Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sound That Has No Name

He was once slated to play with Andy McKee who generated 31.4 million views on YouTube with his guitar.

They had a similar sound. But not quite the same.

New York's Caffe Vivaldi - Max Serpentini, Winter, 2007

At first, we called it Wall of Sound. That was the only music jargon that came close. What else can an old hack say to describe a new sound whose word is not invented?

There was no loop. No formula. Not even structure or a fixed composition. Only a guitar played in an unorthodox way, layering multiple sounds, often in open tunings.

The guitar's hit in different places with lightning speed to create new sounds. It's like a hammer-on – but blending both strings and percussion simultaneously.

Sometimes I think I hear a sitar, gamelan or raga from this guitar.

* * *
Anyone who hears it, never forgets it. The sound's inspiring music enthusiasts across the nation. Live.

Last February, I was at the Local watching friends sing in Toronto's Roncesvalles. Next to me sat a singer’s childhood friend. In conversation, I could tell he was an avid guitarist.

A guitarist, not a Guitar Hero.

The young man even knew the guitar legend whose name I can never spell off-hand – Yngwie Malsteen.

Using air guitar, I tried to explain what this new sound was. What did I know? I’ve only reviewed music (and not even recently).

It went like this...

He then pointed out Andy McKee:

31.4 million views.

Andy didn’t sing a word. Or a vowel.

I was surprised an audience would be that large. Music labels have nearly eradicated guitar solos – leaving us to believe there was no demand. But as I write, Bon Jovi (not Lady Gaga) is the highest grossing act for 2010 (from touring).

Pulling a Lohan or Gaga? Lately Lady Gaga's been pushing the envelope in other ways.

On YouTube, millions of people wanted to see Andy McKee, a real guitarist (who was not a Guitar Hero).

* * *

Last March, I was at Toronto’s Il Gatto Nero, “the Black Cat,”with the CEO of, visiting from Vancouver. We sat where Bono once sat. When I told her New York City and music inspire everything I do, she asked what kind of music I followed.

Using air guitar, I tried to explain what this sound was. She then pointed out Kaki King:

You mean there are three of us?

* * *

My air guitar is not that bad. I actually make sense.

* * *
I first heard this new sound in August, 2006. I was visiting Vancouver, BC, to see my daughter from Tokyo and stayed with Artist Max Serpentini.

While playing with my kid, all of a sudden, we heard this sound in the next room. It stopped us in our tracks, and we asked aloud, “What was that?”

A sound that has no name.

* * *
Two months later, Max was sponsored to go to New York City for the first time. Within days, he was offered a venue residency and paid by a stranger for guitar lessons. He had barely set foot in New York.

This sound even prompted one person who managed notable Artists to return to music to help Max. He had left the industry, one almost thought, for good.

The new sound re-invigorated my desire to hear new music in New York.

Is that My Left Foot?

I would join Max in New York where we would see an unknown jazz virtuoso named Eric Lewis in a basement called Zinc Bar on West Houston. He put us all in a trance.

Max Serpentini photographed Eric Lewis at Zinc Bar (December, 2007).

When an innovator sees an innovator, that's either a tough crowd or a tough act to beat.

At Caffe Vivaldi, a woman named Kate Sland sang Jeff Buckley and Lucinda Williams hymns. But her original songs are the ones I don’t forget. She wrote them at 19. She had fans who knew the lyrics without seeing an album.

Get up, get up, your lazy bones, there's enough time to sleep in the grave

~ Kate Sland

During this time, I was in a project to find the meaning of music (grassroots) and display it in a captioned photo mosaic. In a moment of unbridled euphoria, without thinking, I emailed a Grammy Awards executive just after 6am. Following an inspired set (it still makes me shake), I called Eric Lewis, the “second coming of Oscar Peterson.”

Wha? What did I just say? Was I delirious? Who says that to the Grammy Awards?

I did:

In March, 2008, i shared these stories in Los Angeles inside the Grammy Awards board room. There was a piano behind me. A ghost was playin to make me sing.

The Zinc has since moved out of that New York basement. So did Eric Lewis who shot up like a rocket playing for TED.

Michelle Obama invited Eric to play in the White House (for the Obamas, Spike Lee and James Earl Jones). BET invited Indie Arie with Eric Lewis to play for Sean Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and Queen Latifah. Hollywood types like Leonardo DiCaprio and Forest Whitaker have seen Eric play multiple times. Mary J. Blige would ask Eric to play with her for a cause.

Eric, is Mick happy?

Ya, I think Mick is happy

* * *

Both Max Serpentini and Eric Lewis have something in common – besides not having had a album/video to display their sound for the longest time. When you see them play live, you will be floored.

Sound and instrument sponsors have been inspired.

* * *
Max Serpentini differs from Andy McKee in that he’ll sing. He’ll also pound his guitar like Keith Moon.

Max was influenced by Robert Johnson and the Crossroads whose sound you might also hear layered in. There are many sounds in his sonic architecture.

Outside East Is East, Vancouver

He used to play bongos with DJs – George Michael once heard him randomly and sang to his beats impromptu.

Eric and Max also have another thing in common: in two different cities they inspired Transporter star Jason Statham (who is not a bad bongo player himself). He jammed with Max randomly impromptu. That's the real magic of music.

While playing air guitar to explain this, I thought folks would think I was hallucinating. But, years later, Max finally posted a video online yesterday – a medley of segments from one show. It’s not well-lit, or cut by a video guru, but it does share the sight and sound:

Both Eric and Max are best seen live. Online recordings don't do them justice.

For me, this is about a sound that makes me travel far, to see/hear something I’ve never seen/heard. Something that moves me.

* * *

If you've ever heard Rush, this new sound is like all three band members pounding and playing the same guitar.

That’s the sound that has no name.

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