Enjoy Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: November 8-10, 2010
Continuing the theme of seamless integration of technology with instrumental mastery, progressive rock guitarist Adrian Belew gave an impressive Master Class to an intimate group of students, the evening before his November 10 Power Trio show. Belew's résumé is as good as it gets: discovered in a cover band in Nashville by Frank Zappa, he quickly rose to fame on the legendary comedic guitarist's Skeik Yerbouti (Rhino, 1979)receiving a lot of attention for his still-hilarious send-up of Bob Dylan on "Flakes"and soon found himself in David Bowie's group, recording seminal albums such as Lodger (Virgin, 1979), before joining Talking Heads for equally important records like Remain in Light (Sire, 1980) and hit songs like the megahit "Once in a Lifetime." But it was in a group first called Discipline, but later called King Crimson, that Belew found himself both a decades-long member, and in a particularly fruitful partnership with the group's original co-founder, guitarist Robert Fripp.
With a rack of gear including a Roland VG-99, a laptop using Axe-Fx software, a volume pedal, expression pedal, a lone stompbox and a large midi-controller, Belew both entertained with stories from his illustrious past, and educated on a wide variety of subjects, largely driven by questions from the class of mostly guitar students. He spent considerable time describing his dream guitara Parker Fly, but custom-built to create the Adrian Belew Signature Fly. In addition to two "regular" pickupsa Sustainiac® Stealth PR pickup, which allows near-infinite sustain and controlled feedback at any volume, and a DiMarzio Exclusive humbuckerthe guitar uses the RMC Pow'r Bridge PF Saddles & RMC Poly-Drive 1 Preamp to give Belew MIDI access, and a Line 6 Variax Modeling Component, that allows the instrument to sound like anything from a Fender Stratocaster to a Coral Sitar Guitar, a Rickenbacker 12-string, and much, much more. With all this in one guitar, it might be overwhelming for some, but in performance exampleswhere Belew also demonstrated a remarkable mastery of real-time looping, like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad the night before, but in even more complex contextsit's clearly become an enabler and facilitator, allowing the guitarist to realize sounds and musical concepts not otherwise possible.
Belew answered questions about technology and music, while emphasizing the necessity of a sound musical background as a player. It became clear, watching him play without his rig, that his knowledge of and intimacy with his instrument are extensive. A drummer before he was a guitarist, he also emphasized the need for players to have good timea necessity that became especially apparent when he began demonstrating the interlocking guitar lines that so defined the 1980s Crimson of Discipline (DGM Live, 1981), and the offsetting technique of the 2000-era Crim of The ConstruKction of Light(DGM Live, 2000). The first, also informed by Balinese gamelan music and minimalist composer Steve Reich, was easily understood when he demonstrated the two interlocking lines of Discipline's "Frame by Frame," where Belew played a 14-note phrase, and Fripp began in unison but then broke out by dropping the last note of the phrase to make it a 13-note line, so that the two lines orbited around each other, ultimately converging after 13 repeats of the 14-note phrase. "That's what they call mathematics," Belew joked, and while it seems like a complex ideaand an especially difficult one to play when another guitarist is playing a line that diverges and gradually comes back to unisonBelew also discussed the importance of, as Crimson calls, it, getting it "in the body," so that it's so natural it actually possesses a danceable pulse.
Belew also discussed Crimson's songwriting processhow, as lyricist, ideas would be passed to him, sometimes on only the most germinal form, like the opening five chords of "Dinosaur," from Thrak (DGM Live, 1995), for him to then find a melody and build greater song form (when he wrote "Dinosaur" he was, as he explained, into "epics," longer songs with multiple movements). He revealed the two scales that have been at the core of Crimson since the 1980sthe chromatic scale, and what he called a symmetrical scale, and the offsetting approach of 2000 Crim, which he demonstrated by playing the opening to ConstruKction of Light's title track, where a line from one guitarist is mirrored by the other, but rhythmically offset and transposed to a different key.
Complex ideas, to be sure, but all made clear by Belew, whose mastery of his instrument is all the more remarkable for his being a self-taught guitarist who doesn't read or write musicno small challenge in his first major gig with Zappa, where he explained how, in three month of intensive, five-day/week rehearsals, Zappa would bring new music to the group on Mondays, but spent the previous weekend going over what was coming up with Belew, so he could learn his parts. In fact, memory plays a tremendous role in Belew's career, which has also seen him ramp up as a solo artist, with a series of Power Trio records, including the latest, e (Self Produced, 2009). Times have changed in the industry, and with the lessened importance of record labels, the drop in CD sales, the proliferation of piracy and more, Belew explained the only thing that can't be lost is live performance, and so he's been on the road more, perhaps, than ever before as a solo artist, with nearly 20 European dates between late October and late November, 2010.
But Belew was doing DIY (do it yourself) long before it became the new norm, with technology allowing almost anyone to record and release a CD. Belew built Studio Belew in his house in the early 1990s, but also emphasized that less prohibitively expensive studio gear doesn't negate the need for a good room in which to record it, and the guitarist has spent considerable time and money building an ideal performance space at his home, where he's recorded most, if not all, of his own releases since its inception, but also some Crimson albums as well.
Another revelation was that Crimson albums were recorded liveno overdubs and, with the exception of the outside-produced The Power to Believe (DGM Live, 2003), no editing. Belew claimed that Crimson was and is a sound unto itself, and listening to its broader discography, it's hard not to agree. Fripp has always likened studio Crim to a love letter, live Crim to a hot date, and that the group has been, at least since Belew joined, a true live, touring unit, it stands alone with a sound thatoutside scalar concepts and the interlocking/offset approachessounds like nothing but Crimson, something that's hard to define but is instantly recognizable. Still, through an example of the title track to Three of a Perfect Pair (DGM Live, 1984), he demonstrated how something as basic as a 12-bar blues can be "Crimsonized."
Belew also discussed the concept of purely free improv, which is a part of his shows as it was most Crimson incarnations. He also demonstrated his ability to build powerful solo pieces, like "Drive," from Side Three (Sanctuary, 2006), where a simple loop provided the grist for an expansive piece that also incorporated his well-known love of The Beatles with George Harrison's "Within You Without You," from The Beatles' classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). He touched on issues like volumethat stage volume is largely dictated by the drummer, but that advancements to guitar, amplification and effects technologies now make it possible to create sounds at lower levels that used to require amps turned up much higher.
Encouraging the students to develop their own voices by coming up with something that's their own, he demonstrated how he would take a stock rock line, and do something to it to make it more personal, like injecting the emulation of a car horn. It was, in fact, Belew's ability to evoke strange, unusual and wonderfulat times, almost non sequitur-likesounds from his guitar that got him recognized and elevated to become one of rock's elite guitarists. Normally hired for what he does, such as his work with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, he has done sessions where he was expected to play a very specific part, such as on Paul Simon's classic Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986), where the singer/songwriter asked him to play the signature line to the hit "You Can Call Me Al" precisely as shown. He also discussed working with Brian Eno, and how the producer would often give him music nowhere near completionoften without even guide vocalstelling him to listen to the drummer count off the song, and then just play. What to play? What key? Questions that received the following answer: nothing, just play. But it's the absolute spontaneity and unfettered freedom of such a context that, coupled with Belew's equally liberated approach, that not only allowed him to do it, but to contribute ideas that have since become part of the rock lexicon.
And what's up next? Exciting times, as Belew will be collaborating with Holland's famous Metropole Orkest, heard recently on the John Scofield/Vince Mendoza collaboration, 54 (EmArcy, 2010), for a large-scale project that, in addition to a studio recording and a live performance to be captured on DVD by the country's VPRO at the end of February, 2011, will signal the beginning of a month-long celebration of the guitarist's music, the name to be something like "Holland goes Belew."
It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, or a greater guitarist.