Thinking Outside The Frets

 "I think that people should take a step back and start to enjoy maybe the sound of an oboe, the sound of a cello, or a french horn... change their venue a little bit, and go listen to qualities of sound or textures, and then come back again and be very judgmental."

Noel Webb knows quite a bit about high-caliber sound. Once every few months in Studio City, quality music (and baked potato) enthusiasts get a taste of this knowledge through Webb's gift of song.

The Baked Potato was dimly lit and densely packed. Booths and tables lined the walls. People drank beers, chatted and grooved to the music. The Noel Webb band had a quality of sound worth marveling. They're a jazz band -- that's for sure -- but with elements of rock, blues R&B, and even hip-hop.

Joel Gaines on keyboard (and CD-plugging duty between sets), Brian Price on guitar, Alonzo Powell on drums, P. Bass Jones on bass and Eric McKain on percussion (he boasts a proud collection of about 40 different instruments) rounded out the incredibly rich sound. Front and center stood Noel Webb. Webb is tall and good-looking with an air of calm about him. He seemed right at home in his untucked, white button-down shirt cuffed at the sleeves, his hair combed back and a hint of a mustache. Seemingly an extra appendage, his electric violin sang with so much soul. He seemed to whisper to it, seduce it, tantalize it into playing. He was making love while making music, his eyes often closed, head tilted back, swaying in time with the music.

The incredible thing about the Baked Potato was the atmosphere. After the show, fans of all shapes, sizes, creeds and colors patted band members on the shoulders, bought them beers and thanked them for the magic they had made on stage.

Webb's home sits atop of a quiet cul-de-sac in the Woodland Hills. His neighborhood was not tainted by sounds of traffic, rather crickets, dogs barking and a baby crying could be heard in the distance. He answered front door, barefoot.

Webb spends a good deal of time in his garage-turned-studio, which was cozy with a couch, framed Beatles poster, stacks of cds, a large black and white photograph of his beautiful wife, Sharon, and a large window overlooking his street. Webb was born in New York, grew up in Boston, and went to Bowdin College in Maine.

Webb is confident in his band's ability, but not cocky. When asked to describe his band's sound he said, "It's definitely jazz, because jazz allows you to go where you want to go. We relate to each other all the time, constantly listening, watching each other and as the leader I have the joy of pointing to people constantly... direct[ing] them to go."

He proudly says of his band members, "They're incredible players...they're some of the best in the city." These relationships he has with his band member allow him to bring more than adroit musicianship, "It's my ego. That's what I'm playing up there, is me having a wonderful time expressing myself in conjunction with all the other players I'm playing with."

I asked him why he prefers to play electric violin. "Most violin players, or the ones that I learned from, are pattern players, so being taught classically like most violin players are, they're playing patterns," he mimicked a violin pattern with his voice. "I really like to play more personally."

"Is the violin your friend?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, boyish smile, stars in his eyes. I laughed.

"I play other instruments, but nothing [is] like the relationship I have with the violin. Because there's no frets, so it's not mechanical. It's very personal, how you make those notes ring out, sing. I've played the blues on acoustic violin, it's not what the instrument wants to do. I mean, I've been kicked out of orchestras because I've not been vibrating or playing certain ways...and they're wondering ‘What are you doing?' because you have to follow a pattern... In classical music, you're not really playing yourself. You're playing an obligation to Beethoven."

Webb tends to think outside the frets, marching to the beat of his own drum, so to speak.

"The next thing I want to do is bring some of the audience up -- though I can't do it at the Baked Potato -- onto the stage and give them percussion instruments and have everybody just play percussion, just beating away and grooving on something. Ah, that'd be great."

This idea was inspired by an exhilarating, unexpected experience that just so happens to be his favorite Noel Webb Band memory.

"It was my first concert in Winston-Salem, and I didn't know why I was being called because I lived here, and there was no one really excited about us here and I wasn't aware of any excitement anywhere else. So they flew me over there with the band, we had a sound check, and before the band went out I said, ‘Why don't you start playing ‘Anticipation' before I begin?' And they began playing the beat. I walk out onto the stage and the entire audience jumped out of their chairs screaming. I thought ‘This is insane.' I didn't have any idea that they knew who I was or why I was there, that they liked me that much, that they liked the band, ‘Did something happen I didn't see?' It shocked me, so that when I was playing my first few notes I muffed them up. I had a wireless violin so I went down in the audience and played like half of the concert right in the middle of the audience. I thought ‘This is so wonderful.'"

Since Webb has witnessed a couple decades of music, and has studied many more, I asked him to impart some wisdom onto us college students, many of us who define ourselves by the music we listen to.

"Really since rock started, music has become about images. So most of rock is about the images of a handsome guy, sex, power... it's cool. So music makes you feel a certain way because of the images of the music. So in rap, you're feeling really, like, bad, right? If it's got a nice beat to it, you're feeling like you're really also a good dancer."

Webb reminds us, however, that "We're never really part of music actually. So [these images] are part of narcissism. This is the me generation... so, how you feel. It's become more and more like that with your generation [Generation Y], with rap and hip-hop and I think that people should take a step back and start to enjoy maybe the sound of an oboe, the sound of a cello, or a french horn, those are three of the most wonderful instruments... When you listen to a screaming Van Halen guitar, the sound quality of it is kind of like 'What?' You're getting Van Halen, you're not getting the guitar. So I would suggest to [your fellow SMC students] to change their venue a little bit, and go listen to qualities of sound or textures and then come back again and be very judgmental. You may say 'That singer... I used to really like how he expressed himself, but now I wish his voice was better,' he laughed.

"I hope this article will lead your listeners to open up their minds about listening to some real good rock and roll or some real good jazz or just listening to different kinds of music."

Webb has also expanded his love for performance art to other venues. He's done plays, commercials, he was an actor on "General Hospital," and narrates biographies, notably A&E's "Nostradamus". He also owns a music library called Spider Cues, where he directs 70 composers in writing music that fit in trailers, films and television all over the world.

He also hosts a radio show called ExpandJazzMusic on blogtalkradio every Wednesday evening. On ExpandJazzMusic, he discusses the mainstreaming of jazz, and how jazz has been expanding into genres like rock, hip-hop and pop.

Adele and Sting are two of the many artists who have incorporated jazz into their music, and Webb is confident that soon jazz will "really blow up." When he's not entertaining he devotes his time to his wife and two daughters, and is always practicing the violin and keeping sharp.

The Baked Potato has pleased jazz and blues enthusiasts (and delicious baked ‘taters) enthusiasts since 1970.The Noel Webb Band will perform at the Baked Potato on April 24, 2010.

I asked Webb the most important question of the night: "What's your favorite baked potato at the Baked Potato?"

He laughs. "Chicken parmesan."


"Absolutely. I had one the other night... it's big, too much food."

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