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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Piano Voicings IV

Here's an example of how you can use these two-hand shells to work on learning a tune. In this exercise I picked only two of the four different shell voicings (the open ones) to start with. Note that these voicings either have scale degree 5 or 9 as the top voice. Practice these chords by always keeping three notes in the right hand and two notes in the left. I'll get more into that in a follow-up post.

It's a good skill for any musician not just pianists to be able to play through a standard tune with these voicings. Getting this basic harmony together on the piano will help greatly with hearing and especially memorizing the chord changes to standard tunes. This is a tune by the great composer (and greatly under appreciated composer) and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Have fun!

* Note that on half-diminished chords it is possible to substitute the root for the ninth if that sounds better to you.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My reply to David Valdez

The following is my reply to David Valdez on the topic of jazz education producing a gluttony of jazz graduates who are ultimately to blame for the decline in the amount of work available for jazz musicians. I disagreed with this comment but we agree on a number of points and I encourage you to check out his excellent blog here.

Maybe I can jump back in again...
I think we're all reconciling in our own ways the sad truth that live music is just not very important to the public at large. Maybe we can agree that whatever it used to be, it was what it was a generation or two before any of us on this blog (I don't know for sure but I doubt the work available in the 70's and 80's could hold a candle to the constant need for dance bands in the 40's and 50's)  Maybe I can try to explain my distinction between jazz education and being a professional musician in this context.

In my comment I disagreed with the assertion that the jazz music business is in peril as a result of numbers of students graduating from university jazz programs. I guess it is mostly because I don't really view university and the academic music streams as a form of trade school. As another commentator pointed out God help the student who'll try to pay off a degree at Berklee with jazz music as a career choice.  At McGill the overwhelming majority of my students, as you've already pointed out, will dable in music professionally before moving on to pursue other more lucrative endeavors. And we both agree that this is a good thing. It's good because they will go on to make up an informed consumer of art and hopefully good music.  I don't really feel threatened by their short presence in the "job market" I even encourage them to live the dream as long as possible. Most of the gigs my students play are not professional and I doubt that I'd lose any of my work to them (at least not for a couple of years...I've got to keep practising just in case!) If anything I get a lot of inspiration from hearing what younger players are coming up with as a result of their influences.  Here's where perhaps another distinction is useful: Being an artist is not the same as being a success in the music business.

Being an artist requires intense mentoring, participation in a community of like minded musicians, and a lifetime of work mastering the technical aspects of one's instrument and one's own musical language. Success in the music biz requires one to have skills relevant to the needs of contemporary society. When people used to dance to music, they depended on musicians and live music in a way that they do not today. When people stopped dancing to jazz (whether the music changed or the public's entertainment needs changed is still up for debate) then live music began its steady decline. Some "artists" are a success in the biz (Mehldau for example) but I can't really explain why. I also know personally of several world-class musicians who are hard-pressed to earn the money they deserve and must supplement their income with teaching. Conversely I think we could all name a few mediocre players who are absolutely striking it rich in the biz. However as a teacher at the university level I would never steer anyone away from their dreams but rather I let life just kind of work itself out in this regard. It takes an enormous amount of dedication to make a go of it and if a person has that dedication they will do it anyways regardless of what I tell them.

So ultimately I don't really think it's possible to teach this dedication. And I believe that dedication is the key to becoming an artist. So in a way I don't even think it's possible to really "teach" artistry.  I think the closest I could come would be to tell students that if they want to work they should start thinking about becoming team players. For me that meant learning how to accompany as well as I could (let's face it, it's what a pianist does %90 of the time to pay the bills) But this decision was a result of my own experience mentoring piano players in Montreal and New York and not so much a result of my classwork in composition, improv, and arranging.  I am very fortunate that I can fund my own creative projects and discover my own artistic voice with the work I get as a sideman playing (ahem) sometimes less creative gigs (no offense to anyone in Montreal, I love you all! I'm just talking about the jobbing gigs)

The best argument I give students to finish their degrees are if they love learning and if they want to teach (you could potentially earn with a masters degree $100/hr teaching in a university instead of $14/h teaching at the local music store). These are valid reasons for getting a degree neither of which will guarantee any success in the field of performance.  But you're right David we as teachers need to impart clearly what a student is and isn't getting as part of their university education.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Piano Voicings III: Two-Hand Shells

Moving on from the basic left hand voicings are the basic two hand shells. These voicings, aside from being a good starting point for pianists to start comping in an ensemble, also are a good way to learn about jazz voice leading. Virtually %90 of the harmony in standard tunes employs an ascending root motion in 4ths. When this occurs there is a voice exchange: 7-3, 3-7, 5-9, 9-5.  Some substitutions can occur as in dominant chords when the 5th is replaced by the 13. Also extensions can be raised or lowered in certain instances as well. These shell voicings will help any musician gain a better understanding of this basic voice leading and the sounds of the altered extensions in the II-V-I cadence. I've included an excersise that I give my students where I provide the top not of the voicing and they need to complete the voicing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

John Geggie / Josh Rager / Paul Meyers: Ottawa, Canada November 28, 2009

Here's just a quick link to a review of a concert that I played last month in Ottawa.(read the review here) I have known and had the pleasure to work with John Geggie over a number of years. John hosts the perennial jam sessions at the Ottawa jazz festival so I sometimes find myself in situations playing with John and someone else who I've never played with before. Our concert at the NAC last November was a similar event. Our special guest was the wonderful guitarist Paul Meyers who is known for his use of the classical guitar (nylon strings instead of steel). I was very fortunate to have had this opportunity if for no other reason that to have Paul impart his considerable knowledge of Brazilian music. We performed a number of his original tunes which had a variety of different Brazilian feels and rhythms.

There is just something about working with a musician such as Paul that makes music playing very easy. Its difficult to say exactly why with some musicians it seems like one could just trip and fall on their instrument and a pleasing sound would emerge while in other situations I try and try and nothing comes out. The thing about this situation was that Paul needed to give me a crash course in some Brazillian styles.  I don't really know anything about Brazillian music other than the traditional crossover bossa nova stuff.  Yet what Paul showed me just seemed so easy to play when we played through his music. I don't know if it was very authentic or weather my comping rhythms were always in the correct clave (or whatever) but what we played together was musical and seemed quite effortless to me. I'd like to thank these great players for an evening of memorable music making.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Information V. Knowledge

A few weeks ago a commenter brought up the notion of a dichotomy between information and knowledge.  This goes far beyond jazz education and indeed touches on what it means for us as individuals to navigate through this man-made “information age” that we live in.  In relation to jazz education we can characterize this dichotomy as the difference between learning something new about music and the use of that new information to create music. In layman’s terms we can say something like “the difference between playing notes and making those notes mean something”. 

This is obviously a complex topic because it brings up a paradox, one that could give Buddhists a run for their money!  In any discussion about or analysis of music (whether it is a composition or an improvised jazz solo) one must necessarily reduce the music to its barest elements often using academically derived terminology.  For example upon listening to Sonny Rollins’ great solo on “St. Thomas” a young saxophone student might be drawn to Rollins’ exploitation of the low range of the tenor saxophone. An analysis of the upper and lower most limit of a melody is sometimes referred to as “Tessitura” and it makes a useful point of discussion in jazz education when a teacher wants to point out the “drama” of the extreme ranges of the different instruments.  What can a student do with that information? They could try to explore the extreme upper and lower range on their instrument and that would be and academically logical exercise to pursue. However whether or not they could use that information to make music (here I mean music as something artistically satisfying….well you come up with a better definition of music!) is really up to them. In other words the student must find a way of taking “information” and turning it into “knowledge”.  These two things are very separate human activities and there is a paradox implicit in this statement.  Because what is knowledge but the internalization of information? And yet could any analysis of Rollins’ solo, filled to the brim with information, ever completely relay the “meaning” of those notes? Could we take all those notes and information about how to play those notes and give it to a computer and would that computer then be able to convincingly reproduce the music?  I believe that how we answer these questions have a lot to do with how we generate culture.

Culturally speaking it’s pretty easy to look around, at the media, the internet, tv and notice that we are constantly bombarding ourselves with information. We do it as a form of entertainment but we also do it as a way of life.  Yesterday a student showed me a file he downloaded from a Bit Torrent site that contained every recording by Miles Davis.  I mean EVERY record ever made by Miles even as a sideman! I was floored mostly because I realized that I hadn’t even listened to half of these records. “Which one’s your favorite?” I asked. “I don’t know I haven’t listened to them all”. Maybe this is good to have on your computer for reference.  Maybe one could get to listening to all this music (some of it arguably better than the rest).  But the fact is that this student also had every South Park episode, every Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, every Seinfeld episode and 1.2 gigs of jazz related literature (from fakebooks to jazz piano transciptions) also downloaded from the torrent site. This gathering of information is a sort of pass-time. It’s relevant to our lives in every way but there is so much out there that the best any of us can do is ammass it on our hard drives. 

If you read interviews with our current generation of jazz elders they say things like they listened to Art Tatum on 78s when they were young. The long-playing record was just out in the later ‘50s so I assume this development in technology allowed the young jazz student to listen to up to 25 minutes of music at one time (assuming they were willing to take the disc out of the sleeve and place it carefully on the player and gently put the needle down…that took a good minute and a half!) And yet I’ve never heard Chick Corea lament that he could only find a certain limited number of Art Tatum recordings or that this was somehow an obstacle to his development as a musician.  Talk about a generation gap. Even when I was a student in the ‘90s the internet was basically for email and stealing pop music. I had to put on vinyl records of music that was not yet re-released on cd. 

I can’t help but feel that the net result from this kind of passive gathering of information is that we can obtain and capture more information than ever however the state of mind with which we gather that information posses a major obstacle to us ever knowing anything.  We become fixated on more, more, more…

The greater significance to us is that we perhaps think less about what we read, hear, or see.  In the case of becoming a jazz musician nobody will ever get hurt if you own all the Miles Davis records without knowing who played on them or what year they were recorded.  But in other facets of our lives this mentality becomes potentially dangerous to our health.

Take for example the inundation of seemingly conflicting information spewed at us by the media regarding the H1N1 Vaccine.  I am a parent of a 2 year-old so I’ve had to recently decide whether this would be potentially harmful or not for my son to receive his vaccine. Turns out that all of the information that I could passively get from the media without doing any research of my own (on Yahoo when I open my email, the tv when its on around the home) doesn’t really solve the problem. In fact I’m left with the overwhelming feeling of “oh shit, this is not good….or is it?” It seemed to me that the more I tried to pay attention to what was already out there the more confused and overwhelmed I got on the subject. And yet I became somehow addicted to hearing everything I could whenever it presented itself to me even after I knew that I wouldn’t get all the information I needed.  After a while I just got run down and tired. I felt like I knew a lot about the issues involved without really knowing what was best for me or my family.  Learning to play jazz is way easier than deciding whether or not to get the flu shot. 
So in the end isn’t it much better to have listened to “Kind of Blue” a gazillion times rather than every Miles record once or twice? Isn’t it better to enjoy and remember the great writing of Seinfeld one episode at a time rather than 10 seasons in one weekend?  What do we want to have on our hard drives and what do we want to have as a part of us?  Why does it bother us that all we probably need is one book on jazz piano that we actually study? I referred back to the “Jazz Piano Book” by Mark Levine for about 7 or 8 years and even then I never fully practiced all of his exercises. But what I did check out became a part of me forever.  This “knowledge” that takes information and makes it a part of us is ultimately our source of stability and grounding in a confusing world. 

Piano Voicings II

Here's an excerpt of a transcription I made as a wee lad which is a good example of how one of the greats used these kinds of left hand voicings. The pianist is Herbie Hancock and this solo is taken from a great Bob Brookmeyer album entitled "Bob Brokkmeyer and Friends"  recorded in 1963.  The album features mostly standards arranged by Brookmeyer and some really great playing from Stan Getz. Herbie is also a monstrous (and pretty young) sideman.  The following is the first 16 bars of Herbie's 2nd chorus from the standard "Who Cares".

The music pretty much speaks for itself especially if you listen to the rhythmic effect of using these voicings. The role of the left hand is to really achieve a swinging feel underneath the right hand improvisation. In a way if the left hand is swinging and the harmonic rhythm is together with the bass line (notice how Ron Carter easily adjusts his basslines to accompany Herbie's sudden harmonic deviations from the original changes...honestly sometimes it seems like these guys shared one brain!) then the left hand almost becomes indistinguishable from the rhythm section. Notice how the overall effect is that the two hands sound very independent from one another.  This excerpt is probably one of the best examples of Herbie's approach to playing on standards from early on in his career. In it you can hear the distinctive influence of Red Garland and Wynton Kelly and yet he sounds unquestionably like himself. (This is a high resolution scan so download it to your computer and print it to see my chicken scrawl better. Now you know why I need to use Sibelius!)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I don't play free jazz but I'll make you a good price

I am on the mailing list for the McGill goings-on and I was recently forwarded this email from a restaurant in Laval:

My husband and I are looking for music students to Jam at our Cafe located at the Centropolis in Laval.

-Looking for music students for a jam night
-one a week /biweekly or monthly depending on your schedule
-location Cafe Art Java Centropolis Laval
-Style of music : Jazz, Blues, or any other mellow evening cafe suitable music style
-Benefits to be discussed upon contact

If interested please call Reina at 514...

Its clear that this well intentioned entrepeneur couple wants to imbue their establishment with some groovy sounds however its also clear that they don't want to pay a cent for their ambience providers. When the "benefits" are not offered up front that is secret business code for "yeah, yeah sure we'll take care of you".  And maybe that's cool with you to barter beer/snacks for jamming with your friends outside of school.  But before you pick up your cell phones and start looking into the cab fees to get out to Laval with all your equipment I would like the good students of McGill to consider this:

-If you do end up working for these people you will never, never ever get payed as a professional musicians from them.  Once an employer realizes they can get a student to do a job for free they will never relinquish that relationship with you. If you do someday want to ask to be payed a professional wage you will have no leverage and even you will be living proof that a student will do it for free.

- I know it might sound like an ok deal for you now but think about it: in a few years you will be a professional and trying to make a living playing your instrument. Restaurants are one of the types of businesses that you will turn to make some bread (hopefully not literally).  When you play for free as a student you are sending the message that these establishments shouldn't pay for musical ambience and encouraging them to outsource for free. When mom and dad are no longer paying the rent, believe me, this is going to suck.

-Also consider the effect that performing for free will have on you as an artist. First of all the client isn't even looking for a "performance" they are happy with you jamming.  This is starting with a pretty mediocre expectation of the quality of music they are hoping for. This can only influence the attitude that you bring to your performances.  Are you going to just wing it on the gig thinking "why should I prepare anything if it doesn't even pay?" Think about the perception the public will have watching potentially very under-rehearsed music being played.  On the other hand many of you are already performing at a very high level and are only student musicians in name only. What effect will this have on your attitudes towards yourself given the hours of practicing that you've put into you music.

-Finally, speaking as someone trying to get my own bills payed partly through jobbing gigs in Montreal I always sigh a little when I see an example of the erosion of a musician's standard of living. It used to be that we participated in our union (corrupt as they may have been) but the end result was that there was a commonly understood standard of remuneration that a musician could expect. The sad fact is that when I work in a restaurant or do a club date I am getting payed the same amount on the cheque that musicians made 20 years ago.  I realize that I too have been willing to play for less and less and that my elders must have been shaking their heads at me as I set out professionally.  But when will the undercutting end?  I know personally of musicians, very well respected by the community, who have called up booking agents trying to undercut their peers. And this restaurant advertises for a "free" gig (maybe they want to hear Free Jazz?) without even a smidgeon of reserve.  These are dark days for live music and I would just hope that you weigh thoughtfully the consequences of performing for free.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Piano Voicings I: Basic rootless voicings

I have had several requests from people to start posting on piano voicings. This is obviously an important topic to pianists as comping is something we do 90% of the time. There is often something kind of mystical about learning voicings since they can sound complex. Personally I think all piano students should be given these things from their teachers early on so that the student doesn't develop habits that will need to be broken later. The whole business of voice-leading will take care of itself if the students learns just a couple of basic structures and really internalizes them. This will get their ears around the basic jazz voice leading (3-7, 7-3, 5-9, 9-5). Once you hear this it becomes easier to get inside the changes on a standard tune and remember the harmony because the hands will instinctually play the sounds that your hearing without too much thought. I find when a student is struggling to play voicings (especially left hand voicings while soloing) it can really get in the way of the creative flow. But it requires patience in doing a fairly un-creative practice routine until you get to the point of efortlessness and fluidity. Well take a deep breath, suck it up. If you've got a big voicing whole in your playing here are the basics. I guarantee that if you make these chords something your hands can do on their own you will have so much more mental space for your creativity. Here's Part I

Jive Spectrum and the art of "being that"

The blogg-o-sphere has recently been buzzing over comments made by saxophonist and jazz elder Brandford Marsalis about his students. While the controversy over jazz education itself has been raging for years I didn't think we were getting anywhere until this video went viral last year. Check it out for yourself...

It seems the floodgates are open. Teachers and students, young players and veterans, are all beginning to weigh in. Brandford's comments somehow got to the heart of the controversy and in a way that offended most everyone. Being insulted, people are now mustering the energy (courage) to speak out on jazz education, its place in jazz music and, furthermore, the role that jazz music has in our society.

Recently a young student in New York recently posted comments that over-lapped Branford's sentiments: Aaron Johnson

I won't try to over-simply the issues that these two musicians present. Their feelings are as deep and nuanced as jazz music itself. I did want to present these viewpoints to my McGill kids in the hopes of stimulating a discussion (their eyes had recently been glazing-over towards the end of an hour of studying block chords). We put down our pencils, shelved the Nestico scores and I started things off with a question:

"How do you, as aspiring jazz musicians, reconcile the lineage of musicians who were themselves the embodiments modernity, forward thinking, and individuality (even their style of dressing was on the cusp of the time in which they lived...Diz, Bird, Prez etc...) with jazz education which is by nature a study of that history?"

My class pondered this question. They were put-off by the tone that Branford used to express himself. He seemed to be old and farty and cynical. I pointed out the cynicism in Aaron's tone as well. What were they unhappy about exactly? When we began to deconstruct their arguments it seemed like they went further than just jazz education and were trying to address questions of honesty and authenticity. These notions, perennially debated in the jazz world, come up time and again as we struggle to understand the transitory nature of the idiom. Never before have there been so many styles, genres and blends of styles and genres that fall under the heading "jazz". My students all agreed that it is useless to resist these trends. However its hard to figure out where it all comes together for a jazz musician's playing. What is real and pure music and what is trend and novelty?

One of my students opined that on the one hand jazz education could never really be about teaching a person to become their own unique musician and yet it could provide some information important to their development. I agree and from my point of view (as an ex-jazz student turned reluctant teacher) I see often see how the attitudes of some students prevent them from using that education to their full advantage. Sometimes I hold back from saying something like "well if you already know all the answers why aren't you on the scene in New York right now?". "Resistance" was the topic of an earlier post. I think Brandford hits the nail on the head when he says that "the idea of who you are is more important than you actually being that". He's talking about jive. Our society reinforces jive and even rewards it. So yes or course jive plays a role in music and that includes music education. But as my students pointed out Aaron Johnson seemed to exhibit his own special blend of jive even though he was the person drawing attention to it around him. I think we all can fall somewhere in the "jive spectrum" but where it becomes a problem in art is the part it plays in an artist's intentions.

It is a highly romanticized notion that all the greats, the trailblazers, genre defining musicians came up with their own musical voice on their own. In academic literary study there is the concept of "The Romantic Author" who thinks of their own ideas by themselves; their own genius precluding any outside influence. And certainly to the novice jazz fan it does seem that improvising is an entirely spontaneous act. In actual fact it takes a village to raise a jazz musician. When you look at pictures of Diz, or Lester Young it only seems like they stood on their own as the innovators they were. In reality they stood on the shoulders of giants and what made them truly "great" was their artistic intentions to get up on those shoulders and be a part of something greater than any individual. In a sense it is almost beside the point (or perhaps it is the job of historians to determine who the greats were) for them to have set out to be innovators. What they had to do was find who they were themselves through the musician's path which is a sacred journey. And when anything gets in the way of that path it becomes "jive". Simplistically put our society doesn't reward or often even recognize those of us who become masters so there is less incentive to do so. In the short-run it is a whole lot easier to try to replace mastery with something else, something that makes us feel good about ourselves but only for a little while.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Disease, Pestilence and Improvising Lines Part III

I'm on the road somewhere between Montreal and Sault St. Marie.  Well actually I know exactly where I am.  I'm in Deep River Ontario and yet somehow I still don't really know where I am.  Taking a little road trip this week to back up Dawn Tyler Watson with my friends Adrian Vedady and John Fraboni and we are stuck behind an emergency road closure on Hwy. 17. It troubles me to think that up ahead there is some kind of wreck that necessitated jamming up the highway since 6am...and that I'm driving on the same road! In moments like these I remember why I stopped touring and settled down with a little family in Montreal and luckily stumbled into some teaching work.  Speaking of the family, disease and pestilence has prevented me from writing much this month. But now with a few hours to kill in the car (12 or so!) I though I'd go back to my installments on line writing and improvising.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of taking a few lessons with NYC based pianist David Hazeltine. David is one of my favorite players for several reasons.  First of all he is an example of a modern improviser who is deeply grounded in the jazz tradition. When he demonstrates a proficiency in one of several jazz piano bags (block chords, improvising lines, comping, touch on the instrument etc...) he is the "real deal". And yet I never feel when I'm listening to him that he is subjugating his musicality for "stylism".  Musicians might know what I'm talking about here (especially since "stylism" isn't actually a word!) David is not concerned with showing-off his knowledge of the jazz tradition.  I always get the sense that he is improvising and making music when he plays. Check out his records or better yet go see him on the bandstand and you'll be blown away by his honesty as an improviser.

This aspect of David became really apparent to me when I sat down with him in his Brooklyn studio and he demonstrated just how deep his understanding of the tradition really was.  I explained to him that its sometimes just so tempting for me, after checking out a pianist all day (like playing my favorite Herbie solos...I dare anyone to hear "One Finger Snap" and not think its one of the greatest recorded solos Herbie ever made), not to go to the gig and try to do my "Herbie Impression".  Its really hard because I really love that music but somehow its really not artistically honest. Sure impersonation is an important aspect of developing as a player but at a certain point it becomes a foray into what I call "stylism" when it begins to dominate your aesthetic judgements.  A great stylist is always really impressive to an audience. Think of someone who is always trying to play "fast" like Oscar Peterson, or someone who is always trying to bang out loud 4ths in their left-hand like McCoy Tyner.  In my own experience when I get into these states of mind I feel that I'm more or less scratching the surface of what I feel or want to express but its just a taste and not the full meal.  The whole crux of the problem is how do we take our studying and love of the music, the tradition, and the players and use that knowledge to serve our needs for self-expression.

One of the things that David practiced involved a little more intuition and creativity than just rambling off licks and bits of solos. After having spent time studying the recordings of these great pianists he put all of the recordings and transcriptions aside and wrote some studies for himself that assimilated those sounds all together.  These exercises are just as much a technique work out as they are way of developing a vocabulary for improvising.  The great thing about playing these exercises is that after a while you can internalize a very personal rendering of the language of a great musician.  I also found that the process of distilling the sounds of these musicians into a practice exercise also made me get away from spitting out licks in my solos. These little studies can really help develop an understanding of melody and time in a way that doesn't limit you to repeating anything from them in your own improvising. Enjoy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Frank Lozano at the Gesu

Frank Lozano performed this week in Montreal at the Salle du Gesu, THE best venue in Montreal to hear a band of any persuasion.  Frank is well known in Canada as one of Montreal's A-list tenor players. Having spent several years in Toronto Frank relocated to Montreal in the early 90's and has established himself as the city's most sought after sidemen and educators. It's been only recently that Frank released his first album as a leader.  The group performing this past Wednesday although not the same musicians as on the CD were also some of the city's most recognized musicians: Thom Gossage on drums, Adrian Veddady on Bass, and Francois Bourrassa on Piano all of whom enjoy high profiles of leaders of their own groups.  Frank's sound as a tenor player is both refined and exuberant. He is a musician who performs with the poise of player who has invested years of blood, sweat, and tears into his instrument.  When I hear Frank play I'm always floored by the depth of his creativity and the amount of control he has to develop his ideas. He has such a broad understanding of melodic language which allows him to rocket through chord progression and slip easily in and out of tonality but always with a firm foundation in melody, harmony and rhythm.  He is someone that is worthy of being a mentor to any student of jazz music not only because of his accomplishment on his horn but because he has found a way to make a success out of the jazz CAREER.

Unfortunately I'd like to steer the conversation away from Frank's talent and towards a subject that has recently been plaguing the Montreal jazz scene:  poor audience turnouts (aka "The cheapening"). I'd like to bring this up in connection to my post on the loss of the specialized sound recording grant and specifically with regard to my observation that even musicians won't spend money on music. Frank's concert was only just a reminder of how prevalent an issue this has become. I'd be very curious to hear what musicians from other cities feel about this where they are.

Sitting in the Gesu last Wednesday were barely a smattering of students and proffessionals not to mention a very under-represented saxophone demographic. There were however, jazz fans. Members of the media and the public whose love for music compelled them to leave the house and part with $15 to be rewarded with a superlative musical experience both in the quality of the musicianship and the quality of the environment.  In short this was a jazz EVENT in Montreal.

Where were the city's jazz students? (My appologies to the few students who I did see). Where the hell were you? This concert was well advertised.  The credentials of the musicians are well known.  This would have been an experienced which would have changed you.  There are 8-10 jam sessions in Montreal on any given week and I know that many of you attend these regularly.  You are easily spending $15 hanging out with friends and drinking $4 dollar pints.  Pardon my French but I'm tired of hearing pathetic excuses from you about why you don't attend the gigs of the most accomplished members of our community. 

Your apathy towards the musicians who you should regard as your mentors will be of great detrement to you in several ways.  First of all you are missing out on the experience of mentorship.  This relationship that you develop with older musicians will have a greater influence on your musicianship and humanity than any Kurt Rosenwinkle album.  These musicians can be your musical parents if you let them.  By watching them play, talking to them, interacting with them they are imparting their life experiences as well as their musicianship. Its not just about lifting licks off of records.  Jazz is about living and living is about your relationship to your family and your community. 

Secondly your mentors will play an important role in your transition from student to proffessional musician. Who do you think will give you your first proffessional experiences with older players? Who do think will recommend you for teaching positions?  There aren't any managers or record labels interested in you fresh out of school, that's for sure. What I am saying is that you are a part of a community that, whether you know it or not, you depend on for your artistic and proffessional success.

Thirdly, spending money on a gig is a great way to learn how to shut up and pay attention. This seems like a strange point to make but think about it. When you as a poor student part with $15 for a concert (that was a lot of money for me working a part-time job to get by while I was an undergrad at McGill) you are going to listen and absorb what is going on around you.  You're going to sit there and nurse your drink as slowly as possible just so that the club owner lets you stay for the next set.  This is going to make that experience a lot more intense and ultimately more rewarding musically than the "hang" with your friends at the jam session.  I'm not saying that hanging with your friends isn't also part of your over-all life experience. It just doesn't replace this valuable experience of mentoring the accomplished players in your own city.

Lastly, Every cent of your money spent on live music is not only an investment in the jazz community but its also a statement about who you are.  Considering the integrity and honesty that that jazz music evokes it would be best for you as musicians to, before you start complaining about how there aren't any gigs in town, put your money where your mouth is.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Loss of the grant for Specialized Sound Recording

Well it finally happened. And brace yourself folks it's going to keep happening. The heritage minister was on CBC's "The Q" talking to Jian Ghomeshi  about the cuts to the diversity fund which for small time independant musicians translates into the loss of the grant for specialized sound  recordings from the Canada Council. (click here to stream the interview) These decisions apparently were made based on recommendations from several arts organizations including Factor, Music Action, and various music producers and industry representatives in the country. And I don't have to tell you that the jazz community in Canada has been up in arms for the past month over this. Numerous petitions have been cirulating on the internet and letters by such musicians as Jane Bunnett and Christine Jensen have already been sent. Basically there has been a shit storm.  So now that the dust is settling and everyone is hunkering down for that one last grant application deadline (October 1st!) I'd like to weigh in with a few thoughts. Tell me if you agree with these.


The redistribution of canadian tax payers' money to fund arts grants is basically a form of socialization.  I have benefited from the grant system as much as anyone and maybe even a little more than most but I also understand the bad feeling people have when they are forced to subsidize art. This bad feeling that conservatives get when they give money to artitsts is actually shared by everyone to some extent. I mean is there anything more useless to you than an unwanted piece of art?  Its been my experience that musicians certainly don't support music that they don't like.  I put to you: why should the average tax payer be compelled to support art that they themselves do not choose? 

Thought #2

- What can we really do about the choices that are made en mass as a culture to document the kind of art and music that we like?  The art we document represents our aesthetics, our morals, and even our values as a people. Generations to come will judge us as we have judged the generations before us based on what we have chosen to document as a representation of who we are. Are the governmental arts agencies successfully combating society's choices with the grant system?

Thought #3

Musicians need to remember that if what they are saying doesn't resonate with society it doesn't make the value of their contributions any less. In fact it might make them worth more. How much did this factor into the development of a great artist like say Van Gogh or John Coltrane?  In a sense don't we want it both ways? We've chosen to pursue a career path that is on the "fringe" (and as musicians don't we sometimes milk the "fringe" image?)  But as Canadians we somehow feel entitled to reject the economic consequences of this career choice.  How does this affect our art and music as a culture? Could our grant system actually be subverting our creative processes because in order to get funding from the government we need to work our project ideas into a preexisting template on an application form?

Thought #4

Anyway does it really work to have a handful of people dole out the public's money and decide what is worth documenting? I can tell you it makes a lot of musicians unhappy and it certainly makes a lot of tax payers unhappy.  The next logical response to this statement is to point to the European model of governmental support for the arts. My response is to ask: Is the art funded by the government really better than the art that doesn't get funding?  Are the musicians who don't get their grant support one year all of a sudden making worse music?  If there is only so much money to go around that we have to draw the line in the sand somewhere WHO should decide? Considering the subjective and often very biased nature of art criticism, can we say that the art funding agencies operate a true meritocracy?

Don't get me wrong. I'm putting these questions out there for the very reason that they need to be addressed in light of our current economic reality in order for us to continue to legitimately ask our country for financial support.  Times are a changin' and we are beginning to witness some of the natural logical conclusions of capitalism.  The jazz community needs to stay current with these changes if we want to remain a vital and necessary component to our society's culture. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Resistance is Futile!

          Fall is almost officially upon us and the new semester has been steadily picking up speed over the past 3 weeks. While some students still cling tenaciously to their summer temperament others have already given in to the inevitable and have resigned themselves to their assignment deadlines and preparations for December juries.  It's usually in these first few weeks back at school while both teachers and students reacquaint themselves with academic routine that I am sometimes faced with what I call “learning resistance”. 
            During the first few weeks things have been going well. I’m usually getting to know my new piano students so in our lessons I get them to play as much as possible for me. I want to try to accurately assess their needs so I ask to hear everything from scales and arpeggios to playing tunes and transcriptions.  For this I usually try to accompany the student both so that they can feel comfortable without a rhythm section and so that I can try to interact with their sense of time and musicality. Inevitably after I get an idea of what I can offer as their teacher (really I see it as being a sort of guide on their own personal journeys) I reach a point where I tell the student that we need to revisit some fundamentals.  For some its technique and we need to go back and solidify fingerings for scales and arpeggios and perhaps work on knowing and playing all the relevant jazz scales.  For others it’s going back to basics with left hand voicings (I’ll blog later about basic left-hand voicings).  Its often the case that the student needs to take apart some of their learned habits in order to achieve a deeper relationship with the piano and greater clarity in their playing.  It's here that I first encounter the resistance.
            I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to unlearn our habits. And certainly as jazz musicians and improvisers we develop such a personal connection to the musical material that we play. After all we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and here is this teacher telling us to use these simple voicings! “He doesn’t even use them when he plays, who does he think he is?”  I still experience to this day the frustration of realizing that I need to take a step backwards in order to really get to the heart of the material I am trying to organize into music. Maybe its playing a block-chord passage that I can't still can't pull off or maybe I hear myself on a recording project and I’m just not swinging the way I thought I was.  Not only is music an intense process of refinement and distillation but its also a process which is almost impossible to be really objective about.  Its very easy to start making little convenient lies to ourselves about our own abilities and accomplishments on our instruments. And certainly if we spend most of our time alone in the practice room at school it becomes easier and easier to look outwards for reasons why we didn’t play so well at the rehearsal or on the gig.  We can get into playing the blame game with the musicians we play with (“if only that drummer wasn’t rushing I would have been able to solo well”) or we can develop a negative vibe when we are around musicians whose level we consider beneath us (“I don’t need to jam with those first years”).
            Most of my students are cool with what I’m trying to get over to them. Or at least they maintain enough courtesy to give it the old college try. But about 1 in 10 see this as something that must be absolutely resisted by all costs. “I’ve already learned this” is usually the first thing I hear.  It generally comes down to what the student considers to be “hip” or not.  The farther along they are from the first things they learned  (like basic voicings and scales/technique) the more they consider these fundamentals to be “unhip”.  I once heard a student say that he didn’t like to practice major and minor scales because they weren’t modern sounding.  And certainly to the young piano student who has been mostly listening to Brad Mehldau it doesn’t seem like it would benefit their playing to limit themselves to using only 2 basic left-hand voicings.  Then the next question is “why should I do this?” I tell them its because they can’t get through 8 bars of “All the Things” without either scuffling over the changes or playing some weird sounding voice-leading in their left-hand.  Basically we need to limit ourselves to more fundamental sounds because we still don’t know them well enough to start adding anything on.  What the students don’t realize is that what they are playing just isn’t having the “hip” effect that they think it does because they still lack an understanding of the fundamentals: Time (rhythm), melody, and harmony. 
            It’s hard for me not to start feeling “unhip” myself. I become a parent who is trying to get a kid to clean up his room. Its like I’ve betrayed a trust that this student has placed in me to show him/her what I played on my last gig that impressed them so much.  The young student has made a snap judgment about what goes into the music that they think sounds really great; a judgment that is based on a very limited experience.  After several years of studying with some of the masters in the genre I’m more convinced than ever that the jazz process is two steps forward and one step back.  When I studied with Kenny Werner he told me that he realized in his late 20’s that his time-feel  was weak and that he needed to improve his rhythmic concept (this is after he had released a fantastic solo piano record and held the piano chair in some pretty high profile bands like the Mel Lewis orchestra). 
A friend of mine once attended a clinic at the New School in NYC.  The clinician was non other than Brad Mehldau and during the question period he remarked that no one ever asked him who his favorite rhythm section was. As it turns out it is the Miles Davis rhythm section of the 50’s (Wynton Kelly – piano, Paul Chambers – Bass, Jimmy Cobb – drums).  If you really do your homework on Mehldau this doesn’t seem to be such a stretch. Listen to him on the recordings he made when he was quite young. Listen to him on such straight-ahead outings as the fantastic debut by Anthony Wilson.  Try to listen without passing snap judgments on style and “hip-ness”, although Brad always sounds fresh even when playing very “inside” the harmony.  Listen to the groups and musicians that influenced the groups and musicians that influence you. If you don’t know who they are how can you really understand their music? Listen…you must listen…resistance is futile!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Improvising Lines - Part II Practicing Scales

     Once the basic jazz scales have been mastered and a general understanding of the harmony they express has been grasped its time to start assembling a vocabulary of lines. The goal is to start taking our understanding of harmony and scales and using that to develop an understanding of melody. Transcribing and learning licks is one way for students to start to analyze the improvisations of the great masters in the tradition. Transcription (and more importantly learning to play our transcriptions) is definitely an important part of learning to improvise and I’ll write more about that on another blog entry. What is not at first obvious to the young improviser is how to develop an understanding of melody from licks and scales. Personally I have never sounded good spewing out a lick in the middle of a solo and nor have any of my students. It can sound kind of stilted and unconvincing especially if the melodic material in the lick doesn’t resemble anything else that is being played in the solo. What students also realize is that improvising based on an intellectual understanding of the “right” scale for the chord symbol doesn’t always yield pleasant musical results. (knowing what the “right” scale is for the chord of the moment is what Jamey Aebersold calls “Chord/scales”. For example when we see a Dmin7 chord we know that the “right” scale is D Dorian so we bust into that scale without an understand of how to create a melody that expresses D Dorian.) In other words once we have a working understanding of scales and their corresponding chord symbols it can be difficult to make it all come together musically when we improvise.

The following is an exercise that I use for University level students to start practicing scales in a way that will help more directly with improvisation. Several things are worth explaining. First of all the exercise is in a descending contour and each line expresses the sound of G(alt). However the exact scale changes depending on what note the line begins on. This is useful because unlike a lick (which must by nature always begin on the same note) practicing these lines will help you play a descending altered line beginning on one of many notes that you could find yourself on in the middle of a solo. Each line still expresses a similar altered dominant colour.

Also each example is only two bars in length which is also a lot shorter than the licks that many of my students transcribe. I have found that its more useful to develop a working and proficient understanding of melodic material that is short in length (2-4 beats) because there are more possibilities to be creative in constructing melodies with smaller, simpler pieces. This is a major distinction between this exercise and the rote practicing of licks and II-V patterns. In a sense I want to distill only one particular sound and one particular direction (descending). At the bottom I have composed a 4 bar exercise as an example of how a student can start to build on the foundation of the exercise as a whole.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Improvising Lines - Part I Jazz Scales

Learning about scales in jazz should be about complementing our own ongoing aural study of improvising. Students of jazz should already be experimenting on their instruments with the sound they hear on recordings and especially what they are hearing in their own heads. When we are first presented with scales (usually after we begin formal training) it should be with the goal of learning how to organize material that we are already working with. Scales aren’t, in other words, a means unto themselves but rather a way of putting names and categories to the sounds that we are already exploring. I believe it is always more useful to let theory coach and inform our development as improvising musicians than it is for it to become “the Source” of our information. Improvising to me is an organic, messy process and it’s really important to learn from what theory has to offer without it becoming a didactic approach that presumes there are “right” and “wrong” notes out there in the universe. That’s not to say that there aren’t “right” and “wrong” notes but that what makes something sound “right” and “wrong” goes way deeper than mere scales. Jazz music is perfectly smitten with wrong notes that bend and grind and are perfectly beautiful. So the goal in learning scales is to increase our overall literacy as musicians and thus our ability to understand at a deeper level what we are playing and, more importantly, what others are playing.
Students should learn the following scales and exercises in all 12 keys and be able to perform them musically (smoothly and without tension). I’ve also made up a few exercises for practicing scales with left hand voicings on the piano. These can be practiced by students who play any instrument as a good way of developing chops on the piano. After working out the basic technical aspects of playing scales it’s really good to take the time to really listen to them. The left hand voicings can help capture the colour and the mood of each scale. The modes especially have a lot of character and feeling to them. Playing the modes starting on the same root note often inspires me to compose. Enjoy!