Monday, July 30, 2012

Ford Flex - Big and Comfy Crossover

Look, Ma, no Ford logo!
The Ford Flex still reminds me of a MINI Cooper on steroids--thanks to its upright shape and white roof. But it could probably hold a MINI in its cargo area.

This is one nice family hauler, with room for up to seven, if you fold down the third row seats. The fronts are plush buckets, the middle row ditto, and the rears? Well, they fold down invisibly in two halves to make a flat cargo floor or pop up with the pull on a strap or two. Every passenger gets a sunroof, too, with glass (and manual shades) for all three rows. Only the one in front opens, however.

The Flex gets a new face this year, and it is a surprising turn. The Ford oval logo is gone! Instead, the letters F  L  E  X are spread across the leading edge of the hood and a solid chrome bar runs through the grille. This new look echoes a general move away from blatant badging on Ford's part. Just wait until the new Fusion appears this fall for the big change.

The Flex offers two 3.5-liter engines. The standard one puts out 287 horsepower and 254 lb.-ft. of torque, while the EcoBoost model essentially replaces the old V8 with 365 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque from the same displacement. Ford is introducing EcoBoost throughout the line over time to get the power folks expect from larger engines from smaller displacements.

My Ginger Ale Metallic tester was an SEL model with all-wheel drive.With the standard engine, it was ranked 17 City, 23 Highway, or 19 average. I averaged 18.9 mpg--almost exactly what the EPA says.

Ford's programmable instrument panel displays are standard in the Flex. You can choose the information you view on the left and right sides of the main instrument panel gauge. I liked looking at fuel economy numbers on the left and the entertainment system on the right, but you can view other functions using steering wheel mounted buttons.

The center console display offers a quartered home page with phone, Audio, Information and Climate quadrants. Touch the inside corner of any and a full screen display gives you details. 

The Flex had the first instance I've seen of the new inflatable seatbelts ($195). These fatter-than-usual straps inflate when a crash is sensed and give added protection to the torsos of the middle-row rear seat passengers during an accident.

A couple of 21st-century annoyances: I had trouble keeping my phone connected to the Bluetooth system, but this is a common issue in cars--Bluetooth is still a little unreliable.I also was slightly annoyed when the iPod hookup kept losing the shuffle feature and had to be restarted each time.

The Flex crossover fits in the Ford lineup in between the midsize Explorer and the full-size Expedition SUVs. It has a significantly lower ride height.

Prices start at $31,710 for the SE, but my SEL tester, with options, came to $41,935. That's really Lincoln territory, and this car probably should be sold as one, considering its upscale appeal. Lincoln does offer the similar (but very different looking) MKT, but the Ford seems at least as nice.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Blue Eternity Relaxes and Stimulates

Left to right: Manring, Oster, Weingarten last year
Last night I got more than I expected when I went to the 1400 Bar and Grill in Alameda, California to hear Michael Manring. Michael is one of the world's best fretless electric bassists, and he plays solo and with a variety of other interesting musicians.

I got there about 8 p.m. and found out that the music wouldn't begin until about 9:30 p.m. So--I sat and watched (without sound) a good portion of the London Olympics opening ceremony. I also started the first of two pints of Rye'd Piper, a strong, fragrant ale that 1400 offers on tap for a mere $5. When I heard a horn and bass tuning up around 9:15, I migrated to the rear of the 100-year-old facility to transition my attention to the music.

Blue Eternity, an ensemble of four fine musicians, puts out what you might call "Smooth Jazz" except that it is more than just smooth. Although the seven people at the round table near me continued with their animated conversation after the music started, I found myself riveted by the band's at times mellow, other times forceful music.

Trumpet and flugelhorn player Jeff Oster, the group's spokesperson and apparent leader, provided a clear and compelling part up front. I heard some of the great Jazz performers, such as Miles Davis, in his sound, and his own style, too. Jeff handed me his True CD to enjoy, which I will explore and blog about soon. Surrender is his latest effort, and you can find out more about it on his website.

The three other musicians are definitely not Jeff's "backup band"--all added significantly to the show. And Jeff, contributing something to the feeling of a jam, at times set down his horn and added incidental sounds from a triangle, metallic cup, or a small box that looked like a toy stove, all carefully placed on the end of his strategically located trumpet case. It all suited the mood.

Carl Weingarten, over to the left, made otherworldly sounds with his electric slide guitar, in open tuning and using looping, building a sonic orchestra of strings. Both as a perfect accompaniment for the other instruments and a thrillling soloist, he sounded like more than one guy. Carl kindly gave me one of his CDs during the break. Panomorphia is just the latest in a series of about 20 albums he's recorded over the last three decades. I look forward to exploring it and reporting back in a separate blog post.

Of course, I was there originally to hear Michael Manring, and he delivered, as always. We often think of the bass as a support, rhythm section instrument, and it does serve that function. Michael makes it do much more. While many of the selections were a mellow, trance-inducing sort, in a single droning key, a few times, Michael got things rolling and brought up the energy with his lightning-fast fingers on the fretless fingerboard. He uses various electronic effects, including something called an EBow, for extended sounds you can't get with just a pluck. He also started the second set with an extended solo performance that rocked the house, showing the tremendous range of colors and textures he can pull out of the four-string fretless bass.

After the show, I enjoyed a conversation with percussionist Tracy Tucker, who not only employed an amazing conga drum with an adjustable head (using a pedal), but sported some amazing tattoos on his arms. The theme was Indian spiritual, but also contained W.C. Fields' head. Whimsical, but serious too. Tucker helped keep the energy moving with his throbbing beat, coming closer to the foreground and then receding deftly into the background, maintaining the flow. He is also a shiatsu therapist, an area where he can influence the body in the same way his music affects the feelings and mind.

What an evening. Around 12:30 a.m., it ended and I rolled on home satisfied. A show at 1400 is an inexpensive and entertaining way to get out, and I will seek out the Blue Eternity musicians--separately and together--again. One memory--hearing Blue Eternity's last number and looking over to my left and seeing Sir Paul McCartney on three video screens playing "Hey Jude" in front of 2 billion people. The power of music.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BMW X3 - Compact Luxury SUV--Built in the U.S.

BMW has cachet--and its 3 Series cars have been the brand's most popular offerings for decades. With the rise in compact SUVs (and crossovers) it was inevitable that the German brand would expand into that segment, and in 2004, they did, offering the original X3 alongside the larger X5.

I drove one of these first-gen cars and and it didn't feel as "BMW-like" as I expected. I read elsewhere of complaints about the overly firm ride and a kind of plainness to the design.

Well, folks, don't worry, because the new X3 is completely BMW--even though it is now built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. BMW started building the Z3 sports car there a long time ago and it's now the source for all the X vehicles--X5 and X6 included. Americans are the largest consumers of tall wagons, and it only makes sense to build them here--for worldwide distribution.

BMWs are some of the most distinctive cars on the road, so you'll immediately recognize the twin-kidney grille, and all of the brand's X-series "Sports Activity Vehicles" have recognizable shapes to clue you in. The new model still has lots of lines on the surface, including six on the hood alone, but it's a little smoother and prettier than before. The headlight assemblies are large and prominent while the taillamps wear the T shape that was established in the first generation. The sides have three sets of lines to take your eye along the surface.

My Space Gray Metallic test car arrived with the inline 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine, as the X3 xDrive35i. It has an even 300 horsepower--which felt like lots. It's reputed to go from zero to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. I didn't time it myself, but it felt like it was up to the job.

The eight-speed automatic has two extra gears, so there's a taller one for more efficiency while still giving you a quick shot off the line in the lower gears. You can shift manually (no clutch), too.

The xDrive28i model sits below the xDrive35i, and now comes with a turbocharged 240-horsepower four-cylinder for increased efficiency and a little lower initial cost.

The EPA gives the X3 with the straight-six ratings of 19 City, 26 Highway and 21 Average. I got just 17.4 mpg. Green Vehicle scores are a mid-pack 6 for Air Pollution and 4 for Greenhouse Gas.

Thanks to the electronic control of pretty much everything in the car, you can configure the driving characteristics with the Driving Dynamics Control lever. This optional feature lets you adjust the shock absorber firmness, engine throttle response, transmission shift characteristics, level of power steering assist, and stability control mode. That means that by setting it at Normal, Sport, or Sport +, you can have three quite different driving experiences.

Normal felt fine on the freeway and around town, but I tried the sportier settings intermittently, and it really made a big difference. Especially with a tall vehicle, having the tauter handling on the windier roads was a treat. Of course, it being a BMW, even Normal was more satisfying than the average car.

The first generation may have seemed a little basic and plain, but this new X3 has all the feeling of a BMW, including the straightforward, flat instrument panel and the typical matte surface textures that convey understated luxury. There was plenty of Fineline Sienna wood trim in my tester, too. The always-excellent BMW seats are firm and hold you in place while you're testing to see if that 5.5-second time is accurate.

The X3 isn't a cheap car to begin with. The xDrive35i starts at $43,595, but there are lots of extras you can pack on, and my tester was a rolling example of how to do this. The Sport Activity Package upgraded the wheels to 19-inch double-spoked alloys and enhanced the transmission and seats, while turning the headliner black and installing Aluminum Satin roof rails. Two Cold Weather Packages (neither of which I'd need here in California) heated the steering wheel and front and rear seats, among other things.

The Dynamic Handling Package gave me that adjustable ride and driving configuration I mentioned earlier. The Premium Package further loaded the boat with a power tailgate, keyless entry, ambiance lighting and much more. Premium Sound upgraded the audio system and added Satellite Radio. The Technology Package added lots of cool things you'd want to have, such as the rear view camera with a special "Top View" feature, Park Distance Control, and a navigation system with realtime traffic information. Whew.

What happened is that a $43,000 car became a $56,295 one. Compact, but loaded. What's not to like (other than making the payments?).

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Humboldt Workshop Day Five--Beethoven and Bolling

"A Bunch of  Bassoons"
My fifth and final day of the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop was a rousing success. I was assigned a favorite--The Beethoven Septet--and in the evening, had a chance to play the Claude Bolling Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. The day ended with a big party at the dorm--with lots of conversation and tasty shrimp, chocolate cake, and beer (and more). It was a fine way to end another inspiring and remarkable week.

I was thrilled to get to play one of my favorites on Friday. The Septet includes bass along with three strings: violin, viola, cello; and three winds: clarinet, bassoon and horn. At the workshop, every daily group includes a different set of folks, but this one was packed with special friends. We had a fine musical and social day rehearsing the fifth movement, Presto, under the wise and wisecracking guidance of coach Ed Harris. As usual, we started out with enthusiasm but in need of a lot of improvement as an ensemble and ended up with a polished performance when we played at the end of the afternoon session. It was probably my best day of the week.

After the evening program, I spend an hour and a half on the Bolling. I had tried playing this before, and worked a little on it independently, but this time, with Nikki's strong piano and Loren's buoyant flute playing, I felt like a real Jazz bassist--and could see clearly the amount of progress I've made in just a few short years. I made plenty of mistakes and needed several restarts, but overall, it sounded pretty darned good. We were tired but satisfied at 10:05 p.m. when we played the final note. I have the feeling I'm going to be working on this piece for a long time, each session with more understanding and competence.

This being the last day, we were treated to a very humorous set of three bonus tracks, including the Rhythm Rockettes' Rock Trap--a clapping, dancing number, and two wind performances. The first of these was Doug McCracken's Quintette for Bassoons and Contra-bassoon, which presented seven of these senior woodwinds together. Besides the hilarious honking of the contra-bassoon, all seven participants appeared barefoot--emulating the composer. Doug only wore shoes--sandals at that--when he was forced to follow cafeteria regulations. The third piece was P.D.Q. Bach's Fugue of the Volga Boatmen, with a stage full of winds. It made me think about perhaps next  year coming up with a duet (or duel?) with my bass and the contra-bassoon.

Another special treat was a much-too-short performance of the Finale part I of the Magic Flute. The singing of Connie, Ellie, Diane and Miriam was nothing short of breathtaking, in its German (with English translation supplied on the double-sided program). The audience, with jaws dropped, gave them the standing ovation they deserved. We need to have this again--perhaps at greater length--in the main program next time.

Music is the center of this workshop, but what remains as the biggest memory is the people. I had some connections from my 2010 stay, but I made many additional friends this time. When I sat and read through the programs for the performances in the afternoon and evening, I saw name after name of someone I'd played with in a group, sat with at a meal or met somewhere on the Humboldt campus. We are all drawn together because of our love of chamber music, and the camaraderie and spirit is like nothing I've experienced elsewhere.

There's also something about the inspired leadership of Workshop Director Alan Geier, whose warmth, humor and brilliant management make this one of the best run events I've ever attended. Everything just works, and once you arrive at the Humboldt State University campus, you know things will be fine and fun. He also made it possible for me to attend on a Heagy Fund scholarship this year when financial issues made it look like I'd have to miss it. For this I am very grateful, and I want to thank him personally--and everyone who labors tirelessly to make our experience so special, including Workshop Coordinator Tom Phillips. The Heagy Fund accepts your tax-deductible donations year round. Contact the workshop for details.

I am indebted to my classical music mentor, Josh Cohen, as well. He has guided me as a fledgling upright bassist from my first tentative notes at orchestra rehearsal on the second day of January, 2007. He urged me to sign up for my first weekend chamber music workshop at CMNC in 2008, and my first Humboldt adventure two years later. He has supported my growth and brought me into this new world of people devoted to playing this timeless music together.

I will miss my fellow musicians, but I can always plan for next year, and I go home inspired to do more sight reading, work on my intonation, and find more opportunities to fill my calendar with music dates until I can travel to the workshop again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Day Four--Challenges and Rewards at Humboldt

Hermann Goetz
As I discovered last time I came up to the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop, there is one day that is a little tougher, and Thursday, for me, was that day. The piece I was assigned, the Quintett by Hermann Goetz (1940-1876), was a little more challenging, and so there were a few areas that I really didn't have down when we went on stage to play the piece. I had to work a bit harder during the rehearsal periods, and although I liked the feeling of stretching my abilities that the tougher piece brought out, it still gave me a little anxiety.

I was playing with seasoned musicians, too, so I didn't want to slow them down. I had a time in the afternoon where I needed to go over a couple of sections and it was still tough. But I can see now the areas that I need to work on to make my sightreading and technique even better for next year. And it still felt wonderful to participate in a day of "work" and to attend an afternoon and early evening of remarkable performances.

In the evening, after dinner, I went to the library to assist with the music. I'd never been inside it before--just to its front window--so it was an adventure. There were rows and rows of piles and piles of carefully organized manila envelopes of music, arranged by category. The numbering system was devised, I assume, to help musicians determine where to look for what they wanted.

After refiling some envelopes, I helped Tom to put away music that belongs to the University collection. We made lots of progress, although the job remained unfinished when I left three hours later. It felt good to do something to help the Workshop.

I then joined the party, which was in full swing at 11 p.m. and went past midnight. Hard to believe that this little island of delight in the sea of life is approaching its final day. I took a little stroll after breakfast on Friday morning:

The century-old Humboldt campus is beautiful

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Humboldt Day Three -- a Change of Pace

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
The wise leaders of the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop know that the extremely busy players need a little break in mid-event, so they have engineered Wednesday as a shorter day. By chopping out the afternoon practice session and scheduling the sampler program before dinner, they give attendees a chance to take a night off.

I had a great time with my extra evening, but first, it was a full day of music. I was assigned the Nonet in F minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I was thinking it was the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but the latter preceded the composer and is a completely different guy. Coleridge-Taylor, a product of an English mother and an African father, lived a short 37 years, but turned out a pretty good batch of music.

My first impression of the Scherzo, the piece we performed, was that it was spare for the bass. In truth, much of my part was runs of pizzicato (plucked) notes, but with some practice with my eight fellow musicians, it became interesting--and fun. The challenge was to play the runs properly-and in the right place. Because we occupied the main stage for our rehearsals, we got to go on first, so after a quick performance, we had the entire rest of the afternoon to sit and enjoy the other compositions.

Many were remarkable, but the one that stood out was Quintet by John Steinmetz (b. 1951). It started out with what sounded like the five winds tuning up and morphed into a drone piece, which was not only gorgeous but hypnotic. The crowd loved it. It's a real pleasure to see and hear the other groups' performances. Some apparently work out better than others, but we all know that sometimes the sound in the practice room doesn't get fully realized on stage. This is a workshop, and we tolerate the inevitable (and everpresent) imperfections. The different playing configurations let us get to know each other better each day.

After the performances, I treated myself to a 45-minute nap--I was bushed. But then, I took off with five others to the lovely Moonstone Grill, just a few miles up the coast, in Westhaven. We went there because it is a great restaurant with a sensational view, but also to remember a fellow chamber musician who is undergoing a bone marrow transplant now and who would much rather have been with us. We all hope he will be attending next year.

The food was wonderful. We shared crab rolls and oysters before the main course, which was beautifully prepared fish of various kinds. We also shared two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from A to Z Wineworks. One of our party actually knows the owner of the winery, making it all the better.

We made it back by just after 8:30 p.m., in time to play more music. I had the distinct privilege to play two trio works for viola, cello and bass, a first for me. Thanks to Margaret, who knew the music and got it from the workshop library we three "lower strings" made beautiful music together. We played the Divertimento for Viola, Violoncello and Kontrabass by Anton Albrechtsberger and Leopold Hoffman's Trio Op. 1, Nr. 3.

The hour and a half flew by. The bass normally doesn't get to play with such a small configuration--I'm used to quintets as a minimum--but I've already played in a quartet and done these trios this week, besides the nonet from Wednesday, so who knows what the rest of the workshop holds?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Double Dose of Schubert at Humboldt, Day Two

The Schubert Trout Quintet is a very famous and beautiful piece of music. Orchestral bass players often get to play it--or you may even say HAVE to play it--to satisfy the cravings of other musicians to play along with the biggest member of the string family.

Well, luckily, I LOVE the piece. I've already had two runs through it--and it's only Wednesday early morning.

The Piano Quintet in A major (Trout is really its nickname) is called that because it's based on a song Schubert wrote about the sad tale of a fish who struggles with the fisherman and dies (that's the thumbnail description). In reality, it is an achingly beautiful piece that gives a pianist and one representative from each member of the string family a workout.

My group met about 9 a.m. in our practice room to start. I was a little miffed because I had climbed the stairs to grab my bass, carried it all the way down to our morning meeting spot, only to find out that my assigned room was across the hall from my locker! Back up the stairs I went.

We quickly got down to business and the lovely sounds of the piece wafted through the room. After around 45 minutes, Daniela, our coach arrived. She did what good coaches do, and helped us identify areas we needed to work on (namely, all of it!). We selected the first movement and had to make a cut to get it down to a five-minute playing time. Then, we worked on the rough patches, and especially on the usual goal--playing well together.

We had no problem as people--I had a nice group-as I always seem to have. One of the many wonderful things about playing for five days in a row is that you get a different set of new friends each day. In this case, I had already played with two of the members and two were new to me. We worked through the piece in two morning and one afternoon practice sessions, broken up by our a.m. coffee break and lunch.

Strange for July--even in Northern California--was genuine rain--so our breaks were inside. I wore my porous and absorbent Levi jacket, but seemed to fare fine--it was not windy or particularly cold, so it just felt refreshing.

The joys of chamber music are great--if you like that kind of thing. We worked hard, but saw, over the day, our performance pick up speed, lock together, and by the end we were pretty happy that we had it down well. We drew the absolute final performance of the day, so we played after dinner. I wasn't sure I'd like that, but I had heard so much fine music by our turn that I was really in the mood.

After a brief reconnection before the evening session--and a few minutes in the green room, we stood backstage waiting, listening to a finely rendered trio just ahead of us on the other side of the curtain. Then, we strolled onto the stage for our turn.

It's funny that the stage looks far away from the seats but the people look close when you're up there. I glanced out briefly, but spent most of my time and attention on my music stand--and feeling my fingers on the familiar fingerboard of my bass as I listened and played along with our group. Nana, our violinist, counted us in and off we went!

The bass part has some wonderful half and whole note runs that flow below the more active melody parts that are incredibly enjoyable to play. One section, in the middle, is a piano solo, and I like to sing along with the part. One of my colleagues noticed this and teased me about it later (in a good-natured way, of course). Sorry, it's the Trout, and I can't help myself.

After our successful performance (we came back for a second set of bows), I went right behind the stage to a practice room to tackle Schubert's Octet. In this case, we played as a tiny orchestra, with violin, viola, cello, bass as well as oboe, bassoon, clarinet and horn (is that right?).

The piece is fairly long and twists and turns through slow and fast sections, but other than a few stops to re-sync ourselves, it flowed along nicely. I was pleased that all the players sounded good--and seemed to be having as much fun as I was. By around 10 p.m. we played the final notes, and smiles broke out everywhere. We had made it--and topped off another fine day of chamber music.

Then--two hours of drinking and snacking in the dorm meeting room. Ah, the college life!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop--Day One

The chamber music workshop week always begins with a group meeting in the  main theater to learn the details of the week's activities and anything else you  might want to know to get around. This being my second time up here, I had a good idea of what to expect. Alan Geier, the workshop director, explained it all in his friendly, humorous way, welcoming us back--and helping to relax the newcomers. We learned where to get the music (the music library), details of the schedule, Do's and Don't's, things to watch out for, and the rest.

Then, we were released to go crowd around the posted lists of who's playing what with whom where. I got assigned to some Rossini quartets that include bass, in the Art Building. Luckily, it's just across from the main theater, but I still had to climb up the Music Building stairs (no elevator during construction) and grab my bass before I went there. But I arrived and found my musical companions.

One of the many beauties of the workshop is that you play a different piece, with different people, each day. Also, the professional coaches rotate, too, so you get the guidance of different experts. Since I'm the only bassist signed up (as usual) there is never a "bass coach," but our cellist coach was great at guiding the group to play well together.

First, we looked at the three Rossini quartets on our music stands and then decided on one to run through. We then isolated the particular section we would be devoting the day's efforts to "perfecting" and went with that. You have to do this to get good enough at it to do well in the afternoon recital.

Gioachino Rossini is best known for his opera, The Barber of Seville, and the piece we worked on had an operatic quality, with expressive voices from the different instruments. The violin even gets to "laugh." I had two sections of solo work that I was able to pull off during the afternoon performance. Whew.

Things started coming together and improved over the day. We had our first session, then took a break in the courtyard with coffee and snacks. I've always liked this part, both for the social pleasures but also to get a break for my hands--and my eyes. Unfortunately, I am the ONLY person who stands all day, and this is more standing. I really should find someplace to sit down.

I lollygagged a little longer, and found my cohorts already there when I returned. We worked on our quartet--two violins, a cello and me on bass--through until lunch, with direction from Carol, our coach. It's hard sometimes to sync your playing with the other musicians--but therein lies beauty and satisfaction. We gradually tune in to the others. Intonation improves, the speed increases, we get more even, and play sections in which we share the melody or pattern in the same way so it sounds euphonious.

In the afternoon, we played late in the first of the two hourly sessions. Just after we played, we went off to dinner. It seems like there's lots of eating at these events. The food is OK--but it is "dorm fare" and I heard some grumblings about the consistency and flavor of the chicken. We went back for another hour of fine performances--every group seemed to be aware of the five-minute rule so it rolled through. Then--off to freelancing.

Freelancing gives you a choice to play what you want when you've completed your daily assignment. I played the Schubert's Trout Quintet--a favorite of chamber music players because of its beauty and also it seems to be the first piece anyone thinks of that includes a bass. We bassists are not in the center of chamber music but on the periphery. So--I'm glad to play it, and usually, at least one of the five of us is doing it for the first time--exciting and challenging. We played it fairly slowly, but the group focused and really heated up the room. At last, it came to its satifying conclusion and we packed up and headed back to the dorms for a little alcohol, snacks and conversation.

And so ended the first day. Today, we do it all over again.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop--Arrival

Here I am in my dorm room at the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop at Humboldt State University! The trip up, around 250 miles, seemed like it would take forever, but it suddenly was over. We grabbed a quick meal at the Burger King on the way, saw some fine scenery through the van windows, and enjoyed some musical selections from my orchestra conductor/friend Josh. I rode up with Josh and his wife Genevieve to save gas and automotive wear and tear--and for the companionship.

We stopped at the Solar Living Institute for a break a couple hours into the trip. It features educational displays on sustainable living and a store full of cute and interesting stuff.

There are some wineries and rows and rows of vines along part of the trip. Trees--so many--especially the wonderful Richardson Grove of redwoods. Willits is cute. Eureka is kind of a letdown after the gorgeous scenery but it's full of the urban experience--in small scale.

Once I arrived it was a quick and easy check-in. I got my decorative and useful badge at table in the dorm, went to get a king-size locker for my bass, and got a cable for my computer. Unlike last time, this year I'm blogging the whole thing!

My room is much like the one I had last time, two years ago. Two tall, natural-wood single beds with stashing space underneath.  Twin dressers and desks.  Cement block walls that give a little of a prison vibe--but there's nothing depressing about being here. Soon, we'll be playing music, sharing meals in the Jolly Giant Dining Hall (The J), and freelancing in the evenings.

It's summer camp for grownups, really. Away from the troubles and cares of the normal week, you can concentrate on the task at hand--rehearsing chamber music during the day with a different small group each day, sharing five minutes of it with your fellow workshop attendees in the afternoon, and after dinner, playing some more.

I was amazed when I attended the workshop two years ago that my hands never got sore, even with the hours of bass playing. It's because I was so HAPPY, I guess. I'm beaming in the group photo. So, I have every reason to expect more of the same this time.

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fiat 500 Gucci Edition--The Ultimate Gucci Item?

Best Small Convertible of the Year--see below
What do you picture when you think about Gucci? I visualize handbags and luggage, but for 90 years the company has offered a range of expensive and exclusive items, including watches, jewelry, and clothing that I have neither the figure nor the budget to own. My handsome son sports a pair of Gucci sunglasses that was expensive enough to be a special gift--not a routine purchase.

So, what about an Italian economy hatchback with Gucci style? Sure--why not?

To distinguish it from ordinary Fiat 500s the Gucci Edition wears the famous name and logo all over it, inside and out. On its petite body, my "Gucci White" tester wore "Gucci" script on its hatch and along each side below the rear window. Also, the trim, rather than being body color or shiny chrome, was a silvery satin chrome instead. The special white paint itself had a distinctive sparkle to it. The 15-inch white alloy wheels wore Gucci  logos too. The Green brake calipers add a subtle extra touch.

Inside, some of the plastic trim mixed the usual black with some contrasting Ivory accents--giving a light, happy ambiance. The leather-trimmed bucket seats wore the double-G logo on the headrests and the main seat cushion featured a logo-patterned stamping. The metallic accents are also the satin variety. I was  especially taken with the Gucci-themed threshold plates with their dozens (hundreds) of double-G logos.

The Gucci stripe is apparent on the seatbelts and along the middle of the upper seat cushions. It also runs down the remarkable Cabrio roof. The 500c Cabrio model features a folding cloth top that, unlike a typical convertible, slides along tracks above the side windows. These tracks contribute significant rigidity to the car. You can slide the roof back a little or a lot, but if you send it back all the way it will block the bottom half of the view behind you--so drive carefully. The open-top experience is wonderful, and if you keep the side windows up, it affords some privacy while still letting nature in.

Python (not shipped to California) - $4,500

The Fiat 500 itself is a modest little car, powered by a 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower "Multi-Air" engine. It's EPA-rated at 27 City, 32 Highway (29 Average). I averaged 31.5 mpg--but the fuel filler sign suggested premium fuel! For green scores, all 500s get a 5 for Air Pollution and 7 for Greenhouse Gas--for a SmartWay designation.

The six-speed automatic transmission shifted later when I selected the SPORT button on the dash, and it felt like the springs and steering tightened up as well.

My tester had an optional TomTom navigation device that plugs in to a jack in the top of the dash.

The Gucci model, with the above extras, came to $28,850. That's much more than your typical Gucci item, but for a car, it's not that much, really. I got compliments on my cute little ride, but it's definitely not the model I'd own myself. It did prove to be a worthy freeway driver--smooth and quiet--and, if you don't have much to carry, it could serve you well. If you want the fun but don't need the bling, the basic 500 Pop model starts at $16,250.

The 500 by Gucci won “Best Small Convertible of the Year” at the “Topless in Miami” event held on June 14 by the Southern Automotive Media Association (SAMA).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

New Jetta Still Has the Right Feel

Photo by Joy Schaefer
The Jetta has always been kind of a cool car to drive and own. In a sea of Hondas and Toyotas, it delivers German engineering and a sportier feel.

So, when I read about the new Jetta four-door sedan I was a little concerned. There were comments about "cheaper plastic" in the interior and the external design language seemed a little simplified. But before long, new Jettas started appearing everywhere I looked. As it turns out, the new car is a success.

I had the opportunity to pilot a Jetta GLI, which earns its three distinctive letters by featuring a 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged engine under the hood. It's good for a solid 200 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque. That's like the one in my wife's Audi A4--and it's plenty potent in a car this size.

This is one car you can still get with a manual transmission, in this case a six-speed. The DSG automatic shifts very quickly, but there's nothing quite like a manual--at least for me. 

The track-tuned independent suspension includes a multilink rear setup, re-tuned spring and damper settings and a 0.6-inch lower ride height. Volkswagen’s XDS® cross differential system, which debuted on the GTI, is standard on the Jetta GLI. It helps prevent inside wheelspin during hard cornering.

The GLI, as the performance Jetta since 1984, wears more aggressive clothes than standard models. It's decked out in a new honeycomb grille, flaunts a more pronounced front spoiler and gets vertical foglights like the ones on the GTI hatchback. Yes, those are red brake calipers tucked behind those wheels.

Inside, the car still feels like a VW. Of course, there's that unique logo at the center of the wheel, but the no-nonsense, angular dash surface, padded in this case, still seems like it should. The gauges tell you what you want to know with a minimum of fuss, a welcome feeling in this age when so many compact cars are giving you the shiny, cell phone look.

Side-bolstered sport bucket seats feature bright-red stitching; there’s matching red stitching on the flat-bottom steering wheel; and aluminum pedals, shift knob, dash and door trim. 

The Autobahn model--the upper level one--offers an upgrade to 18-inch wheels and a Fender audio system. I was not as impressed by the sound as by the distinctive Fender logos on the windshield-pillar-mounted tweeters, but it may be that I insisted on playing oldies instead of new stuff from my iPod.

Prices start at $23,745 for the base GLI, but by the time you move up to the Autobahn model with the navigation system, you're looking at $26,695 (plus shipping).

It's big fun, and much less expensive than an Audi. And the feeling is still fine in this German-designed, Mexican-built product.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jazz Lives Today With Jenny Ferris and Friends

When my friend, Tony, offered an evening of live Jazz in Berkeley last night, I jumped at the chance. We were rewarded with two hours of the real deal, a good, inexpensive dinner, quality beer, and, in a way, a peek into the past.

Caffe Trieste sits at 2500 San Pablo Avenue, at Dwight, in Berkeley. It's in a quaint little business block. You enter at the corner and see the counter ahead of you, its wares displayed, and in the rest of the place, small tables with chairs. In the back, in a narrow space, were our musicians. It felt like it must have entering an Italian cafe in San Francisco's North Beach in the late 1950's. You could hear the alto sax and piano going when we arrived. Even the man next to me's horn rimmed glasses and beard evoked the time of beat poetry, plentiful Jazz, and bohemian living.

We grabbed a good table up near the musicians. Jenny Ferris, the featured vocalist, stood, and to her left was Rich Lesnik, a man with a rack of wind instruments at his disposal. He was superb on alto and soprano saxes, and the clarinet too. The flute sat until the final number, when he took it out for a spin. His many solos were finely modulated, soothing, and sometimes provided a little extra kick when he squeezed out a special high note or silky cascade of notes on the golden saxes.

Behind him, along the windows, sat Laura Klein. She was saddled with a very ungrand, but quite serviceable upright piano from which she pulled a great range of sounds. She comped behind soloists and singer when she wasn't providing a rousing solo of her own. She displayed a wide range of dynamics and could really build a phrase up to a satisfying conclusion. Laura also teaches the Alexander Technique.

Behind Laura, Ron Crotty held down the upright bass duties with ease. I later spoke with Ron, who told me he was 83 and had been playing bass for 65 years! You could tell. He had the right stuff. He also said he was Dave Brubeck's first bassist, and that's definitely a great thing to have in your CV. Ron provided a number of subtle, but always swinging solos.

Way in back of the narrow band space sat Tom Hassett, a popular local Jazz drummer, who played so subtly at times using his white brushes on seasoned skins, that you could hardly hear him. But you could always sense his presense, keeping the numbers moving. He pulled out the sticks sometimes in the more uptempo songs. Tom got a chance at a few solos and provided a nice tour of his modest drum kit. My companion Tony, a drummer himself, studied Tom's every move, and had a chance to talk shop with him after the show.

The group played two sets, featuring a range of Jazz classics, but especially fine selections from Johnny Mercer, including Come Rain or Shine, Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive and My Shining Hour. Jenny produced a CD, Day In Day Out, in 2005 that features 15 Mercer compositions. It was for sale at the show; click the link to learn more or order your own copy.

Jenny is the kind of singer you like right away and still enjoy after a set or two. She doesn't push too hard, and has a great range and a delightful subtlety of phrasing. She told me that she has performed for a long time, and she displays both the depth you acquire with experience and a smoothness that shows she hasn't abused her instrument.

All too soon, the two hours were over. My visit to 1958 ended, but the good feelings were only beginning. I'll enjoy exploring the CD now as well.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gates of Eden Band Celebrated July 1

Co-host with the most Frank Goulart*
A fine time was had by all at the 20th Annual Gates of Eden Reunion Party on Sunday July 1 in Hayward, California. The five bands were excellent, the food was copious and delicious, there was plenty of Bud in the cooler. It was hard to believe that Gates of Eden was 44 years old.

I wasn't there in 1968 when the band was formed, but some of those attending--and playing--were. I would have liked to play with them back then, I was a high school sophomore in Concord, 25 miles away. The spirit of the 1960s--and the love of playing music together--lives on.

I've been so lucky to be part of this group of enthusiasts over the last few years and this annual private party is a summer highlight.

Herd of Cats (photo courtesy Chuck Yolland)
There were five bands, all different, all worth hearing. First up was Herd of Cats, which delivered a fine sound of "Straight ahead Jazz with a touch of funk" (per their business card). It was the only group to feature an upright bass and a saxophone. The same gleaming set of drums kept rhythm behind the Cats and everyone else all day. Some fine solo work on the sax, guitar and keyboard, and a great way to get the afternoon moving.

Next, came the first official appearance of the Sycamore 129 Blues Band, the largest ensemble of the day. I think I counted nine of us. I'm the guy in the red shirt playing the bass and loving it. The band jams monthly at the Sycamore 129 Odd Fellows Lodge, hence the name. With an upcoming public performance on August 12, everyone wanted an outing in front of a sympathetic, receptive audience, and we got it. We have male and female singers, guitars, bass, keyboard, drums, harmonica and lots of smiles. Sorry there are no photos of our beautiful female singer, Geri.

Another part of Sycamore 129 Blues Band*
One part of Sycamore 129 Blues Band*
In the middle of the show came Roctapus. The four-man band pumped out solid rock--all but one song an original. The musical quality made them seem like songs you would have heard somewhere... "Was that a Dead song?" I asked myself. I was shadowing Frank, who had a nice fat bass sound coming from his two big cabinets, which contained four 10's and one 15, from the looks of it. Some flawless rhythm from guitar and drums and guitar solos that evoked Garcia and Santana, to these ears.

The great sounds kept happening with the Blues Bottle Band. I've heard these guys several other times and they are a very tight unit, honed from working in clubs and getting folks up to dance. These guys delivered on the three-part harmonies along with rockin' and groovin' to some well known winners. They did Motown, Doo wop, and later rock classics. All of the musicianship was impeccable and moving, and Dave Chimpky's solos were even more astounding than usual. It was heaven.

But wait, there's more. Last, but not at all least, the local favorites the Diehards came up and knocked everyone's ears for a loop with their sensational versions of beloved favorites. They can do the Beatles' Nowhere Man and then turn around and do a credible job of Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon. Much more than a living juke box, they put real spirit into the performance, playing most of the familiar riffs but making each piece their own. At the end, they led us all in a friendly and slightly ecstatic singalong of California Dreamin'.

What a fine day.

Blues Bottle Band*
 Big thanks to Frank and Julie for hosting this great event again! We got pretty good weather, too--nobody roasted this year. Thanks to everyone who came to hear the performers, too. It's always more fun when there's an audience.

*All photos, except for Herd of Cats, courtesy of Wendell Beaudrow.
The Diehards*

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Nissan Murano - First of the Upscale Crossovers Continues

The Nissan Murano is what every crossover claims to be--a nice car with the height and utility of an SUV. It gets in some of the "sport" part, too, thanks to a 260 horsepower V6.

I wasn't looking forward to my test of the Murano with breathless anticipation, but it turned out to be a very happy experience. Despite weighing two tons (!) the car feels light through the steering, and the suspension delivers a bit of road feel.

Nissan does a great job with its V6 engines--they are often recipients of industry awards. This one, through an "intelligent" continously-variable automatic, knew what to do when a freeway entrance ramp loomed ahead and didn't run out of juice during passing maneuvers.

I got 18.3 miles per gallon--the EPA's numbers are 18 City, 24 Highway (20 mpg average). EPA Green Vehicle numbers come in at 6 for Air Pollution and 4 for Greenhouse Gas--midpack.

The Murano still looks sleek and rounded, as did the original. This model, upgraded last model year, got an almost wacky horizontal grille and oddly proportioned headlamps.

The original Murano had a shockingly fluid appearance when it arrived, ushering in the burgeoning era of upscale non-trucklike tall people carriers now known as "crossovers."

You can order it in four levels: S, SV, SL and LE. Pick from front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. If you have to go on an occasional dirt road or head to the ski slopes in the winter, the latter would be your best choice. As it is, the Brilliant Silver SL I tested was front-wheel drive, and worked great for the highways and byways that constitute my urban life. Best to save the weight (139 lb.) and expense ($1,600) of all-wheel drive if you don't need all four wheels pushing the car.

The SL is the second highest model, so I had niceties like an eight-way power driver seat wrapped in leather and a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel. I got the rain-sensing wipers that know when to work and how fast. The power liftgate saved effort. The Bose nine-speaker audio system spoiled me for many of my other test cars. You can get used to this level of pampering.

Prices start at $30,365 for the S with front-wheel drive. My SL tester came to $39,225, including the optional Navigation package and shipping. No wonder it felt luxurious--it's a luxury car!