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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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.