Interview: Abe Lagrimas, Jr. talks music, working with taiko players, and his new album

 Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

I recently had a fun conversation with Abe Lagrimas, Jr., a Los Angeles-based musician, composer, educator, and author. Abe and I have been working for the past several years as members of On Ensemble and it's always a pleasure to share the stage together. He is an outstanding musician who plays drums, vibraphone, and ukulele, and consistently adds color and spark to elevate the music. Audiences love his technical flair, yet as a bandmate I truly appreciate Abe's fine-tuned ear and his flexibility to instantly adapt to any situation. He makes any band sound better and it's no surprise to learn that he is very much in high demand. In addition to On Ensemble, Abe and I have worked extensively with the preeminent taiko artist Kenny Endo. It's always interesting for me to chat with musicians with similar points of view, and as a jazz musician, Abe had some very insightful observations about working with taiko players. It would be wonderful if everyone shared such an open and forward-thinking mindset about art, culture, and everyday life. This conversation also contains more humorous bits than usual, reflecting Abe's easygoing personality.

The interview features music from Abe's fantastic new self-titled album. The excerpted tracks are: Alternate Route, Sunday Dance, Nu'uanu Mist, End Of The Road, and Tanimoto. The album features a great group of musicians playing Abe's jazz-leaning original compositions, expressing a nice balance of varying feels, tempos, and moods. The links for the CD and digital download are below, and I highly recommend you check them out. Abe's website is also worth visiting to learn about upcoming shows, find his previous albums, and sign up for his newsletter. 

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. is a musician, composer, educator, and author who plays the drums, vibraphone, ukulele, and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. In 2012, he competed in the highly prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition and has worked with many artists such as Eric Marienthal, Eric Reed, Kamasi Washington, Dontae Winslow, Barbara Morrison, Michelle Coltrane, Jake Shimabukuro, Kenny Endo, and continues to be an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles. 

As a solo ukulele artist, Abe is a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award recipient and has released multiple albums in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Abe has been featured at ukulele festivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Reno, Chicago, New York, and Hawaii. His international performances include Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Great Britain, and toured extensively throughout China having performed in twelve cities. 

Abe is also an educator and has authored the first ever ukulele curriculum for instrumental music programs in schools titled “Ukulele Ensemble, Beginning Ukulele - Level 1”published by Consonus Music Institute. His latest book "Jazz Ukulele: Comping, Soloing, Chord Melodies" (Berklee Press & Hal Leonard) is available in stores worldwide and on Amazon.

Interview: Bruce Huebner talks shakuhachi, Japanese music, and the multicultural life

 Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi 

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi 

Since the very beginning of my blog's interview series, Bruce Huebner was high on my list of people I wanted to feature. I'm happy that we finally coordinated our busy schedules and time difference to record this conversation. Bruce and I first met in Vancouver, BC in 2014 to work on a project with the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra, and I felt an immediate musical connection and an ease of communication as if we had known each other for years. I think this comes through clearly in our conversation.

Shortly after, we played a duo concert on Christmas day at a Tokyo live house called Tsukiji Mugenryu. It was a full program of originals, jazz and rock covers, Japanese folk melodies, and a few winter holiday tunes mixed in - all arranged for shakuhachi and vibraphone. We had a fun gig and received an enthusiastic audience response, and we decided to bring our music to the US. In 2015, we put together a concert tour of Oregon and California, playing in a wide range of venues and culminating in two appearances at the San Francisco World Percussion Arts Festival.

In the interview, we discuss Bruce's musical background, his first experiences with the shakuhachi, attending GeiDai (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, or University of the Arts), making the transition from flute and saxophone to shakuhachi, creating music with influences from around the world, and much more. The music tracks included are:

Kiss Me Now (Bruce Huebner, Tomoya Hara, Mark Tourian, Sendo Saori)
Falling Leaves (Bruce Huebner, Gunnar Linder)
Fond Memories (Bruce Huebner, Curtis Patterson)
Spanish Wind (Bruce Huebner, Koufuu Suwa)
Kashmir (Bruce & Eien)

 Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi

Yokohama-based Californian Bruce Huebner received his MA in traditional Kinko style shakuhachi from Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1993 where he studied under Yamaguchi Goro (National Treasure) as a Monbusho Scholar.  After a seminal six-year professorship in Fukushima Prefecture,  he returned to Tokyo in 2000 and founded the jazz-world group Candela with pianist/composer Jonathan Katz.  The critically acclaimed group featured the shakuhachi in Japan, American and European tours and on numerous recordings.  In 2007 he began the popular "Cherry Blossom Tours" with koto player Curtis Patterson. In 2011 his "Zabu Tone Music" label released their eighth CD, "ZUI" produced with jazz guitarist Tomoya Hara.  He is a also a musical spokesman who has appeared on NHK BS TV, Tedx, Nihon TV, and he has conducted numerous lecture concerts in schools, community centres, clubs, temples, and colleges, including Rome University, Kent State, St Lawrence University, New York, and the University of British Columbia. He has performed over 80 concerts in Tohoku since 3/11.


Bruce & Eien project

Interview: Kenny Endo talks Edo Bayashi and Wakayama Shachu

 Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake Studio

Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake Studio

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Kenny Endo about Edo Bayashi and Wakayama Shachu. Kenny needs no introduction among taiko players, as he is one of the most important artists and teachers in the development of the North American taiko scene. I could have asked him about so many different topics, but this interview was focused on Kenny's experiences while living in Japan and his insights into the growing interest in Edo Bayashi (traditional festival music of Tokyo) and Kotobuki Jishi (traditional lion dance of Tokyo) outside of Japan. 

I had known Kenny as a kid growing up near Tokyo in Saitama. He was studying hogaku hayashi (classical Japanese music, such as noh and kabuki) with Saburo Mochizuki, and I was part of a youth taiko ensemble taught by Saburo sensei. In the interview, we talk about one memorable performance at the Maruki Bijutsukan (museum of internationally acclaimed artists Iri and Toshi Maruki) where my youth group shared the stage with Sukeroku Daiko's Saburo sensei, his wife, Kenny, and Yukihiro Miyauchi in a presentation of Edo Bayashi and other pieces. Many years later, I moved to Honolulu to study with Kenny and perform as a member of his ensemble. When I mention to someone that I also got a master of music degree from the University of Hawaii on the side, it sounds like a funny joke but it's true. Kenny was my reason for being there, and I was lucky that the UH music program had a no-thesis degree option where I could present a one-hour recital instead.

It was especially interesting to hear Kenny's stories about Wakayama sensei, Maru sensei, Suzuki sensei, and the early days of introducing this music to North America. Whether you are into Edo Bayashi or not, hearing Kenny's thoughts about taiko, traditional music, and learning perpetually is invaluable. Our conversation was on a specific and narrow topic so some readers may want to do some additional research to fill in the contextual holes. A good place to start would be my content relating to Suzuki sensei at the links below. Kenny kindly provided some of his music to be included in the interview. The tracks are Forest Festival, Spirit of Rice, and Symmetrical Soundscapes, which are on his albums Jugoya, Hibiki, and Eternal Energy. We chose these excerpts because they highlight the influence of Edo Bayashi on Kenny's compositions. I have always noticed a distinct and unique quality in all of Kenny's albums. It's hard to describe in words, but I hear a combination of an exceptional concept of sound and an artistic vision expressed purely from the inner self.

 Photo credit: Kenji Yamazaki

Photo credit: Kenji Yamazaki

About Kenny

 Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto

Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto

One of the leading personas in contemporary percussion and rhythm, KENNY ENDO is at the vanguard of the taiko genre, continuing to carve new territory in this Japanese style of drumming.  A performer, composer, and teacher of taiko, he has received numerous awards and accolades, including very special recognition in Japan—he was the first foreigner to be honored with a “natori,” a stage name, in Japanese classical drumming. Kenny Endo was a featured artist on the PBS special “Spirit of Taiko” in 2005.  He has performed for such musicians as the late Michael Jackson and Prince, opened for The Who, performed a duet with singer Bobby McFerrin, and is featured on the soundtracks for Kayo Hatta’s film “Picture Bride”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, and worked on James Cameron’s “Avatar”.  He has had a day named for him in by the Mayor of Honolulu “Kenny Endo Day”, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts for American Masterpieces. He has released 10 CDs of original music. Kenny is a consummate artist, blending Japanese taiko with rhythms influenced by his jazz background and by collaborations with artists from around the world.  Kenny's taiko are provided courtesy of Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten.

New Conversation with Bachido's Kyle Abbott

 Delicious pour over of Kyle's home roasted coffee

Delicious pour over of Kyle's home roasted coffee

During my recent working vacation trip to northern California, I was able to squeeze in a visit to hang out with Kyle Abbott in Santa Cruz. I first met Kyle in February 2016, and on that day I had the very impromptu idea of recording our conversation for my new blog. Part of the reason for my initial visit was to ask Kyle about his experiences selling instructional videos on his excellent website Bachido because I was preparing to start producing my own videos. In the almost two years since, I have posted numerous interviews on my blog and uploaded ten instructional videos in my store. This new frame of reference made our recent conversation especially fun and meaningful for me. It was a fun day of recording, drinking Kyle's fantastic coffee, tasting local beers in town, and cooking a great dinner on the grill late into the night.

Last year I provided some percussion for Kyle's album Frosty: a retrospective Christmas. Full of unusual arrangements of traditional Christmas songs, I always describe this album as the most uniquely interesting material on your holiday playlist. With shamisen, taiko, throat singing, shakuhachi, and various other instruments, it's bound to turn heads and prompt inquiries at your next party. You can contact me for a copy or visit the Bachido store to purchase.

Earlier this year, Kyle and I also collaborated on the planning of "Tataki," a weekend workshop series where taiko and shamisen players gather to try out each other's instruments and to discover how to play together effectively. Unfortunately we had to postpone the event due to not reaching the enrollment minimum and being declined on our grant application. We predicted that it would be a great event, but perhaps our idea was too progressive and ahead of our time? It's difficult to know if the timing was off (March 4-5, 2017) or the interest is not there, but we will be trying again in the future. Subscribing to our newsletters is the best way to stay updated for future event announcements like these. 

Kyle Eien Square.jpg

We talked long enough that Kyle split it into three segments. The first two are posted on his website's Bachi On The Horn series, and the third is below. We delved into a handful of topics including the importance of feedback from your teacher, hierarchy of ways to study, the value of current technology, and the small world of musicians where interesting connections are constantly being discovered. We started talking indoors, but that room needed to be vacated so we continued out in the back yard. It was a beautifully sunny late afternoon - ideal for recording a podcast except for the dozens (or hundreds) of crows gathering right above us. Hopefully this audio reminiscent of a certain Hitchcock film won't be too much of a distraction. I would definitely encourage everyone to check out all three parts, especially where we discuss the similarities between coffee tasting and music. Kyle and I are both home coffee roasting enthusiasts and this topic came up on our 2016 conversation as well.

 After concert photo in Santa Cruz with Robbie Belgrade, John Kaizan Neptune, and Kyle Abbott

After concert photo in Santa Cruz with Robbie Belgrade, John Kaizan Neptune, and Kyle Abbott

 After concert photo in Los Angeles with John Kaizan Neptune, Mike Penny, and Kojiro Umezaki

After concert photo in Los Angeles with John Kaizan Neptune, Mike Penny, and Kojiro Umezaki

All About My Instructional Videos


How does it work?
When you select a video, you will arrive to the description page. From there, you can "add to cart" and then pay with a credit card or paypal through the secure online payment system Stripe. Then you will receive an email with a download link for the PDF document which lists the video URL (hosted on Vimeo), the password required to view it, and the exact timestamp of each topic so you can easily revisit specific demos and explanations. There is no limit to the number of times a video can be viewed and the link will never expire.

Who are these videos intended for?
These videos will help anyone looking to boost skills and gain knowledge on the topic of choice. Most of the exercises are designed for individual practice but they can be translated for group rehearsal situations. For example, some of the ji playing exercises can be introduced to your ensemble and used during a warm-up routine. Another idea is to rehearse the improvisation interaction exercises with various soloist and accompanist combinations.

What is the difference between the videos and online private lessons?
The videos cover a lot of material which should be practiced in progressive steps. The advantage of instructional videos is that you can watch them over and over as each concept is internalized. The timestamps for each sub-topic will help to quickly find the exact point you are looking for. In contrast, online private lessons feature live one-on-one private lessons where you can ask questions, I can demonstrate examples, and you can receive detailed feedback on the material you are working on. The strength of private lessons is being able to get deeper into the topic through live interaction. For both learning methods, I am always happy to answer any follow-up questions and provide further clarification.

Why make these instructional videos?
Through my 20+ years of teaching, I have noticed that the concepts I introduce in workshops and lessons seem to help students approach their practicing in new and fresh ways. Because of my diverse musical training, my inclination is to freely borrow the best ideas and methods from other disciplines in order to come up with the most effective solutions. It's my hope that by sharing my somewhat unusual perspectives, others will find new ways to be creative in their own areas.

Do you have video samples?
Most videos have previews on my youtube channel.

Below are the currently available instructional videos. Click on any photo to learn more about the lesson.

The shinobue, also called fue, is the most common horizontal bamboo flute in Japan. It is often combined with taiko and other percussion instruments to provide music for the many festivals and folk traditions found around the country. The shinobue is also featured in taiko ensembles and other contemporary settings where the western-scale tuning of the 'utabue' are used. Due of the lack of English-language information about this instrument, I wanted to create this resource to encourage everyone to learn about the shinobue. This video will help you get a big running start.

Jazz musicians spend countless hours working on improvisation. There is a long lineage of improvisers to learn from, and many teachers have very specific approaches to guide students. In this video, I talk about learning rhythmic improvisation by comparing music to a foreign language. By breaking it down to a step-by-step process, the topic becomes less of a mystery and provides a clear way forward.

Practicing with a metronome is crucial for developing tempo control and consistent subdivision placement. This video guides you through exercises to first be able to play with a steady pulse, and then to develop independence so that your internal timekeeper becomes more solid. I also demonstrate the use of the random mute function in a metronome app as well as the subdivision mode on a regular metronome. 

The ji, or underlying groove, is the most important part of an ensemble's sound and feel. This video introduces several ji patterns commonly found in taiko repertoire and suggests variations to improve your technique. There are also exercises to develop better dynamic control as well as how to use the voice in learning how multiple parts fit together. A demo of playing with my piece Ties shows an example of my practicing approach.

Improving your small drum technique is one of the best ways to boost your skills on all other drums. This video starts with a detailed discussion on different bachi materials and sizes. The most impactful topic here is how to practice holding the stick, which applies to all stick sizes. There are also stick control exercises and a breakdown of the four major types of strokes. Everything is demonstrated, and I provide suggestions for how to continue your development after this material is comfortable.

Atarigane playing is one of my most requested topics for instruction. This introductory video provides everything you need to know in getting started: instrument selection, body position, hitting and dampening, kuchishoga system, exercises to develop technique, common patterns, and notation. I started to develop teaching materials for atarigane after realizing that this instrument was getting almost no attention compared to the other common metallic instrument, chappa.

This video provides a seamless transition into the next level of atarigane playing. I introduce new patters that build on the foundation from the first kane video. There is a play along demo to one of my pieces (June) as well as tips for learning how to improvise on the instrument. Odd meter concepts are also introduced, and the download includes photos showing the proper way to hold the kane and shumoku.

This video introduces the western notation system of writing music. The most common rhythms are written out and explained so that anyone new to it can become proficient at reading and writing music accurately.

Part 2 of this video series continues with explanation and demonstration of ties, dots, and triplets. There is some challenging practice material that will be benefit your concept of pulse and subdivisions.