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Spotlights [Issue # 24 ]
Leon Gruenbaum:

By Dean Truitt

Keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Leon Gruenbaum has been keeping busy over the past few years. Gruenbaum performs and records with Vernon Reid & Masque, as well as James Blood Ulmer.

In addition to his work as a sideman, he participates in Anxiety X (featuring several New York artists including legendary graffiti artist Lonnie Heller). In his new band, Genes and Machines, Gruenbaum sings, writes songs, and “samchillianizes.” The Samchillian (short for “The Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee”) is an unusual instrument, to say the least. As inventor describes, the device is, “a keyboard MIDI controller that’s based on relativity. The key presses are not fixed pitches as they are on a normal keyboard; but rather, changes the pitch.” While it may sound like theoretical nonsense in explanation, The Samchillian itself (at least in the hands of its creator) sounds amazing! You can check out The Samchillian at (you guessed it) samchillian.com. After watching his demonstration on the website, anyone who enjoys outrageous sonic experimentation will want one. ONE WAY caught up with Leon Gruenbaum to pick his brain on the cutting edge of sound in his world.

DT: How do you embrace technology to express yourself artistically?

LG: In my experience, I’ve found that at the core of it, you want to be creative as a musician. You don’t want to let the technology dictate to you what to do. There are times when you should take advantage of the kind of errors that the technology allows. I think with so much music that we hear now, the smarter people in the studio will hear something that wasn’t what they went in intending to do. If you’re recording, I think it’s good to have somebody else running the equipment if you can afford it because you can sit back and, while they’re trying to get the sound you’re looking for, maybe they’ll hit on a patch that wasn’t what you were looking for, but is actually a better, more creative choice. Sometimes you get so caught up with the goal you were trying to achieve that you don’t realize there’s a better solution there. This is a time when you can do everything yourself, but there are times when it really helps to have somebody else taking care of the technical things because it frees you up to see a higher level.

DT: What equipment are you using these days?

LG: I play this special MIDI keyboard that I invented that’s called the Samchillian. About a decade ago I had this idea for a special MIDI keyboard where every key that you pressed on it would be a pitch, like you have an F#, G#, or whatever. But each note [key] would stand for a change in pitch. So, for example, if you wanted to be in the F# pentatonic scale, you’d select the key and the scale. Then, every key that you press, like the letter “D” on the keyboard for example is a +1 key [in terms of moving the pitch up one step]. So, I might press the letter “D” and then you’d hear it going up the scale [sings ascending pentatonic scale]. You’re playing the same key, but you’re getting different pitches. There’s another key that’s -2 and they’re all different intervals. I’m actually using a computer keyboard that straps around my waist. You can see it [a demonstration] on the website [samchillian.com]. I have a Mac Powerbook G4 laptop and I run Reason and Live. I was making a big decision on how to scale down my equipment and I went with Reason because it has a good track record and a good basic library of sounds I would need with Vernon: organs, pianos, electric pianos, and they also have a really cool distortion plug-in that comes with it, basic delays, reverbs. I also have the option that I run Live along with that. I’m not using it as much as I should at the moment, but they had a one-shot sampler single note, but I needed a multi-tone sampler.

Leon Gruenbaum

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