music: a chorus of Blackbirds

Did Paul McCartney know he wrote the greatest jazz standard since the golden age of the American songbook? The supremely confident moving bass line, the single note “Blackbird singing in the”, the early “dead of” leap in the melody, the hypnotic up-and-down melody “take these broken wings and”, later the musical explosion “into the light of a dark black night” until the upward chords pull you back into the song… it’s a toolkit of parts that begs for a jazz interpretation. Several artists whom I like recorded it recently.

Hiromi’s is solid. She near-quotes “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” a few times, which is gold. I saw her live recently and it was thrilling to hear her slide into “Blackbird.” In this album recording she starts with a two-note birdsong, and the trills and slurs also suggest birds tweeting. People are awed by her Oscar Peterson-level technique, but it’s her long cadences of chord voicings that do it for me; there’s some all too-brief chord magic starting at 3:37.

Jon Batiste has a strangely expressive intro that moves all over until it hits the groove. He plays a chord for the pedal point and moves the chords around. Then he puts a blue note into “Black BERD fly.” He makes it his own.

Brad Mehldau made a fine “Art of the Trio” recording of “Blackbird” (his trio has several other monster interpretations of modern pop songs), but his solo version is sensational. He slows it down and makes the pedal point inevitable, then moves the trilling melody all over the piano’s upper octaves… like a bird singing. It’s a masterpiece of a masterpiece.

Special bonus: disco lite Blackbird

I would love to ask Paul McCartney what he makes of all the jazz takes on “Blackbird,” while surreptitiously playing Sarah Vaughan’s version in the background. It’s nuts! Sawing wood provides the rhythm to the acoustic guitar intro, then it takes a hard left and busts into a sub “Blackbird-fly way-ahh” funky disco syncopation, then the strings lead into a sub-Boz Scaggs “fly-ah-ah-ah” bridge with two jazz-funk electric guitar solos. David Paich co-wrote “Lowdown”, and he and his dad Marty Paich produced this Sarah Vaughan Beatles album a year later in 1977.

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software: making it safer to run random programs

I was dubious about Google’s new Fuchsia operating system, but it has some very interesting ideas, including capability-based execution. Programs that can do nothing until you grant them capabilities are so much better – I hate downloading some Windows .EXE game editor or utility that could literally do anything to my computer. But similar functionality is coming to existing operating systems:

  • Sandboxing of random binaries is getting easier, though still way too fiddly..
  • More programs are being written or recompiled to run in a browser, where I’m confident they can’t read and write random files.
  • Flatpak‘s sandboxing of portable Linux application binaries by default is good, and the innovation of programs invoking user-controlled portals implemented by the toolkit that provide well-defined functionality to open or save documents, print, turn on the camera, etc. is great.
  • The WASI WebAssembly System Interface defines a runtime with capability-based security for portable WebAssembly programs. “Write Once Run Anywhere” lives again 😉!

Or write a new operating system

If you’re looking for O.S. innovation besides Fuchsia, Redox OS is a very interesting micro-kernel O.S. written in Rust based around I/O access where every path is a URL in a scheme (e.g. pipe:, initfs:, etc. schemes in its kernel and disk:, file:, ip:, etc. schemes running in userspace). And now there’s Theseus OS also written in Rust, which trusts the security guarantees of Rust code to “execute everything in a single address space and at a single privilege level” 😮. The former is close to being able to run emulators and the latter can now run Wasm/WASI programs, which helps with the problem of few programs that can run on a new O.S. And there’s progress in writing safer Rust stdlib implementations that use capabilities and/or can’t open random files (everything is an openat2() that can only opens files under file descriptors that the environment provides).

There’s lots of good interesting stuff happening at multiple levels. Disclaimer: I only have a weak understanding of all of this.

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music: so much great instrumental guitar

All the tired old people complaining about “the music today” just aren’t trying. With nearly all recorded music a click away, today’s musicians are building on the best in every genre.

My journey through modern instrumental guitar from Vulfpeck to Cory Wong to Yvette Young to Dirty Loops (trick! no guitarist) to the almighty Allan Holdsworth (RIP 2017) to Ichika Nito back to still godly Guthrie Govan has ended at Polyphia, a bunch of snotty math-rock-meets-trap-pop kids from Plano Texas.

Maybe the crunchiest guitar sound I’ve ever heard, is it Violet Crumble or Crunchie? Either way, it rots teeth.

Every video has comments pointing to bedroom YouTube guitarists with equally mad skills. It’s mostly impressive stuff worth a listen but once the video is over I find it hard to remember the titles of instrumentals. I miss the days when many hit pop songs had outrageously good guitar, piano, or sax solos.

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cars: electrics eat supercars

There was a lot of coverage of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. More noisy $1M+ supercars that don’t even pretend to be anything other than garage queens that the ultra-rich trailer to the race track for catered racing experiences; more “limited” edition special blahblah versions of Aston Martins, Ferraris, McLarens.

But the two most significant rides were both electric. The Lucid Air GT Performance was the quickest production car up the hill, and almost out of nowhere the McMurtry Spéirling whizzed up the course in an outright record time. The Tesla Model S Plaid has set a floor for electric performance of 1,000 horsepower and ~2 second 0-60 for $140,000 from a comfortable 5-passenger sedan; it’s now joined by this Lucid Air variant. The Rimac Nevara (2,000 horspower) and now the McMurtry Spéirling have shown how to rise above that floor. As I wrote, gassers are left milking the rich who have empty spaces in their 30-car garage to fill. Petrol cars will be a diminishing exercise in nostalgia from here on out, and for that the almighty McLaren F1 and a few older cars are the apex, not today’s endless Assetto Fiorano Cup STO Black track Speciale whatever series of “only” 499 cars that make richer people feel special because they spent $450,000 on a sports car, instead of a pedestrian $300,000.

A comfy sedan quicker than all the new sports cars
An insane electric fan car quicker than anything else on wheels
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eco: the latest on gravity energy storage

A year ago I wrote “eco: energy storage is hard, gravity storage as a game”, using physics and a units calculator to show how hard it is to profitably store energy using gravity. Gravity storage isn’t a scam, but nothing besides pumped hydro at suitable sites where Mother Nature provides the vertical drop, the upper and lower storage areas, and millions of tons of working mass is likely to ever be financially viable. Time for an update.

Energy Vault switches from Jenga tower to fuzzy building

After building a prototype of its punishingly expensive high-maintenance crane exposed to the elements that has to precisely build and dismantle towers of blocks for decades, it looks like reality has whupped Energy Vault upside the head and made it shift gears. It’s given up on the open-air Jenga tower; I wonder if its triple-crane quarter-scale prototype is still standing in Switzerland. It’s now promoting an enormous EVx building 100 meters tall and 300 meters on a side to store 1 GWh of energy.

EnergyVault rendering of its enormous EVx buidling, which doesn't show what's going on inside
this building does not exist, but looks expensive

But physics hasn’t changed. Using our trusty units calculator again, each 35 tonne block hanging from the ceiling has this much potential energy:

Convert: 35 tonnes * gravity * 100 meters
To: kWh
⟶ 9.5342431 kWh

So to store 1 GWh of energy, it will have to hang 100,000 blocks from the ceiling, 3,500,000 tonnes. Elon Musk’s SpaceX can quickly build a “mega bay” for rocket assembly that’s 81 meters tall and 30 by 25 meters, but its bridge crane only has to lift up empty boosters weighing about 200 tons; hanging 3.5M tonnes from the ceiling (how?) seems a lot harder. If this building is going to be able to quickly “charge” and “discharge,” it’s going to need many cranes: a single block raising or lowering in 20 seconds requires or delivers 1.7 MW of power. It looks like there are 16 piles of… something… inside the big building, so lowering a pair of blocks at a time from each delivers 50 MW. If the building slowly stores and releases energy it doesn’t need so many cranes, but then it will make less money each year.

My first guess: a hanging forest

Energy Vault’s outdoor crane had the problem of each block gaining and releasing less potential energy as it dismantles the Jenga tower. I thought it would be really challenging to store multiple layers of blocks, so I thought they would store them all at one level. 100,000 blocks is 316 on a side, so each block has to be less than 1 meter square for all of them to fit in a 300×300 meter roof. Rock and concrete both weigh around 2.4 tonnes per cubic meter, so if each block is 0.9 meters on a side, each would have to be

Convert: 35 t / (0.9 m * 0.9 m * 2.4 t / (m^3))
To: m
⟶ 18.004115 m

60-foot tall thin concrete needles might hang OK, but how would you keep them upright when lowered?

Energy Vault’s fantasy: automated Amazon warehouse meets Willy Wonka’s elevator

Since I wrote that, Energy Vault has released a new video with CGI of the building. The video shows CGI of pairs of mystical glowing 30-ton blue blocks lifted up and down relatively small heights in its EVx building by a double-height elevator, then somehow each block magically rolls out on dedicated wheels to wait high up in the world’s most uniform warehouse.

screenshot from Energy Vault's video of its EVx energy storage building, showing CGI of blocks moving out of the elevator
two mystical 30-ton glowing energy blocks rolling out of the warehouse elevator

That reduces cracking and chipping, but now every 30-ton block of “local materials” has an undercarriage. Roughly costing this stuff is a fun exercise; Henan and Perfect make warehouse rail transfer carts and platform trucks that can support 30 tons for unknown prices. But just a basic 2 1/2-ton rolling cart costs $1,000, so it’s not going to be cheap. Amazon can afford to optimize materials handling in an automated warehouse when each pallet holds $thousands of valuable goods, but scaling up the same technology to 120,000 30-ton carts each storing a dollar of electricity is… dubious. It’s like Energy Vault saw the elevator in the Willy Wonka remake, confused it with some warehouse automation videos, and thought “We can do that with gravitational potential energy and get rich while having fund building stuff.” Are investors like Bill Gross of Idealab, Palantir, and infamous Softbank really so clueless about the basic physics of mass * gravity * height to fall for this?

Ares builds the world most boring roller coaster

No more gravity choo-choo train…

ARES (Advanced Rail Energy Storage) planned to roll train cars full of heavy crap up and down an abandoned railway in Nevada “with operations beginning in early 2019”. It would only deliver 50 MW and store 12.5 MWh, far smaller than most commercial battery storage system already up and running. “They move up and down an 8-degree slope with an elevation change of about 3,000 feet”, which means this much stuff has to be hauled up and down:

Convert: 12.5 MWh / (3000 feet * gravity )
To: tonnes
⟶ 5018.2884 tonnes

And it also means the track is this long:

3000 feet / sin (8 degrees) = 6.5702352 kilometers

Choo-chooing 5,000 tonnes of crap up a 7 km railway line is plausible, but presumably the high cost of electrifying the track and operating the trains doomed that project iteration. You can order a Tesla Megapack today for only $6.8M that delivers 6.5 MW and stores 12.8 MWh; slightly cheaper to deliver the same power and much cheaper to store the same energy.

… instead 350-ton mass cars!

So ARES now plans to drag a fleet of 210 “mass cars” each weighing 350 tonnes (!! 11 times heavier than Energy Vault’s latest glowing blocks) up and down the side of a working gravel pit, still in Nevada. ARES claims the same 15 MW/50MWh power and energy, but you can see the problem from its own (computer-generated) photos:

ARES computer rendering of mass cars going up and down the side of a gravel pit
that’s a lot of 350 tonne mass cars to drag up and down

The pit isn’t very deep, so ARES needs hundreds of these crazy heavy cars to store the energy, and has to run 10 tracks each lowering 4 cars at once to deliver the power. But because the plant is much more compact it doesn’t have the cost of electrifying miles of railway line.

The custom-built mass cars on custom double-width rails will be hauled up the hill by dual chain drives, just like a roller coaster. But the pair of chains required to deliver 5 MW of power to yank 1400 tonnes up a hill seems a daunting engineering task. I tried to find a chain drive that can deliver this and got lost in complicated chain specifications and “engineering handbooks for chain drives”; each chain will undoubtedly be extremely heavy and require supporting bearings just to hold it up along the length of the track.

Gravity Energy Tycoon Simulator, please!

As I said last time, someone should make a simulation game for these gravity storage systems that challenges you to actually make money.

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cars: salespeople that don’t sell cars you can’t get

2013 trip to dealer

Scene: in front of one Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid out of many that’s close to the spec I want.
Me: I’m thinking of ordering this hybrid in a different color. Can I just sit in it?
Salesperson: please, yes! Let’s go for a test drive. … We have a premium Touring in stock at a great price.
Me: that’s OK. I don’t want its sunroof or navigation. I’ll order what I want.
Salesperson: Are you sure? I can sell you that Touring for less than regular. Let’s make a deal! Come inside, have a cup of coffee while I put together a great offer.

2022 trip to dealer

2022 Hyundai Kona Electric in Cactus Green
2022 Hyundai Kona Electric in Unobtainium

Scene: in front of the only new Hyundai Kona Electric on the lot.
Me: waits
Salesperson: That car is pre-delivery, it’s already sold.
Me: Can I just sit in it?
Salesperson: No. You can look inside… alright, you can sit in it.
Me: Seems OK, can I order the Limited I want, Cactus Green with gray interior?
Salesperson: No. Very limited supply until 2023.
Me: How do I buy a car then?
Salesperson: (unwillingly) Here’s my card, you couuuuuld call me in a few weeks.

It was the same story at the Chevy dealer.
Me: I’m thinking of getting this Bolt EUV instead of a Kona Electric, can I order one in Ice Blue Metallic with —
Salesperson: (dismissive laughter)

It’s a different world. What recession? Truecar says people are paying on average $4,500 over list price for Kona Electrics. So what is the point of dealing with a salesperson at a car stealership when supply is limited? Hyundai and Chevrolet have online “Build a car” web sites where you can configure the exact car you want, only to tell you no nearby dealers have that car available. With Tesla you can actually put in an order (and you still won’t get the car until 2023).

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music: the Most Unwanted Song endures

From 1997 but still golden-ly unwanted

Way back in 1977 I read a brief article in Wired magazine about artists Komar & Melamid‘s project to make the most unwanted song (and most wanted song) based on a rigorous consumer preference survey. When I got to “an opera singer rapping cowboy lyrics over tuba and bagpipes” I literally reverse-snorted coffee all over the magazine and fell off my chair. I wasn’t ROTFLMAO, but I couldn’t finish reading it through the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard 🤣. I’ve spent hours trying to find it.

I ordered the CD from a museum gift shop; I later saw Komar & Melamid’s People’s Choice exhibition of the most wanted and most unwanted paintings (they commissioned that survey in a dozen countries, and the USA and China have similar preferences); I went to a pretty incoherent but entertaining art talk by them. They are damn good conceptual artists, and both audio and visual versions of Most Wanted/Unwanted should make you think about the nature and purpose of art. Now that computers can generate visual art and music, their ideas are more relevant than ever.

At the time I use a Macintosh at work, and ripped my CD so a co-worker could listen to it. At the time iTunes would by default share your music library across the local network. Strangers would come find me after finding “spage’s Music Library” on the network containing exactly two songs. “That’s all I need” was my gnomic reply.

Commenters saying “But I like this, it’s more interesting than the pablum from <insert pop tart du jour>” completely misunderstand the point. Komar & Melamid paid for a detailed survey of people’s preferences for song length, instruments, timbres, vocal style, subjects, song structure, tempo changes, etc. Then they, with composer Dave Soldier, made a song following the dictates of the most unwanted of all those consumer preferences: loooonnnng, tuba and accordion, extremely high and low pitches, opera singer and children’s chorus yelling, cowboys and national anthems, protest lyrics and commercial slogans, dead-pony slow then manic, etc. They did not try to make a unlikable or bad song! Besides, it’s easy to like the song for 6 minutes, but at 14 minutes when the opera singer and bratty children’s choir sing the U.S. national anthem, even the coolest of the cool start to sweat, and there’s still 7 more minutes to sit through. I’ve listened to it many times, but probably only thrice from start to finish.

Commenters also ask for an updated song, no doubt hoping it will skewer aspects of today’s music they find awful. But that’s also missing the point. Komar, Melamid, and Soldier would make a different song today because popular music is different today, not because people in the 2020s started digging opera singers and distorted protest monologues. A new survey could add new questions (How much autotune do you like? How far off the grid do you like your beats to drag?), but that’s weirdly specific.

“The Most Wanted Song” is fine. Again the cool music fans say they don’t like it, but you can hear how it’s assembled according to the most wanted of the same song characteristics. And Living Colour’s Vernon Reid plays the guitar solo!

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art: Franz Kline’s best work in years, done by AI

best image that the open-source AI DALL·E Mini generated from prompt "Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair by Franz Kline"
Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair by Franz Kline

“Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair” is the best thing Franz Kline has painted in 60 years! Love the coiled energy and the furry tail on the left.

This is the best of 9 images that the open-source AI DALL·E Mini generated in about 150 seconds when I prompted it with a friend’s suggestion “Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair by Franz Kline”. Franz Kline died in 1962, but this looks exactly like one of his better paintings. DALL·E Mini (now renamed Craiyon) is a cheap and rough reimplementation of OpenAI’s huge DALL-E; Mini has only been trained on about 30 million images, but that’s more than enough for it to learn the style of many great artists.

Interestingly, DALL·E Mini has trouble conceiving of a Mark Rothko painting of a cat, so it tends to just add one in front:

screenshot of images generated by the open-source AI DALL·E Mini generated from prompt "Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair by Rothko"
DALL·E Mini attempts at “Painting of a black cat with white markings sitting on a chair by Rothko”

How

If you train an AI on captioned images, it learns to create anything you can describe. OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 is phenomenal, the more detail you give it the more it produces. @JaredZimmerman prompted it with “lonely 1930s gas station situated by itself in the distance on a desert highway in late evening with no cars or customers and sharp shadows cast by the parking lot lights with intense contrasting underpainting in minimalist painting style with visible brush strokes,” and…. wow.

Or you can just prompt it with the name of a painer, and it will deliver. It’s been educational following the #dalle2 hashtag on Twitter to learn about French painter Florine Stettheimer, the Kalighat style of Indian painting, etc.

The objections are threadbare

Here are some of the “but it’s not art” objections that people have raised. Knocking these down is easier than falling off a log.

Art is more than photorealistic images. Definitely, but AIs generate near pixel-perfect renderings of crayon drawings, thick impasto, woodcuts, oil painting, even Boris Johnson made of play-doh. @JaredZimmerman has coaxed impressive images out of full-blown DALL-E 2, e.g. “Ukiyo-e print on heavily textured paper with strong black outlines and limited muted colors of dramatic california coastal cypress trees…” If you’re seeing art on a computer screen, you can’t tell whether you’re seeing a photo of the medium or the AI’s generated pixels resembling the medium.

Art is an expression of humanity. That definition is very species-centric and reductive, since birds construct artistic nests, there’s an elephant that makes art with paintbrushes, etc.; and even if one accepts it, it doesn’t explain why an AI that’s ingested hundreds of millions of images and captions can’t learn how humanity expresses itself in art better than any puny human?

Art must come from a full consciousness. Why? That’s close to begging the question (finally a correct use of the term!). Also, it seems there’s little connection between “full consciousness”, whatever that means, and artistic merit, considering all the mentally disabled people who make expressive art; and even if one accepts the connection, why isn’t the connection established by the person who writes the prompt “Dystopian oil painting of a cyborg repairing her firmware while hiding in a back alley in Kowloon Walled City in a rainy evening”? (resulting in one of the best DALL-E 2 images I’ve seen so far)

The artist decides what they want to say and how they want to say it, the image generator is just a tool. Fine, but now the artist is any human being, which is quite a change from what “artist” has meant for a thousand of years! My response to anyone who reacts to modern art with “I could have done that” is always Go ahead, do it! The world needs more art! Now we’re faced with limitless abundance of artistic images.

Art is something made by human hands. A digital image is great, but it’s not the same as seeing Van Gogh’s sublime thick brushstrokes up close in 3D. Folks, go to the graduate shows of your local art college and support human artists! Artists have explored and narrowed the boundary between human mark-making and mechanical production for over a century, e.g. Andy Warhol’s screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, or Robert Ryman’s reductive white paintings in which you focus on how the white surface is mounted to the art gallery’s white wall (I used to love his work, now I find it vaguely irritating), etc. However, this definition of art as “something that isn’t presented on a screen” is news to all the artists who have worked in video and computer images for 50 years.

An artist doesn’t give you what you want. He/she/they creates something that induces a feeling in you that you previously didn’t have. The main job of art is to make people think and contemplate. Nice definition, but I asked DALL·E Mini for “Painting of a black puppy by Salvador Dali” and in 150 seconds I had 9 images of evocative surrealist paintings. The best one made my friends think and contemplate, and it told a story based on my prompt. Of course it is real art!

screenshot of images generated by the open-source AI DALL·E Mini generated from prompt "A painting of a black puppy by Salvador Dali"
DALL·E Mini attempts at “A painting of a black puppy by Salvador Dali”

Folks who maintain this stuff isn’t Art have to redefine “Art” to escape the uncomfortable truth that we now have incontrovertible proof that if you train a large AI model on enough images and captions, it learns how to produce genuine art that people like; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and the AIs have nailed it.

We live in interesting times!

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software: where’s my ARchitect identifier?

One of the oft-touted promises of Google Glass and other Augmented Reality headsets is you’ll look at something and the headset will indicate or say what it is.

Meanwhile in the real world, a friend posts great cityscape photographs and I always wonder what the handsome skyscrapers are. Google sucks at identifying the buildings in the shot!

photo of the tops of New York skyscrapers seen through vegetation
A hill with a view ©2022 James Forrester

But I knew one of the buildings is the iconic Art Deco spire of the Chrysler building, which gives me the rough location. Surely 13 years after Google Earth started mapping 3D buildings all over the world, there’s an easy way to fly around the area on a computer looking for nearby skyscrapers! I searched for how to turn on 3D view in Google Maps (on desktop, click Layers > more > globe). As always, moving around in 3D using a keyboard and mouse is an exercise in frustration, but I eventually dragged the cursor to about the right location, still much too high off the ground. Here’s a link, although it doesn’t actually load up 3D view. The buildings look like this in Google Maps’ 3D view:

New York skyscrapers rendered by Google Maps' globe (3D) view
more or mostly less the same viewpoint in Google Maps’ globe (3D) mode

It looks terrible, but it’s good enough that I can make out the buildings from the photo. So now surely all I have to do is just click on each one? Nope, every time I click Google Maps drops its marker on some random business behind the building. It doesn’t seem to know that the pixel I’m clicking on is part of a tall building, even though it rendered the building seconds earlier.

After bouncing between 3D view and regular Google Maps satellite view and searching for “Xyz building architect”, I’m fairly confident that neither bronze monolith is the immortal Seagram building by Mies van der Rohe. I think the buildings are Trump World Tower 🤮 (Costas Kondylis), Chrysler building (William Van Allen), 100 United Nations Plaza (Der Scutt), One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza (Emery Roth), and behind that One Vanderbilt (Kohn Pederson Fox).

That was way too hard. The obvious solution is to wear an AR headset 👓 and squeeze your earlobe👂 to take an annotated picture 📸.

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music: tracing samples and beats

I knew the Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique is the apotheosis of sampling; now https://www.whosampled.com/Beastie-Boys/B-Boy-Bouillabaisse/samples/ lays out all 26 samples. You can also explore J Dilla’s dense samples on the site. It still feels strange to me that artists hear a sound they like and just put it in their record, instead of the Beatles learning the Bo Diddley beat; but hey if Lil Nas X can make $14M off YoungKio’s $30 beat built from an experimental Nine Inch Nails track and everyone gets credited (a good writeup), more power to them.

You can buy someone’s “Bill Evans Jazz beat” off Beatstars for only $29.95! It’s not terrible.

I would love a more general “What are the origins of this sound or lick?” musicology site. Song elements sound familiar but rarely can I put my finger on the source.

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