|Long Cat Tales||| print this page | close this window ||
Cat's A Bear performs the original music of Frank Singer. The story below chronicles the journey of the artist from the early days of playing to the foundation of Cat's A Bear and beyond. Enjoy the Tale of the Cat!
LONG TALES of a CAT
TABLE OF CONTENTS
TWO Boston & Banacos
THREE GB and Heavy Jazz
FOUR Duos and Depratures
I have been a musician for fifty+ years. My study of music began with piano lessons from the church organist. After being exiled from lessons for not practicing (students - take note), I discovered the guitar my brother had laying around the house. I dusted it off, and set about trying to make a decent noise come out of this odd-shaped wooden contraption with metal wires draped across it. Something clicked, and my love of guitar was born.
Love did not immediately equal success, however. Possessed by the foolhardiness of the inexperienced, I recorded some of my early efforts. They are now buried deep in places where only I can find them, just to remind me of my humble origins. I call it my humility file. Personally, I think everyone should have one. With the help of my first guitar teacher, Dave Marshall, I began to make a credible noise.
Dave was a Chet Atkins-style finger-picker, with a genuine Country Gentleman Gretch guitar. He taught me popular music of the day, some finger-picking, a smattering of classical, and the basics of reading. I still have my copy of Segovia's Favorites from our lessons together. As I studied my lessons with Mr. Marshall, I also became interested in music theory. I wanted to know how it all worked, much like how my son is with everything in my house. Luckily, when you take music apart, all you get is knowledge. It's not like when a two-year old dis-assembles your saxophone. I also wanted to do what my older brother's friends were doing when they were jamming! So I set out to discover improvisation, and I joined a rock and roll band. Several, in fact.
While I played rock and roll in bars and parties, I discovered the first of many influences in the guitar work of Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. I wore out my copy of Live At Filmore learning the solo on "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". In those days, I was dropping a heavy needle down on these large vinyl discs known as records. "'Liz Reed" was quite a bit whiter and scratchier than the un-scraped vinyl of the other songs, but I knew each note of the solo. After spending several years learning Duane Allman solos and jamming on Allman Brothers tunes, I heard a guitarist with John Mayall's Jazz/Blues Fusion group named Freddy Robinson. Freddy had a bluesy sound and feel, but played more technical lines, picking every note where Duane would move his slide or bend a string. I learned a lot from Freddy, and the John Mayall band, but this brush with technique barely prepared me for my exposure to the guitar master John McLaughlin, the main reason I attended Berklee College of Music.
For several years, I had been writing music. Much of the work I attempted involved odd-meter time signatures and layering, suggesting different accents in different parts, and creating a kind of rhythmic counterpoint. Foolishly, I thought I had discovered something new, only to have a friend play me Birds Of Fire, performed by the Mahavishnu Orchestra led by John McLaughlin. Impressive as his guitar work was (and is), his compositions impressed me even more. This, combined with a generous offer of support from my mother [thanks, mom!], convinced me that if I was going to write music, I needed to know what everybody else had been doing all this time. That meant finding a school that taught both classical composition and what I have come to call American Music - Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Funk, Hiphop, and all the other various forms that have evolved out of the (abrupt) meeting of African culture and European tradition. That meant Berklee, and so, it was off to Boston.
Boston was my first exposure to many things, including bebop, Latin music (thanks to Les Arbuckle), twelve-tone serial composition, and thousands of guitar players. My work was cut out for me if I was to absorb a tenth of what there was to offer. Already devoted to a daily practice routine of some length, I went a little over the edge for a while. There were times when I actually was playing fourteen hours in a day. I also studied intently, soaking in anything and everything I could, trying to understand it all, and trying to get good grades. I was, of course, also a teenager in a major metropolitan city, where I was able to go to clubs and hear live music played by the best. Pat Methany at Ryle's, Bill Evans and Joe Pass at the Jazz Workshop, and at Michael's Pub, the Fringe, and Mike Stern, one of my current most-favorite musicians. Mike and I eventually came to have something in common - Charlie Banacos, our private music instructor.
I had the good fortune to play with some amazing musicians while I was in Boston, even if it wasn't always in the best of circumstances (not always the most creative musical situations). The more I did, the more I kept hearing about this teacher that seemed to have an extraordinary effect on his students. Some of my friends began to study with him, and one of those rock bands I played with that sprouted in Boston had a keyboard player named David Goat, who showed me an exercise Charlie had given him. It was the key to unlocking the "Giant Steps" progression by John Coltrane. That was it. I was hooked. Dave could actually play on "Giant Steps"! I had to learn that. The problem with a master teacher is they usually have a waiting list. At the time, Charlie's list was almost two years. So I practiced the "Giant Steps" exercise, and finished all but my last semester at Berklee.
That last semester turned out to be very intense. I was working on my portfolio for graduation, studying chord soloing with Bill Leavitt, the head of the guitar department and author of Berklee's Modern Method for Guitar series, studying improvisational solo techniques with Jon Damien, one of Boston's treasures as well as Berklee's, and washing dishes at the Coffee Connection, caffeine central in Harvard Square, Cambridge ("I want my coffee NOW!"). As if that wasn't enough, I began my studies with Charlie that spring. In a very short time, I knew that this teacher was going to give me the knowledge I sought - how to really get that jazz sound called bebop. Of course, that meant wearing out still more vinyl recordings, starting with Wes Montgomery. I chiseled the record grooves of "Impressions" before I finally bit the bullet and purchased a taping system, so I could wear out tape copies instead of original records. In the primitive past, one did what one could with the technology (and budget) of the day. I learned more about jazz guitar from that first transcription than any one assignment I had ever fulfilled. Many more followed, first Wes, then saxophone players like Coltrane and Cannonball on "So What", George Coleman on "Maiden Voyage", and then piano solos by Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and what seemed like the final exam, Keith Jarrett's piano solo of "My Lady, My Child" from Facing You.
Charlie taught out of Gloucester, MA until his death in 2009, [*] but when I studied with him, he had a studio in Coolidge Corner, a section of Brookline. For a time, Mike Stern had his lesson immediately following mine. At the time, he sported a hair length half as long as his height (otherwise known as hair down to his a**), which served to identify him through the translucent window of Charlie's office, where he would diligently listen as Charlie gave me ear-training examples. Even then, those that knew of Mike's playing realized he was something special, and I could see first hand his dedication to mastering his craft, so I was very excited to be able to speak conversationally as we passed in and out of our inner sanctum of jazz knowledge. Charlie told me that Mike not only transcribed "My Lady, My Child", but could play it at the original tempo. If this does not impress you, you should try it. It impressed me, and is one of the many reasons that Mike continues to inspire me, so much so that one of my latest Cat's A Bear originals, "Sternly", was written in honor of the Stern original "Play", from the album of the same name. Thanks, Mike.
The madness of the semester finally ended in graduation, where I got to shake hands with John Williams and hear Buddy Rich play drums with a Berklee performance ensemble. I decided to stay in Boston to continue my studies with Charlie, and for at time supported myself in various caffeine delivery functions at the Coffee Connection. Health problems temporarily interrupted my studies, and I began to hear the call, that many aspects of my life needed attention. I had my first (successful) exposure to acupuncture, ate a macrobiotic diet for a couple of years, began my study of martial arts, stretching and weight lifting, and got serious about my passing interest in meditation. As my health returned, my desire to be a professional musician became stronger, and fortunately, my luck returned as well. One of my friends from Berklee, Nokes Kelley, was playing in what, in Boston, we call a "GB" band. At the time, I had no idea what a general business band did, but I played bass with Nokes one day and he asked me if I would like to replace the bass player that was leaving the Music Machine. I thought, it sure beats cutting fruit salad (my latest CC variation), and I would be playing music of some sort, so I said yes.
Up until now, any band that I had ever played in had either been geared towards playing in bars, special one-time events like jazz concerts, or in basements, where the original music tended to remain. With GB, bars became bar-mitzvahs, concerts became conventions, and we put up carpet in the basement to deaden the sound outside the house. I played bass with the Music Machine for six years, then graduated, so to speak, to keyboards, with a smattering of guitar for three more years. This was the era of the Red Marauder, my souped-up toy guitar, which I could leave in the van in those cooooooooooold Boston winters with no regrets. It even had micro-phonic pickups, so you could yell into it and hear a ghostly image of your voice when your amp was on eleven. Sadly, the parts are now helping other guitars to be all that they can be, but what times we had. We did terrible things in those days, much of which I will not speak. Beware, faint of heart, for five male vocalists singing (not terribly well) "New York, New York" in unison is but the tip of the iceberg.
As unsettling as it was to play "Celebration" five times in one weekend, there were musical benefits as well as financial ones. It seemed I was not the only one working wherever work was to be found, grateful as we were to be working. Many of the 'hired guns' with the Music Machine were Berklee instructors, including saxophonists Greg Badalatto, Paul Ellman, and Bruce Nifong, tenor player, composer, and recording artist Les Arbuckle, the one who introduced me to Salsa in a Berklee ensemble, and my freshman year listening/analysis teacher, trumpeter Mike Methany. Mike plays a pre-midi trumpet synthesizer called an Electronic Valve Instrument, or EVI, in addition to playing trumpet and flugelhorn. He uses it on some of his albums, which are wonderful, and brought it to our gigs quite often. These players could do a picture perfect solo at a fiftieth anniversary party, and then, as Greg often did, turn around and rival Eric Dolphy at triple-piano while the vocalist tried to sing with a straight face. One of the finest musicians I ever met, Dave Lindsey, began his long tenure with the Music Machine around this time, which continues today with him at the helm. Dave plays trombone and sings quite often and quite well, but his first love and principal instrument is the euphonium, upon which he excels. We were fortunate to have Dave play some solos on some early Cat's A Bear, which Naked Kitty Productions is in the process of preparing for CD release. He also composed "La Lagartija", a song in Cat's A Bear's play-list for many years.
It was during these years that I met my friend, partner-in-crime, and co-founder of Cat's A Bear, drummer/vocalist Joe Dorris. Joe had moved from Erie to Boston to study with drummer/author Gary Chaffee, who taught something called linear drumming, a concept I have since come to embrace as a drummer and a composer. We hit it off immediately, both having an aggressive approach to playing our instruments, and a high standard for ourselves in regards to our abilities there. Joe and I formed the first of many Cat's A Bear incarnations, with Irv Ziskind on bass and Geri DeMarco on piano. Geri was another student of Charlie's, and we began to do our ear-training together, as well as share ideas, exercises, and a passion for McCoy Tyner. We had both transcribed solos for Charlie's lessons, and when Cat's A Bear did a version of "Four by Five", we played the first course of McCoy's solo in unison. I count McCoy Tyner in my short list of most-important-influences. Although I give the nod to Art Tatum for greatest technician to ever play the jazz piano, when I think about how I would like to be able to play, it's McCoy all the way. Many of the current techniques and ideas I develop and work with today grow out of this love and respect for one of jazz's great contributors.
The Music Machine continued to do well during this time, so well in fact that a second, or B band, was developed to pick up the slack on extra jobs. Joe was hired to play in that band, and eventually ended up playing in the A band with me. This turned out to be very convenient, as we had moved into a group house together, and could travel easily together to our gigs. Joe's brother Bob had moved to Boston, and played bass with the B band. He became the bassist for the second Cat's A Bear incarnation, along with keyboardist Russ Hoffman. Russ played on some of the early recording sessions, and did gigs with us for a couple of years. He is an excellent keyboard player, and last I heard was in the Minneapolis area. He became very busy being an excellent keyboardist, however, and Cat's A Bear became a trio after a time.
Many who were in Boston at the time remember that trio. We worked monthly at a club called Ryle's, in the same room where I saw Pat Methany play on several occasions. We put up fliers all over town, we got on the radio and did live performances, we had a mailing list of over six hundred people who got reduced-price tickets for every gig - in short, we did the promo thing. I remember making each postcard by hand, one at a time, to send out to our fans. The result of all of this was a good reputation and name, and that Ryle's didn't charge us a fee to play as they did to the other weeknight bands. Boston was very good to us, but it was a tough scene for musicians.
Bob stayed with the band for much of his time in Boston. This was the first power trio version of Cat's A Bear, with the music being created from the ground up, from the rhythm section. We were saturated in the music of our day, but found ourselves enriched and inspired by the jazz of the past fifty years. Our sound continued to develop with Bob until he decided it was time for him to leave the group to pursue his forte, martial arts. Bob is one of the finest martial artists I know, and was my instructor for five years. Duck and cover took on a whole new meaning with Bob. We wished him well, but now there were two.
Musicians tend to survive by acquiring skills. One skill that I had acquired was using Mark of the Unicorn™ Performer sequencing software on a Macintosh computer. I began a relationship with Euphoria Sound Studios in Revere, a recording studio that had the same setup I was used to, and started Musical Coordination Services, or MCS. I helped songwriters make demos, did commercials for the studio and my own clients, and began to use the same setup to write my own compositions. When I introduced Joe to the gear, his idea wheels started spinning, and the conception for the third incarnation of Cat's A Bear began to take on form. We would use the computer to play the bass parts, since we were playing music where much of the bass parts were preset, and simply continue to play the way we had in the trio. We set out to get organized, and the Mac Era of Cat's A Bear began.
I sequenced some of the tunes in our existing original play-list, but we needed new material to go along with the new sounds we were going to be able to make. One of our first successes was "Eye of the Pyramid", the title track of Cat's A Bear's first Mac Era CD. At the time, it was a cassette tape, but Naked Kitty Productions has reissued the music on CD, which will be available soon. Working from a groove we sequenced together, I put together the changes and melody, and we mapped out a form for the jam. The CD cut also contains a solo that was originally played freestyle into the computer, and then doubled live in performance. The collaboration on "Bill's B.S." began with a keyboard-bass line played in by Joe's brother Bill, a guitarist himself, who kindly loaned me the Fender Jazzmaster I played for years, until I acquired the Roland-Ready Stratocaster with the GR-30 synthesizer as my solid-body electric guitar. His bass-line suggested a 12-bar minor blues form where the change in bar five went to a bIII minor chord instead of the typical IV minor. This created a unique twist, and like "Eye of the Pyramid", "Bill's B.S." has been played by several Cat's A Bear incarnations since then, and it appears on the Cat's A Bear CD Tito...In Search of a Revolution, which is now available from Naked Kitty Productions. We were very excited about our new sound, but we were about to make a new choice about where to pursue its development.
While Bob was still in the group, I made several trips back to Erie with him and Joe, where we always tried to play in a club or two, and expand our fan base a bit. We were well received by the Erie community, and always enjoyed our stays. It had seemed that we needed to be in a city like Boston to accomplish our goals, but Erie offered the prospect of a regular playing schedule for our electronic project, and we soon found ourselves in the Mid-Atlantic states, a duo with Mac, the computer, filling in for the third, and then some. Cat's A Bear [Mac] had the fullest sound of any incarnation, as all we needed to do was add a new synthesizer, and eight more band members who never gave you a hard time about anything were yours for the asking. Joe was working with the Prophet 2002 sampler and sequencing percussion parts, and I could go from string orchestra to big band in one tune without breaking a Union dues sweat. We made some wild music, and we made it live. 2liveCATS was recorded during this phase, and shows the intensity of sound that marked those sequences. Out of print for the moment, it remains marked for future release. We played gigs with the group for several years, and mastered the craft of performance-under-electronic-duress, but found that yet again, Cat's A Bear would be pulled in new directions by the dual forces of creativity and practicality.
On the practical side, setup was ridiculous. In order to achieve the effect we desired, we used full PA system sound reinforcement including a BASS BIN, which weighs a lot. We carried a full live drum set, with lots of bells and whistles, which weighs a lot. Each of us had many pieces of synthesizer and sampling gear, along with "George", our live Macintosh computer, which weighed a lot. Even a few pieces of furniture made it into the mix, and then, there were the wires. When something didn't work, you started to play follow the wires. One set of performance would be surrounded by five hours of setup and tear-down time, and there was only one bright spot in the equation - a strange, troll-like being who went by the name Tito. In his humble way, the master played the role of the roadie, and eased our burdens while paving our spirits for the revolution that was to come.
On the creative side, we were seeking more interaction, and perhaps another partner who could join in the steerage of this on-going force called Cat's A Bear. As it happened, bassist Tony Stefanelli had just returned to Erie from Detroit, where he had been jamming and recording in the blues circuit, and mastering his craft as a chocolate maker. We met at a benefit for the Warner Theatre, one of a few of its kind left in the country. We said, hey, let's jam, and our Wednesday evening sessions of long-standing renown began. Those sessions have gone on for over twelve years now, and show no sign of stopping. Ever-present in these dawning days, Tito slowly exerted a greater and greater influence over the evolving Cat's A Bear. Little did anyone suspect the band would actually forget itself for a time, Cat's A Bear's Dark Night of the Soul.
[ top ]
[*] It is impossible to overstate the importance of Charlie Banacos in my life.
He taught me the Jazz System from beginning to end, and
gave me the understanding to teach it, which is my life's passion.
Thank you, Charlie.
- Frank Singer
All Rights Reserved