Monday, May 6, 2013
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Arts Midwest Jazzletter Fall 1991 (Vol. 9, #4),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.
Never mind what you may have heard about Adolphe Sax — it was Coleman Hawkins who invented the tenor saxophone. Sax invented a strange hybrid between brass and reed instruments which became very popular in military bands, due to its sound and power. The instrument that Hawk invented became arguably the definitive horn for jazz expression — as Ornette Coleman put it, “the best statements Negroes have made of what their soul is have been on tenor saxophone.” Coleman Hawkins was the daddy of it all, the first to play meaningful jazz on the tenor.
John Chilton’s new critical biography, The Song of the Hawk: The Life & Recordings of Coleman Hawkins, is a thorough, knowledgeable, and worthy discussion of the Hawk’s music. Hawkins fathered the warm, full-bodied, rhythmic approach that became the first standard for anyone striving to learn the tenor sax, and any genealogy of the horn leads inescapably back to him — you can’t name a tenor player who wasn’t somehow influenced by the Hawk. Chilton chronicles the Hawk’s development: his early days in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he studied piano and cello; his first work with Mamie Smith and Fletcher Henderson; his life as an expatriate living in Europe; his masterpiece performance of “Body & Soul,” which solidified his reputation; and on through many triumphs, some failures, and eventual decline.
Chilton’s comprehensive knowledge of Hawkins’s approach, along with his thorough research into the stories behind Hawk's various recordings, help to provide a context for the Hawk’s work that made me hear new things in some old favorite albums. Chilton is no fawning biographer, either — he sets very high standards for performances (which is appropriate when dealing with a monumental figure like Hawkins), and often, in his criticisms, he doesn’t cut Hawk much slack.
Hawkins was a strange man, a glamorous, sophisticated individual who was somehow at the same time a miserly loner. Interestingly, considering his extroverted approach to the horn, Hawkins revealed little of his thoughts even to his friends. Chilton struggles against these difficulties to provide a sense of Hawkins the man. He’s not entirely successful in this regard, but to be fair I don’t know how any biographer could unravel the personality of a man who could be a mystery even to those who knew him well.
A larger shortcoming in an otherwise excellent book is the lack of a discography, which can make it difficult for the interested reader / jazz fan to track down the recordings discussed. Discographies invaluably aid in understanding an artist’s chronological development, and in tracking the various individuals an artist has performed with. In a book like this one, a discography is a must. In spite of that omission, however, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a more complete understanding of one of the jazz titans.
The Song of the Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (The Michigan American Music Series)
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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Friday, December 7, 2012
I love this track. In August I attended Dave Liebman’s saxophone master class at NYU in New York. At the end of the week Liebman had arranged for the students to join him in an outdoor performance in Washington Square Park.
Liebman asked us to submit compositions to be played at the concert, and then sat at the piano — he’s a fine pianist and drummer, as he proved at the gig! — and zipped through the tunes to determine which would make the cut.
This clip is his quick sight-read of my tune Green Eyes. His ringing endorsement: “Possible. Not sure. Next.”
I did end up playing Green Eyes in the park, with Dave’s rhythm section: Phil Markowitz, Tony Marino, and Mike Stephans. An honor. I was terrified.
Here’s a slightly-less-impromptu performance of the tune, in a piano trio version from my CD House of Relics, with pianist Michael McNeill, bassist Danny Ziemann, and drummer Russ Algera.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Saturday, October 20, 2012
I first encountered the term “harmolodic” in the liner notes to Ornette Coleman’s Dancing In Your Head LP. The record was one of those gorgeous Horizon gatefold releases that even smelled good — that “new record smell” has so far resisted digital reproduction and is not yet available on iTunes. The striking front and back covers featured a stylized African mask that was also a sort of optical illusion: flip the cover upside down and you had another mask. Depending on the mood of the person stocking the bin at the record store, you might encounter the new Ornette album sporting a mischievous smiling jester, or the exact same album showing a pensive, robed wise man with a full beard.
The music was thrilling and baffling, and unlike any other Ornette record I’d ever heard: a taunting, singsong melody is repeated a shocking number of times over a twangy electric rhythm section that appeared to have gone insane.
That was the A-side. Flip the record over and ... it was wasn’t just deja vu — it was more like deja what the fuck: the same maddening thing, the same melody, the same guitars, everything the same and somehow different, happens all over again! The topsy-turvy same-slash-different album cover was the perfect metaphor for the music on the record.
Turning to the liner notes for context and understanding, I found Ornette’s explanation: the music on the record
was written and arranged by means of a musical concept I call harmolodic. This means the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.
Over the years, I’ve seen that I’m not the only person beguiled a bit by the term (which nowadays usually sports a terminating s as a noun: “harmolodics”; and no s as an adjective: “the harmolodic concept”) — musicians and jazz scholars have grappled with the word and the theory, trying and failing to pin down its exact meaning and implications.
I think Jackson is right: in fact, the more precise the definition, the less persuasive it is! In a 2003 Guitar Player interview, Ulmer seems about to reveal a tantalizingly concrete description of the concept, when he’s asked to explain what is a “harmolodic chord”:
A harmolodic chord is a chord that cannot be inverted. Out of all the chords, there are only five that cannot be inverted, from which you can get major, minor, augmented, and diminished sounds.
Wow! We’re on the cusp of getting the keys to the kingdom! The interviewer asks the only possible follow-up question: “Which five are those?”
Ulmer’s response snatches the pebble out of our hand:
I don’t want to get into it because it would take all day to discuss those five chords.
The Grove Dictionary of Music tries to set forth the known knowns:
[I]t apparently involves the simultaneous sounding, in different tonalities and at different pitches [...] but in otherwise unchanged form, of a single melodic or thematic line; the procedure produces a type of simple heterophony. [...] More generally the harmolodic theory espouses principles already well established in free jazz, namely equality among instruments (rather than the traditional separation between soloist and accompaniment) in harmonically free collective improvisation. According to Ronald Shannon Jackson, a member of Prime Time, the term derives from a conflation of the words “harmony,” “movement,” and “melody”; Jackson has also stated that, in his opinion, the term has no precise musical meaning.
Ornette’s key collaborator Don Cherry, in the liner notes to Atlantic’s boxed set of OC’s recordings, offers an explanation vague enough to seem plausible; he calls the harmolodic concept
one of the profound systems today for both Western and Eastern music. [...] When we would play a composition, we could improvise forms, or modulate or make cadences or interludes, but all listening to each other to see which way it was going so we could blow that way. Ornette’s harmony would end up being a melody and the original melody would end up being a harmony. So he could continue on that way to write for a whole orchestra, starting from the first melody which ends up being harmony to the harmonic melodies that come after the main theme.
However, in a Downbeat interview excerpted in John Litweiler’s Ornette bio, Cherry provides a definition that for me feels both precise and yet somehow also makes perfect sense (!):
If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that’s what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.
This suggests an approach where the logic of a melodic line dictates the group interactions to that line. Bernie Nix, who played with OC for more than a decade and is one of the guitarists on Dancing In Your Head, nods in this direction in an interview on All About Jazz: “The harmony doesn’t dictate the direction, the melody does.”
That might be enough of a definition for me. As for whether that really gets at what Ornette has in mind when he invokes the term, I’m thinking: not even close! Sound engineer Oz Fritz recalls meeting with Ornette, and says “Ornette mentioned that he'd never had an album of his recorded to his standard of Harmolodics.” What he says next astonishes: “Ornette mentioned that he’d never even heard a harmolodics recording except for one rehearsal recording by Frank Sinatra which no longer existed.”
Was Ornette pulling his leg? Fritz didn’t seem to think so.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Summer 1994 (Vol. 1, #2),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.
The year 1959 was one of change and breakthrough in jazz. The deaths of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Sidney Bechet, key artists of the music’s earlier periods, intensified the pervasive sense that a new era was beginning. In New York, then as now the center of the jazz universe, major developments would set the musical agendas of jazz practitioners for decades to come. Charles Mingus recorded two masterworks, Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um, both revealing a novel way for large ensembles to perform complex music without the aid of written-out parts; John Coltrane, with Giant Steps, took vertical, change-running improvisation, an approach traceable all the way back to the first important jazz saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins, to its outer limits and logical conclusion; Miles Davis meanwhile, in the nick of time, nudged Trane toward a new pursuit with Kind of Blue, the modal jazz shot heard ’round the world and perhaps the best-known jazz recording of all time.
These developments alone would grant 1959 the status of an important, ground-breaking year in jazz. However, one event, a portent really, crowded out all others of that crowded year, insuring that the future of jazz really could be read in the tea leaves of 1959. In November, an outfit led by a weird Texas misfit made its New York debut at the Five Spot Cafe, consummating a year when the seeds of much of jazz’s future were planted. The Ornette Coleman Quartet started a two week engagement (it was later extended to two and a half months), and the music was never the same again.
Coleman and his bandmates treated the harmonic aspect of jazz improvisation in a new way, disavowing the standard practice of running a tune’s changes and following conventional song forms, in favor of a new approach where unfettered melodic inventiveness was the guiding force. As Coleman put it to writer Martin Williams: “If I’m going to follow a preset chord sequence, I may as well write out my solo.” In finding a way to chart this unfamiliar territory, Coleman took his place among jazz’s most important innovators, alongside such stellar “establishment” figures as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.
Coleman, however, was not immediately given the key to the city. Thanks to the formidable press hype preceding his New York arrival, the jazz community there was quickly induced to take sides. Much of the criticism was downright personal, like Miles Davis’s reaction: “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside.” Years later, Ornette told record producer/writer John Snyder that one night during the Five Spot gig, Max Roach punched him in the mouth, then showed up at 4 o’clock the next morning in front of his apartment building, hollering “I know you’re up there, motherfucker! Come down here and I’ll kick your ass!”
Not that rejection was a new experience for Ornette Coleman. The first chapters of John Litweiler’s new biography, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, read nearly like a catalog of abuse: Ornette as a teenager in Fort Worth, being held up by his church bandleader as an example of how not to play (“he’ll never be a saxophone player”); Ornette being fired on the spot from various gigs for solo breaks that stopped dancers in their tracks — not with admiration, but with anger and alarm; Ornette, touring with a blues band, meeting local musicians who take him outside, beat him bloody and unconscious, and trash his horn; Ornette, sitting in with Dexter Gordon’s rhythm section in L.A., being ordered by Dex to scram.
Litweiler faced no easy task in pinning down the real story of this enigmatic trailblazer. Take Ornette’s early years: he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, according to most references, or 1931, according to his sister Truvenza, in a strict family environment that was either getting by (Truvenza: “we didn’t have a whole lot of money — we didn’t have money to throw away or something like that, but I don’t remember going without anything”) or downright deprived (Ornette: “I didn’t come from a poor family, I came from a po’ family. Poorer than poor.”).
Contradictory and/or off-kilter recollections of this sort permeate Coleman’s life story, and could easily stymie a would-be biographer. Litweiler, unfazed, lets his sources tell it their way — the “truth,” as best as can be discerned, emerges from the divergent accounts. And if it occasionally seems that Litweiler is swallowing some preposterous tales, it must be remembered that in some ways the very idea of Ornette Coleman becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians on the planet is in its own way, well, unlikely.
He certainly didn’t have a very promising start. Coleman, an autodidact, taught himself “wrong” (unfortunately for his self esteem, perhaps, but fortunately for the history of Western music): unaware while learning his notes that the saxophone is a transposing instrument, he came to understand his horn in a very unconventional way. (In fact, Litweiler recounts Gunther Schuller’s harrowing tale of Coleman’s studying with him in the early ’60s, to learn the “standard” approach to music. On the day it dawned on Coleman just how much his musical understanding differed from the norm, he became violently ill, and never showed up for a lesson again.)
While this biography is often fascinating, providing valuable insight into Ornette the man, it is not completely satisfactory in helping to explain his innovations. Litweiler is quite capable of persuasive analysis of Ornette’s musical attributes, as in his comparison of Coleman’s rhythmic approach (on the early release Something Else) with Charlie Parker’s:
The most immediate quality of Ornette’s rhythmic character is his force, his eagerness: He seems to virtually eat up the beat, with an eagerness that recalls the drive of Charlie Parker in Parker’s 1948 “Crazeology” session. If Ornette’s phrasing gives a first impression of spaciousness, like the wide open spaces of Texas, that impression is partly an illusion, for the broken phrases of bebop are reflected in his phrase shapes. In solos such as the fast “Chippie,” his phrases often begin in unpredictable places, and his accenting throughout the album is quite irregular; the beat gets turned around often, and sometimes it seems only an accident when accents fall on beats that are traditionally “correct.” These are features of Charlie Parker’s music, too, at its most radical, even if the rhythmic content of Ornette’s phrases is typically less detailed than Parker’s. While Ornette’s soloing captures much of Parker’s lyric spirit, the conflicts that arise in his solos are unlike Parker’s conflicts — Ornette’s lines are less mercurial, though they sometimes hint at emotion as extreme.
Unfortunately, this sort of probing scrutiny happens too rarely in this book; more often, Litweiler resorts to thin description of the music rather than analysis, an approach often conveying not much beyond superficialities about Coleman’s style and contributions. Litweiler’s commentary about the important Live at the Golden Circle recording, for example, is more along the lines of a brief record review than of a studied examination this book strives to be:
Certainly Ornette’s alto sax improvising is brilliant on these sessions, including his oom-pah-pah waltz variations in “European Echoes” and his fast, optimistic variations on “Dee Dee” (with its superbly simple theme) and “Faces and Places” (with its recurring rolling theme motive in his solo). “Dawn” and especially “Morning Song” are sweet ballads, indeed, among his best ballads. Amid many tempo changes by the group in “The Riddle,” Izenzon offers a witty bowed solo. “Snowflakes and Sunshine” alternates many brief improvisations by trumpet and violin over mostly fast tempos, usually separated by brief interludes of solo drums or bass; each of Ornette’s sections is relatively static in development, and wildly energetic.
Trumpeter Don Cherry, Coleman’s musical companion, offers a bit more enlightenment in the liner notes to the glorious Rhino release of Ornette’s complete Atlantic recordings: the harmolodic concept, he says, “is one of the profound systems today for both Western and Eastern music. [...] When we would play a composition, we could improvise forms, or modulate or make cadences or interludes, but all listening to each other to see which way it was going so we could blow that way. Ornette’s harmony would end up being a melody and the original melody would end up being a harmony. So he could continue on that way to write for a whole orchestra, starting from the first melody which ends up being harmony to the harmonic melodies that come after the main theme.” Cherry goes further in a Down Beat interview excerpted by Litweiler: “If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that’s what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.” At any rate, the chart shown in the book, about which Coleman told interviewer Art Lange “Play this over and over, and you’ll know everything you need to know about harmolodics,” is either reproduced wrong, which I doubt, or is out and out incomprehensible.
By my reckoning, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, while an achievement, will not be the last word on this man and his musical revolution, in the way that Brian Priestley’s Mingus biography or Jack Chamber’s Milestones, to give two examples, are definitive. Despite some shortcomings, however, it is recommended reading for those who seek insight into this complex, fascinating, and unconventional figure. Litweiler writes with knowledge and affection for his subject, compiling information from numerous sources, detailing anecdotes that raise eyebrows. The Ornette Coleman who emerges from these pages is an uncompromising, guileless, rugged individualist living in a time when these traits aren’t necessarily universally admired nor richly rewarded. For now, Litweiler’s biography, the first book-length assessment of this — clichés be damned — living legend, is the only game in town.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
In 1995, about a year before a couple of grad students at Stanford started a project they’d eventually call “Google” (the previous year, two other Stanford grad students renamed their own project: “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” would henceforth be called “Yahoo”), I pitched an idea to the quarterly jazz magazine I freelanced for: howzabout an article on this amazing online discussion group I was a part of, called rec.music.bluenote?
Back then, the internet was shiny and new for most folks. Up to that point, if you weren’t in academia, unfettered internet access was 1) difficult to achieve and 2) hardly worth the bother: once I hook my computer up to this internet, what exactly do I do with it?
For me, accessing RMB meant unplugging the phone and hooking up the modem, initiating the sequence of blips and blops and subdued screams and incantations the modem would selflessly endure to establish the connection, and then ... waiting. The connection was painfully slow, subject to frequent interruptions where I’d have to start all over again, and liable to enrage my normally patient spouse, who’d regularly try to call home in this pre-cell phone era only to be infuriated by the never-ending busy signal.
Why the heck did I bother? Read below to find out.
There are two things I find especially notable in this 17-year-old piece. First, it foreshadows big changes in the online world and in society in general — there’s even a hint of the emerging “Us vs. Them” politics that have helped make modern life suck more than it needs to.
Meanwhile, I’m struck that many of the squabbles and brouhahas and kerfuffles that would momentarily rile up the RMB world look pretty damn familiar in its modern offspring like Sax On The Web: newbies (a term helpfully defined in the article) are still annoying; people sometimes seem to just plain want to argue; online anonymity can still encourage loutish behavior. It remains true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
One last thing: in its day, RMB was flat-out glorious, and it saddens me to visit nowadays. They’ve trashed the joint. It’s not like visiting a faded Rust Belt city — it’s more along the lines of taking a stroll through Chernobyl: don’t breath the air, and be aware that anyone sticking around must be nuts. You probably shouldn’t stay long...
This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Fall 1995 (Vol. 2, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.
For your consideration, the following Twilight Zone episode:
Dad’s in the den, grooving to Miles’s Live At The Plugged Nickel — he’s on his third disc, only five more to go. Mom’s got Trane on the headphones: she’s brushing up on his ’61 European tour with Eric Dolphy, listening to some bootleg recordings that came in the mail just today. Junior is in the basement, practicing his alto sax — Cannonball is his hero (he assumes “Kenny G.” is a reference to Kenny Garrett). Little Sis is in the living room pecking out “Maiden Voyage” on the piano — she doesn’t remember the B section, so she’s just repeating the A section over and over — when Fred, the next door neighbor, rings the doorbell. He wants to borrow Mingus At Antibes; it seems his daughter took his copy off to college.
Eerie, isn’t it? In fact, it makes your flesh crawl: a world where they all love jazz!
Now back to reality: your spouse is lovingly tolerant of your idiosyncratic taste in music, and will remain so as long as you keep receipts of recent CD purchases carefully out of sight. Domestic tranquillity is preserved through a simple agreement: if you’re going to listen to “that Threadgill person,” you’ll use headphones. Your next door neighbor, who oohed and aahed when he first saw all of your CDs, was surprised to discover he’d never heard of any of those artists.
Of course, as “jazz people” we’re in the minority. However, while we may not be in every household, or even on every block, we know where to find one another: at a downtown club where a local quartet is playing, or in a nearby university music department, where talented kids smitten by this deep and challenging music try to emulate the masters.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many of us, a whole community has sprung up that might be straight out of our Twilight Zone scenario: every resident is a stark, raving jazz fan, ready with almost no provocation to discuss the relative merits of Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan, Steve Lacy, Lennie Tristano, Charles Gayle, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett, and countless others. Here, the word on the street might concern the best sounding reissues of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Neighbors consult one another across picket fences: does one really need to own the Monk Riverside box? You might get the impression that most residents know the phone number of Cadence Records by heart.
This “town” goes by the ungainly name of rec.music.bluenote (RMB for short), and to visit you need a computer and a modem.
RMB is a part of the massive Usenet system, a vibrant electronic meeting place where literally tens of thousands of people from around the world discuss topics as diverse as French culture, knitting, arthritis, low-fat cooking, kayaking, home beer-brewing, soap operas, and Star Trek.
And on RMB, of course, jazz.
Each of these focused discussion groups on Usenet is called a “newsgroup,” encompassing a collection of messages (“posts”) on various sub-topics (“threads”) within the general category.
RMB got its start back in 1987, when a couple of music enthusiasts running electronic mailing lists on jazz and blues joined forces, creating the newsgroup to focus on those two related musical genres. (Recently, with some controversy, blues fans who want to discuss blues-and-nothing-but-blues-dammit have split off from RMB, creating rec.music.bluenote.blues.)
In the years since, RMB has grown to become a thriving virtual community, a righteous place for its worldwide devotees where jazz information, commentary, and camaraderie are shared. On any given day, one might find general discussion of jazz history and current issues; appraisals of specific artists; record reviews; discographies; technical discussions on music theory, practice routines, and instrumental technique; club listings and tour schedules; jazz festival updates; performance reviews; discussions of jazz books, magazines, and radio; and even listings of jam sessions.
To understand what information is found on RMB, you have to understand who contributes. The RMB community is not as diverse as the “real world” — these individuals are not only drawn to jazz: they also have computer knowledge and access to Usenet. Consequently, computer techies and people at universities are perhaps over-represented, though this demographic is rapidly changing as commercial on-line services begin to provide their users with real Internet access.
Participants on RMB may be roughly broken down into three “factions”: musicians, scholars, and enthusiasts. (There’s actually a fourth group emerging: music industry types, sometimes operating undercover. We’ll save discussion of them for a future article.)
The large number of musicians on RMB run the gamut from novice to pro, with local heroes and national names also involved. Not long ago, saxophonist Steve Coleman explained his practice strategies, sharing insights he’d gained from folks like Von Freeman.
The musician contingent insures that music theory is a daily part of the menu, addressing burning issues like what to play on a minor ii-V7-i progression, the use of the phrygian mode on Miles’s Flamenco Sketches, or how to build a Super Locrian scale.
Music scholars abound as well in the RMB universe. Noted Mingus and Ellington authority Andrew Homzy, of Concordia University in Montreal, recently sang the praises of reissues of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, and helped to clarify the precedents for the chord changes to Take The A-Train. Eric Nisenson, author of Ascension: John Coltrane & His Quest, offered valuable insight on a discussion of Trane and LSD that stemmed in part from his book.
The jazz enthusiasts who are not players run the gamut from those with a casual interest to those who’ve devoted intensive study to the music over the years, becoming scholars of the music in their own rite.
RMB provides a nurturing environment that brings these three groups together, allowing each to learn from the other, enhancing every participant’s understanding of the art form. Marc Sabatella, a pianist and software engineer respected for his knowledgeable posts and wise voice on a variety of jazz topics, is perhaps one of RMB’s “stars.” He describes how the newsgroup encouraged his musical growth:
“RMB has helped me move from a more traditionalist standpoint to where I am today. Recommendations for specific Anthony Braxton albums have helped introduce me to a man whose music I otherwise would probably have ignored; ditto David Murray and Carla Bley. Don Pullen I had discovered on my own, but most of my other jazz fan friends ridiculed him, so I think the collective support of RMB was important to me there as well.
“In general, I have probably gravitated musically toward what I perceive as the center of RMB taste, which is considerably ’left’ of the center of the general ’jazz’ public’s taste.”
While RMB has expanded his jazz horizons, Sabatella, who has developed a highly-regarded jazz primer that he plans to release on CD-ROM, sees RMB as having some potential “practical” benefits for his musical career as well: “I value what my ‘fame’ on RMB might mean for my career. I expect it will generate sales for the CD-ROM version of my primer, and that if I decide to go touring, it will help get me gigs. It has already gotten me a few extra attendees at some of my performances, including the Denver correspondent to Cadence, which has in turn garnered me some nice write-ups....”
Mark Ladenson, a professor of economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is an erudite commentator on jazz whose reports on the Chicago Jazz Festival appear annually in Marge Hofacre’s Jazz News. His photographs of jazz luminaries can be seen in almost any issue of Cadence. While he’s not a musician or musicologist, his knowledge of jazz is disciplined and extensive. For him, RMB is an informational gold mine:
“There are some very good things on RMB. Someone posted a good obit on Woody Shaw. Through RMB I got a definitive answer to the use of the pseudonym ‘Hen Gates,’ which Dizzy used on the famous Koko session with Bird; later his pianist, James Forman, used it as a nickname.”
For Bill Kenz, a government documents and reference librarian at Moorhead State College in Minnesota, RMB has brought about some valuable collaborations:
“Of particular importance to me has been the time I’ve spent putting together discographies or helping other compilers. Fellow RMBer Patrice Roussel and I will have our Steve Lacy discography published this year — or so says the publisher! A modified form of it is already included in Steve Lacy’s book Findings. I think this sort of activity is truly helping the cause.”
Sometimes people who’ve “met” on RMB become “real world” friends, as Kenz relates:
“Through RMB, I got a note from someone at Bryn Mawr who was interested in something I posted regarding fusion. He e-mailed me for further info. We continued to correspond, and when a library convention was held in Philly, I was invited to stay with his family. He and his wife are librarians, so we attended the convention together, and also visited a fair number of record stores! I’d have never known these people without RMB!”
While RMB is still a community brought together by its love for jazz, an influx of new arrivals from some of the commercial services is giving it growing pains. Some of this can be attributed to the typical mistakes of “newbies,” an occasionally disdainful term used for newcomers to the Internet who perhaps haven’t learned proper “netiquette” yet, or who make bonehead errors like posting the same message ten times. These newcomers threaten the almost intimate sense of family that has developed at RMB.
While some of the underlying antagonism felt toward the newbies can be attributed to resistance to change among some RMB old-timers, a few of these recent arrivals really do have a hard time making friends and influencing people: witness the fellow from America On-Line who dismissed postings he disagreed with as “venal tripe.”
Of course, even before this massing of new refugees onto the RMB shores, there were sporadic family fights. Sabatella recounts one early issue that still occasionally surfaces today, when practicing musicians and knowledgeable enthusiasts come to disagreement:
“I got into a huge argument with another RMBer on the subject of Wynton Marsalis, whose music he dismissed as ‘nothing new.’ I challenged him, observing that as a non-musician he might not be equipped to appreciate how Wynton’s approach to standards might be subtly but qualitatively different from, say, Clifford Brown’s — so that while he might not have heard anything new, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there. This quickly was misrepresented as ‘Marc Sabatella says that only musicians are entitled to opinions,’ and for a while a lot of people disliked me.”
Once upon a time, those two words, “Wynton Marsalis,” were a surefire way to stir up trouble: arms were drawn and battles waged. Nowadays the “Wynton” topic area seems exhausted, supplanted by two new (but related) words: “Stanley Crouch.”
There are plenty of other topics that in recent days have engendered unfriendly fire. One rancorous example regards the “racial ownership of jazz,” with some claiming jazz as an African music rather than an American one (leading some to counter, tongue in cheek, that by this logic baseball is a European game). As in society in general, topics dealing with race matters often have great potential to frustrate and inflame, as an ongoing discussion on racism toward white jazz musicians has shown.
Two other recent bench-clearers have been the suggestion of plagiarism in Miles’s autobiography, and, cough-cough, second-hand smoke in clubs.
Sabatella notes the increase of controversy on RMB:
“The more politically-oriented discussions — such as the ones on racism, smoking, and a recent one on NEA funding — are fairly new. To me, it seems more or less consistent with the general polarization of American society into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps (although I think of it more in terms of ‘libertarian’ versus ‘socialist’) that has occurred over the last four or five years.... I think that the recent increase in these type of arguments in RMB is just a reflection of the fact that RMB is starting to resemble society at large: it is no longer limited to a few computer science grad students who are totally into jazz, but instead has many people from more diverse backgrounds dropping in and out of discussions....”
As Kenz puts it, “it once was more like a small group of people sitting around chatting; now, it’s like we’re in a football arena and everyone’s shouting at each other.”
Sometimes, Kenz notes, the regular influx of new people means the same stale questions are posted over and over again: “It seems that more and more jazz ‘novices’ are on-line, and they ask a lot of those basic kinds of questions. This is fine, but how often do I really want to answer those ‘what are the 5 best jazz LPs’ or ‘I heard about Miles Davis — which CD should I buy’ kinds of queries? Since my profession is the provision of information, I don’t get upset by those asking for this basic kind of stuff: I just let others answer!”
On the other hand, he points out, new folks on RMB mean fresh perspectives on jazz: “With the increase in RMBers, there’s been an increase in the number and kind of experiences discussed. I enjoy reading about peoples’ reactions to hearing Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in 1961, or someone who heard Art Pepper in the mid ’50’s.... You’d never learn about this without RMB. It’s amazing what people know, and RMB has helped bring these experiences to a big audience. It’s also great to have some musicians I really respect, like Elliot Sharp and Richard Tabnik, on-line — and I only found out about them through RMB.”
In this way, Kenz sees RMB as an alternative to more “mainstream” sources of jazz information: “RMB has been a boon for me and lots of others I know. I can hardly read the typical jazz press anymore. I cringe reading Downbeat and the other more popular magazines like Jazziz. I know how silly and inaccurate they often are.”
Kenz says that RMB also helps him overcome geographic isolation: “For me, stuck out here in Moorhead, where Garth Brooks and Boston rule, RMB provides a sense of balance. I’ve gotten to ‘know’ many people whom I’d have otherwise never met. Also (and I’m not trying to brag), I have so many recordings and books and articles, it’s nice to be able to help people with things, including taping, copying liners, etc.”
So, despite the occasional squabbling, RMB remains a place that brings together people with a unique interest, knowledge, and love for jazz. Says Sabatella: “I think it’s great to have a forum with so many other people who are very interested in jazz. It is comforting just to be able to share with others my own love for the music. While I have some friends locally who I can talk to, their range of experience isn’t as broad, so there isn’t much new to talk about.”
Perhaps Sabatella sums up the group for many of us: “It’s a major part of my life, and I can hardly imagine being without it!” While RMB may be an atypical community, it’s not a scary Twilight Zone locale after all — in fact, for numerous dedicated jazz fans, it’s nearly home!
Sunday, July 15, 2012
I also write about aspects of life (food, travel, food, and also travel) that aren’t quite so jazz geeky — check it out here: Kelly’s Other Stuff.
(Read the true story of my wife getting carjacked by a little old lady in the south of France, for example...)
Saturday, July 14, 2012
A Simple Wish transcriptionFor 10 long years, two guys managed to keep Bruce Johnstone from being named the top baritone saxophonist in the world in Downbeat’s Readers Poll.
It wasn’t a plot: the two guys in question were Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams, and the fact that some newcomer from New Zealand could elbow everybody else out of the way and take the bronze — for ten years! — amid such illustrious company is, while perhaps surprising, entirely appropriate!
High school band geeks (like me!) first heard Bruce with Maynard Ferguson’s big band. Bruce very nearly steals the show on my favorite Maynard record, M.F. Horn 4 & 5: Live At Jimmy’s, whether swaggering and snarling through Stay Loose with Bruce, or battling the great Dutch tenorist Ferdinand Povel on Two For Otis, or taking an unexpected latin break on MacArthur Park!
(As one YouTube commenter put it, regarding Stay Loose With Bruce and the rest of the album: “One of the best bari solos ever recorded! I call Live At Jimmy’s ‘bari sax clinic’. Of course, I love Gerry, Pepper, Carney, et al, but this solo is just amazing. Oh yeah, I think there was a trumpet player in the band, as well.....”)
Bruce made a big impression on me. I was one of those subscribers who dutifully filled out and mailed in my Downbeat Readers Poll ballot every year — my alto-tenor-bari Holy Trinity was regularly Phil Woods, Sonny Rollins, and, of course, Bruce Johnstone! (Joe Farrell often got my soprano vote...)
Obviously, I’m thrilled to feature Bruce on my new recording, House of Relics! While I loved his work in Maynard’s band playing fiery tunes at ball-busting tempos, I wanted to showcase his kinder and gentler side: in live performances I’ve heard him prove himself to be a master balladeer, and I hoped to grab some of that for my record!
His performance on my tune A Simple Wish is all I could have hoped for: quiet, tender, and just plain lovely! I’ve mentioned elsewhere that transcriptions typically contain only about half of the “data” (at best!) that makes a solo great, and that applies here as well. Bruce’s articulations can't really be captured in musical notation: he’s a master at goosing or understating this or that note in a way that gives his lines lift and swing and momentum — Bruce’s notes are short or long or accented or ghosted in ways that defy standard notation. As I’ve done with other transcriptions in this blog, I’ve put in the “bigger picture” articulations: it’s up to you to listen to the recording and grab all the wholesome goodness that’s not on the page!
Bruce’s time feel also challenges transcription. It’s worth noting his effective use of quarter note triplets to convey the sense that he’s floating above the time, and also to provide rhythmic variety. What can’t really be expressed in notation is his groove, his habitual placement of notes on the back side of the beat. This is Big Boy stuff they don’t teach you in school. This transcription can only approximate Bruce’s free and easy way with the time — listen to the recording and play along to get a better sense of Bruce’s sophisticated approach to the pulse.
Don’t let these caveats intimidate you: have fun! Bruce’s solo in transcription is a lovely little etude with some deep musical wisdom behind it. Play along with Bruce in the recording and you’ll be getting a heavy lesson with one of the greatest and most recognizable bari players jazz has produced!
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Buffalo has always had a strong local jazz scene with its own distinct, no-nonsense vibe. Folks like Grover Washington, Mel Lewis, and drummer Frankie Dunlop, known for his work with Monk, came from here, and there’s even a regional school of muscular, tough-toned Italian-American saxophonists from Western & Central New York: Sal Nistico, Don Menza, Bobby Militello, Pat LaBarbera, and Sam Falzone, among others.
Today, younger players, often returning from academic jazz studies, and newcomers to Buffalo are bringing their own ideas and energy to the scene. House of Relics reflects these developments. Bassist Danny Ziemann, just finishing his undergrad studies at Eastman, and drummer Russ Algera represent the “youth vote” in the band, while the rest of us aren’t Buffalo natives: I’m from Minneapolis (I tell people I came here for the weather...), trumpeter Tim Clarke is from Oregon, pianist Michael McNeill from Rochester by way of Boston, and Bruce Johnstone, of course, hails from New Zealand!
Since more than half the band ain’t from around here, House of Relics is not, perhaps, an “indigenous” Buffalo record — but it IS emphatically a local record: it’s a document of the increasingly interesting and varied scene here.
I couldn’t be more proud of it, and I’m very happy to have it come out of this heart-on-its-sleeve city I love and call my home!
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
For me, it was a perverse career move. At the exact culmination of years of work developing a band and building media relationships and cultivating club owners, I did the promotional equivalent of joining the witness protection program. Later that year, a few months after I’d left and due to exuberant critical response to the recording, The Illicit Sextet was voted “Best Jazz Group” in the Minnesota Music Awards. Doc Severinsen was on hand to present the award to those members of the group who’d opted not to move a thousand miles away.
The thing that bugged me most back then — and, for what it’s worth, a whole lot of stuff was bugging me! — was that I never got to see the CD in record stores, which was something I’d really looked forward to and thought would be cool.
(Nowadays, of course, just seeing an actual tangible existing neighborhood record store itself registers a jolt of surprise... And if it has a well-tended jazz section, well ... that’s along the lines of spotting a unicorn munching grass and pooping rainbows in your backyard.)
When I left Minneapolis, I was convinced that my best jazz days were behind me, and that I'd never again play with a group at that level. I was wrong. It turns out my best days were ahead of me — indeed, I’m smack dab in the middle of my best jazz days ever RIGHT NOW, here in Bee-Yoo-Tee-Full Buffalo, New York!
In fact, I’m delighted to announce I’m releasing a Brand New CD today -- and I'm excited to report that in the aftermath, I'm actually going to stay living right here in Buffalo rather than fleeing into the night. It’s a nice change of pace.
This new CD, House of Relics, the product of nearly 2 years of rehearsing, performing, and recording with this group, features nine fresh original compositions with an amazing band.
However, if I were you, I wouldn’t bother taking my word for it (“I mean, what’s he gonna say, that it’s stale tunes and a crummy band?!?”): if you’d like to draw your own conclusions, you can actually stream the Entire Ding-Dang Thing FOR FREE on my Bandcamp site to see if it’s for you or not.
I mean, I wouldn’t want you to buy the thing if it didn’t connect. But, if it does, sure: I’d be downright tickled, tending toward euphoric, if you were to purchase it!
Here’s where you can find it:
Check it out and see if it grabs you! And drop me a line if you have any comments or questions...
Friday, July 1, 2011
What follows is more or less a reprint of the original article, but with an expanded introduction.
If you give this a shot and it helps with your sound (it will!), I’d love to hear from you...
You only need to work on long tones if you’d like to have a good sound. It’s about that simple!
I avoided them for as long as I could. I had no idea how to practice them, and the few times I half-heartedly gave them a shot, they felt like a waste of time — shouldn’t I be working on cool licks and impressive, finger-busting patterns in my limited practice time instead?
Unfortunately, whenever I’d ask a killer player how they got that great sound (“What mouthpiece are you using?”, “What are your reeds?”, “What’s that ligature you got?”), they’d say “Play long tones.” Even then, I resisted.
What finally forced me to hunker down and get serious about them was a Downbeat interview with Johnny Griffin, where he talked about how he worked on ... long tones. I love his sound, and I know it sounds silly, but somehow it had never occurred to me that an older cat like Johnny Griffin would’ve shed long tones! I just assumed he was born with that sound!
I wanted to get serious about them, but I’d never seen any instructional materials on how to “practice” long tones — I had cabinets full of books telling me what to play on a ii-V7-I progression, and how to use this or that pattern — but nothing that dealt with long tones!
Clueless, I just started blowing notes and holding them, and resolved that I was going to try this for a couple of weeks, no matter how boring and unfun and possibly pointless the exercise seemed to be.
At first, it was boring. However, after a while I started to realize that working with long tones made me hear things in my playing I hadn’t noticed before, and forced me to address a number of playing habits I’d been unaware of. It turned out the long tones were about a lot more than just honking on a note: if you’re doing them correctly, you can work on many aspects of your playing — and they should never be boring!
After a while, I figured out an approach to long tones that worked for me. And, for the first time in my life as a saxophonist, folks started to compliment me on my sound!
Here are my suggestions for someone getting started with long tones...
When you’re playing long tones, you should strive for a full, resonant sound that has a consistent timbre (tone quality) throughout the range of the horn. In other words, your palm key notes (high D, Eb, E, and F) should be just as rich and full (and in tune!) as your low C or Bb.
You’ll start out by playing a low C. But wait! Before you play, you should think about your inhalation.
Fill your lungs from the bottom up!Fill your lungs from the bottom of your diaphragm up. If you’re not sure how to inhale properly, try saying the word “hot” backwards: that is, breath in while saying hot (but don’t get your vocal cords involved). For many folks, this “inverted hot” will result in a “lower” breath, rather than an incomplete breath higher in your lungs. Again, remember to fill your lungs on this inhalation.
Don’t raise your shoulders as you’re taking in air — this is often a clue that you’re not breathing from the bottom of your diaphragm (it is, however, normal for the shoulders to raise slightly at the very end of a full inhalation).
Don’t “stab” the note.Once you’ve taken in a full breath, you’re ready to play the low C. Almost! Before you start, think about your attack of the note: it should not be explosive; the note should come out strong without being “stabbed.” At the same time, the note should sound immediately when you start it: there shouldn’t be a lag after you tongue the note, with the note suddenly popping into place after a moment or two.
You want a strong, consistent tone quality.Then, while you’re blowing the note, think about your tone quality. You want a strong, consistent, in tune timbre. You should be putting out a solid block of sound; if you were to visualize it, it might look like this:
You don’t want your sound to look like this:
If your tone is “wobbly” as you’re producing long tones, then long tones are your friend! Doing them diligently for a few weeks will build up your diaphragm and “bulk up” your sound, getting rid of the wobbles.
In the days before amplification, tenormen like Coleman Hawkins, the grand-daddy of the tenor, or Ben Webster, or Dexter Gordon, had to have a sound big enough to allow them to solo over a big band and have their horn cut through the background clutter and fill the room. That’s what you are striving for with these long tone studies. Try to imagine filling the room with your sound — think of it as being a warm, almost liquid presence.
Fill your room with sound, but don’t overblow.At the same time, don’t overblow. This ain’t honking! Find a good natural volume level that will give you a full, warm, resonant sound, without feeling like you’re going to pop a vein! You should feel comfortable while you’re blowing.
Did you know that you can be “in focus” or “out of focus” on your saxophone? When you’re in focus, your tone will be strong, consistent, and in tune, and you won’t change your embouchure much from the low end to the high end of the horn.
A tuner can help you “focus” your sound.One important tool to help you find the focus of your sax is a tuner. When you know you’re in tune, you can concentrate on your embouchure and breath support, and eventually playing in tune will become a habit: your horn will just “feel right” when you’re in focus and in tune.
You should be relaxed!The last thing you need to be aware of while you’re blowing the note is your stance and posture. (I practice standing up, because that’s how I typically perform, and I want to mimic my performance conditions as much as possible when I practice.) You should be relaxed. Your fingers should curl to the keys without grabbing the horn in a death grip, and your shoulders should be down and relaxed as well. Do an “inventory” of your body while you’re playing, and make sure that nowhere, from your head to your feet, are you tight and clenched — that’s just a waste of energy, and you want to devote as much energy as possible to your playing.
Be especially careful not to tighten up as you reach the end of your exhalation. Keep on blowing until you can no longer maintain a good, strong sound. Don’t turn it into a life or death struggle where you scrunch up your shoulders and try to squeeze every last molecule of air into your horn, sounding at the end like a dying seal!
As you practice long tones, you will naturally be able to play each tone for a longer and longer time, as you develop your diaphragm and embouchure.
Okay, you are finally ready to play that low C:
While you’re playing it, here’s a reminder of what you should keep in mind:
- Inhalation: fill your lungs from the bottom up (the “inverted hot”), and don’t raise your shoulders.
- Attack: don’t stab the note to make it sound, but do make sure that it starts immediately.
- Tone Quality: you want a solid block of strong, consistent, room-filling sound, but don’t overblow.
- Focus & Intonation: Use a tuner to make sure you’re in tune, and to help you find the right focus for your horn.
- Stance & Posture: Keep your body relaxed, including your fingers and your shoulders, and do an inventory to make sure there’s no tension anywhere else in your body.
- Release of the Note: Play until you can no longer maintain focus and a good sound, and don’t tense up at the end of the note.
You can see why long tones shouldn’t be boring: there’s plenty to keep track of while you’re playing them!
After you play the low C a couple of times, each time trying to improve your tone quality and focus, you’re ready to move up a fourth to F. You’ll keep on moving up in fourths through the range of your horn, playing each note several times. The entire series looks like this:
Try to maintain the same focus & tone quality for each note.Now, this is very important: each time you move to a new note, try to keep the same timbre and warmth of the previous note. (And, of course, check each note on the tuner.) For example, when you move up to the F from C, you should strive to duplicate the strength, focus, and timbre of the C. You should also, of course, keep track of all of the items (inhalation, attack, etc.) listed above.
Enjoy your sound!Finally, as you’re blowing these notes, enjoy your sound! The sound of the saxophone is a beautiful thing — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, after hearing that I’m a saxophonist, “Oh, the saxophone! That’s my favorite instrument!” When you’re developing your abilities as a jazz saxophonist, you’re making yourself a part of an incredible legacy. That’s an elevating and inspiring pursuit....
Friday, June 3, 2011
A preamble: the folks on SOTW run the gamut from band kids to enthusiastic amateurs to weekend warriors to saxophone collectors to pros to Pros Whose Names You’d Even Know. A lot of the discussion is very gear-heavy, and there’s a certain cohort that is always seeking to improve their sound not via the traditional route of long tones or hours in the shed with the sax on their face or whatever, but instead by “putting stuff on” or “doing stuff to” their horns: freezing them, or attaching “resonance stones” or this weird spoon-like doohickey or even just big metal lumps (photo below) on crucial spots OUTSIDE the horn (some manufacturers are even doing this), or removing lacquer from the neck, and on and on and on.
I haven’t tried these, so perhaps I‘m unfair with my skepticism. However, when one poster swore that tying a small length of leather cord around his horn’s neck focused and enhanced his tone, I snapped — resulting in this account of my own groundbreaking work in this area:
I saw this picture...
So then I got an idea: what if I put ’em on my sax!!!
However, I was afraid to make a permanent mod on my vintage Mark VI tenor without even knowing if it would work, so I decided to try a controlled experiment first: I installed them on the back of my ’95 3-cylinder Geo Metro.
It ... changed ... EVERYTHING!
I can only assume it acted as some sort of spoiler and reduced turbulence and stuff, because the car felt peppier and, though I haven’t had a chance to fill the tank yet, I believe it improved gas mileage.
Once I saw that that worked, I felt better about putting one of these suckers on my tenor.
Here’s a picture:
Here’s what I noticed: first, that famous Mark VI core sound — well, man, it just got plain corier, I guess is how I would put it. Folks I play with noticed it right away — I could see, they were pointing at the horn and stuff, and I think the core was just like friggin’ drilling a hole into their brains!
Altissimo was now effortless.
The horn felt more free-blowing and powerful, from a low Bb all the way up to altissimo D9 (after D9, some notes were harder to lock into, but it was worth the trade-off...), from a whisper to a roar. The horn now has a husky, smoky, bluesy sound that I really like.
Intonation seems better too, except for middle-D, which is sharp.
Now I find I move around more when I play, and they kind of dangle and sway and flop around down there, and I like that.
There have been some drawbacks. I've been experiencing bouts of “gig rage”: if I think the guy soloing before me is taking too long or isn’t double-timing enough, I’ll follow with my solo probably too closely, or might even cut him off. If I feel like the piano player plays a chord voicing that disrespects me, I give him the finger.
Also, I now need to find a case that fits the horn. (The horn dresses to the right, so that’s a consideration....)
I know there’ll be “naysayers” or “haters” or “scientists” who’ll say that this mod wouldn't have any “real” “effect” on my “horn,” to which I say, “Nuts!”
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Don Byas All The Things You Are (Live in Germany) transcriptionOver the course of a musical career straddling swing and bebop, after having already toured as a professional musician with name bands before anyone had heard of Charlie Parker, Don Byas readily took on many of Bird’s innovations without obscuring his roots: Coleman Hawkins inspired his robust tenor tone and phrasing, while pianist Art Tatum was his mentor, serving as a role model for his virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness. (Johnny Griffin called him “the Tatum of the saxophone,” and Byas himself said “I haven’t got any style. I just blow, like Art.”)
Byas’s solo on
All The Things You Are
While he’s appeared on some early sessions that have been hailed as the first bebop (or at least perhaps “prebop”) recordings, his later work reveals a mature player who’d fully integrated bebop into his own vocabulary, so that later Don Byas was indeed an amazing bebop tenor player, and also more than that.
And that’s exactly what this live performance of “All The Things You Are,” recorded in Germany in 1963, documents: double-timing to rival later speed demons like Sonny Stitt or Johnny Griffin; a bebopper’s approach to the changes; and some unique harmonic stuff (Tatum’s influence?) that I’ve never heard anyone else do.
The beginning of this solo illustrates the above: he starts with a blistering two-bar double-time break that commands your attention and tells you something serious is about to happen, then plays an interesting sequence ascending chromatically over the harmony:
(This sequence resolves satisfyingly with the notes D and F on the Bb∆7 chord following the F7.)
This is something he’d worked out: he plays this same lick more or less verbatim a few days later on a live recording of this tune in Copenhagen and, a couple of years before these examples, he delineated the harmonic kernel of this phrase in a studio version of “All The Things” found on the “Tribute to Cannonball” recording:
This results, of course, in some interesting note choices over the F7 chord: C# and E are, to put it mildly, not consonant on that change, but sound cool here because they’re in the context of that chromatic melodic sequence.
But I don’t think that entirely gets at what Byas was thinking. Take a look at m. 29 in this transcription, where he hangs both those notes over the chord without any attempt to “justify” them in a sequence. It’s almost as if he’s substituting an A7b9 here, then “resolving” it by sliding up to the Bb∆7. If haven’t seen that before: is it an Art Tatum trick, a Don Byas trick, or something else? I have no idea — but if anyone out there does, please comment!
At any rate, this is a great performance by one of the Tenor Masters — and yet someone who isn’t as well known in the States as he ought to be, since he spent most of his professional life in Europe. If you’re a serious tenor player and don’t know Don Byas, you’re not quite serious enough!
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Monday, May 9, 2011
Friday, May 6, 2011
Related PostIn de zomer van 1985 maakte ik mij op voor een Europese tournee met een bigband onder leiding van de uit Detroit afkomstige trompettist Marcus Belgrave. De groep was samengesteld uit docenten en ondersteunend personeel van het Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts zomerkamp. Dat jaar had de bigband een uitzonderlijk sterke bezetting; naast Marcus en piano-legende Harolf McKinney, hadden we mensen die gespeeld hadden met Buddy Rich en Woody Herman en verscheidenen hadden hun sporen verdiend in bigbands van naam.
Nadat een van de saxofonisten niet mee bleek te kunnen als gevolg van een persoonlijke crisis die zijn weerga niet kende, kregen we te horen dat zijn plaats zou worden vervuld door een zestienjarige puber uit Detroit. Op dat moment toerde het knulletje nog in Europa met een groepje studenten van Blue Lake, maar hij zou binnen enkele weken terug zijn. Sommige bandleden dachten nogal sceptisch over deze ontwikkeling (ik was één van hen). Anderen, waaronder Marcus, kenden de jongen en zeiden dat er geen reden tot zorgen zou zijn. Bovendien: hij was de tweede tenor. Dus wat zou er mis kunnen gaan?
Zijn naam was James Carter.
En ik was eerste tenor...
In afwachting van zijn komst, kwamen mij steeds vaker lovende verhalen ter ore - Oh man, die jongen is zo goed! Wacht maar af, hij zal je nog behoorlijk verrassen - en langzaamaan begon ik tegen zijn komst op te zien. Aangezien ik verder de enige in de band was die sax speelde, wilde ik absoluut niet verrast worden. Ik was vierentwintig jaar oud, acht jaar ouder. Zo goed kon hij niet zijn.
Ik hoopte dat hij zich koest zou houden, zonder al te veel serieuze fouten zou spelen en verder wilde ik zo min mogelijk met hem te maken hebben. In een bigband geldt de regel: je hebt de eerste tenor sax en dan is er nog iemand die verder niet ter zake doet. En aangezien ik de eerste tenor sax speelde in deze band, vond ik deze benadering natuurlijk volkomen terecht...
Zodra ik hem hoorde, wist ik dat hij het was. Het was tussen twee sessies door, op een van die zeldzaam slome dagen waarop de kampleiders het ervan nemen en het er roerend over eens zijn dat het zomerkamp een fantastische plek had kunnen zijn ware het niet dat die verdomde kinderen niet in de buurt waren. We zaten lekker onderuit toen plots vanuit de nabij gelegen bossen het onmiskenbare gekreun van een tenorsax klonk. James kon ieder moment arriveren en ik realiseerde me meteen dat hij daar stond te blazen. En ik realiseerde me ook dat ik verdomd diep in de stront zat.
Geloof het of niet, maar het geluid van James als zestienjarige verschilt weinig van het geluid James vandaag de dag. Dat massieve, prachtige geluid. Dat te grote zelfvertrouwen en de niet aflatende neiging om altijd net iets te ver te gaan. Hij was afschuwelijk goed en hij wist het.Ik wist het ook en ik vond hem duivels.
Het was niet alsof hij Mozart was en ik Salieri. Denk eerder in de lijn: hij was Mozart en ik de loodgieter.
Ongevraagd werd ik de oppas van James, hij was mijn kamergenoot tijdens de tournee. En hoewel ik talloze malen de kans heb gehad hem te smoren met een kussen of hem voor een rijdende auto te duwen, heb ik dat toch maar niet gedaan. Dit gebrek aan initiatief van mijn kant, kon te zijner tijd wel eens mijn grootste bijdrage aan de jazz blijken. Laten we hopen van niet.
De vraag is natuurlijk hoe hij zo monsterlijk goed geworden is. Om te beginnen is hij een geboren musicus. In het kamp bevond zich een soort museum met zeldzame en exotische instrumenten, Normaal gesproken mocht je daar niet aankomen, maar James, die binnen de kortste keren door iedereen op handen werd gedragen, kreeg toestemming om wat te experimenteren. Welk instrument hij ook oppakte, binnen enkele minuten had hij voor elkaar (Serpent? Oude koek... Buccina? Heb ik gedaan... Didgeridoo? Ga ik morgen doen.).
Maar er is meer. James was bijzonder gedisciplineerd waar het oefenen betreft. Niet dat hij dingen als toonladders speelde, dat heb ik hem nooit horen doen, hij speelde gewoon. Constant. Altijd. Altijd zat hij met een walkman op te luisteren naar saxofonisten, met engelengeduld zocht hij uit wat ze precies deden. Meer dan eens werd ik ’s nachts wakker van James die in het donker zachtjes - maar niet zacht genoeg - licks die hij op zijn walkman had gehoord probeerde te spelen.
"James, het is verdomme DRIE UUR ’s nachts. Ik moet om zeven weer op. Ga nou naar bed, man"
"Sorry, ik wilde even iets uitproberen.”
Het klinkt als een cliché, maar het is voorgekomen dat ik hem ’s ochtends met zijn saxofoon in bed aantrof. Alsof hij, vechtend tegen de slaap, nog een laatste lick probeerde uit te werken maar strijdend ten onder was gegaan. Voorzichtig pakte ik dan de sax uit zijn armen en legde de toeter in de koffer.
Als ik terugdenk aan James als zestienjarige, valt een aantal dingen op. Om te beginnen - en dat geeft inzicht in de James van nu - kon James perfect R&B spelen. Als hij wilde, kon hij je met die R&B-licks om de oren slaan. Hij beheerste die echte gillende blues-krijs (lukt mij nog steeds niet) en iedere keer ging het publiek uit zijn dak. Minstens even belangrijk: James hield ervan om het publiek uit zijn dak te laten gaan. Hij maakte ze gek. Hij haalde een noot uit de toeter, boog die noot met negen verschillende vingerzettingen om uiteindelijk af te sluiten met een raspende, irritante krijs, die natuurlijk weer de perfecte noot was voor precies dat moment.
Een van de trompettisten wees me erop - een duidelijke poging me wat op te vrolijken in zware tijden- dat James veel luisterde naar baritonsaxofonist Leo Parker. ’Ah man, maak je niet druk, hij doet gewoon Leo Parker na.’ In zekere zin was dat waar, een hoop trucs die James toen gebruikte kwamen inderdaad van Leo Parker. Maar James kon nog veel meer grappen uit zijn mouw schudden.
Op een gegeven moment verbleven we in de kelder van het Heidi House, waar de oorspronkelijke oprichters van het camp, Fritz en Gretchen Stansell, wonen. Ik ben een goede vriend van hun zoon Tom. Tom woont tegenwoordig in Kopenhagen met zijn vrouw en dochter. Hij ontmoette zijn vrouw tijdens de tournee in kwestie, dus voor lang niet iedereen was de onderneming een ramp. Tom had een enorme platencollectie en James stortte zich er onmiddellijk op. Bij Tom hoorde hij voor het eerst werk van Johnny Griffin & Lockjaw Davis en hij begon zich er serieus in te verdiepen. Bijzonder serieus trouwens. Als James iets hoorde dat hem beviel, dan geen glimlach of een ’hé, te gek!’ of zoiets. Diepe lijnen verschenen op zijn voorhoofd en zich diep concentrerend, probeerde hij te achterhalen wat er gebeurde.
Op het persoonlijk vlak konden we wel aardig met elkaar opschieten. Zeker als je bedenkt dat ik degene was die James ’s avonds in en ’s ochtends uit bed moest schoppen en er feitelijk op moest toezien dat hij niet in de problemen kwam. Tegelijkertijd was ik vreselijk jaloers op hem. Behalve een briljant saxofonist was hij knap om te zien en erg populair bij de meisjes in het kamp. Om kort te gaan, hij was precies het tegenovergestelde van alles dat ik was toen ik zestien was.
James wist, zoals iedereen wist, dat mijn spel niet eens in de buurt van het zijne kwam. Hij speelde de partijen van de tweede tenor maar kreeg het leeuwendeel van de solo’s. Hij kreeg ze gewoon in de schoot geworpen: “Laten we James deze solo geven: hij is jong en kan spelen als een gek. Het publiek zal het fantastisch vinden!” Ik was als de dood dat iemand zou voorstellen om een tenor-battle houden, James zou mijn rammelende spel als een slachter hebben afgemaakt.
Er kwam geen duel.
De rest van band begreep wel dat ik me in een lastige positie bevond en ze hielden rekening met mijn gevoelens. Marcus was cool, hij bleef me steunen terwijl mijn zelfbeeld nog nooit zo negatief is geweest als die zomer.
James was verdomme gewoon een aardige jongen. Natuurlijk, hij had een vreselijk groot ego - wat wil je? Hij was zestien en kon de meest ongelooflijke de dingen met de sax en dat wist hij, maar hij was niet egoïstisch. Ongeacht het nummer, het tempo of de toonsoort, als er werd gevraagd “Wie wil een solo spelen", dan knikte hij, wachtte keurig op zijn beurt en zou uiteindelijk een solo spelen die zijn sax liet roken.
Was hij geweest zoals de meeste tieners, dan zou hij hoogstwaarschijnlijk op een gegeven moment tegen mij, zijn gevangenisbewaarder, iets gezegd hebben als ’Ik blaas je tegen de vlakte’. Hij deed het niet.
Wel begon hij me op een gegeven moment ’Lip’ te noemen, omdat ik aan de lopende band nerveuze grapjes liep te maken en omdat ik in die tijd een probleem had met mijn embouchure. James merkte dat direct. Hij zei het niet uit onaardigheid, hij wilde er alleen zeker van zijn dat ik wist dat hij het wist.
Een muzikale momentopname. In Arhus (Denemarken) vond na afloop van het concert een jamsessie plaats. James pakte op een gegeven moment iemands altsax en werkte zich door alle overgangen van een up-tempo versie van Cherokee alsof hij degene was die het nummer geschreven had. Fere Noren, een goede Zweedse trompettist en lid van de bigband (die tegenwoordig de leider is van het Stockholm Jazz Orkest), concludeerde met een zwaar Zweeds accent: “Bird! Bird! Man! He sounds like Charlie Parker!"
Na de tour stopte ik met spelen. Iedereen ging naar huis, ik besloot naar Parijs te gaan om mijn wonden te likken en het geld dat ik met de tournee verdiend had te besteden aan een vrouw die uiteindelijk mijn echtgenote zou worden. Ik besloot de saxofoon aan de wilgen te hangen omdat ik vond dat er geen plaats was voor een tenor-saxofonist van mijn niveau op een planeet waar ook zestienjarigen rondliepen die konden spelen als James Carter.
Zes maanden later pakte ik, ondanks James, de sax weer op. Ik had me gerealiseerd dat ik, als ik geen saxofonist kon zijn, werkelijk niet wist wie of wat ik dan wel was.
Ik ben bijzonder trots op James en wat hij bereikt heeft. Ik heb hem hard zien werken en alles dat hij bereikt heeft, is zonder meer verdiend. De jonge mister Carter heeft me wel in een paradoxale situatie gebracht: als ik later groot ben, wil ik kunnen spelen zoals dat ventje.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Invitation transcriptionThis is Michael Brecker’s solo on Invitation, from guitarist Jack Wilkins’ album “You Can’t Live Without It” (later released on CD as “Merge”), and in my opinion it’s one of the most astonishing jazz performances ever recorded.
Brecker’s solo on
I used the same trick to slow down their solos. Half-speed helps to isolate otherwise impenetrably fast phrases. It also reveals the “more human,” “more fallible” side of these folks who were (are!) giants for me: slowed down, you can hear the imperfections and miscues in their execution and articulation, the slightly flubbed notes, the tiny faults in timing and fingering. These are normal, and inaudible at regular speed.
Brecker slowed down, on the other hand, sounded ... clean, perfect! To put it another way: Abnormal. Inhuman. This technical virtuosity, though certainly a contributing factor, is NOT what makes this an astonishing performance, however.
The technical mastery on display here — Brecker’s amazing time feel, his clean execution and varied articulation, his stunning facility in the altissimo, his hair-raising double-timed passages — is in the service of his varied and interesting harmonic language, and in the way he “manages” the overall arc of tension and release in the solo, building successive climaxes leading into his final chorus, where at the very end he finally lets the air out of the balloon and trails off. When it’s over, you don’t feel like you’ve been merely listening to a jazz solo: you feel like you’ve been on a dangerous ride, then safely delivered home.
That feeling of “being taken somewhere” happens in great jazz solos. Like this one.
There are a couple of specific things worth mentioning for a student of jazz: Brecker’s minor ii-V7-i lines, and in particular his fluent use of the altered scale, merit study and emulation, and his use of false fingerings, a common saxophonistic ploy, go beyond the more typical exploits of other players — the alternating between the standard C fingering and A with the side C at mm. 122-125 is interesting and less often heard, calling to mind a blues guitarist’s riff.
I really have nothing to say about the double-time passages at mm. 47-53, 71-75, 89-100, and 131-140: they are, to me, stunning, in both senses of the word!
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