, do you?” he asks. “It’s morning here. Also, they have built-in readers.”

Gelb celebrated his 60th birthday in October with a bash at Tucson’s Rialto Theater—one that was attended by Exene Cervenka, John Doe, and Scout Niblett. Over the past 30 years, he has produced around 50 albums, hopscotching across dozens of genres (punk, indie rock, country and jazz), and released under a flurry of band names. There were four albums with The Band of Blacky Ranchette, a pair of one-offs with OP8 and Arizona Amp Alternator, and a whopping 21 under his own name. Giant Sand, his best-known project, released 26 albums between 1985 and 2015.

For his latest record, Future Standards, he’s added a brand new moniker: The Howe Gelb Piano Trio, for an album that’s a reimagining of the American songbook. Recorded in New York, Amsterdam, and Tucson, the record features Gelb on piano; Danish bassist Thøger Lund (who has played with Great Sand for 15 years); and drummer Andrew Colburg, with guest vocals provided by Phoenix-based Lonna Kelley (whose voice recalls Dolly Parton’s) and a little help from a drummer who moonlights as a bartender at NYC’s Village Vanguard.

Gelb moved to Tucson in 1972, after his family’s house in Pennsylvania was destroyed in a flood. Although he now spends a substantial amount of time in Europe (his wife is Danish), he’s still considered one of the leading lights of the Tucson indie music scene. In fact, on the day we spoke, Gelb was scheduled to give a TED Talk about that very topic.  So, how was he going to approach it? “I haven’t figured it out yet,” he said. “Maybe I can practice on you.” Continue reading

Pianist Jean-Michel Blais on Making the Most of a Once In A Lifetime Opportunity

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Jean-Michel Blais

Often when people try to explain instrumental music, they end up describing a scene in a film that the composition might soundtrack. It’s a curious tendency; left without lyrics to deconstruct, our only option is to jump between senses. It’s easy to wonder if that habit is strange or insulting to a musician like Jean-Michel Blais, whose debut album Il–a vast, warm, and generous solo piano record—has so much to say without using words.

Blais was discovered at age 31 by the influential Canadian label Arts & Crafts, who convinced him to put his teaching career on hold in order to pursue music full time. He was plucked out of relative obscurity, but when he talks about his relationship to his own music, even he reverts to visual imagery. “To me it’s about closing your eyes,” he says via telephone from his studio in Montreal. “It just snowed here yesterday for the first time, and that’s the feeling that’s in the music.”

We spoke with Blais about his whirlwind of a year, why he packed up and left for Guatemala, and how he almost missed a grand opportunity.

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