Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jamey Aebersold Teaches the World to Swing

This is the first thing I wrote for Midwest Jazz after my semi-traumatic move from Minneapolis to Buffalo.

After the editor encouraged me to keep my ears open for worthy stories to tell, I pitched a piece on Jamey Aebersold. While Jamey is recognized today as a pioneer and titan of jazz education — indeed, 20 years after this was published the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title of Jazz Master, its highest award in the field — back then the mainstream jazz publications more or less ignored him. This would be the first published in-depth treatment of him I’m aware of.

We had an interesting and wide-ranging conversation for this piece: he had surprising things to say about the state of jazz education (comments still entirely relevant today) and how he’d changed things for better and for worse, along with tidbits about how he came up with his groundbreaking play-along concept, what his expectations were at the beginning, and the behind-the-scenes process that goes into his sets.

Reprinted with permission from
Midwest Jazz Fall 1994 (Vol. 1, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.

Jamey Aebersold is not a jazz vocalist. Not really. And yet in a “blindfold test” literally thousands of jazz musicians would call out his name upon hearing him intone, in his no-nonsense Indiana twang, “One. Two. One, two, three....”

That’s because “Jamey Aebersold” is a household name — if your household happens to harbor an aspiring jazz musician.

He is heard counting off the tempos on more than 60 volumes comprising his trailblazing play-along series, A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation. These recordings form the cornerstone of many serious jazz musicians’ practice regimens.

Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP) recording of a rhythm section (usually piano-bass-drums, although guitar or Hammond B3 organ are featured on some) and a coordinated booklet with transposed parts for all instruments (the piano’s in the right channel of the stereo recording, with the bass in the left, so players of those instruments can turn down the appropriate channel).

Thanks to the series, even the most isolated would-be jazzer has the opportunity to play with such luminaries as pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Patrice Rushen, Richie Beirach, Hal Galper, Ronnie Mathews, Harold Mabern, James Williams, and Jim McNeely; bassists Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Bob Cranshaw, and Ray Drummond; and drummers Ben Riley, Al Foster, Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, Grady Tate, Adam Nussbaum, Mickey Roker, and Marvin Smitty Smith. Among others.

The approach is simple and effective for developing fluency in the hundreds of tunes that make up the lingua franca of the jazz musician. In addition to numerous sets featuring all manner of standards in various styles, there are also sets devoted to the compositions of notable jazz innovators and composers: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton — the list goes on and on. Other sets cover the building blocks of the jazz vocabulary, including the blues and the ii-V-I chord progression.

Jamey Aebersold started out as a saxophonist, earning his Masters Degree from the University of Indiana in the early ’60s. Since then, thanks to his stellar work in the field, he was voted into the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Jazz Educators, and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Indiana University in 1992. He’s even been seen on the CBS television program “Sunday Morning,” on a segment about jazz education that featured his Summer Jazz Workshops, which bring players of all levels together with a heavy faculty of recording musicians and educators. The workshops have been held not only in the U.S. and Canada, but in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, Scotland, and Denmark as well.

When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator.Aebersold got into the play-along business more or less by accident. “Back in the ’60s, I was at a big band camp in Connecticut. At the end of the week, I had a private lesson with a couple of saxophonists — I was playing piano, walking a bass line with the left hand and playing chords with the right. When we were finished, they asked me if I would make a tape for them of blues and standards, things like There Will Never Be Another You and Green Dolphin Street, a few choruses of each. Well, I never got around to making the tape for them, but I did come out with Volume One a year or so later.”

Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese. It contains chapters on melody, scales and modes, articulation, ear training, and other aspects of jazz improvisation, with play-along tracks featuring the blues (in F and Bb), dorian minor progressions, and jazz formulae including cycles, cadences, and ii/V7s.

At first Aebersold didn’t expect much, and wasn’t even planning to go beyond the first volume. “I really thought the Berklee School of Music would take it over, if they considered it a good idea. I could imagine a series: a Duke Ellington set, a Count Basie set, and so on. They never did take it on, so a couple of years later I added a few more sets, and before long people were saying ‘hey, why don’t you do this,’ and we were off and running. At the time, I still considered it a sideline rather than my main thing. But then it got out of hand!”

He’s currently working on Volumes 62, 63, and 64, which will focus on trumpeter Tom Harrell, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and salsa & latin jazz. “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!”

Aebersold’s business, which not only sells his own materials but also hundreds of other jazz instruction books and videos, is based in his home in New Albany, Indiana. Nowadays the typical play-along recording session takes place right in his basement. “I put the drummer in one room, the bass player in the next, each one with headphones and their own little amplifier for volume control, and I’m in the office here with the piano and the tape recorder.

“I sit at my desk, and I fix the tempo with a metronome, letting them hear it through the mic. Then I count it off and let them go. After four, five, or five and a half minutes, I say ‘OK, last chorus, take it out,’ very softly into the mic.”

In the early days of the series, Aebersold played sax along with the rhythm section, in a separate booth, to keep things tight (the sax track, of course, was not included in the final mix). “Now, from time to time, if the piano player worries about getting too repetitive, or feels like he’s starting to solo rather than accompany, I’ll scat-sing softly into the mic. That levels everything out again.”

Aebersold takes care to ensure that the arrangements and changes for the tunes on the sets are definitive. “We talk about the beginnings and endings before we start. Some of the fake books that I’ve seen don’t have very good changes, so I’m always careful about our changes, and want them to be correct. When you’re dealing with people of the caliber of (jazz educator) Dan Haerle or Hal Galper, well, they don’t want to play changes that aren’t the way jazz players play them, so they’ll speak up — ‘Jamey, you don’t want a dominant 7th chord there, shouldn’t that be minor’ — that sort of thing. We make those adjustments, but I tell you, sometimes it’s a toss-up, and I’ll have to run and pull out the classic recordings, and we’ll strain to hear what those guys are playing, and all the while the clock’s ticking away....”

The old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears & really listen.The way jazz knowledge is passed on has changed considerably over the years. Novice jazz musicians used to advance through what amounted to an apprenticeship system, learning the music by sitting in with accomplished mentors. Jam sessions were the classrooms in the music’s previous periods.

Today jam sessions of that sort are hard to come by, and the apprenticeship system has largely been supplanted by academic approaches. Most of the musicians currently rising through the ranks typically go through high school and college jazz programs, referring to numerous jazz improvisation texts along the way. Aebersold, a key figure in today’s jazz education scene, laments some aspects of how that scene has changed.

We oftentimes have players who don’t get lost & play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.“I think the old days were better in some ways, because people were forced to use their ears and really listen. Jazz education has changed, and of course I’m a part of that too. Now people use books, a visual medium — people using their eyes instead of their ears. They’re taking the information in on the left side of the brain, while the right side, the creative side, isn’t being used the way it used to. When I was coming up, the eyes weren’t important, the ears were — listening was key. The right side took in the information, while the left side, the analytical side, tried to figure out what was going on. Now, it’s almost reversed, and I think we oftentimes have players who don’t get lost and play the right notes, but aren’t saying much.

“I’m sorry that things have changed in that respect. We have many people today attempting to learn how to improvise, which I think is marvelous, but in my opinion the importance of listening isn’t stressed enough.”

Aebersold believes that improvisation should be a core value in school music curriculums, as a key to developing the students’ creativity, and that music contests have hurt rather than helped the cause. In an article entitled “Music Is For Life” he writes:

We’ve taken the students’ freedom to play music and forced them into a competitive mode. They play a few songs, over and over, to be performed at a competition, festival, or contest in hopes of winning a trophy... What if math or English were taught that way?... I can’t picture a high school History teacher working his students over and over on the Gettysburg address for three months to bring home a first place at contest.

Aebersold favors creativity over competition. “I think that if everyone were given a chance to develop their creative side, the world would be a lot more peaceful. Having a creative outlet is very important, and music is a tremendous stress reliever.”

His sets have helped thousands develop their own creative resources. Yet Jamey Aebersold downplays his status as one of our premier jazz educators. “When I was in college, I thought that the last thing I would be was an educator. When I got started with the series, I took it step by step, not pushing myself into it at all. In fact, all along the way I was thinking, ‘tomorrow, instead of worrying about all this play-along stuff, I’m going to practice three hours. Tomorrow’s the day.’ Now, that day hasn’t come yet, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”

UPDATE: As you might expect, a few things have changed in the nearly 2 decades since this piece first came out...
  • “more than 60 volumes” — as I write this, Jamey has more than doubled that number!
  • “Each set features a CD or cassette (and once upon a time, LP)”: a few cassettes or LPs are still available, as signed collector’s items...
  • “Volume One, Jazz: How To Play & Improvise, is available today in English, German, French, and Japanese.” — add Spanish and Portuguese to the list...
  • “I want to do one of Christmas songs this year too!” — It took a little longer than that: the first volume of Christmas tunes was Volume 78.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Coltrane • “Take The Coltrane” transcription

From the Impulse! recording Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, recorded September 26, 1962.

John Coltrane
Take The Coltrane transcription
This is an amazing blues performance from John Coltrane’s celebrated meeting with Duke Ellington. Around the time of this recording, many in the jazz press, including some usually perceptive and open-minded writers, couldn’t “hear” Trane: they found his sound harsh and his lines angular, unswinging, and abstract. Meanwhile, some lesser writers cursed his output as anti-jazz, angry noise that threatened to eclipse and even destroy real jazz.

♫ MP3 ♫
Coltrane’s solo on
Take The Coltrane
Bob Thiele, the head of Coltrane’s new label, Impulse!, astutely decided to counter the bad press by positioning his new artist as a player firmly in jazz’s mainstream, first by getting the Duke’s “seal of approval” in a collaboration, followed by an ear-friendly album of ballads.

Coltrane’s solo on Take The Coltrane, an Ellington riff penned for the occasion, is a yin-yang study in tension and release: knotty dissonant phrases are juxtaposed with bright, sing-songy consonant motives. The tension he creates with this approach is unsettling, like watching an artist paint swatches of cheerful primary colors onto a smoldering canvas about to burst into flames. (Ellington lays out during the solo, giving Coltrane room to air out his ideas.)

Harmonically, Trane uses a few regular strategies to move from dissonance to consonance, always with an ear toward making strong resolutions at the “big spots” in the form: in the last 4 bars of the chorus, he might play outside the changes entirely, and then firmly resolve into the harmony again to lead into the next chorus. Here are examples from mm. 69-73 and 92-97:

He’ll sometimes make a false- or mini-resolution to the C7 in bar 5 of the form using the same technique; here’s mm. 149-151:

More typically at bars 3 & 4 in the form he’ll play a tritone substitution resolving into bar 5; here’s an example from his 2nd chorus (see also choruses 3, 4, & 8):

Trane’s forays outside of tonality seem more dissonant and intense because they are often resolved by simple and unambiguous diatonic motives, like this very consonant “triad-pairesque” line from his 2nd chorus:

Whatever Coltrane is up to, here’s the thing: this solo is a blast to play! From a technical standpoint it’s actually simpler and more approachable than many of Trane’s outings — there are no sheets of sound here, no intensely technical passages that defy normal, mortal fingers! If you’ve ever worked on a Trane solo and thought to yourself “I’ll never be able to play this...,” here’s one, as amazing and deep as it is, that might actually be coaxed from your horn after a bit of shedding...

(A note about the chord changes in this transcription: these are intended more to delineate the form and provide a possible context for Trane’s blowing. These changes do not always reflect Garrison’s bass lines, and do not even necessarily reflect Trane’s actual intentions: the blues is an incredibly fluid and flexible framework for blowing, and Trane was a master at pushing its limits even further! In several cases here there are multiple ways to interpret the harmonic context of his lines; the changes on this transcription provide one viable and hopefully straightforward interpretation...)

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Exactly One Year Ago Today: Epic Gig Shots!

Bar La Vigne, Briancon, France: early in the morning of February 14, 2010

Jazz Club Torino, Torino, Italy: late in the evening of February 14, 2010

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dexter Gordon • “There Will Never Be Another You” transcription

From the Black Lion recording Body & Soul, recorded July 20, 1967.

Dexter Gordon
There Will Never Be Another You transcription
There’s no law requiring bars 3 and 4 of There Will Never Be Another You to be a minor ii-V (Em7b5 to A7b9 in tenor key) leading into the minor 7 chord in bar 5. If there were, Dexter would be risking jail time and a fine in this performance, as he frequently (but not always!) plays these changes as Em7 to A7 (or Em9 to A9).

♫ MP3 ♫
Gordon’s solo on
There Will Never Be Another You
It’s not a trivial difference! To ears accustomed to the traditional, way-it’s-always-done, God-ordained “normal” progression for this tune, the onslaught of F#s and B naturals sounding in these two bars comes off as some sort of ear-cleansing, hip and “out there” substitution. But nope, it ain’t: it’s just a wholesome ol’ plain-as-pie ii-V, but without the “traditional” half-diminished and flat-nine spicing.

Related PostsThis recording is from a live date at the Montmartre Jazz Club in Copenhagen in the late Sixties, with an illustrious rhythm section of ex-pats Kenny Drew and Tootie Heath, along with Danish ringer (let’s make that über-ringer/monster) Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass. These sessions, from the London-based independent jazz label Black Lion, aren’t as well-known as Dexter’s releases on Blue Note or Prestige — and that’s unfortunate, because these discs feature top-notch, fleet-footed Dexter at his swaggering behind-the-beat best. (“Fleet-footed” AND “behind the beat”? MUST be Dexter!)

Here we have 8+ choruses of how-it’s-done-boys-and-girls bebop improvisation over one of the most common tunes called on a jazz gig. What more is there to say? Horn in your hand? On your mark, get set...

Wait! Actually, there is a bit more to say about some of what Dexter’s up to here:

  • First off, regarding the aforementioned bars 3 and 4 (and 19 and 20) of every chorus: okay, I’m overstating the earth-shatteringitudiness of Dex’s major ii-Vs here, but that’s because the first time I heard it years ago it totally threw me for a loop — especially that spot at measure 115 where he anticipates the Em7 by repeating a bunch of F#s over the FMaj7 chord: that was the moment my head exploded (I'm an active listener...). So, when playing this tune, I will sometimes use this gambit, and it always makes the piano player raise his head with a start, as if someone spilled a drink in his lap. “Made you look!”
  • Dexter has this little “embellishment thingy” (I'm appropriating this term from the Harvard Dictionary of Music, if memory serves...) he does very regularly to add some propulsion and excitement to the start of his lines (and sometimes within the line), and I’m sure there’s got to be an actual moniker for it, but ... I have no idea what that might be. It’s sort of like an unprepared escape tone — which is more or less a self-negating nonsense coinage, so if you know a better “official” term, you MUST provide it in a comment.

    It’s easier to just show the goldarn thingy than to describe it: note the beginning of his lines at the end of measure 10 leading into 11, 193 into 194, 253 into 254, 258 into 259; and at measures 25, 200, 233, 261, and 298. He hits a note and instantly jumps down from it and continues his line. The hell’s that called? Whatever, he does it so much here it becomes almost a sort of tic — once you start listening for it, you’ll spot it all over the place.
  • Dexter was known for his verbal witticisms (“In nuclear war all men are cremated equal”) and for his musical witticisms, inserting clever, unexpected musical quotes into his phrases as a sort of “aural wink” at the listener. Jazz educator Jerry Coker has lamented that this is a dying art: we’re losing the lingua franca of musical “stuff” — snippets of standards or bugle calls or cartoon themes or other bits of musical doggerel — that provided material for quotemeisters like Dexter and Sonny Rollins, so that this or that amusing quote goes right over the heads of younger players.

    And: he’s right!

    But, at the same time, I suspect younger players will go about finding their own relevant material: I’ll never forget hearing a 16-year-old James Carter (it was 1985) blowing over a now-forgotten standard (“Rainy Day,” maybe...), suddenly interjecting the sax riff from a hit of the moment, Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On”! It was utterly unexpected, it was glorious, and ... it had exactly the effect Dexter’s ingenious quotes must have had at their moment of expression. Kids’ll figure out their own stuff to do...

    This particular Dexter solo actually strikes me as restrained quote-wise, compared to some of his other performances. A few are unambiguous: “I’ll Never Be The Same” at 4:42 (thanks to an anonymous email correspondent for making that great catch!); the old Dixieland warhorse “Dinah” sounds at 9:45 (a tip of the hat to John Greiner — a very fine saxophonist from my hometown! — for putting the name on that one...); the sort-of-calypso tune “Marianne” (“All day, all night, Marianne”) pops up from nowhere at 10:23; and: what else? That’s “Laura” at 3:28, right? Might 4:20 be a bit of Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm”? Is 11:01 sort of “Satin Doll”? Folks from the Sax On The Web discussion group, where I tossed out an All-Call to see what else could be spotted here, detected the possible traces of a number of other tunes. Were they conscious quotes on Dexter’s part, or just evocative melodic fragments, faces in the clouds? Don’t know, and unfortunately Dexter isn’t around to tell us.

But: we do have this wonderful performance! Here, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how a Master would play There Will Never Be Another You.

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