Friday, January 13, 2017
I’ll never forget that experience: virtually the entire New York jazz universe was there (including Michael’s brother, Randy), along with folks from all over the world, and as the news spread hundreds of People Who Actually Knew Why This Was A Big Deal were hugging and crying and grieving together.
It was terribly sad, and it was also beautiful and moving: I’ve always considered “jazz people” a family of sorts, but I’ve never lived that admittedly hopeful and optimistic notion so fully, and have it become so real for me.
I was moved to see jazz titans — legends, performers I’ve idolized and elevated to near godlike status over the years, my heroes — grieve this loss and be so very … human. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise: nearly every one of the “Jazz Gods” I’ve ever met has been a beautiful, humble person, as much an inspiration off the bandstand as on. I’ve never met him, but I’m told Michael Brecker was like that too.
He was a huge influence on me (as he was for nearly every saxophonist who came after him), but he was also in some ways SO overwhelming (technically, musically, and even in terms of his ability to play compellingly across jazz and even pop music genres) that he’s seemed nearly beyond the scope of a mere mortal like me — he was the first saxophonist I referred to, only half kidding, as “post-human.”
I considered Michael Brecker — who we’ve been without for 10 years but who’s also with me nearly every damn day when I pick up a horn and try to make something happen — just about untouchable!
Monday, June 15, 2015
Midwest Jazz was published by Arts Midwest, a non-profit regional arts organization based in Minneapolis. I worked there, starting as a receptionist and progressing through office manager and finally program associate. Arts Midwest is where I got my first chance to write about jazz and actually get paid (a little bit) for it!
Midwest Jazz (still called the Arts Midwest Jazzletter back in 1992, when I wrote the following review) covered the jazz scenes in the 9-state upper Midwest region served by Arts Midwest. And that’s how Cleveland-based saxophonist Ernie Krivda’s Ernie Krivda Jazz came my way for review.
I’d already heard of Krivda — he’d made a splash nationally with a number of highly-regarded recordings for the Inner City label — but somehow I’d never actually gotten my hands on his records.
I was looking forward to finally checking him out, but there was a problem: by the time I had a chance to listen to the disc, I was already late in submitting the review! When I mention that “I’m past deadline and Jones is breathing down my neck,” the Jones in question was editor Dawn Renee Jones, and I wasn’t kidding!
Meanwhile, Krivda’s very original playing and composing meant I couldn’t rely on some tried-and-true strategies usually suitable for cranking out a quick review, as you’ll read below...
(By the way, in the more than 20 years since writing this review, I’ve heard lots more Ernie Krivda, both on record and several times live. He remains a thrilling and amazing player, and I have a very specific take on “where he’s coming from” now that I hope to put to pixels one of these days. Also, when I wrote this, I had no idea that one day I’d work and play with monster bassist Jeff Halsey, cited below, at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp!)
Here we go...
This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter
Summer 1992 (Vol. 10, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.
Everything tastes more or less like chicken, the saying goes, and there is a related concept in jazz: “every tenorman plays more or less like _____________.” The name you put in the blank depends upon what decade it is: nowadays it’s Michael Brecker (by state law), and before that it was John Coltrane (who Brecker played more or less like, once upon a time), Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins. It’s important, and probably should be mandatory, that tenor players follow these strict guidelines, lest reviewers be forced to deviate from the tried-and-true “he plays like so-and-so” formula.
O.K., so I’m writing this review of Ernie Krivda Jazz, I’m past deadline and Jones is breathing down my neck, and Krivda is breaking the rules. He’s a tenor player, so it’s my duty to shoehorn him into the appropriate category: he’s in the modern improvising tradition, and shows a fluent mastery of the post bop idiom, with an original and expressive approach. But who the hell does he sound like? Maybe Ernie Krivda?
Ernie Krivda Jazz is a great way to sample Krivda’s work as a solid improvisor and composer. The disc captures Krivda in a variety of settings, leading off with a quintet featuring Pete Selvaggio on accordion! Krivda’s “Old Vienna” is a nice, rambling, dramatic “old world” tune, very difficult to describe but vaguely reminiscent of the sort of stuff Bulgarian Ivo Papasov does, without the crazed metric shifts.
“Irv’s At Midnight,” a funky shuffle featuring a nice tenor & bone line, is another tune featuring the accordion. If you’re one of the seven people who haven’t yet heard that the accordion has undergone a political rehabilitation, and is now considered a very hip instrument to jam with, check out these two tunes. At times Selvaggio’s squeeze-box has the plaintive wail of a Toots Thielemans harmonica solo; other times it sounds like a pocket Hammond B3. It’s very effective in this context, and Krivda’s use of the instrument in these two tunes is intelligent and appropriate — it’s not a gimmick, but rather an integral part of the group sound.
“The Bozo” is the most compositionally ambitious offering of the set, adding two trumpets to Krivda’s tenor and Pat Hallaran’s trombone. Krivda blows a loose, inside-outside solo, filled with effortless, skittering arpeggiated forays into and out of the altissimo register. Guitarist Bob Fraser plays a nice meaty solo (one of his many excellent contributions to this disc) before the horns take over with a complex, theatrical interlude. Good stuff.
Next come three exquisite duet performances between Krivda and bassist Jeff Halsey: “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues For Two” (an original), and “Over The Rainbow.” Halsey plays with a fat, warm sound, and Krivda is alternately lyrical and intense, soulful and aggressive. These two virtuosos play with a high degree of empathy, and their collaborations here are completely satisfying.
The remaining four tunes alternate between Krivda’s quartet and quintet. “The Song Is You” features more nice blowing by Krivda and Fraser; Krivda’s “In Pursuit Of Hip” is another effective use of the tenor/bone front line; “Little Face” is a jazz waltz original with a nice cadenza ending; and “Love For Sale” closes off the disc with a bluesy, unconventional arrangement.
Since Krivda defies pigeonholing, we’re forced to accept him on his own terms. I can’t tell you who he sounds like; I can only say he’s a master improviser playing in a unique, original style. You should pick up this disc and find out about Ernie Krivda.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Related PostJazz musicians over the years have settled on those latter changes, which form a minor ii-V7 progression with a half-dimished ii chord (a minor chord with a flatted fifth) and a V7 chord with a flatted ninth. The minor progression makes sense from a music theory standpoint, since the changes resolve in bar 5 to a C minor chord. And it sounds good: those minor ii-V7s, with their flat fifths and flat ninths, give improvisers some meaty, “darker” harmonies to dig into...
Now, this might seem to be a nerdy “inside baseball” kind of observation (and that’s only because, let’s face it, it is!) — however, the difference between the minor vs. major ii-V7s is big: even non-musician normal-type human beings can hear it...
When I first came across this recording of Dexter and his major ii-V7s, chockfull of natural fifths and ninths, I didn’t recognize what he was up to: I thought he was blowing some sort of especially fresh and interesting substitution. It was a facepalm moment once I actually started transcribing the solo: nothing fancy or exotic to see here, folks — just one of my heroes messing with my expectations!
Dexter was the first guy I’ve heard consistently and relentlessly play major ii-V7s at that spot on TWNBAY (don’t be afraid, just an acronym...), but there was at least one other person who heard the tune that way even before Dexter did — and that individual is Harry Warren, the guy who composed it!
Not long after I’d posted my Dexter TWNBAY transcription, I heard from Terry Lukiwski, a fine trombonist based in Toronto. He’d spotted my commentary on Dexter’s novel (to me!) interpretation of the tune, and told me that Gordon was merely playing what Harry Warren had originally intended. Later, Terry was kind enough to send me a copy of the original published arrangement. (He sent this to me almost exactly three years ago; it’s apparently taken me till now to build up the emotional strength to deal with this shattering development!)
Here’s the relevant section, the first bars of the refrain, from the published arrangement:
And here’s what that sounds like:
Here’s the exact same arrangement, but with bars 3 and 4 “minorized” — the A’s and E’s in those bars flatted, so that we have D half-diminished 7 [or Dm7(b5)] to G7(b9), the common performance practice of the tune today:
The first is sweet; the second bittersweet — at least, that’s a succinct way of describing how I hear them.
So: which is “correct”?
Well, it’s worth noting that jazz musicians are hardly known for their fealty to a composer’s intentions — in this genre all about improvisation, the tune is often no more than the half-pipe (by the way, the Winter Olympics are on TV right now...) which the improvisor freestyles over: nobody really cares about the infrastructure — folks just tune in to see the cool moves.
However, jazz musicians, especially old-timers, have also been known to solemnly advise youngsters and up-and-comers that they need to know the lyrics of a song in order to properly interpret it.
The lyrics (written not by Warren, but by Mack Gordon) at that moment are: “There will be many other nights like this” — a sweet, positive sentiment, right? And take a look at the performance instruction there, buried under those guitar tabs: sweetly, it says! Major ii-V7 all the way, dangit!
But the entire tune is definitely bittersweet: “this is our last dance together,” and while I’ll meet other people and get on with my life, no one will ever get to me the way you have. “Yes, I may dream a million dreams, But how can they come true, If there will never ever be another you?”
Sob! Bittersweet! Minor ii-V7, fer sure!
Whichever: All I know is that Dexter played it sweet and happy that lovely July night in Copenhagen, in 1967....
(Meanwhile, even if you don’t know Harry Warren, you likely know some of his music: in addition to TWNBAY, he wrote Lullaby of Broadway, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Jeepers Creepers, The More I See You, I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, You’re My Everything, Forty-Second Street, September in the Rain, You’ll Never Know, I Only Have Eyes for You, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Lulu’s Back in Town, and lots more [Shuffle Off to Buffalo]!
However, even if you were already familiar with Harry Warren and his music, I’ll bet you didn’t know that his birth name was Salvatore Antonio Guaragna!)
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
While we Americans focus our concerns on the southern border, clamoring to build fences against folks we fear might threaten our way of life, we’re missing a more pressing Menace To The North: a horde of killer Canadian-raised tenor players, ready to wreak havoc with the self-esteem and general well-being of Red White & Blue saxophonists here in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A.♫ MP3 ♫
Seamus Blake’s solo on
If you’re an American tenor saxophonist and you haven’t heard Canadians Mike Murley or Phil Dwyer yet, your feelings haven’t been sufficiently hurt and your ego is more intact than it should be; meanwhile, if Seamus Blake is a name you’re not familiar with, you just plain ain’t doing your homework and should step out of the nunnery from time to time.
Since Washington refuses to impose strict protectionist policies and heavy tariffs to keep guys like Blake from usurping our lucrative jazz gigs, American tenor players will be forced to resort to grit, determination, and long tones to keep the Northern Menace at bay.
Unfortunately, it won’t be enough.
Blake, winner of the Thelonious Monk sax competition in 2002, has too much going for him: a gorgeous sound, great time feel, nimble chops, and improbable range: he’s as comfortable playing lines in the extreme off-the-fingering-chart upper reaches of the tenor as he is in the wholesome, more-than-sufficient and ordained by God & Rubank normal range of the horn.
Go, from the album Sun Sol recorded in 1999, is a complex, skittering little number that resolves into an altered blues for the blowing. In four succinct choruses, Blake shows off that tone, that relaxed and flexible behind-the-beat time feel, and his crazy range, a full octave above the notes you were told about in school.
Regarding the transcription: there was a fair bit of “listening between the lines” to determine the changes in this chordless trio performance — sometimes, as is often the case in a gloriously flexible form like the blues, there is occasional ambiguity and divergence in the harmonic paths taken by Blake and bassist Avishai Cohen along the way, especially in the turnarounds at the end of each chorus. The changes I’ve put down are what I think is a reasonable interpretation and summing up of the goings-on here...
So: dig Blake’s wonderful performance here, then write your congressman and demand a wall or moat or something be constructed along the International Boundary to keep this sort of thing from happening again.
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Monday, September 30, 2013
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
I’m performing later this week in one of Buffalo’s more unusual spaces: an old, once-abandoned grain elevator on the Buffalo River. Last week I dropped by to check out the acoustics and get a sense of how I was going to work in the space, and: Holy Crap! The sound was amazing, with the space serving as a sort of “natural Echoplex” — really has to be heard to be believed. Here's an iPhone recording — with no reverb or effects of any sort — of me working out some ideas for how to play there ... influenced by the work of John Klemmer, Paul Winter, and Minimalist composers like Steve Reich.
(This grain elevator is adjacent to the Buffalo River, and occasionally you’ll hear geese offer their frank assessment of my playing. Meanwhile, freshman students from UB’s School of Architecture & Planning were touring the site; you’ll hear them from time to time as well... More photos of the site can be found here: Perot Malting Elevator, Silo City, September 20, 2013.)
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Thursday, June 13, 2013
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 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 enlightenment! 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 (and stay loose!) 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...
Sunday, April 8, 2012
There was the potential for one hell of a band assembled behind the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
Folks from The Wisteria Initiative and the Shepherd House Restoration Committee staged a Buffalo version of the legendary “Great Day in Harlem” photograph (if you don’t know that celebrated picture, Google it and prepare to be amazed at the established and up-and-coming jazz luminaries of all generations somehow brought together on the stairs of a Harlem brownstone in 1958...).
I’m not going to name any of the names at yesterday’s event, because I’d inevitably forget to mention folks who really deserve mention — and some of my absolutely favorite players, complete heavies, weren’t able to be there — but I will say this: folks driving by on the Scajaquada a bit before noon saw gathered on the steps behind the Historical Society a sharply-dressed and well-coiffed (except for my fellow baldies) congregation of what makes Buffalo amazing — and I say this as an “outsider” who came here a couple of decades ago against my will!
This was a collection of world class talent and creativity. It was humbling to be amidst these folks who’ve excelled at the challenging and quixotic pursuit of excellence in jazz performance.
And here’s what I’m thinking ... Buffalo is like jazz: misunderstood and under-appreciated. But if you let it get under your skin, you WILL fall in love with it. I certainly have.
Meanwhile, here’s the deal with jazz ... folks who play it do so for one reason and only one reason: because they must!
They certainly ain’t in it for the money, or the, um, acclaim. There are far more sensible pursuits! But, alas, if you’re working to master this amazing and profound music — our country’s deepest and most important artistic contribution to the world, a unique cultural triumph that somehow is undervalued in the very land where it was created! — it’s only because you have no choice and can’t imagine doing otherwise! It’s grabbed you! It’s gotten under your skin!
And so these “jazz people” lined up at the Historical Society yesterday were really part of a self-selected family. They truly represent the best of Buffalo: people who aspire to improve themselves and express themselves and be part of an important legacy — worthy kin to those storied folks photographed in Harlem a little more than 50 years ago!
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!”