Monday, June 8, 2009

Jack Hansen, RIP

When asked about influences, most musicians tend to cite the marquee names: Django, Doc, Jimi, etc., but people like Seattle-area music icon Jack Hansen, who passed away May 23, tend to exert just as much, if not more, influence on young musicians than do the standard-issue guitar heroes. At least that was the case for me.

Jack never saw much of the limelight and you’ll be hard-pressed to find much about him on the Web, but he played a large part in the Pacific Northwest’s musical life during the last 40 years. He played electric guitar with late-’60s rock band Fat Jack (which included vocalist Kathi McDonald, who, after being fired by Fat Jack for not rehearsing, went on to sing with Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and the Rolling Stones), bluegrass banjo and mandolin with Southfork, archtop swing guitar with violinist Paul Anastasio (who has fiddled with Merle Haggard’s band as well as Asleep at the Wheel), and even lap-slide guitar with the Hawaiian band Stowaways in Paradise, among many, many others. And Jack made much of his living as a guitar repairman, a trustworthy caretaker of the vintage instruments prized by the Northwest’s folk and bluegrass scene.

I was lucky enough to play in a couple of bands with Jack during the 1980s and he was always welcoming, friendly, and forgiving, even to a young whippersnapper like me who could barely keep time and who didn’t know who Jo Jones or George Shuffler were—just two egregious lapses in my swing and bluegrass education. He taught me how to swing—not just to emulate the pulsing flamboyance of Django Reinhardt but the profoundly precise, laidback feel of Count Basie and the melodic, laconic brilliance of Lester Young.

What impressed me the most about Jack was his ability to play bluegrass, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and folk music equally well, with no hint of pretension or dilettantism, and with a deep understanding of what gave each kind of music its underlying soul and style. When I think about it, that’s pretty much what I’ve aspired to during my own equally broad musical career. Jack seemed to understand exactly why people loved a particular kind of music and his playing never strayed too far from that: Beatles songs are to be sung, swing is to be danced to, etc.

And Jack never took himself or anything else too seriously. I’ll always remember one of my first weeks teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in the early ’80s when Jack and a few others decided to turn the unsuspecting church camp into the MASH 4077th and Jack appeared at dinner dressed in a bathrobe, cradling a pitcher of martinis. Then there was the time he did an open mic playing a six-string banjo-guitar while his friend Gene Wilson played a wood-body five-string banjo (think about that for a minute).

Jack would have cringed at the idea of his musical life being boiled down to a sound-bite philosophy, especially a namby-pamby new age one, but I think Jack’s can be summed up with the admonition to “play music you love, with people you love, and play it with love.” But perhaps I’m just getting maudlin thinking about the fact that I’ll never get to play “Minor Swing,” or “All Day and All of the Night,” or “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” with Jack again. What Jack knew was that music is something fun you do with your friends, like playing basketball, or poker. That’s why legions of his friends are mourning with me today the loss of one of our biggest influences.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Joey's Sea Otter Race Report

Sea Otter Classic 2009
Joey Nygaard

Jr. 15-16 Circuit Race 13th place
For once the race started at 4:00 pm and my dad and I got to Laguna Seca a nice four hours early, leaving time to figure out the insane registering process, hang out around the booths and then get into the racing state of mind. It was not long before we were on the starting line and waiting to see just how fast this years 15-16 field would push the pace. But when the whistle blew it was not the sprint off the line I was expecting and as we slowly made our way up the easy part of the climb I began to wonder whether the race might not be too hard after all. But just when the harder part of the hill came, the attacks went flying and I found myself on the back of the pack, not the place I wanted to be entering the corkscrew, and I had to fight hard to regain my place in the middle of the pack.

I hung on for a few more laps until I was officially dropped. Luckily I was not alone, a rider from the AC team was also off the back. We fought hard to catch up but in the end we ended up fighting it out for the sprint, where he got the better of me and I was unable to come around him.

Cat. 4 Circuit Race
After the Jr. circuit race the day before I decided it would be good training to do the Cat. 4 race. So at 5:00 I made my way to the start line and got lined up with the other 4s. Unlike the Juniors, the Cat. 4s set an extremely fast pace both on the climb and down the descent. Up the climb i could handle, but when it came to the descent I found myself off the back and scrambling for wheels.

I hung on to a variety of different groups, getting ahead on the hill so I would have a head start on the descent and was not blown away. I was starting to feel really good on the hills but with two laps to go I, along with the group I was riding with, got pulled.

I had not expected that they would be pulling riders but I was not too down about it. By that time it was around 6 o'clock and getting very windy so my dad and I retired to the car and then to get a good night sleep for the early road race the next day.

Junior 15-16 Road Race 10th place

The morning of the road race came bright, early and hot. After warming up, I began to make my way over to the start line, where we had to sit for 15 minutes before starting. The whistle blew and we began to proceed along the four mile neutral promenade. As soon as the group hit the first major climb, Team Specialized set up a blistering pace and the group splintered. Stanley and I got off the back and we had to work hard on the descent to catch up.

Once we had caught up it was not long until we were back around to the climb again. Once again the group splintered and I found myself off the back. I found a rhythm and soon enough I was passing people left and right. I came up behind Stanley and as I was passing him, I slowed down a bit, just in case he had enough energy to stay on my wheel. When he did not, I kept up my pace. I was slowly catching the group, and would have but the climb ended and I was faced with a long windy descent. At this point there was only one rider between me and the group and I buried myself to catch him. Once I had caught him we started working together, trying to reel in the main field.

We worked very well together. He, being bigger than me, pulled me down the descents, and I, in return, pulled him up the climbs. We worked together like this for almost the rest of the race, until he bombed the last descent and I could do nothing to stay on his wheel. All I could do was tuck, pedal and hope he didn't get too big a gap. As I made the turn onto the final two-mile hill he had a pretty big gap but nothing I couldn't catch--I thought. Unfortunately the hill was not that steep at all for the first half mile and although I was doing the best I could, the terrain suited him better and I lost ground. But not for long, soon the hill kicked up in gradient and I began to catch up rapidly. I saw the "one K" to go sign, and then 500 meters. By the time I saw 250 meters I had reduced 3/4 of his gap and was closing. But despite all my efforts I was about 10 meters behind him at the final turn, not close enough to pass him, and I crossed the finish line in a satisfying 10th place.

Because of the extreme heat, we only stuck around to check on results, get an iced mocha or two, and watch my teammates on the podium! It was a good end to a long weekend and All Sport-Team Swift had rocked. Keep it up All Sport-Swifties!

--Joey Nygaard

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Girls Just Want to Play Bluegrass

I don’t know what’s going on in high school these days, but all my favorite recent bluegrass-based music seems to have been created by teenage girls. Or perhaps, given the depth and maturity of their music, they should be referred to as “young women who have not yet reached the age of 20.” The best folk/bluegrass album I’ve heard this year is by Sarah Jarosz (above), whose debut CD Song Up In Her Head will be released by Sugar Hill Records around the time she graduates from high school in Austin, Texas, this June. It may be difficult to understand how Jarosz has managed to master the mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, and piano (all of which she plays on the album) at such a young age, but it’s even more astonishing to hear such an assured collection of original songs rivaling that of any of her most obvious influences—Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek, or Darrell Scott. But Jarosz, who will be featured in an upcoming issue of Acoustic Guitar, is not just the next great roots-based singer-songwriter. Her instrumental chops are inventive, fluid, and virtuosic. For example, Song Up In Her Head features many guest appearances from acoustic music superstars, including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), and mandolin masters Mike Marshall and Chris Thile; Jarosz also plays mandolin on the CD, but you’ll have to consult the liner notes to tell whether it’s Jarosz, Marshall, or Thile playing mandolin on any given tune.

Another new CD that will have you reaching for the liner notes to see who’s playing those great mandolin (and Dobro) solos is the Lovell Sisters’ Time to Grow. Mandolinist Rebecca Lovell was the youngest person (and only female) to win the MerleFest mandolin contest, at the age of 16 back in 2006, and on this CD she not only plays hot, melodic mandolin solos, reminiscent of Chris Thile’s early playing, she leads her sisters with passionate pop bluegrass singing and songwriting (her song “Distance” was a Grand Prize Winner in the “country” division of the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest). In addition, Megan Lovell may be the best young Dobro player to come along in years, with a fat tone and lyricism usually only heard from the likes of Jerry Douglas. While their sophomore recording doesn’t hold up as well as Jarosz’s debut (few do), the Lovell Sisters are definitely a band to watch, as attendees at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Bonnaroo Festival (among others) are encouraged to do.

Of course, the boys are also getting in on the fun. Jarosz’s CD features the virtuosic fiddle playing of 16-year-old Alex Hargreaves, who is a member of both Jarosz’s band and Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, which can be heard on an eponymous CD released this spring. Hargreaves and his sister Tatiana (13) are the latest sibling string duo to emerge from the West Coast, following Brittany and Natalie Haas and Tristan and Tashina Clarridge. Tatiana’s forte is traditional Appalachian fiddling and singing, as exemplified by her mentor Bruce Molsky, and her debut CD, which will be released this summer, should be a stunner.

So add Sarah Jarosz, the Lovell Sisters, and Alex and Tatiana Hargreaves to the list of great acoustic music being created by the too-young-to-vote crowd, a list that includes (or has included) Cherryholmes, Sierra Hull, and Crooked Still.