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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!)