About Me

My photo
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Perspectives on Time III

Here are some questions that I've asked myself over the last 2 years.

Will there ever be a point at which you will say to yourself "this is it, the arrival point. I have reached my goals with my abilities as a musician." ?

What would you do if you weren't on Face book? Could this activity potentially be conflicting with an activity that would give you greater happiness?

How would you practice if you didn't have the mind that this (whatever it is you're working on) needed to get done by yesterday? Would you be more relaxed? Could this relaxed state be more productive?

How much can you accomplish in an hour, a day, a month, a year? Is your assessment really accurate?

do you set too many goals to be achieved in the short term with unrealistic expectations? As a result of this, do you then have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in the long term considering so many short term goals are being glossed over?

Do the things you achieve in a longer time span mean more or are more beneficial to you than the things you achieve in a shorter time span?

Perspectives on Time Part II

Going back to the initial idea of my last post which was that our experience of time changes proportionally to our age I'd like to continue to expand on my beleaguered philosophical position of "life=music". If the experience of time changes as we get older it has been my own personal experience that time seems to speed up. It's not that I sleep more, or that I'm that much busier than I was 10 years ago (Sure I wasn't changing poopy diapers but I was wasting my time with the tv or Myspace or wondering if my girlfriend was really that into me, all equally intense to a younger person). It's that my interpretation of a minute, an hour, a day, a year has shifted such that the delineations of units of time themselves, whose numbers I'm beginning to grow tired of counting, are becoming more or less insignificant to the quality of the activities I'm doing during those delineations of time. For example I don't care anymore how long it takes me to do things that are important to me. Conversely I have no desire anymore to waste a second of my life on things that are of no importance to me (I still do though, like when I'm in my car yelling at my gps for giving me bad directions). The net result is that I feel that I just have less time because as I get older it seems more challenging to achieve a quality use of the smaller units of time since they go by so much more quickly.

Time feels linear which is why it seems plausible
that we could travel through it in a vehicle. Just get out
your sled and strap a clock to it!
For sure when I was younger time was not only plentiful but existed in large quantities that were almost intoxicating. My boredom could cause me, with droopy eyelids, to bump into people on the street. I could sit at my desk "studying" for my history exam and count the number of patterns in my 1986 styled wall paper on my bedroom walls with the observant fascination of someone on acid. Maybe it was just hormones. The thing is that I can remember vividly that I almost didn't care what I was doing from one moment to the next as long as it was fun. I resisted, as do most kids, doing things that didn't give me immediate gratification. The whole experience of time itself was slower.

Unfortunately, that particular life skills model had to end when I grew up. Maybe it's one of the things that make us a little nostalgic about our childhoods, the time in our lives when it was all about "fun".  I think now it's still about "fun" but much to my chagrin that "fun" has widened to include the things I care deeply about. I think once we get the taste of things greater than an all afternoon pac-man session fueled by pop-tarts then there is no turning back. For me that taste came when my parents got a piano. I couldn't any longer sit in front of the tv without thinking to myself that there was this piano upstairs, this thing that represented infinite exploration and creativity. I could no longer really get into the "Dukes of Hazard" without wondering what I might be able to experience fooling around (pracitsing?) at the keyboard.

But the problem was that the piano, after a certain point, was time consuming and not always easy. I was blessed with certain natural instincts in so far as my technique was concerned since I was able to, with enough time, accomplish any of the pieces that my teacher would give me. Eventually I completed my grade 10 certificate from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto with first-class honors. Whoopdy-doo. But inevitably as I advanced into more personal and creative musical endeavors my fooling around needed to become full-on practicing or I was simply not going to move ahead. And then I tasted something else. Something new and terrible. I had to do things, and face things in my self, scary things, in order to get that new found taste. Now there was really no turning back because what was once purely play had become both pain and ecstasy in an inseparable tangle of emotions. Time started to pinch me a bit.

Then time took on a whole new dimension. How long would I need to endure the discomfort of practicing, the discipline required to accomplish a goal oriented task, until the point of achievement? How could I cultivate time to reap certain rewards from it? Once something musical had been achieved could I really be happy knowing that there was something else to start on?

Today in my teaching I find questions of this nature to be on the forefront of the minds of almost every serious music student I encounter.  Because in the process of self actualization, the increments are often brutally tiny and sometimes even the smallest incremental growths extracts an enormous price.  Developing as a musician can sometimes feel a lot like trying to fill a whole beach with sand using only a teaspoon. The most common manifestation of this kind of grappling with time for a student is when they indicate to me that they don't want to do something (practicing a transcription for example) for fear of wasting their time. On the one hand they usually feel quite overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to become a jazz musician and yet they also seem to find comfort in that head-space. Somehow the immobilizing fear, the confusion about how to proceed, is a great place to hang-out in because it requires very little effort while at the same time offering certain rewards to the ego (as in the thought "I don't want to transcribe anyone because I want to sound like myself") It also doesn't require the student to take any chances. They don't force themselves to prove that they won't fail at something difficult. Of course it doesn't prove that they can achieve something important either. So it becomes a sort of a state of limbo. The perceived preciousness of time can actually prevent important growth.

The concept of time as it applies to the achieving of goal oriented tasks is slippery. It is slippery because our experience of time seems to indicate that it is something both linear and moving in one direction forward. The fact is that almost nothing about our own internal realities as human beings is linear, all of our thoughts, minds, emotions, hearts, souls whatever your own personal definitions of your internal self is. Music is a result of us using instruments to reflect those internal realities. As such you cannot "achieve" music any more than you can achieve happiness, or love, or concentration. These states are constantly in flux and the most we can do is to let go and flow with them.  For us to feel love we have to allow it into our lives. In order to swing we need to relax and feel it inside our bodies. The mental state of concentration is only achieved when we learn not to be drawn into distracting thoughts. Much of what we're practicing (like technique, vocabulary) will be achieved "with time" or "in time" as the expressions go. But music to me always has a kind of timelessness even if the skills required to play it can be taught and learned in a linear fashion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Perspectives on Time

What bigger topic in jazz is there but "time"? In many ways it's a prevalent theme in everyone's life because it has such deep implications for our consciousness both in the sense that we experience time passing at different rates of speed depending on the number of years we've been alive and also we experience variances of the quality of time that has passed and that we anticipate to pass in the future. We may, for example, look back on our experience in high school and remember how it seemed it would never end and that we'd always be trapped in an awkward sophomoric existence. And yet now, after years have passed, it really seems that those days actually came and went quite quickly and perhaps we might even have developed a longing to recapture some of the simplicity of that youthful life (although in my own case I believe I had a penchant to create complexity for myself as a youth by confounding with my behavior those who had taken on the chore of raising me!)

"The Persistence of Memory"... Time feels malleable
In jazz music time refers usually to the style of articulation given to the pulse in the music. Usually we discuss a time "feel" because time determines how the music creates the illusory sense of "pulse". It's the spirit and energy that is behind the notes, that make them seem to dance. This is the stuff of dialects and accents and other linguistic conventions that can't be notated but must be experienced. In a sense to "know" the German culture one must inevitably converse with a German and study the language to understand the mind of a German. In the very same way to "know" a swing feel one must study the language of "swing" and converse (or transcribe the masters) with other musicians.  My favorite musicians to study have been Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I can't think of a better example of what it means to swing than listening to those guys. And the thing about it is that after having studied them a bit I hear that same swing feel in other more modern groups and musicians. It's like we all experience a strong connection to the past through the "time".

Sure this is a misplaced (and yet very poetic don't you think?) metaphor. That somehow time feel in jazz is linked to the passing of time in external life. Somehow to me what makes sense about it is that I feel close to those musicians who've come before and who exist today and (excuse me while I take another toke...) those who will come after. What is timeless about music links us all. Studying music is a way into the past, present, and future. And in the same way what is timeless about living and being alive also links us together as well. Our families, our ancestors, our children, eating well, living well, being happy, mourning loss...these are all things that have existed since the beginning of our species and perhaps even beyond.

Think back to the era when there was barely any language, everyone was called "Grog" and we basically groped through the forest looking for food, fucking, then sleeping. One day this guy named "Grog" picked up a stick and hit a rotted out old log on the forest floor. It made him feel something different that he had never felt before so he hit it again. And then again. Pretty soon other "Grogs" came over and asked "What you do that, Grog?" So his response what to hit the log again, and again. There was nothing he could say to explain that feeling.  The sound and the pulse generated from repeatedly hitting this low pitched log said everything he couldn't and in that moment music was born.  It has recently become more evident through the archeological discoveries of painting, jewelry, and crafted stone carving that 100,000 years ago we had artists. My guess is that what captivated the evolutionarily young homo sapien's minds and hearts would be exactly the same as what draws us to art today.

All this is to say that "time" as it applies to music and life, for me, is a powerful metaphor, weaving together both of those things. It might even be the source of the "religious epiphany". When I think of my connection to the past through my ancestors it gives me the same heavy feeling as when I hear a group swing like the Wynton Kelly trio or when I hear Mehldau's trio. I don't want to downplay the exceptional nuances that distinguish these great groups from each other but rather I'd like to suggest that the depth of the music we create, just as the depth of life we live has a lot to do with how we see, feel, and hear ourselves in time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

McGill Concert in Tanna Schulich Theater

Thanks to everyone who came to see us play at McGill last Sunday. We had a blast playing for you. Just to clear something up... I wasn't trying to impersonate Barry White on the mic. That was a little gift from the universe that arrived the day before and doctors later called laryngitis.  So despite the pain I was feeling it was great to see so many McGill students.  We'll be recording the music we played on a new trio recording that we'll be making in January so if you liked the music please keep in touch with me for news on its release.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The musical mind of John Taylor

I recently sat down with John Taylor to take a lesson and try and ask as many questions as I could from this great pianist. Now almost 70 John has made a name for himself as one of Europe's most prominent pianists. He's known largely from his sideman work in groups from both North America as well as Europe. However his recent solo piano offerings (Insight, Phases, and Song and Variations) if not widely publicized or marketed have been in the Cd players of many musicians I know. Even some very heavy, non-pianist, musicians have remarked to me without prompting how much they dig those solo piano records. Lots of pianists record solo piano records but what is it about John Taylor's playing that transcends the instrument and attracts the ears of so many musicians?

I have been a fan ever since my days as a Kenny Wheeler maniac transcribing both Kenny's tunes and John's ways of blowing on them. One of Kenny's recent bands including Chris Potter and Dave Holland has toured several times in North America where we were treated to Kenny's new music including (in their live concerts only) a great straight-up blues tune by Dave Holland (the title escapes me) At the concert in Montreal in 2005 listening to John take a mammoth solo on the blues (recorded by CBC on one of the last years of JazzBeat...yes I recorded the concert off the radio so I'll listen again to hear what the title of the Dave Holland tune was) I was struck by how much of Herbie's influence I heard in John's playing. I remember at the concert feeling that all of a sudden the pieces of my appreciation for John Taylor came together. It really made sense that John Taylor was coming from such a grounded place within Jazz. It came then as no surprise to me when during our lesson it came up that Taylor was in Ronnie Scott's house band in London for 15 years. There he played with all the greats from both Europe and North America including some musicians very much grounded in the jazz tradition and language as Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.

Among other things I asked John what he was working on and he showed me this little tidbit. On of his students has been incorporating some of the sounds that the French composer Messiaen used particularly his voicing of chords from the octatonic scale. John played me some left hand voicings that he's been using.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Piano Voicings V

For my next installment on basic jazz piano voicings I've decided to include a simple way of looking at using chords voiced in fourths. Everybody quickly recognizes this sound and some of the greats who started using this sound exclusively back in the '60s include Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. However the sound goes as far back as Bud Powell, George Shearing, and Dave Brubeck. Examples from the former abound but examples from the latter provide an interesting evolution of the jazz piano sound from the shell voicings of the swing era to the more modern sounds in the post-bop era. One record in particular which spans this gap is Brubeck's first solo piano record "Brubeck Plays Brubeck". While not of the same caliber of sophistication as some of the other solo pianists of his generation this record offers an interesting first recording of some of Brubeck's famous tunes like "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Duke". At the same time it shows the development of jazz piano out of the bebop era into more modern territory.  I've included a little exercise which if practiced in 12 keys will complement the sound of the shell voicings (See my early posts "Jazz piano voicings I-IV) Have fun.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is there a jam session etiquette?

It is a relatively rare thing for me to go to a jam session. I don't have anything against them. I recently played with some really great students in Montreal at a jam session and we all had a great time. I love the hang both musically and personally with musicians especially students who I only see around McGill. I guess it's just hard to get out of the house with a 2 year old at home or some lame excuse like that. The truth is I was really grateful to get the chance this summer to get out to see some of the jamming both here in Montreal and in Ottawa during the jazz festivals. A couple of summers ago I played with Julian Lange, a young guitarist from the states. I also got to play with Bill Evans who was touring with his Bluegrass band and I still remember the amazing experience I had sitting in with both Bill and his band. They weren't primarily jazz players but jamming on tunes was still an effortless and truly enjoyable experience.

"Yo mang, I got some
chit to play ya"
At their best jam sessions are really about unwinding and letting it all hang out. Like shooting the breeze with people at a party it doesn't seem to matter who knows each other if the attitude of openness and positivity is there. Sometimes nothing spectacular is discussed but then sometimes (often unexpectedly) we encounter someone we realize we can really share ourselves with. I remember recently at a dinner party I ended up chatting with the elderly mother of a mutual friend. I had never met her before but I remember being entirely engaged and enchanted with this person to the point where I couldn't remember having ever laughed that hard in my life. The age difference between us was so great that if I had the opportunity at the beginning of the evening of choosing who I was going to hang with I never would have picked this person. And yet there we were cracking each other up with our conversation and patting each other on the back like drinking buddies. It must have been quite a sight.

I really relate my own understanding of what jam session are about to this experience. I have been in situations on stage with musicians from all kinds of different ages and musical backgrounds and have had really heavy musical experiences. Sometimes I've been jamming with players and nothing really gets off the ground but we still hang and have a good time. I just can't understand musicians who give up the opportunity to take that chance and hang with people they may have just met and instead play what amounts to be a showcase with their own band. It would be like showing up at a party with my posse and refusing to converse with anyone else but the people I came in with.  I was pretty taken aback by how many touring musicians I saw doing this at the jam sessions in Ottawa and Montreal this year. The worst example was watching a certain well-known young pianist (records on Blue note etc) sit in on drums and literally run the poor band down with his playing. I guess he wanted to practice his "shit" or something. But when it came time to play his primary instrument he brought up his trio to accompany him. For sure they sounded great. They brought the house down. The people there were getting another taste of his concert and for free. But I couldn't help but think to myself "ok but what do you sound like with other guys?" My guess is that from experience he knew his bag wouldn't hang well with other players. And what does that say about a jazz musician, I wonder, if they don't like taking chances with other musicians?

So back to my question : "Is there an etiquette at a jam session?" Are you there to hang with musicians who, for better or worse like the mortal human beings we all are, might not allow you to get off the way you know you can with your band? Or are you there to give up your own agenda and be curious about what what life could offer you when you're willing to take a chance and really let it hang out?  For me these choices say a lot about what I find interesting in the people that I want to hang with and I'm really perplexed when I see musicians generally credited with playing daring and innovative jazz but are unwilling to take part in one of jazz's most enduring and edifying experiences. Life's a funny thing because you never really know who you're going to connect with. And when it happens, for me, that's what gives life and music its magic.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A personal post

Hi folks...that is if any of you are still around despite my lack of posts in the past few months. I guess the good thing about reading blogs is that there are so many out there. It seems that there are always good posts from someone, somewhere to read...about something. One of my own personal favorites is Peter Hum's great blog of opinions and reviews (please see my blog role). And of course Ethan Iverson's seminal and mind blowing blog "Do the Math". Honestly I think if there is anything that could potentially influence the contemporary jazz community in terms of insight into the lineage of the music from incredible interviews and discussions on philosophy and aesthetics it could very well be this blog. I'm not a big fan of the Bad Plus and I'm even shocked by the depth of influence from the past that Ethan claims to have. I must say from what I've heard I don't hear the influence on his playing from James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" which he states is mandatory for all jazz pianists to study. He makes some really funny statements about music (he loves "Chariots of Fire" and refuses to concede that he's making an attempt at humor by performing it with his trio) but his interviews really unlock true insight into music, improvised music, and the musicians who make jazz.

This isn't supposed to be a review of anyone's blog. I'm mostly just reaching out and hoping there may still be some hanger's-on to my humble blog. So what have I been up to? I've moved to a new home this month. 2 days later my wife and I embarked on a family mission to Korea (where she's from) to reconnect with her biological mother's family, sadly, on the occasion of her death. This was a really intense trip for us and one that has left us changed people. It was a trip that I think detailed to me, in ways that I have never really thought about before, the unfortunate potential for waste in one's life. It made me realize how quickly time won't wait for you to get your shit together and figure out what is really important. I've sat on a Canada Council jury for the first time (can't say which one yet) and that has really been inspiring for me to hear what the great musicians have been up to. Since I'm not on Facebook I suppose that I have to get on a Canada Council jury to get reconnected to the musicians around our country (I don't know...does that even happen on Facebook?) I'm really kicked in the behind to get back to my work at the piano and with my own writing as a result of this experience. I'm also a hell of a lot savvier about the process of getting grants through our grant system here in Canada. I must say that I have been pretty lucky thus far so I've never had any complaints about the Canada Council or the way in which we've distributed public funding for individual artists. I've received several grants for my own writing projects, for living in New York and taking some great lessons with Kenny Werner, for recording my record 3 years ago (I hate it now, haha), and especially for my touring opportunities as a leader. I've always been of the mind that this system seems to work out for everyone in the long run and it makes me really celebrate our country and it's attitude towards the arts, even if that attitude has evolved over the years. I think if any Canadian independent jazz musician wants to feel good about their career they should just talk to some of their counterparts south of the border.

This isn't supposed to be a review of the state of arts funding in Canada either. Anyway I'd just like to say that I haven't given up blogging just yet and that I've already been planning some juicy posts which will include more of a focus on jazz piano for the upcoming year. Also I've discontinued the comments to non-subscribers. It's not that I want to limit anyone's comments but I've just been getting too much spam in the form of commenters recently. I must say though I'm really impressed by the tenacity of the sex industry in Tawain. Ni-How and have a great day!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Guest post: James Danderfer

James is a great clarinetists and composer from Vancouver who we've been lucky enough to get in Montreal for a couple of years while he completes his masters degree from McGill. Check out his music at www.JamesDanderfer.com

Here's his post in response to my assignment (read my original post here: "The Jazz Wars")

Moving on, let me give a quick shout out to all the over-thinkers out there! If thinking about shit was a job, we’d all be making bank in over-time. But it’s not, and unless you have a somewhat 9-5 job to distract you then may just be thinking about much too much all at once. Probably nothing brilliant mind you, just… thoughts.
Anyways, that’s where I’m at these days,…over-thinking. And everything ties into something else, such as,…hmm, I don’t know,… let’s say your friend is releasing an electroacoustic EP pretty soon. Well that person starts thinking about how to release the EP (digital download cards vs. CDs, free streaming albums vs. sound bites) but first he’s gotta work out lots of details with his yet to be created record label, and then he thinks about the CD release show which should line-up with the CD release but he doesn’t know how on Earth to perform this music live!… etc, etc.
And then I get a request to think about and comment on this YouTube video of Jason Marsalis(jazz drummer extraordinaire and proponent of traditional jazz values). Why would anyone bother to do this you ask?
The request came from a great jazz pianist (and blog enthusiast) Josh Rager. Now Josh, if you’re reading this, let me just say; I love giving my opinion on anything, the problem isI’m an over-thinker who will think about it, and think about it, and waste more time and think,… until I can come up with THE answer, only there is no definitive answer so my mind will just run around in circles! It’s infuriating,. Okay?… I mean seriously!
So allow me to simplify my opinion on the view which Jason expressed. He believes that institutionalized jazz has lost touch with humanity and students no longer appreciate the value of playing for audiences but instead have learned only to play for themselves or other musicians.
First of all, I hope this guy has a sense of humour because I found the video kinda hilarious. Jason’s poorly edited, Cronkite-esque barroom sermon about “Jazz Nerds International” which, by the audio/video quality, I’m guessing was delivered to somebody’s old cell-phone camera. … Awesome.
So yeah, on one hand I completely agree, institutionalized jazz music hasn’t placed nearly enough emphasis on the core element of expressing emotion to audiences.
On the other hand, it’s music dude! People should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want to! If some guy wants to play jazz music for himself (possibly in 5/4 too) then let him. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s art.
If there’s any solution here it’s to be done by better categorizing the many styles of jazz music. I mean, how is it that jazz came to be a cover all term for any kind of music from Louis Armstrong to hip hop to the Doobie Brothers? It is kinda frustrating when audiences go out to hear a jazz show expecting something swinging and end up with some sort of through-composed, intellectual, new music performance,… and vice versa of course. I know what some of you are saying: “Who knows?  Yeah, sure, they might, but they probably won’t; just like when I go to eat at an Italian restaurant I probably don’t want to be surprised with pan-Asian fusion dishes.
I don’t know, is it just me? I love labels and relish the opportunity to express this to any musician who considers themselves far too “open-minded” to have use for such things.  Labels are great, they don’t limit anything, instead they serve as a tool towards identifying someone’s likes and dislikes.  Labels help me find the right section in a library, just like they help me find the right aisle in a grocery store, just like the “list of ingredients” helps me determine whether to choose this jar of pasta sauce or the other.  Why hell, that’s an idea right there! ”Jazz Festivals” (which, in my world, would hereby be called “Music Festivals”) could include an ingredient list next to all “fusion” artists, listed in order of greatest percentage, ie:  The Joe Blow Fusion Collective:  Contemporary European Classical, American Folk, Jazz, Blue Grass.
You see? Somebody looks at that and they can say “You know what, I’m not a big jazz fan but I love American Folk and so I’m going to give Joe Blow a chance.” Likewise, they won’t leave Joe Blows show saying “Wow, I kinda thought jazz was more swinging. I guess jazz isn’t my thing.”
OK, I’m done thinking about this. Josh, I hope that was worthwhile, keep up the blogs!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Guest post: Vanessa Rodrigues

I over-lapped student careers at McGill with Vanessa by a couple of years. When she first arrived in Montreal as an impressionable 17 year old pianist I remember being very impressed by her killing latin chops. I bugged her to show me montunos in the practise rooms because nobody else had any of that language together. Since her days as a student Vanessa has gone on to lead some very successful groups of her own as well as become a highly sought after B-3 organist with an international reputation. Vanessa wrote me a very eloquent statement in response to my Jason Marsalis assignment. (See my original post here)

re: Jason Marsalis rant at the Rex ...

I am always very interested to hear a Marsalis' take on things; there was a time when I thought Wynton was a stodgy, crusty old purist, stuck in a rut and bitter about it. However, the more I learn about jazz and jazz history, the more I can appreciate his point of view and the more, I have to say, I agree with him.

Think about where the Marsalis family is from ... New Orleans, the cradle of American musical culture and birthplace of what is almost certainly America's greatest contribution to art on the world stage.  We look back through the history of jazz with rose coloured glasses, especially now that it's no longer "the devil's music", and has now been institutionalized, systematized, accepted as an academic field of study, and dare I say it, somehow sanitized in the process as well.  Early jazz  was thought of by the white upper class as low-life brothel and gambling hall music that the undesirables (read "blacks") partook in, and it ultimately took Europeans to recognize and nurture this incredible emerging art form.  (Germans Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff launched Blue Note Records). Wynton was around to see his fellow African Americans press on through unimaginable hardship and win their civil rights, only to have the image of his culture be reduced to the vapid glorification of black on black violence, to the benefit of Big Entertainment Corp.

Some of the most romanticized, revered figures in jazz history that we admire today were often victims of police brutality and racial profiling, debilitating drug addictions and a host of other problems affecting mostly the poor and down-trodden. (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell come to mind). If we look farther back in history to the blues, the original roots of jazz and all African American music (and by extension rock & roll and pop music), we see that it is the mournful cry of an oppressed people who also had hope and a sense of humour to see them through; there is such a rich pallette of emotions in the blues, the songs tell incredible stories of suffering and despair, love & laughter ... to call yourself a jazz musician and shrug off the blues as being old and tired is like calling yourself an Italian chef and deciding that tomatoes and olive oil are boring and passé and are going to cook with something newer and more exciting. You have removed a key element of the essence of what it IS, one of the main things that makes people fall in love with it, and it ceases to be what you say it is if you do that.

I'm not saying that in order to be considered jazz it can only be Cotton Tail played like Ben Webster plays it, but what I am saying is that for it to be meaningful, the history, and therefore the melodies, rhythms and phrasing, have to be respected and built-upon. It's a language. All languages evolve by building on what came before. Nobody speaks Latin anymore, but anybody who speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian can read, understand and appreciate Latin, and through that gain some insight and respect for the history and lives of the people who spoke it while experiencing the constant evolution of their own languages in modern times.

Jason talks about melody and communicating/connecting with the audience, and I'm absolutely with him on this. Like a spoken word performance (stand-up comedy comes to mind), it's not what you say, but how you say it; it's about HOW you deliver your story using the common language, and there is NO limit to the creative possibilities involved. Take the ending of Bye Bye Blackbird from "God Bless Jug and Sonny" - Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons ... they quote pretty much every tune under the sun during the endless turnaround and the exchange between them gets more and more exciting, more and more energetic, comical, engaging, and dare I say it, orgasmic! They are using this rich vocabulary of timeless melodies and songs and interweaving it in such a brilliant way ... I can't imagine anyone who claims to love or play jazz not being affected deeply by this.

Now, after all is said and done, I can't say I agree completely with Jason's rant, (though I think it's hilarious and he's totally within his right to say all of those things) in that I believe because the very spirit of jazz is one of growth, progress and exploration, that there is a place for complex meters and chromatic, cerebral improvisation. (Small digression - odd meters can groove like crazy if they're approached in a natural, organic way - ex. Soulive's "One in 7").  That being said, while I can appreciate the particular area of jazz Jason is referring to, it certainly doesn't move and shake me personally the way a hard-swinging take on an old standard tune steeped in emotion and history does.

So I suppose I'm with Jason 99% :)

Aside from being an active perfomer Vanessa also writes (very well I might add) her own blog:

Check out Vanessa's upcoming shows and especially her perennial jam session during the jazz festival:

Vanessa Rodrigues Soul Project - this Friday, May 14 @ Brutopia (main stage)
Vanessa Rodrigues - keys
Olivier Rene-de-Cotret - guitar
Jean-Pierre Levesque - drums
DJ Killa-Jewel - turntables
MC BluRum13 - rap/vocals

Jazz organ jam session (I'm sharing hosting with Martin K. Petersen's
trio) - Monday June 28 - Tuesday July 6 inclusive, 10:30pm every
night, Brutopia, lower lounge floor

Gale/Rodrigues Group Montreal Jazz Festival - Upstairs jazz club -
Monday July 5 (time TBA)
Chris Gale - saxophones
Vanessa Rodrigues - Hammond B-3 organ
Mike Rud - guitar
Davide DiRenzo - drums

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Guest Post: Allan McLean

Here is the first in a series (I hope) of Montreal musicians weighing in. I've known Al for about 15 years since our days at McGill. He's a giant human being as well as saxophonist. I'll never forget the monster solo he took next to Donny McCaslin at the Ottawa Jazz festival turning all the heads in the Maria Schneider orchestra. He's definitely someone who needs to be heard more from outside our tiny jazz community in Montreal. Here's his reaction to the Jason Marsalis video (Please see previous post)

There is a large number of potential jazz listeners in the world.  However, there is a small number of current jazz listeners in the world, and that number is shrinking.  It's not the audience's fault.  An all-too-large percentage of the groups I hear, many of which are very well promoted, are staffed with assorted musicians in an introverted state of self-denile, believing that it's possible to be 'fast-tracked' to 'world-class' musicianship.  Jazz is very hard and there are no shortcuts.  Every musician needs to start at the beginning, and by the way there is no end.  Coltrane didn't build a huge skyscraper by fabricating the penthouse first.  The better your control over the basic materials- counterpoint(bebop), and rhythm, the more you can help the AUDIENCE understand what you want to express with your music.   You would be suprised how many laymen recognize bullshit when they hear it.
You can see Al live and in person in his various musical groups:

Al McLean Quartet feat:

Brian Hurley-Bass
Michel Berthiaume- Drums
Andre White- Piano

Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 9:30pm
Jazz in the Point
Taverne Urbaine Le Diable à Quatre
1871 rue Centre
Montreal, QC


The Chateauguay Tenors!

Cameron Wallis and Al McLean-  All saxophones
Geoff Lapp- Piano
Remi-Jean Leblanc- Bass
Rich Irwin- Drums

May 28th and 29th
Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grille
1254 Rue Mackay
Montreal, QC H3G 2H4
(514) 931-6808

The Jazz wars are back on

Oh it's on. In one corner are the hipsters of modernity. Those who seek to find their own voices by striking out on their own, often claiming that Jazz has become stifled. Jazz has lost its spark and energy due to the repetition of old styles and approaches. In the other corner are the preservationists. Those who are asking us not to throw away what is timeless about good music. Those who are asking us to ponder the importance of playing in 11/8 when 4/4 still just feels better. And the rest of us...somewhere in between. Please consider the passionate war cry of Jason Marsalis and leave your own comment:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Solo Piano

No ranting. No wordy pronouncements. This time some actual music. In response to some people who have asked me to post something on composition I decided that I could leak something from one of my own practice tapes. Lately I've recorded myself practicing just to try to get a better look at my technique.

This is an excerpt of a piece entitled "Separation" which is part of a solo piano song cycle. In this piece a basic ostinato rhythm is played between the two hands while a simple melody is kept in the upper voice. One of the challenges playing the piano is to balance the dynamics of different melodies simultaneously almost like your hands become a live real-time mixer. J.S. Bach didn't think it was possible. Some days I agree with him! I know the video sucks a bit. I'll try to use a higher resolution next time. But anyway enjoy....

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Cultural Significance of jazz

Last summer before my performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival a journalist asked me a series of "get-in-your-head" questions. One of them was "what gives you the chills?". My answer at the time was snakes but I'd like to officially change that now to "Discussing the cultural significance of jazz". Don't you just wish you could get in my head?

I think I should say out-right that I find this topic both pertinent and stimulating. I also find it completely irrelevant to my own processes artistically. And this is what gives me the chills I guess. It is difficult for me to reconcile what seems to be an important discussion with an undeniably intense desire to eschew it. But then again I didn't grow up poor or black in a society that is still trying to cope with social injustice. However neither did any of the bloggers I've read who have weighed-in on this topic. In fact I've found the discussion to take a particularly "ivory-towered" and academic twist. Chills again. In light of the recent posts in blog-o-land I thought I'd give my two cents here

Recently the prolific blogger Jason Parker wrote"
"As jazz musicians, this is a central issue that we have to struggle with." 
"... I do think it’s imperative that we try to connect our music to our own culture, our own experience of the world, our own lives. This is what makes the music of the 50’s and 60’s so powerful, that it was speaking directly to the issues of the day. But when we play that music now, however skillfully we may play it, isn’t it still referencing a bygone era? It’s the reason Miles Davis stopped playing the music that made him famous. It’s the reason Coltrane experimented with different song forms and extended group improvisations. And it’s the reason that cats like Dave HollandEsperanza Spalding,Christian Scott and Aaron Parks are trying to fuse the music of our time with various jazz aesthetics."
To be fair to Jason he quickly distances himself from the notion that we need to completely separate from the musical language of the past (bebop for example) in order for us to achieve that "fusion of the music of our time with various jazz aesthetics". However Jason neither references his explanation of Miles' and Coltranes' artistic decisions nor does he try to articulate what specifically are those "jazz aesthetics" that are somehow nearly inextricably linked to the past, implying that whatever those aesthetics are they are have lost relevance to our modern age unless they become fused to something new.

I find this to be a very popularly espoused sentiment that the great jazz music of the past was knowingly created to reflect the social, political etc issues of it's day.  In our mind's eye it is a quaint image to equate the movement in the 40's and 50's to legitimize jazz music as an art form by young, well-dressed black men with the social rights movements. In the case of Miles he made it clear in many instances that social rights were on his mind. In his autobiography he talks about listening to white bands as a youth and trying to figure out what he could play that would go over well with white audiences (Yes he was a self-professed sell-out!). Several of Miles' recordings are direct references to black figures such as his soundtrack for the documentary on Jack Johnson or of the black community on On the Corner. However Miles was also very concerned with fashion, fast cars, and women. In fact Miles was greatly influenced by a lot of things in society. To speak specifically to his music part of his concept (not that he ever admitted this) was to play mind-games with his band. It was his way of keeping everyone guessing, keeping the music moving forward at any cost even if it meant sometimes a train wreck of form (check out how lost everyone is at times on the album Nefertiti). His artistic intentions always had tangible results if not always pleasant ones. Miles could never sit still musically and needed to reinvent himself every decade. Could we really say that these kinds of artistic decisions were a result of society changing around Miles? Or perhaps did Miles play a role in affecting that change in society? If he did base his musical decisions on notions of social relevance what does that actually mean in musical terms? The thing is that Miles had so many influences, both politically and artistically that it is almost banal to try and make a connection between his deconstruction of the melodic line until he left painful amounts of space with the social rights movement. Yes it's fun but there is no evidence for it.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make (with some difficulty) is that at a certain point the argument breaks down. It breaks down because as we get closer to the actual brass tacks of how a musician expresses themselves the more it makes sense to use the vocabulary of music and aesthetics. It becomes almost insulting to a great musician such as Coltrane or Miles that the reason they reinvented themselves was for external reasons rather than as a result of their own internal processes. And in the broader context of history I believe that the great artists are social leaders and not followers. The proof is that their social relevance usually waxes and wanes even within their own lifetime. For example J.S. Bach although employed throughout his lifetime was ultimately rejected as being too erudite, too dissonant for public consumption. It wasn't until the 19th Century that his influence didn't start to creep back into the music of composers such as Berlioz.

Another artist whose work is inextricably linked to society is Picasso. In his painting Guernica his goal was to explicitly affect social change by drawing the public's attention to the bombing of the city Guerninca by the Germans and Italians during the Spanish civil war. Picasso's pain is felt as mankind's suffering throughout the ages. But the pain we feel is the result of the internal artistic processes of Picasso and not his political motivations. His pain is communicated to us not by a political desire but rather as a result of his skills as a painter and the depth of his artistry. We are moved in other words by the art and not Picasso's intentions as a man, noble as they were. As men Picasso and Miles Davis did some ignoble things too and these in no way have ever become a detriment to my enjoyment of their art. 

This begs the question: why are we bloggers, musicians,....just about everyone so concerned with the social relevance of jazz? Are we really just trying to bybass the tired old discussions of aesthetics? I think we are sometimes struggling to intelligently address the merit of jazz music on it's own terms, using the vocabulary of music. For example if a piece is original or derivative, melodic, rhythmic etc...Then we could talk about jazz that is and isn't accessible to a wide audience. It could all just be a part of a spectrum, one that we can acknowledge will change as the decades pass. To me it is all very pretentious when I hear a musician go into the social significance of their music. Perhaps you don't agree with me but let me ask you this: Do the extended liner note essays on theWynton Marsalis album covers discussing the cultural significance of the "blues" really make the music mean more? When Christian Scott goes on about how he's trying to bring jazz to "the people" in comparison with Bob Dylan are we supposed to take that to mean we should listen to his music any differently than we would someone who isn't trying to bring jazz to the people using idiomatically obscure influences? Actually I'm not sure if his aesthetic appreciation of Bob Dylan's music doesn't have more to do with the album covers than the music.

Hmmm....It seems to me that music which makes it a goal to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible has existed for quite some time. Why is Christian Scott so excited about that?

Ok so let me bow-out as gracefully as possible. Jazz musicians are basically lamenting the sad fact that ours is an art form largely ignored by the public. On the surface it seems plausible that this is because Jazz has lost its connection to society, its greater cultural significance. It seems that all of the goodies Jazz has to offer in terms of melody, harmony, swing feel, and personality pretty much goes over like a lead balloon. But I don't feel that this fact burdens me with the responsibility of trying to make jazz appeal to my culture. We live in a society that is helplessly inarticulate and aesthetically confused and we need to address that without becoming harsh or judgemental. I believe that art is one of the best ways to affect social change. We live in a time and place when a talented and accomplished person is no longer considered very entertaining performing music on an instrument. Wynton Marsalis (despite what I said above about his pretentious album covers) is actually a great ambassador for jazz because of the time he spends with young people demonstrating the music on his instrument. Granted, public performance is an artform and one that jazz musicians cannot disregard. But to say that we should try to fuse jazz aesthetics with the music of our time (does that mean popular music?) in order for us to make jazz popular again is to pay a great disservice to the process of creating art. A process that involves a deep personal commitment to oneself to listen to that "voice" inside at all costs. It is just as disingenuous for a pianist to decide to play Bjork tunes in a jazz piano trio context because they think it will have an audience as it is for that pianist to perform Bill Evans transcriptions in public. If our career aspirations become a hinderance to the creation of our art then we don't stand a chance of making a contribution.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

On the art of hair growth

Recently a piano student of mine emailed me for some encouragement. He asked me "I was wondering what you do when you don't like the way you sound on the piano?" This is definitively a question that most students have but few dare to ask. It's a good question for several reasons the most important of which I believe is that it goes to the heart of the reason why a musician makes music. It also says a lot about this student's attention to the process of becoming an accomplished musician. 

There is a paradoxical nature to the pursuit of educating one's self to be a creative musician. When we're young many of us look at great jazz musicians and assume that the mind-blowing, creative sounds coming out of their instruments are being created entirely in the moment. Jazz, when it's really happening is so spontaneous, exciting, and off-the-cuff that it seems as if it is literally bursting out of the air molecules. For me the sign of maturity in a developing player is when they give up trying to be completely breath-takingly in the moment and develop an appreciation for the craft of being a musician. They begin to distill their creative musical ideas and work them over and over again refining both their ideas and the execution of their ideas.  At this level of artistic evolution a student looks up to their mentors not only as "geniuses" but also as craftsmen (craftspeople?) and develops an appreciation for the refinement and taste that exudes in their playing. However the pursuit of the craft of music inevitably takes us through the thoroughfares of drudgery.  The hours of practicing some very non-creative things as a way of unlocking our creativity seems paradoxical and it becomes easy to lose the energy and inspiration that initially was driven by this perceived spontaneity.

Acquiring the skills of a master can take a lot longer than we had initially hoped. Our practicing can seem even futile. It's almost as if we got up every day, stood in front of the mirror and tried to "will" our hair to grow. This would be a depressing way of growing one's hair and yet for many students (myself included) it becomes part of our process of developing our skills as a musician. It would be silly for any of us to obsessively wish we were at a different hair-length since worrying about it would have no effect on the process that is already occurring at its own rate. (incidentally we all grow hair at different speeds!) Hair length is also neither good nor bad. It's just shorter or longer. This is the same for our development as musicians. We are all developing at our own rates and it only serves to inhibit our development to use our limited energy judging ourselves. 

Once when I took a lesson with Fred Hersch I asked a similar question to him. I don't remember exactly the words I used but I intimated the sentiment that I was often over-whelmed by the prospects of playing solo piano. Fred's answer was: "When you're playing music use what you know, not what you don't know". Over-simplistic as it seems this answer is profound because it requires one to be completely honest about what one "knows". This honesty is, in my experience, not very common and is what distinguishes the wheat from the chaff in terms of artistic integrity. Artistic intentions become quite transparent when it is clear that a musician is playing something that they don't grasp. It's innocent I know but it has the overall effect on the listener as music that is trying to be something that it is not; music that is perhaps trying to impress the listener by approximating something else rather than being simple and honest and what it is.  

Younger players are often mired in judgmental decisions about the "hipness" of what they play. In the case of my student I find it heartening that he is perhaps beginning to dig deeper for a meaning to what he plays. As long as this feeling doesn't turn into obsessive self-loathing this question is an acknowledgment of the deeper sometimes darker places within that must be faced with courage and honesty as part of the process of becoming a musician.