Site Revisions

I noticed yesterday that I forgot to format the Music Reviews and Book Reviews on this site to match the rest of the site, so I spun through those and reformatted them today. I guess that counts as creative; it’s analogous to revising a manuscript, which is part of the creative process of writing.

I enjoy trying to justify whether an activity is creative enough to include in this log. Sometimes that is an act of creativity itself! More interesting to me is the realization of just how much of my life is based in some form of creativity. I’m getting a bigger sense of how we, as ordinary people, have opportunities to be creative in many different ways every day. That’s pretty inspirational, when you think about it.

Zen Guitar

Zen Guitar

By:  Philip Toshio Sudo

Type:  Extended inspirational metaphor

Setting:  The Zen Guitar Dojo


Using Zen teachings interspersed with quotes and examples from famous musicians, Phil Sudo guides us on a tour through the Zen Guitar Dojo.  The dojo is a virtual practice studio; one can enter the studio anywhere, at any time, because it is more a state of mind than a physical reality.  Focus and dedication are the keys to this dojo; a beginner’s mind and openness to the teaching allow growth to occur.

Sudo divides the book into five main parts, each indicating different levels of progression in Zen Guitar.  When a new student enters the dojo, no matter his level of playing ability, he must embrace the beginner’s mind and put on the white belt, and these basics are covered in the first section of the book.

As the student moves through the dojo, his white belt becomes soiled from practice and begins to turn black; practice is the focus of the second section of the book.  When a player has practiced enough to become proficient, his belt may be completely black, and with that comes the responsibility of using what he has learned wisely.  That responsibility is the subject of the third section of the book.  Of course, just because a student has attained the black belt level, that doesn’t mean he is finished.  As in any dojo, a black belt only indicates that the student’s true learning has begun.

As he studies, his belt may begin to fray, and strands of the original white belt will begin to show through.  He will have learned much, and now is confronted with the question of where the music comes from.  Is he playing it, or is it playing him?  The correct answer is mu, the classic transcendent point of Zen philosophy.  The music is neither playing nor being played by the student, and the student will only understand his relationship to it when he drops the need for duality.  This is the subject of the fourth section.

Finally, when the student has played and practiced enough that his belt is once again white, he realizes that it was white all along, and that the way he got to the level he is now is by keeping the beginner’s mind forefront, and by wearing the same white belt.  The final section is a recap of all that the student has learned, and it is all white belt material.


I purchased this book in May of 2001.  I had seen it on the rack at my local magazine store and thought it looked fascinating, and finally I bought it, knowing nothing about the author or, really, what the book was about.  It sat inside my nightstand for a year before I took it out again and started reading.  I read it in small chunks, wanting to chew on each piece slowly, rather than blazing through the book and missing the points.  It was a very easy read; Sudo’s style is crisp, simple, and clean, and he makes even the difficult Zen concepts come across clearly.  I learned valuable information from many sections of the book that deal directly with stumbling points in my playing:  “Mistakes,” “Stages and Plateaus,” “Self-Doubt,” and “Overthinking” are all sections with which I connected directly.  They are all in the “white belt to black belt” section, so I guess I know where I am on the path of Zen Guitar.  I look forward to the day when I find I am connecting better with the sections in the later part of the book.

Some interesting things have happened to my playing since I started reading this book.  I’ve taken more risks, for one thing.  I have also worked on learning a lot of new songs, most of them heavier than I am used to playing.  I tried out for a band that is ready to start gigging, and I played and sang onstage at a local jam without feeling overly self-conscious.  I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to the book, but I am sure that the book helped me develop the mindset that I needed to be open to these opportunities.

There is another coincidence: a very said one.  When I finished the book, I went to the Zen Guitar website listed in the back of the book.  I wanted to see if there was anything new that Sudo had added to the dojo that would complement this review, and I wanted to let him know that I had enjoyed the book and was going to write the review.  When I arrived at the website, the first thing I noticed was a date range:  Philip Toshio Sudo, October 20th, 1959 – June 9th, 2002.

Evidently Phil had been battling cancer since about the time that I bought the book.  He kept a journal online, and as I read through it, I thought of the same steps that my brother took as he fought cancer.  Phil lived a couple of years longer than my brother did, and from all accounts on the website, he lived live with a joy and presence that comes from viewing the world from within Zen.

I checked my Creativity Journal for June 9th, and I’m happy to say that I was in a Zen Guitar frame of mind that day, working out a song list for my basement band and studying the fret board.  The next day, I noted that I had “read some more Zen Guitar.”  I’m sure Phil would be happy to know that.


Though Zen Guitar is primarily aimed at guitarists, the ideas are universal.  Anyone, whether s/he plays an instrument or not, should be able to find something of worth in these pages if s/he is open enough to look.  At one point in the book, when Sudo is talking about recovering from mistakes, he says, “When things falls apart, make art.  Carry this spirit though to every area of your life.”  I think most of the principles in this book can be extended to all areas of life.  Basically, it’s all about maintaining a beginner’s mind: being open to learning new things, appreciating what we have yet to learn, and using the time we have left wisely, as Phil did.

Thank you, Phil Sudo, for allowing me into your dojo.



By: Eric Clapton

Type: Acoustic blues and rock

Hot Tracks:

  • Tears in Heaven
  • Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
  • Layla
  • Old Love


What can I say about Eric Clapton that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of other reviewers? The man is constantly changing, constantly experimenting, consistently staying in the public view. His timing on this project was impeccable; he brought major attention to MTV’s “Unplugged” show at a time when its future was uncertain as well as opening himself up to a brand new audience by showing his more mellow, acoustic side.

Most of the songs on this album are pretty simple to play. Simple songs, simple arrangements, informal atmosphere. The key is the facility with which Clapton and his band of studio musicians execute the material. Even though much of it has been heard at coffee houses and acoustic jams for years, never has a star of Clapton’s magnitude shown his expertise on the old standards in this way. One of the songs, “Nobody Knows You …,” first came to my attention through a solo acoustic guitar player named Rex Hegyi in Durango, Colorado. I became fascinated with the song, but couldn’t find the Jimmy Cox original anywhere. Hearing Clapton play it — and revitalize it — closed a portion of my life that had remained open for several years, and I was finally able to put down my obsession with that song and learn how to play it recognizably. That is possibly the most remarkable thing about this album; Clapton took the opportunity to showcase his blues influences as well as satisfy the audience by playing some of his originals. Eight of the songs (more than half) were not written by Clapton; two were Robert Johnson songs, which is important because it introduces the music of the father of delta blues to a younger audience and prompted the release of a Robert Johnson boxed set.

In terms of the Robert Johnson tunes, “Malted Milk” and “Walkin’ Blues,” I have a confession to make. I like Clapton’s versions better. I’ve listened to original Johnson recordings of both songs, and I have to admit that Clapton’s timing and solos are better. Johnson had a habit of throwing in extra beats in a measure or dropping some notes from a measure before playing the next part. Some of this was probably due to the fact that he was playing solo; he didn’t need to keep time correctly for the benefit of other musicians most of the time. From listening to his work on other pieces, I’m sure he made the changes intentionally. They contribute to the soul and down home feel of Johnson’s music; you know he was real from listening to his music. Still, they grate on the ears of the typical listener. Clapton takes the liberty of “fixing” those spots in his covers of these two Johnson tunes. His timing is loose enough to feel authentic, yet tight enough to maintain a consistent rhythm. On one of the songs (“Walkin’ Blues” I think; I don’t have the Johnson Boxed Set for reference) Clapton substitutes a guitar solo from another Robert Johnson recording for the solo that exists on the Johnson Boxed Set recording of the song. Again, this substitution works better than the original. It is also important to note that Andy Fairweather Low plays along with Clapton on “Malted Milk,” so the timing fixes may have been necessary for playability on that tune.

That Clapton can take original pieces from one of his heroes and expand them shows an interesting contrast of humility and reality. In his trademark sheepishness, Eric might disagree that his versions are better, but we are free to make the call as listeners. True, there are several decades between Eric Clapton’s versions of many of the songs on this disc and the originals, and that the original artists came up with them at all is worth a large dose of respect. Eric’s method of showing that respect is to propagate the music, with a few additions of his own.

With his own pieces, he feels no compunction about changing them up a bit. The most obvious example is “Layla,” a shortened (thank God!) version of the Derek and the Dominos tune. The song now boasts a slow, swing rhythm that immediately induces swaying and toe tapping. The vocals are not strained like in the original and the solos are short but meaningful. We no longer have to endure the crying slide weaving in and out of a repeating piano riff for several minutes; the solo is entirely flatpicked with no slide.

“Old Love,” originally a collaboration between Clapton and Robert Cray, takes on a soulful, jazzy feel. Chuck Leavell’s piano solo is perfect for the feel of the piece, even getting a verbal stamp of approval from Eric himself as the notes spiral upward from the keys. The now famous “Tears in Heaven,” in which Clapton laments the death of his young son, is well executed, though some critics feel the studio version is better. Personally, I prefer this acoustic version, but I am also more used to it than the other.

Eric Clapton gave a great gift to the world when he made this album. It is an educational trip through the world of acoustic blues, a candid look at another side of one of the world’s best entertainers and evidence of how music has the power to make people smile when performed correctly. I recommend this CD to anyone with even a remote interest in the music of Eric Clapton.

Rating (out of a possible five):

Tiger Walk

Tiger Walk

By: Robben Ford

Type: Progressive Jazz/Rock

Hot Tracks:

  • Red Lady w/Cello
  • Just Like It Is
  • The Champ

I find myself disappointed in this album. I have been a fan of Robben Ford for many years, and have always enjoyed his releases with The Blue Line and his guest appearances with artists like Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Miles Davis. I feel that he is at his best when fronting The Blue Line, singing the blues in his bell-clear voice and adding staccato punctuation with his guitar.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t sing on this album. And the Blue Line is on haitus.

Instead, we find the Expensive Winos (Steve Jordan, drums, and Charlie Drayton, bass) taking up the daunting task of backing one of the best guitar phraseologists of our time. (No, I don’t consider their normal frontman, Keith Richards, to be in the same class as Ford.) As I listen to this CD, I long for Roscoe Beck’s bass fills and Tom Brechtlein’s rock-solid drumming. Jordan’s drums (especially the snare) are too loud in the mix, and occasionally I find myself listening more to them than Robben Ford’s playing; this is not good! On the other side of the rhythm section, Drayton’s bass playing has little energy and does not adequately fill the spaces that Ford intentionally leaves in his playing to add variety and focus to the music. Beck, having played with Ford for years, knows when it is appropriate for him to step up and when to hang back. Drayton never takes the chance to step up.

In other areas of the rhythm section, Bernie Worrell fills most of the keyboard duties, and does so very well. He is joined by Ford’s long time friend and former bandmate Russell Ferrante on “The Champ,” a bluesy funk where Ford is able to stretch out a little against the backdrop of the lineup.

Throughout, Ford’s playing is typically stellar. He describes himself as a “melodist,” a player who strives to produce quality notes and phrases rather than just blitzing back and forth across the strings and calling it a solo. He is melodic throughout, but the band (with the exception of Worrell and Ferrante) is not able to support him correctly and the music occasionally feels flat.

The best track on the album is “Red Lady w/Cello,” a song Ford wrote in honor of Michelle N’Dgiocello, who he says creates some of the best grooves he has ever heard. The band is able to get behind him on this song and support the energy level better than on any of the other songs. Ford has stated that this is his favorite track off the CD as well.

According to Ford, he felt he needed to produce an instrumental album without The Blue Line in order to stretch out a little. He felt like he was stagnating after so many years with the same players, and wanted to stir the creative process a little. This was good for Brechtlein and Beck as well, because it gave them the opportunity to tour with Eric Johnson, another guitar virtuoso whose style requires that talented people be with him on the stage. Beck counts himself lucky that he has gotten to play extensively with two of the best guitarists in the world. Perhaps this is a good thing for all involved.

Still, I can’t help thinking that many of the songs, especially the title track, would benefit from the expertise of The Blue Line. Perhaps on his next album he will bring The Blue Line back and we will get to hear these songs with Beck and Brechtlein on tour.

Rating (out of a possible five):

Test for Echo

Test for Echo

By: Rush

Type: Progressive Rock

Hot Tracks:

  • Driven
  • Time and Motion
  • Limbo
  • Totem

Continuing the shift back to a leaner, less layered sound, Test for Echo is a quality effort from Rush. Alex Lifeson’s guitar is more up front than it has been in a long time, especially on songs like “Driven,” “Limbo” and “Time and Motion,” yet the characteristic syncopation that has become Rush’s trademark sound is not compromised. Geddy Lee’s bass playing continues to show influence from Primus’ Les Claypool and the trio uses synthesizers less than they have in several releases. Lee’s voice also seems to be getting better with age. Neil Peart’s lyrics continue to sport poetic and literary devices that other rock songwriters fear to approach and he stretches a little to play hammer dulcimer on “Resist.” In short, this album is a predictable progression from previous trends.

Which is just fine with me.

I am happy to see Rush moving back to simpler arrangements and a little more distortion. The spacey, ethereal sounds of their 1980s albums began to wear on me a little, though I do think Neil Peart’s lyrics were at their peak during this period, particularly on Power Windows. His best lyrics on this album are probably presented in “Totem,” a defense multi-cultural belief systems. I am also happy to see the band returning more often to the extended instrumentals, like “Limbo” on this album.

The pamphlet design is of high quality, similar in style to the old Hipgnosis album jackets. A lot of computer generated images and fractal patterns give the slipcover booklet a feel almost like a graphics intensive web page, which fits very well with the song “Virtuality” in particular.

It will be interesting to see where the group goes from here. Recently, Peart’s daughter died in an accident, and I am predicting this will have a profound effect on his lyrics in the future. We may see him returning to the level of lyricism he attained in the mid eighties, if only because he is driven by pain. I’m not sure the group’s current musical trend will fit well with the kind of lyrics that might come from this loss, though. I look for the Lee and Lifeson’s music to get a little lighter in the future if Peart’s lyrics go that direction.

Until then, I will continue to enjoy the status quo of one of the most consistent bands in modern music.

Rating (out of a possible five):