About Me

My photo
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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!