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The What, Why and How of Beatjazz

I feel that I should take a moment to explain exactly WHAT Beatjazz and this controller, actually are and what they do.  It has been a little while since the last time I explained it and that was way before this controller had been constructed.  So this will be the definitive explanation of what and why Beatjazz is. Beatjazz is a term I coined around 1999 to describe the music I would make with my wind midi controller (jazz) and FL studio...or as it was called then, Fruityloops (Beats). I wanted to clarify that I was not doing acid jazz or RnB or instrumental Hip Hop or any of that.  It was a catchall term meant to give me a bit of creative room to breath; “Beats” and “jazz”.  Nice and simple. That was cool for a while.  In the early 2000’s I played with many DJ’s.  I still did studio stuff (some), but playing dance clubs became my focus for many years.  I enjoyed learning how one “rocks” a room the way a great DJ knew how to do.  I did a few one off events and lots of DJing/live playing solo sets at that time and it was really cool for a while but I became bored playing along to records and playing along to my ableton sets wasn’t that much more engaging for me.  I wasn’t satisfying that urge to create because; I feel, that I was too focused on playing what I felt people would dig. In 2007, my mom died.  A year before, she had confided that my lifestyle used to terrify her.  that I could/would just sling myself to the wind, but that once she saw that I had such a focus with music, she really loved that I had the courage and desire to do my own thing my own way. After she was gone, I took a bit of time to think about what I was doing with my life and my music.  Why do I play? Who do I play for? Do I enjoy my life? Could I live like this for another 20 years? The answer the first question is to commune with the imaginary, from which so much springs.  As for who I play for, that’s easy...me. I can play in an empty room for hours...days. This is the closest thing I have to a religion and I take it very seriously.  And although I enjoyed my life at that time, I felt like I needed something to work toward for the next 20 years besides simply trying to “entertain” people.  Something that engaged everything I had learned.  Something boredom proof.  It was at this time that I decided to blend live looping with software synths to redefine Beatjazz as a totally live form. Late in 2007, Beatjazz became live looping, sound design and jazz improvisation.  Live looping made it easy to accompany myself and its repeating nature would not sound out of place in the clubs I love to play at. The sound design was simply for the sounds to sound good together.  And jazz improv gave me something to work on; a never ending trajectory of sonic concepts. The way it works is that I quickly jump from instrument to instrument sound to create a base groove, elaborate musically over this for a while, then deconstruct it and reconstruct it.  I do this jumping by assigning a sound to what is known as a “program change” which is a midi command that tells the music system to change presets.  I use them to jump around from sound to sound.  When I used to use my wind midi controller for this, it was functional but I had to press multiple buttons and keys to change sounds.  So when I first thought of a dedicated controller for this type of style/music, I knew then that I wanted one “element” per finger.  I had at least a dozen ideas of different ways to make this happen.  it wasn’t until I began working on the”tron” Beatjazz controller, that I discovered FSR’s (force sensing resistors) which can measure finger pressure.  I immediately assigned the upper-limit to program changes and the lower limit as “keys” for playing live, so now, I only have to press a particular key slightly harder than normal and I can go to that instrument category (drums, bass, keys, leads, pads, etc), which also has a color associated with it so that the audience can decipher which part I am actually playing (still working on that part). Each hand also has an accelerometer.  this measures acceleration in one of 3 directions; forward/back, side to side, and up/down.  i use the right hand for effects and the left hand for instrument parameters like volume and pitch functions.  in combination with the joysticks (2 per hand) i can latch various effects combinations and instrument parameters simultaneously. The controller has been an obsession for me, mentally, for years. So much so, that I knew that I had to either create it this year, or stop thinking about it all together. I wondered why wind midi controllers looked like “horns” when they are not horns. There was no reason that the sensors that made up the keying mechanism of most commercially available wind midi controllers needed to be in the configuration of an acoustic instrument.  With hand-freedom come other modes of expression, namely dance. Why? Why not?  If I can abstract multiple musically relevant parameters simultaneously while creating a visual narrative, why would I NOT do it? So I did a crowdfunding campaign and built this system.  IT’S NOT FINISHED! Not even close.  Its only 3months old.  In fact, I just figured out proper finger placement a couple of days ago.  And once the design is locked, we are transferring it to custom molded carbon fiber shells. Why? WHY NOT? Also, the mouth piece design is only about 60% “there” and the hand units function well but there is still much soft and hardware work to do.  I am just thrilled it is this playable at this stage. it is literally like playing a dream.  imagine waking up tomorrow with something from your dream is sitting next to your bed.  that's, like, everyday now! The first time i played a nightclub with the system, last month, it was the most incredible feeling of my adult life! i immediately, went straight out onto the dancefloor, rather than near the DJ booth or stage, and did the entirety of my performance from there.  there was a palpable sensation of "breathing beats".  in a dark club...in performance, there are no "hand units" or pure data or wireless config...there is only sound and people and lights and motion...everything else is before and after,not during.  In this moment, the combination of hand freedom, lights, sound and lots of practice, make ones body make dance like gestures almost as an afterthough.  as if you are partying like everyone else, except you just happen to be making the music as well. What the system is not.  I am not “triggering” loops. I am playing each part and “creating” loops.  NOTHING is pre-recorded.  there are no "music"samples (there are single note drum samples though) and no "clips" or sequences. There is the controller, myself and a database of software synthesizers...that’s it!  It’s not DJing either, unless you consider that the records are in my head. If that is the case, then yes, it is DJing. But there are no Mp3s or tracks of any sort. The other thing that the system is not is easy to play.   It has taken a long time to get to this level and it will take years to get to a level I feel will be exemplary of what is possible.  That’s the point; something to dedicate one’s life to.  Something that can be and sound like anything.  That’s the goal at least. Like I stated before; the system is only 3 months old! I am still designing.  Once it’s stable, it will be an open source project as well as being printed in the Oct edition of MAKE Magazine.  Why? Because were it not for open tools like pure data and arduino, this project would not have happened.  I hope that someone can either do something with it that I can’t do or become inspired to do their own thing. That will be the focus of upcoming Beatjazz workshops.  To expand Beatjazz beyond just me and my ideas. I hope these answers the questions you may have about Beatjazz.  If it doesn’t, feel free to ask me.  If you think that Beatjazz sucks in some way, please feel free to demonstrate your alternative so that I might learn something that will help me to become a better artist.  And of course, if you’d like to see it up close, you are more than welcome to come to a show or even hire me 🙂
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