One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Similar – Part II

 

I’m looking a chart of 80 coffee drinks from around the world.  There is quite a bit for everybody, however, I don’t see the following:

 

Venezuelo: Reused coffee grounds from the night before

Canado: Coffee with steamed maple syrup and moose musk

Icelando: Frozen coffee beans slowly melted from the steam of a natural geyser

 

Almost 25% of the coffee drinks on the chart come from Italy and that can be owed to one machine for espresso isn’t a type of coffee but a method of brewing.

Instead of dumping coffee grounds into a large conical filter and dripping a wide shower from above, the grounds are firmly packed into a puck-type cylinder, locked into a group head of an espresso machine and blasted with a tight stream.  The result is a bold, concentrated flavor.

For the Italians a shot of espresso is enough to kick-start the day.  But for most Americans one ounce of coffee will not do.  Not even a doppio at two ounces is enough.  This is America, land of the Big Gulp.  So what to do with such a small amount?  Well the Italians solved the problem by pouring more hot water into the espresso and calling it an Americano, as in:

 

“Ecco il tuo tè debole, sciocco Americano.”

Translation: Here is your weak tea, silly American.

 

Even though there are 19 different Italian coffee drinks on this chart, three have made it into every coffee shop around the world.

 

  • Macchiato
  • Latte
  • Cappuccino

 

What’s the difference?  For a time I did not know and I would just randomly pick one, decide I didn’t much like it, only to forget which one it was when I stepped up to the counter.  So now I try to see the above drinks in relation to the three bears.  But instead of beds, there is milk.

 

Macchiato: Too little milk

Latte: Too much milk

Cappuccino: Just right

 

And as you sit in a chalet, sipping your favorite coffee drink while nursing a shoulder that took a beating as you slid down an icy track on a cafeteria tray, it’s always nice to have a little music in the background.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Mozart’s piano concertos.  I would call him the cappuccino of composers:

 

  • 1/3rd profound musical fundamentals
  • 1/3rd smooth classical tradition
  • 1/3rd high-spirited inventiveness

 

Above all, he knew how to have fun.  You can hear it in his music.  At least I can for I find it rare that his music does not put me in a good mood.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 21 original piano concertos, a collection, much like the Italian coffee drinks, similar, but so much more.  If only I could tell the difference.  After all, a person could easily play number 11 and tell me it is 12.  I do have a lock on 23.  But on balance I still see the collection as a whole.

Growing up, Herbie Hancock could not afford this luxury of musical ignorance.  His piano teacher was so impressed with his development that she entered him into a city-wide competition where the winner would get to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

The precocious 11 year-old took on the challenge and for one year, every day, he practiced the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat Major.  Unlike a casual listener, Herbie would need to know the piece like he was the one who composed the notes.

My lack of musical knowledge isn’t limited to classical music.  I have an extensive jazz collection.  For fun I like to put the collection into a random mode and guess the song and musicians.  It’s a game where I’m rarely correct for a person playing a trumpet must really work on letting his or her personality shine through.  And even if a musician finds his or her voice, it doesn’t necessarily mean the listener will recognize it.  Even today, do I know Miles Davis from Chet Baker, Cootie Williams from Roy Eldridge, Wynton Marsalis from Roy Hargrove?  There are some locks, like the founding father and the granddaddy to them all.

It was Louis Armstrong who was most responsible for putting the cornet into the dustbin of musical instruments.  At the turn of the 20th Century the cornet was the lead instrument in any band whether marching, community, military or the new hot jazz.  Even Louis started out with the cornet.  But when he finally picked up the trumpet and soared into the first 15 seconds of “West End Blues” there was no going back to the cornet for him or anyone who followed.

The other day I was in my car listening to a live jazz album featuring the singer, Dianah Washington and a collection of jazz all-stars.  But before Dianah sang her first song, the all-stars kicked off the set with Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called love?”

The song is a lively affair and quite long for each of eight principles is allowed a solo.  And amongst the soloist are three trumpet players:

 

  • Clifford Brown
  • Maynard Ferguson
  • Clark Terry

 

The idea of this essay had been rattling around for some time.  And as a test, I tried to see if I could assign each trumpet solo to the correct musician.

I didn’t give myself much hope.

A month after his audition, Herbie received a postcard from the CSO letting him know he won the competition.  However, there was a catch.  If he wanted to play with the orchestra, he would need to learn a new piece for the CSO did not have the music to Mozart’s 18th piano concerto, which was a lie.  That’s like a band leader telling Frank Sinatra he didn’t have the sheet music to “New York! New York!”  It was a musical hurdle meant to prevent an 11 year-old Black kid from playing in front of group of white adults.

The CSO gave Herbie an ultimatum: Play a concerto in their collection or politely decline the invite.  This wasn’t an easy choice.  Similar is fine if you are half listening to a song while drinking a watered-down espresso.  But if you really want to play a concert piece, you need the endurance of an athlete, the scholarship of a professor and all the gifts from the musical gods.  Switching concertos isn’t like changing keys in some weekend garage band.  Besides the key changes, there are the reoccurring motives, the evolving themes, the chord progressions, the musical style balanced with the historical significance, and don’t forget the orchestra’s role.  Then there is the verve and the confidence to turn the black and white keys into something more.

For his audition Herbie had one year to learn all these intricacies.  To master the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the CSO was giving him two months.

I was wandering through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) one afternoon and came across this exhibit.

 

 

I grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and little did I know that the term Sioux comes from the French word Nadouessioux, which comes from the Ojibwa’s word Na-towe-ssiw, meaning “little snake.”  Yes, the Ojibwa did not much care for their neighbors and they let the French know.

If all of us were named by our enemies, a lot of us would be walking around introducing ourselves as “Dirt Bag” or “Dipstick.”

Wandering through the exhibit, I came to realize how little I knew about my neighbors.  For example, the Sioux prefer the more user friendly “Dakota” meaning “friend”.  Amongst themselves they are known as the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Seven Council Fires), a collection of seven tribes who speak three distinct dialects.

 

  1. Mdewakanton aka Spirit Lake Dwellers – Speak Dakota
  2. Wahpeton aka Forest Dwellers – Speak Dakota
  3. Wahpekute aka Hunters of the Forest – Speak Dakota
  4. Sisseton aka Boggy Ground Dwellers – Speak Dakota
  5. Yankton aka End Dwellers – Speak Nakota
  6. Yanktonai aka Junior End Dwellers – Speak Nakota
  7. Teton aka Plains Dwellers – Speak Lakota

 

It’s pretty easy to sit back and label a whole nation with the wrong name.  It’s only when you get up close that you see a more intricate affair.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure my five Irish brothers should even be living in Brooklyn.  Have times changed with demographic shifts where those of European descent now live in Great Neck or Fishkill?  Why do they need to live in a place named after animal and body parts?  Does it even matter for those of us who have never been to these places?  Maybe not, but it does matter for those who live there whether a Black girl going to school at Frank J. Macchiarola Education Campus (fka Sheephead Bay High School) or a Oglala Teton boy from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who no longer wants to be called Sioux.

There is a great episode of The Graham Norton Show which addresses how similar can be quite confusing.  If you are unfamiliar with the British talk show, it’s like any other except Graham lets his guests hang out together.  It’s a smart play for it tends to relax the celebrities for they no longer feel the heat of a solo spotlight.  Instead, the setting is more of a casual happy hour where conversation flows from Graham to the guests and the guests with each other.

The episode I saw had Chris Pratt, Dallas Bryce Howard, Jeff Goldblum and Thandie Newton.

What makes the episode pertinent to this essay is how celebrities are often mixed up with each other.  After all, who is Chris Pratt in relation to Chris Pine and Chris Evans, all actors with the same first name and who have starred in movies involving superheroes.

Dallas talked about being misidentified with another redhead actress by the name of Jessica Chastain.  She even said the confusion started before either of them became famous, back when they were both going to college in New York City and frequenting the same coffee shop.  Dallas said the barista would always give her the wrong espresso drink, thinking she was Jessica.

 

 

Who is who:  (a) Jessica Chastain  (b) Dallas Bryce Howard

 

Then Thandie told a story in which she ran into former Spice Girl, Victoria Beckham, at a Soul Cycle in Los Angeles, CA.  And in the middle of the conversation she came to the conclusion that Victoria thought she was Zoe Salandra.

 

 

Who is who:  (a) Thandie Newton  (b) Zoe Salandra

 

I even run into this problem with people I should know.  I find that here in Minnesota facial hair and ski caps tend to blend a lot of guys together.  Once, I saw my brother across the room of a crowded coffee shop sporting his signature black ski cap and salt and pepper goatee.  And as I closed the gap to where I could hand him my mis-ordered macchiato, it was only then I realized he was some other guy.

Thandie accepted she looks like Zoe, but she was a little exasperated with Victoria for they are both from the British Isles, and Zoe Salandra is from Queens, New York.

 

“Come on [Victoria]! I’m English.”

 

And with this visible sigh on a British talk show was a request for all of us to pay attention.  That’s why I’m still listening to “What Is This Thing Called Love?”  Is there any difference between the three trumpet solos or could they all be played by the same person?

I think if you listen to a song – not as background music while you are grounding your kids or folding yesterday’s laundry – you may not only hear the song; you just might just catch the soloist’s personality shining through:

 

CLIFFORD: Cool, hip, but with more bounce than Miles.  He plays like a prize fighter before a big bout, dancing in the corner, keeping his jabs quick, his uppercuts tight, everything sharp, always bouncing.

MAYNARD: Bold and bright, a direct descendant of King Louis.  He stands in front of the microphone like a matador and plays his trumpet like a red cape daring the bull to charge.

CLARK: Ebullient and joyful, right off the bat he’s in the groove, like a tap dancer, picking up the pace, gathering momentum, going for a big finish.

 

Even if you don’t like jazz, you’d be hard pressed not to like Clark Terry.  His career had him playing with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and The Tonight Show Band.  His song “Mumbles” will put anybody in a good mood.  Heck, he wasn’t afraid to break out the flugelhorn.

 

 

Clark Terry: Trumpet vs Flugelhorn

 

What, another horn?  When will this stop?  Well look at it this way:

 

Trumpet:  a belt of whiskey

Cornet: the warm beer chaser

Flugelhorn: a rare chardonnay from the Cote de Beaune Region of France

 

Although the flugelhorn looks like a beefed-up trumpet, it doesn’t translate into a louder, brasher sound.  Instead the notes are fuller and deeper.  Then again, to the untrained ear, would you even know?

One evening I was biking home when I pulled up to a stoplight.  I held back for a woman on a bike was in front of me.  And as we waited for the light to turn green, I noticed the biker to be my cousin.

Wendy had a bike with three gears and wide handlebars.  She lived close by and it looked like we were both heading home.

I nudged closer to say hello.

In the end Herbie did not give the CSO the satisfaction of declining their offer.  He practiced even more in those two condensed months and gave as great a performance in front of a live audience as he did when he won the competition.

When I got close enough to Wendy where I could tap her on the shoulder, I noticed that the woman now next to me was indeed a stranger.

“Um,” I muttered.  “You look like my cousin.”

The woman slightly smiled and darted her eyes for the quickest escape.  From her point of view a complete stranger approached with the worst pick-up line of all time.

Even at eleven years old, Herbie Hancock was not daunted by the similarities of a master composer’s piano concertos.

As a grown man waiting for an interminable light to turn green, I came to an understanding that sometimes similar isn’t nearly close enough.

 

 

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