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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, December 29, 2011

End of the year roundup Part I: Art advocacy

For the next few days while I catch my breath from the cavorting and over-eating I'd like to revisit some of my yet unpublished posts from this past year. Inevitably every year I write some posts which, for some reason I either can't finish or just don't have the balls to put my name on. I am almost always writing from my emotions and I feel that this yeilds unpredictable results. As in playing music one's feelings can play a really vital role in producing inspiration while at the same time undermining other things that are important like... organization! But hey, I didn't choose music it chose me so everyone has to just deal with me. Haha So I hope you all enjoy a sample from my posts which I felt were largely too unorganized to or pretentious to publish.

(Originally written last winter...sometime...)

I would like to further support my assertion from a previous post that it is crucial for those of us involved in the arts to hone our skills in advocacy for the arts.  Even if it is just learning about the major issues and working out one's own arguments.  I often think about what art means to people and that includes myself. Especially when I get home from a performance where the sound sucked, I sucked, and the piano was badly out of tune. Then I really need some arguments of my own to support my self-financing of my music career (or in my case earning a standard of living lower than what I could make in another field). And on top of that I have to subject my family to my selfish career choice!

Why is it that we need to justify art? What is it exactly that we need to defend to the tax payers of the far right? I come back to my previous statement that there is nothing more worthless than an unwanted piece of art. And that goes for an unwanted minute of jazz improvisation at the Lincoln center or an unwanted opera production. And perhaps we can all agree with this to some extent. I don't support the opera because it is largely a form that I find worthless to me. For shame! But how is that different than the argument that is often made by people that the free market economy means that jazz should die because that is what the public wants.

I think if we are to help change the minds of this increasingly large segment of our society and to really argue with an informed opinion then we need to do our research. I encourage you to start with this video. It's really long so just skip over to the part about the arts and let me know what you think!
Watch the video here (Fast forward to minute 119:30 to hear McCain's rant worthy of a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon against earmark spending for the arts)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chris Donnelly blogpost competition

I'd like to cordially invite my readership to check out Chris Donnelly's blog competition. Chris is an outstanding pianist in Toronto and his blog is no less a top notch place for pointed discussion on topics ranging from jazz piano to creativity and improvisation. Please follow the link here to his blog. You can win $200 from Chris if you write a post reflecting on:

“How do you get people out to gigs? How do you build an audience?  How do you support live music?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Are there Mistakes in Jazz Part II

As the jazz blogosphere south of the border descends into a racist-tinged chaos, a fitting parallel to their economic chaos (how can jazz be so divisive...only in America!), I'd like to hopefully keep your day on an elevated level with a clip of Stephon Harris addressing some of the same points I made in my previous post on making mistakes in Jazz.

To quote Ike Turner: "Why can't we just be friends?"

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are there mistakes in Jazz?

Recently I was having a discussion with a younger bassist about a gig we played a few months ago. I was focusing primarily on my enjoyment of playing music that night. Just to update those of you reading this blog I have 2 young children and a demanding day gig teaching at McGill University and Vanier College. Needless to say I feel like someone who is always making the food but rarely gets to taste it if you catch my drift. A good day for me is when I can get even an minimal amount of practicing in before I need to clean up, give baths, read bedtime stories. All the stuff I really love to do as a parent. Anyway my young bassist friend was focusing the conversation primarily on the mistakes. And in particular those instances where I played certain chord changes that were unfamiliar to him and there were moments that clashed between the chord I was playing and the bass note. These sorts of things often crop up in inter-generational moments like when a younger musician is playing a standard with an older musician. They often just know different chord progressions to the tunes because they've had different teachers for the music.

For example several of the standards I know I learned from recordings of Miles Davis and in particular the 60's quintet with one of my big heros Herbie Hancock. For sure as a student I would always be looking for places to put my favorite Herbie-isms. Here is one that I always wanted to do on "All of You" by Cole Porter. Check out the decending dominant sus chords in measures 13-16 of the form:

I'm sure if you're a jazz pianist this passage absolutely makes your eyes water with envy for Herbie's moment of superlative slickness. Well the whole solo is just about as great a herbie solo as it comes. It was even transcribed by Bill Dobbins in his seminal publication of Herbie Hancock solos published by Advance Music.(Just as an aside: a couple of years back I bought the box set "Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven" and found to my utter amazement that the Herbies solos from these live concerts with the band that included George Colleman were heavily edited to remove entire choruses. When I heard these missing choruses put back into the solos it was like going to going to sleep and waking up in some kind of paralell universe like Bizzarro jazz world in the DC comics if that ever were to have been imagined. The previous Youtube clip plays the recording with the solo restored and not what was on the original cd)

Ok so I got the chance to play with Dave Young, veteran Toronto bassist, a number of years back and here's what those bars sounded like:

In Burrell's  version this passage is:

EbMaj7 (Db7) Gmin7(b5) C7(b9) Fmin7 Bb7

which more closely resembles the original changes to the tune as opposed to the Miles/Herbie chords which are:

Eb7sus D7sus Db7sus C7sus B7 EMaj7

In jazz it is quite common for different musicians to play the same tune with even far greater differences than these and make them work. In my opinion the question is not whether or not these differences constitute "mistakes" when played together but rather the question is how do these players play what amounts to unrehearsed repertoire and make it sound so "right". The first question is phrased in the negative, glass-half-empty approach (which I find a surprising number of musicians are willing to take) and the second question is phrased in a positive, glass-half-full, how-do-we-make-this-thing-work approach.

I suppose the analogy I often use for my students is when we hang with our friends socially. In this context we are constantly using language to express and riff off completely unrehearsed ideas. Someone brings up a concert they recently attended, an episode of "Curb your enthusiasm" (nerd!), gossip about a gig they were on. All of these "ideas" existed internally as emotions and concepts that needed a language for them to be expressed. These ideas also needed an audience or an interactive human outlet for them to be "performed". During their performance they grow to include influences from the subtle emotional subtext of the "hang". Things like the vibe in the room which is often humourous. Or maybe the subtext involes an inter-generational vibe like when we're with family. The point is that there is so much that goes into the expression of ideas through language.

The only mistake we can make in these situations is to not be completely present. Humans are just naturally sensitive to each other but we sometimes do things that get in the way. We feel insecure about ourselves and so we start an internal negative dialogue that has nothing to do with anything external. We use drugs that dull our minds. Music only sounds wrong when this sensitive exchange between people isn't happening. Yes understanding of language is a very important part and so is the quality of our ideas (typically you don't hang out with your friends to bore them with mundane ideas) but so is an attitude of open mindedness and a willingness to listen and respond honestly to one another. Possibly THE greatest thing about jazz and improvisation is that it rellies on conventions and languages that are the best at representing the subtlety of complex human interaction. The only time it sounds bad (not Shaft bad but yucky bad) is when that interplay isn't there. All the right notes in the world won't change a band that isn't happening!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Notes on Kananaskis

This is the second video in the series shot by Randy Cole here in Montreal documenting me and the trio. Once again Cole's artistry as a film maker is apparent as well as my inability to form complete sentences when interviewed. Also featured is the superb musicianship of my friends Dave Watts and John Fraboni who I've had the pleasure of playing with and being inspired by for a number of years now. I hope that some of our nice chemistry comes through on film despite my banter. Enjoy...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Candian Landscapes

Hi all. In conjunction with the release of my second cd entitled "Kannaskis" here is a little video of one of the tunes from the album called "Separation". The film was shot by a Montreal film maker named Randy Cole who, among other projects, has a really nice developing series of profiles of Montreal jazz musicians. I especially like the films he did of Kevin Dean and Al McLean.  The piece I'm playing here was composed for my brother and sister-in-law after they experienced a painful loss however the metaphor extends to include the separation between the urban and natural environments here in Canada. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Post Secondary Education: a purely politcal post

For those of you who read my blog you know about my increasingly sporadic posts. You've read my meandering theses on various topics relating to jazz education. You've been patient with me while I self-promoted, you've been open minded when I've ranted, you've been like a friend when I've gushed about my family. I'd now like to take the next step outside of the sphere of jazz education and write something briefly on education itself.

 Here in Quebe where I live and work we are witnessing the beginning of the end of state funded post secondary education. Up until now we've literally been the most enlightened society in North America by subsidizing the greatest portion of university tuition than any other province in Canada or State in the US. This is something that I am unflinchingly proud of and I will gumb you down if you try to argue with me about this. I simply can't believe those people who argue against the benefit of post secondary education to society at large. Their arguments seem trite to me, similar to those arguments people make against society's responsibilities towards the rearing of children and young adults. Simply because those making the argument themselves have no children they feel that this should absolve them from playing a role in the shaping of the human beings they share the planet with and whose future financial, emotional, and intellectual contributions will be of great benefit to them when they require care in their old age.

I would like to take 2 arguements that are being thrown out against subsidized post secondary education by everyone from my neighbours to high profile economists and argue against them. 

#1. is the argument that university education is primarily a personal choice that benefits the student only.

This is in essence a consumeristic attitude toward higher education and an argument recently articulated by an economist in the Montreal Gazette. There is more to highter education than mere personal choice or self-improvement. Nor is subsidizing tuition a mere investment in an individual's future income. Education does indeed improve the student, but it also produces graduates who are better able to contribute to the development of society at large. Society benefits from doctors, lawyers (supposed to, maybe I should say in Canada at least) engineers, philanthropist business leaders, theologans, ethicists, chemists, physicists, musicians, artists.....even economists!

#2 the argument that free education produces inferior education, citing the claim that "no German university is ranked among the best in the world," and suggesting that this is because most German states offer free university.

Setting aside the veracity of the claim, perhaps the authors of this argument could explain how Oxford and Cambridge managed to become such world reknowned universities in spite of the fact that, until recently, Britain also offered free higher education. McGill university itself is considered the top university in Canada and yet has one of the lowest tuitions.  A policy offering low-cost or free higher education is a choice that many enlightened societies have made because they understand that it is an investment, not just in the individuals who receive that education, but in the ongoing development of of society as a whole.

This is a choice that the Quebec society made years ago. The trouble is that successive governments have not lived up to their side of the bargain by funding the universities adequately.  And now the problem with Quebec universities is not that they charge such low fees, but that they receive inadequate support from the very governments that have set the low-fee policy. This paints an inaccurate picture of the issue for people. What is in the public's best interest is to push hard against the government to live up to the values and expectations of society, but instead people are adopting the values of cutting back on education. Cuts that themselves represent merely the values of a government who is doing everything it can to make up for bad policy and corruption in other sectors.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kananaskis | Effendi Records :

Hi guys. Given my last post I thought it would be nice to put up a link to preview my upcoming disc. Feel free to leave a message and let me know if I've inadvertently stumbled on any marketable hooks!

"9 out of 10 people say Josh's playing grates!"

Kananaskis Effendi Records :

Hooked on jazz?

I recently had the pleasure of attending the new season launch for my record label here in Montreal, Effendi Records. I am releasing a new CD next month which entitled me to a couple of free drinks and some face time with the media. Or should I say whoever showed up claiming to be a reporter of any kind. Since the free drinks were also flowing for the media representatives I was a little dubious of some of the characters I was rubbing shoulders with. There was even a person who showed obviously intoxicated who got served. But isn't that what's great about a Montreal jazz community shindig: "All are invited" and in Quebec it doesn't undermine anyone's credibility to be drunk at the beginning of the show.

All kidding aside I had an interesting conversation with a radio host who gave me his perspective on releasing a CD in today's over-saturated market of recordings and what made him want to listen to something new. As we chatted on the patio of Upstairs I enjoyed his frankness while at the same time feeling disappointed by the message: Novelty! He was tired of seeing a barrage of white-faced jazz pianists putting out boutique recordings that all sound the same to him. He wanted to feel a story behind the artist, something that he could think about while listening to the music. And the cd needed to have a concept. It couldn't just be a bunch of tunes (like mine will be when it comes out next month!). A cd now needs to have a theme. As an example he offered Marsalis' partnering with Eric Clapton. Or Bill Frisel's new record of the music of John Lenon. Basically there needed to be a marketing angle, or if you will a hook.

Apparently without these things nothing will stand out on it's own. As disappointed as I was I had to agree with him. Distinguishing characteristics aside, the race card is really important to the white middle-class because it does tell a story. A very interesting one. It's a story about humans overcoming inequity, rising up in a system that is angled against the poorer classes. It's a story that includes flavours from different cultures. White people in this situation want to cheer for the underdog while at the same time enjoying the contrast of cultures. When I attend ticketed events at jazz festivals it is this white middle class I see in the overwhelming majority. I can't help but feel that part of the charm of watching a non-white musician from a poor country (all playing aside) is the good feeling that it generates while diminishing a smidgen of guilt.

But to address the music itself, the message from not just the media but club owners and promoters at large festivals is that you need to have a hook. And this is where the novelty of innovation plays a prominent role. People want to hear something they have never heard before. It can be forgettable, it can be bad, but it must be new!  It must be immediately accessible and digestible apparently to those who are pondering the "story" of the musicians themselves while they listen to the music. On this subject I came across a great quote from one of my favorite pianists Mulgrew Miller from a downbeat interview:

Pictured: Mulgrew Miller NOT performing
Bjork's "All Neon Like"
"A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls "interview music," [Miller said]. You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I've observed it to be heavily critiqued who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don't include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé."

I can't think of a musician more respected by other musicians (I mean count the records that Mulgrew plays on as a sideman!) and more overlooked by the media, promoters of festivals etc. But knowing that his playing is so great makes me wonder if the media should play a different role in the music industry. While my conversation with the radio host exemplifies only one viewpoint it still evokes questions in my mind about the buffer zone of media and information content that we wrap ourselves in. Is it really working out for us if it prevents musicians like Mulgrew Miller from being heard? I mean I know none of my students at McGill have heard of him (I've asked) and yet he is so disproportionally represented on the jazz recordings of the last 20 years. The pianists that my students have heard about are extremely young and have barely appeared on a handful of records but exemplify today's earth shattering new sounds in jazz. I guess it begs the question: what will happen to them when they grow up and play better and more maturely than they do today? Will we get a chance to hear them in the future once they've changed the game?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It Goes to Credibility Part II

So I thought it would be time for me to put my money where my...fingers on the laptop are and offer a positive spin on some of the things I said in the first post on this subject. In retrospect my tone was a little negative, and I was critical of society and culture. Ok I dipped into some heavy pessimism when I discussed what in our culture represented an admirable level of credibility on an artistic level. I don't try to be negative. Maybe I just needed a coffee or something.

Well here's a musician who has yet to really be discovered.  While we continue to get inundated by singers who deliver dreary ballad-based repertoire with clenched mouths and vacant expressions, packaged in the blandest of generic musical settings and who are clearly being rammed down our throats by the ubiquitousness of their images in the media, here is an example of someone who is well deserved of our attention.

I've been aware of Champian Fulton only for a few months and have yet to see her perform but I sincerely hope someone, somewhere in the world of corporate jazz takes notice of her. Here's a little taste for you. Enjoy!

You know what, I'm not even finished talking about her. I just watched this again and I'm really blown away. She has an enormous sense of swing, poise at the piano, and a phrasing that is already, at the age of 27, coming together for her.  For me her credibility as a musician stems from her ability to elevate a standard tune to an artistic level while at the same time having fun with the music. One really needs to believe in this music in order to do that. They really need to be breathing it and not just performing standards as "covers".  The feeling for me is one of hearing a performance of a standard tune and having that song sound as if I've never heard it before and I'm falling in love with it for the first time. And let's face it for most of these tunes at this point one might argue that we have more reason to hate them than to love them given the accumulation of shmaltzy, mediocre performances we have of them.

I'm just so heartened by how real and honest this concert sounds. Here's another video.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Bud Powell

It was Bud's birthday this week. Here's my transcriptions of a couple of his solos. Happy Birthday Bud!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It goes to credibility Part I

If there is anything that summarises the state of credibility in our culture it was this year's speech given by the dean of the university of Alberta to the graduating class of medical doctors. In it he told very personal stories about his family, recounted anectdotes that brought tears to the eyes of the students and their families. All of it was fake. Actually that's not entirely accurate. The stories were real but they belonged to another person. Check out an article here.

On the pianist George Colligan's blog he quotes an interview he did with drummer Ralph Peterson. On the topic of the state of music business he says:
RP: The nature of the business is exploitative. So, once you’ve realized that, as an artist, you fall out of favor with those who have the power. The "chosen ones" are just getting younger and younger now to where all the guy has to do is get into college and he’s trying to get calls for gigs. I think that the cats who are now teaching in the colleges should be the development network. It should be, for example, that I could call Mulgrew Miller and say, “Ok, Who is the killing piano player out here? ” Or I’d call you and ask “Who is the killing piano player I should know about? ” And then, musicians can determine who is the next great player. Unfortunately, now it’s competitions and record labels that are determining who is the next great player.

Sometimes it’s not even the professors. It’s the administrators and the trustees and the Board of Directors deciding to put the weight and full force of support at a program behind a particular individual. You dig what I’m saying? When on the other hand, there are young students who are trying to go through the process and come out credentialed as well as experienced; like pianist Victor Gould...Yeah, Victor Gould is a cat that you should hear. He would leave you feeling encouraged about the future of your instrument...
I like how he says it should be the musicians themselves who determine another musician's credibility. This, of course, is also problematic because there are just as many different tastes in music as there are musicians. However the point really is that there are a collusion of factors against musicians determining for themselves who of their peers deserve credibility and instead credibility is engineered by people and companies with lots of money. It seems that with enough money and/or business connections a person can easily pull the wool over a mass market at least long enough to establish a career in the minds of people who aren't willing (or who simply don't care enough) to take the time to refine their own aesthetics.  And that's most people. Let's face it people are busy and they want art and culture in their lives. The engine of promotion is the only way a musician competes for space in the market place. Companies know this and they look for artists with the biggest "hooks" to become the fuel for that engine. A musician who doesn't already embody those "hooks" will be looked over by the big guns and faces an uphill struggle despite their musical abilitities and accomplishments.

If you don't believe let me ask you this: when was the last time a jazz singer over the age of 40 was promoted aggressively by a large marketing engine? For that matter how many jazz veterans, legendary musicians who played in the important groups of the past and who are still alive and playing and are shining examples of refinement and beauty at their instruments; how many of these musicians are receiving attention in the form of marketing dollars and public promotion?

It was with heavy hearts that the jazz community said good bye to Hank Jones who was still playing great well into his 90's, who passed away in virtual obscurity. A man whose playing connected the listener directly to the vital lineage of modern jazz. A pianist whose harmonic inventiveness embodied modernity while his elegant touch on the instrument left an indelible mark all pianists who heard him. You know all those guys you hear playing really smooth and quiet while they throw complex and angular lines at you? I'm thinking of players like Gerald Clayton, Robert Glasper, Danny Grissett. Hank was truly the role model for this style of pianism. If it wasn't for Joe Lovano who's notoriety allowed Jones one last look in the public's eye, Hank would have died in almost complete obscurity.

If the strength and beauty of jazz music is at least due in part to some notion of credibility, authenticity, just plain honesty then we need to be wary of the ways in which our culture erodes these qualities. These qualities I feel transcend art and are crucial to our evolution as individuals, crucial to our happiness and also act as the foundation for us to build our legacies. Here I'm not just speaking about musical legacies because very few us (and usually the least likely) will successfully do so. Here I'm speaking about how we will be remembered by those genereations who come after us. Here we will all leave some kind of legacy in the minds and hearts of those we've spent the most time with.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Arranging a Standard

I'd like to build on some of the techniques of harmonization from my previous post where I demonstrated a simple way to harmonize a melody using 3 or 4 notes. This technique obviously lends itself well to the piano but it is also a departure point for writing for other instruments. The following is an arrangement of the Jerome Kern standard "I'm Old Fashioned" in which I used 3 and 4 note piano voicings to get outside of the original harmony and create an arrangement for 3 horns.

First let me say that this kind of writing must come from an understanding of traditional jazz voice leading. I say this because it is essentially an "ears first" approach to adding harmony to a standard and the danger is for it to sound so arbitrary that the original tune is completely lost. It is difficult to replace tonal chord progressions with chromatic or modal harmony without an ingrained sense of the "purpose" or "direction" of the original tonal harmony. By this I mean that a cadence such as II-V7-I has a purpose in that it leads the harmony in a specific direction. In replacing the original tonal harmony I believe that one needs to try to keep the feeling of the original harmony (here "feeling" is pretty broad and probably entails an infinite number of possibilities). If the arrangement is so far flung from the original tune that one can't get the sense that the arranger is "playing" with that tune, (stretching it, morphing it, playing with our expectations) then it begs the question why arrange this tune? Why not just compose something new?

One rule of thumb is to keep the melody intact and only change the rhythm or phrasing of it. For me this always suggests interesting directions for the harmony to take. Even if the harmony changes quite a bit as it does here I try not to over power the melody so that a sense of the original tune can still come through.

Also in this arrangement I used a common devise called a "tag". Basically that is extra bars at the end of the tune which kind of stretches it out a bit and takes it in a different direction briefly. In this case it modernizes the tune by introducing the feeling of a vamp. A tag also needs to have a natural connection to the standard so it's best to build it out of something in the body of the arrangement. I took the idea for the tag from measures 17-18 when I was working on the A section. These chords sounded like they stood on their own (they certainly stand OUT from the tune) and they quickly inspired me to build a vamp out of them. Unusual about the vamp however is the 3 bar phrases.

In addition to triads and seventh chord voicings there are also quartal voicings. Quartal refers to the interval of a 4th so that can include also the augmented 4th and diminished 5th in combination with a perfect 4th. Notice how the quartal voicings are especially interesting when the melody repeats the same note (mm 29-32) as the original melody does at the beginning of the bridge. The voices however are free to move under the melody and create some interesting dissonances which are completely chromatic and not tonal. This is often referred to as oblique motion.

Here is a version from a recording I made with 3 horns.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Work HARD not LONG

"Hurry....hurry....hurry harrrrrrrrrrd"

Anyone watch curling?

One of the themes of my blog XY...Jazz is information versus knowledge. In the context of being an improvising musician this means what comes out in one's soloing is what one has learned, what one currently knows.  Where I have been critical in the past of institutionalized jazz education is in its emphasis on the dissemination of information to the detriment of acquiring the skills which make that information become knowledge. It's actually not just jazz education I have a beef with.  For example can you remember what you crammed into your head back in high school for your exams? Probably a little but what you do remember is most likely still in use in your current day to day existence. That's not to say that there aren't great teachers who understand that this is an important issue when it comes to the nuances of language play in jazz improvisation. It's just that the way the system is set up a university or college wants to see just how much one can stuff into their heads in 3 or 4 years because that is testable. It is far more difficult to test a student's ability to improvise with depth and facility.

Or is it? What if, for example, instead of learning 15 tunes in one semester for a jury a student was expected to learn 3 new tunes and that's all. Ok so that's just not as fun but let's continue this thought experiment anyway. Suppose students were expected to become masters on 3 really important tunes before they went on to develop their repertoire. Say, for example, they had to learn the Blues, Rhythm changes, and Body & Soul by listening and memorizing great recordings and solos of these tunes. They would need to learn alternate chord changes, how to comp through the tunes on the piano. Horns players would write out solos, and pianists/guitarist would write out voicings and comping patterns. Etc... I think you get the point. When I was 18 I for sure would have found it unpleasant to stick to 3 tunes for such a long time.

But let me ask this: how much fun is it for a first year jazz university student to play "rhythm changes" or "Body and Soul"? Or even a major Blues (I love how some people say "just a blues" as if playing the blues is like falling off a pick-up truck) In my experience it isn't very fun for them. In fact as their juries begin to loom somewhere around February the fun stops and they get pretty stressed out by these tunes. What’s worse is that the cursory, half-assed work they get done on the tunes kind of taints them and leaves a bad impression of the music. Once a student remarked to me that the transition out of the bridge on Body & Soul sounded cheesy. I had to agree with him because what he was playing there did sound cheesy!

Or perhaps how about applying this idea to licks as a way of building vocabulary. I always found it odd as a student myself that the licks I learned out of a book and practiced as bits of jazz "information" wouldn't come out naturally in my soloing whereas the licks which would come out were usually material that I hadn't even transcribed or thought about that much but had somehow internalized from listening to albums.  The un-transcribed and not practiced licks were also shorter and simpler than the hip 4 bar II-V-I "information" lines that I tried to learn from a text book. They were instead 4 or 5 notes that would simply express, say, a dominant sound the way that Wynton Kelly did. These shorter licks felt better rhythmically and also seemed to connect with my other ideas more naturally. They weren't complex or impressive but somehow I owned them because they were simple enough to be entirely deconstructed in my mind and I could easily play with them when I was improvising.

The 3 tunes I mentioned above (insert the word "just" wherever you like) are HARD!!!! Why do we still listen to Coleman Hawkins blowing lines on Body and Soul from way back in 1939? Because this song is deep and presents an infinite education on harmony and melody. These songs are both simple and sophisticated and negotiating one's way through the changes requires a lot of study to sound convincing on them. Why not spend all of one's practice in first year on these 3 tunes if they represent a clear and comprehensive basis for jazz harmony, voice-leading, melodic construction and phrasing? Every jazz musician returns time and again to this repertoire throughout their lives as a way to touch base with the foundational aspects of making jazz music. It is a sign of musical maturity when a jazz musician can eventually speak with their own voice using this repertoire.

So when I say practice hard what I mean is practice the fundamentals. It isn’t realistic to expect a young player to really get themselves stuck on 3 tunes for a semester but it is a formative time when learning the skills of mastery can really leave a lasting impression. Sometimes the hardest things are often the simplest ones and understanding them can be one of the most rewarding things about playing music.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Basic harmonization with triads and Seventh chords

For me this style of arranging is sort of the meat and potatoes of jazz piano. The goal is to get a full sound on the instrument while at the same time not sacrificing the time feel with the technique required to play the arrangement. Obviously you can point out to me the fact that guys like Tatum or Phineas Newborn or James P. Johnson played exceedingly difficult passages at the piano and made them swing. In my arrangement for solo piano I'm offering a taste of the kind of harmony and voicings that those great pianists utilized as a basis from which they constructed more complex architectures. Aside from the basic triadic and seventh chord harmony (with appropriate altered extensions where necessary sprinkled in for flavor) is the use of the counter line. This is another essential aspect of arranging for piano in order to really use the instrument to it's fullest. Notice how the basic triplet rhythm is always propelling the harmony forward and the counter line is picking up the slack in the gaps in the melody. All great composers leave delicious gaps in their melodies. Most Ellington melodies have these wonderful places for us to add our little dreams to.  In bar 8 I left out the triplet counter melody just for a little extra space and perhaps a good place for a foot tap or if you're Keith Jarrett (and I'm pretty sure he reads my blog) you can give the pedals a good kick! Have fun.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Perspectives on Time IV

This was just so freaky I had to post it. Thanks to Ronan Guilfoyle for putting this up. I think it makes a poignant completion for my series entitled "Perspectives on Time. Watch how these metronomes are able to "listen" when they are able to feel the actual vibrations of each other.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Makes Music Expressive

I was really interested to see in the NY Times today (online edition) an article by Dan Levitin called "What Makes Music Expressive. Dan is the author of "Your Brain on Music" and runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University. I guess that makes him a neuroscientist. Where in the past I had never really found the types of explanations for the musical "experience" offered by neuroscientists to be very rewarding, Dan's book was different. First of all before becoming a neuroscientist he worked as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer. According to his bio he's worked with a diverse array of artists including Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult. (more cowbell anyone?...) Before reading his book I actually didn't know anything about him other than the fact that he works in the same building as me and that he had already a fairly high profile when he joined the faculty at McGill. I did get into most of his book right away and many of his ideas and experiments have really piqued my own interest in the goings-on of the musician's brain. I guess it didn't surprise me when I found out that he had in fact this background as a musician which I think really grounds the research he does. I think the common ground here is that musicians are also intensely interested in the effects of music on the brain but we conduct our research using musical instruments and would prefer not to talk too much on the side. I liked this article because it demonstrates musical perceptions without too much talking. In a sense it lets the effect of music inside our own minds do the talking. Very cool. Enjoy!


Click here for the full article/interview with Dan Levitin

Friday, April 15, 2011

Montreal Musicians III: Kevin Dean, Al McLean, Mike Rud

What can I say about these guys who I've known virtually my whole musical life? The soul, swing, and spirit that they exude each time they play is truly an inspiration for me everytime I hear them. I guess it's lucky there is this nice video shot of the three of them together.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Playing, Talking, Role Models and More by Chris Donnelly

The following text was written by the pianist Chris Donnelly as a guest contributer to this blog. I'm glad someone is picking up the slack around here. But seriously follow the links below and please check out his outstanding blog and solo piano records...

Playing, Talking, Role Models and More

Something occurred to me the other day.

If you recorded and analyzed how I spend time during lessons, you would see that most time is spent talking and discussing.  Very little time is spent playing.

When I compare this to how my university piano teachers conducted my lessons, the observations are the same: lots of talking and less playing.

I know this isn’t the norm for all teachers, but considering my own university experience, and the nature of teaching music in academic settings, I think this is also an issue outside of my own private studio too.  We should be more mindful; the consequences run deep.  They’re at the heart of every student/teacher relationship and the cultivation of healthy learning environments.

When I write “playing”, I’m referring to any time the student and/or the teacher are physically playing music.  The student could be playing what he/she has been working on, the teacher could be demonstrating, the teacher could be performing, or the student and the teacher could be playing together.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking and discussing.  But sometimes students need different inputs.

It may not be enough to simply say: “A G7 is G-B-D-F.”  Students may also need to hear the sound of G7, or feel a G7 on their instrument.  The sound, sight and feel of a G7 being played can fill expressive gaps left behind from talking.  Through playing, the connection is strengthened; the metaphor is enriched.

But playing has an even more important function.

Consider this:

Last year, I lost a contest to Keith Jarrett.  We were competing to make a point with my student. I got to the student first, but she was unconvinced when I tried to pass on this lesson.  A few days later, she heard Keith say the exact same thing and “Eureka!” – she got it.

Keith convinced her because he’s the stronger role model.  She grew up listening to his records, listening to him play.

On the other hand, if my student had grown up listening to Chris Donnelly, the outcome may have been different.  In fact, I’m sure my student hadn’t even heard of Chris Donnelly until she began studies at UofT.  Our relationship began with talking, not playing.

This is a problem.

The Importance of Role Models

Having role models is important for optimal learning. I wouldn’t be a jazz pianist today if it wasn’t for my first jazz teacher, Anthony Panacci.  Anthony played for me in every lesson.  We played together in every lesson.  I was nine.  He was my hero.  He established this role model dynamic through playing, not talking.

I may have become a classical pianist, but my teachers never played for me, ever.  Lessons weren’t as much fun as jazz lessons; too much talking, not enough playing.  I didn’t have role models in the classical world.

Everyone has superstar role models like Oscar and Keith, but generally, such artists are inaccessible.   It’s not enough to listen to their records and hear them play once a year when they’re passing through town.  Students need to see and hear their role models play frequently; they need to speak with them; they need to study with them; they need to live with them.

This is important: The proliferation of artists, art and arts education is dependent on role models on every level.  Every point on a hierarchy of accessibility should be filled with role models, from teachers in pre-schools, to professional musicians, and to beacon fires like Keith Jarrett.

Maybe you’ve heard of Anthony Panacci, maybe you haven’t.  What matters is that an artist like Anthony – someone who doesn’t have Keith Jarrett’s fame – can make all the difference.

The Importance of Playing

“Chris Donnelly is a professor at the University of Toronto.”  For some, this looks like quite the distinction.  But in the jazz world…*yawn*…who cares?  Can Chris Donnelly actually play!?

Playing is the best way for artists to assert their experience.  Listening is the best way to measure it.  Unless your specialty is public speaking, no amount of talking can equal the value of playing and doing.

The strongest role model relationships are developed first through playing.  Hearing them speak can be a bonus, but it can also be disappointing.  We don’t listen to our role models speak because they’re good speakers.

The Problem

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m becoming more mindful of the function and importance of playing.  The role model dynamic depends more on playing than on talking and discussing.

But here we are, students and teachers, in formal academic settings, talking and discussing!

In addition to this, not one of my students attended my CD release in March. In fact, I’ve never seen any of my students at my performances. They don’t hear me play!  This is part of the problem.

I’ll grant that it’s becoming more difficult, with the shortage of performance venues, to hear me (and other musicians) perform live – this is also part of the problem – but we cannot let this unfortunate circumstance disrupt the role model dynamic.

Then again, why would my student want to hear Chris Donnelly play?  Who’s Chris Donnelly anyway!?

I currently have a student from Regina, Saskatchewan; I’ve never performed in Regina before.  I doubt anybody in Regina even owns a Chris Donnelly record.  My student was more likely to hear Keith Jarrett’s music than Chris Donnelly’s.  So it’s unfair to put sole blame on the student; he’s never had the opportunity to hear me play and the role model dynamic hasn’t had the opportunity to take hold.

But this student has traveled across the country and is now studying with Chris Donnelly; he should, in principle, be interested in my music.  It’s a cyclical argument, with deeper issues at play.

Solutions for Students:

Hopefully you understand, I’m using my name merely as an example to demonstrate the issues; this isn’t a cynical rant.  I’m actually optimistic about the future – I believe it boils down to playing and reinforcing the role model dynamic.

For students, here’s the thing: I’m teaching at the University of Toronto. I can play.  My fellow faculty members at UofT, my faculty cousins at McGill and elsewhere can all play too.  You should be milking every last note from our music.  If you’re not enthusiastic about our music, you shouldn’t be studying with us!  You should be studying with your role models.

I can’t tell you who your role models should be, but I can tell you that you need them for every stage of your life, for everything you want to accomplish.

I can also tell you that local artists are underappreciated.  But compared to the superstars, they’re equally talented, equally deserving of recognition, and equally vital to the proliferation of artists and art.

Figure out who your local heroes are and seek access to them.

Solutions for Teachers, Performers and Artists:

Play’s the thing.

Here’s another point: You’re not a messenger; you’re the message.

Sometimes during lessons, I make note to play and talk only about my music.  “This is what I’m working on, this is one of my tunes, this is how I composed it, and this is what it sounds like.”  I have not yet implemented this approach, but it would be valuable for my students to transcribe my solos, learn my tunes and perform them.

Ultimately, when I talk or play, I’m communicating information about me.  Of course, I’ll play/talk about Monk, Bach and John Taylor, but really, any idea I communicate and put to use at this instant is nothing but a reflection of me and a reflection on now.

A community with a solid role model dynamic doesn’t need to worry about “teaching tradition.”  That will happen naturally. Learning about tradition is inherent in studying with role models.

We’re more than a lecturer; we’re living the music as our role models were.

Be the message.

- - - -

One last point: This problem encroaches on deeper issues with art, education and society.

If students are traveling across this massive country to study with artists they’ve never heard of, the problem extends to the function and efficiency of music institutions.

It extends further: Celebrating international superstars, while neglecting or exploiting local artists, is part of the problem.  Conversely, celebrating local artists, but presenting narrow incomplete programming, is part of the problem too.

Anytime art is distributed through concerts, performance venues, festivals, radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, blogs, recordings, and the like, the role model dynamic between audiences and artists is initiated.  This should be done responsibly.

As I’ve said twice already, the proliferation of artists, art and arts education is dependent on role models on every level.  The distribution of art should reflect this.

The entire community should reflect this!

- - -

Thanks for reading!  And thanks to Josh Rager for sharing this space on his blog. It’s a pleasure to write for new readers.  Please comment and share!

(Chris Donnelly is a pianist, composer and improviser from Toronto, Canada.  He teaches at the University of Toronto and blogs regularly at www.chrisdonnellymusic.com<http://www.chrisdonnellymusic.com/Blog/Blog.php>).

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kid B

So to explain my unannounced hiatus I offer a little picture to paint a thousand words about what I've been up to this month. Our second son, Hayden, was born on March 14.  Needless to say my wife and I have been busy but the days are full of smiles. Of course my days have also been full of tackling a teaching schedule while trying to take care of stuff around the house like cooking, laundry and, oh yeah, the 3 year old. I don't think any of this would be possible without the very serious help of our great friends Monica, Su Jian, and Melissa. Serious props to the team Rager!
(Is it me or do babies kind of look like old men?
"hey you whipper snapper, get over here and change my diaper!")
What became apparent to us quickly after the initial jubilation had subsided after Hayden's birth was that we were going to need help. Kid B had come 10 days early and we both had concerts on the same night...in 2 days! The hospital wanted to keep Min for 2 days which meant that we would get discharged on the same day that Kirk MacDonald was flying in from Toronto to play a gig with Min at Upstairs. That same night I was accompanying a triple header of singers at the L'Astral. So we assembled our crack team of babysitters both for Max and Hayden. Min took the baby to the club and fed him on the set breaks while team Rager bounced him around (gently of course) in the club's green room. I still don't know if this is something we should brag about or if child services will come and take our kids away if they find out. At any rate the intensity hasn't subsided with teaching and performing, and recording a new cd which I plan to release sometime in the fall.  Of course I've already written the compulsory tune for the new kid which which ended up getting recorded as a solo piano piece. It kind of sets the tone for the record in the same way that I feel that Hayden is setting the tone for this next period in my life. One which both exhausts me and exhilarates me at the same time.

If you'll permit me a couple of days to get things tied up at McGill then I'll be back blogging again. In the weeks to come watch for a surprise guest blogger to write a post in April. Also throughout the summer I'll be offering a curiously diverse buffet of topics from my favorite jazz musicians' fast cars to developing dominant chord vocabulary for improvising. Yikes. Any nerdier and I might have Jason Marsalis after me!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Respect yo - a follow up

I've received many comments on my Patitucci clinic post both in person and on my blog. I have been intending to post my little retraction about how I said the bass player involved in my description of the events that day was in first year. Yes people have corrected me several times. I didn't think this was such a big deal! To me from my very "older" perspective the difference between a first year student and a second year student isn't really that big so I hadn't intended it as a slur. But I must admit when some students corrected me at school last week I was like "really he's in second year already?" So kids the moral is that when you get to be this old time just whizzes by you.

But in all seriousness I read my post again and the fact that I referred to him as being in first year does give my comments a bit more of a glib vibe than I intended. Saying that he "kicked" Steve off the piano implied that he was trying to be rude to Steve when really he was quite unintentionally rude. But rude nonetheless. I sensed a rigidity from the student in that situation which I read as attitude when it was probably more nerves than anything else. For that I apologize. It was never my intention to shame anyone. I don't think anyone needed to feel shame in that situation. I was hoping that we could all learn from an example of attitudes and approaches to learning that we ALL experience.

I found it very interesting that a great player like Patitucci had no problem calling students on their attitudes with both directness and respect. I would like to say that, personally, I have had great teachers call me on my attitudes.  They were tough medicines to take but somehow I managed to get over myself in those situations and learn from them. With my post I was giving the same message to the students of McGill that I have had to learn for myself: "get over yourself because your ego is getting in the way of your love for music and your desire to be a musician!" The fact is that those students had nothing to be ashamed about and were exceedingly lucky to have had a teacher like John Patitucci that day. I was only disappointed when they left the clinic early because they missed some really great playing!

I know when you are younger this situation can feel harsh. However learning situations like this can be an instrumental turning point in a musician's development. The history of jazz is replete with stories of "attitude adjustments" for developing players. Just read the Miles Davis autobiography to hear about some of his experiences both in the receiving and the giving of attitude adjustments. When I was a student I remember how a even just a few choice words from Andre White or Jan Jarcyk could literally change my life. And then when I got to take lessons with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch (with whom I'm still studying) I grew so much as a person and a pianist. But talk about an attitude adjustment with Fred. Let's just say he'll eat you alive if you show up in his loft and play a standard without knowing the lyrics. A lesson with Fred will undoubtedly ruffle your feathers. Just ask Brad Mehldau, or George Colligan. Fred won't mince words in order to get his point across about your technique or gaps in your knowledge. If you can't get passed yourself in these situations it will be very difficult to learn from them.

Guys, there is nothing I take more seriously than my students' desire to grow and develop as people and musicians. And I would really hope that if you were to ask any of my piano or arranging students that they would say that my comments and criticisms come from a place of love. However as a teacher I do comment and criticize. And I hope that I dole out my "teaching" in a way that I would want to be taught myself. I don't see any way that I can call someone on their attitude without ruffling some feathers. I just can't "not" do it because it might hurt some feelings. But let me tell you from experience that you can't put it on the line as a musician and go out and do the thing that most people in the world will admire you for when you succeed and not experience hurt feelings along the way. It's part of the investment for the enormous return (not so much financially but personally, spiritually) that you get from being a musician. Trust me the hurt feelings from a clinic at McGill where all your friends are cheering you on is nothing compared to hurt feelings on the bandstand or hurt feelings from getting fired from a professional engagement. I've blogged about my encounters with these I hope in an open way that reveals what I've had to learn myself on the topic of humility.

This was my point when I used terms like "badass" because for me they represent a real and direct way of dealing with this particular attitude. My intention was not to use "badass" as a put down. I'm sure I've actually used to the word more as a complement as in "That was badass!" I intended it to be more humorous as when I compared "badass" to "assbad" which is something I feel about myself after almost every recording I make! My sense of the word "badass" is something that we're all trying to be. Meaning that we want to play at a high level, one which sounds... well, "Badass!"

I can't very well fault anyone for wanting to play their best. But I can point out where one's DESIRE to play their best isn't the point of a clinic with John Patitucci. We weren't there to see how great the bass players of McGill sound (although I have to say there were some really strong players which was a joy to listen to) and impress our friends with our playing.  That can be done on any day of the week.  We were there to hear from John Patitucci and for those lucky bass players to get a chance to play with and learn from Steve Amirault while receiving direct instruction from Patitucci. Wow! Now that won't happen any day of the week.

The fact that I got a key detail wrong in my original post about what year the bass player was in undermined the credibility of my comments in that it made me sound like I didn't know or care about the students involved. Believe me nothing could be further from the truth and thanks for calling me on it! I hope you'll continue to read and comment on my blog.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Montreal Musicians II: Dave Laing

Dave is one of the premiere jazz drummers in the country. He's played with everyone from Jimmy Heath to Barry Harris to John Stetch. As a student at McGill in the 90's I would watch the local heavy weight bands of Kevin Dean and Andre White perform at Upstairs giving us all something to aspire to. Dave was and is such an important part of the top Montreal rhythm sections that it was with almost trembling fingers that I called him up on the phone in 1998 to play on a recording session of mine. After nearly 10 years of working with Dave in Montreal and being so totally schooled in feel and musicality every time I've had the chance to play with him I'd like to say that I've almost achieved on my instrument what Dave can do on the drums. Like I said I'd like to say that. Laing is one of those musicians who bring up the level of anyone he's playing with it's so easy to feel that one can really swing hard when they play music with him. Here's Dave playing with Min last year at Upstairs.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Montreal Musicians I: Carlos Jimenez

I'm starting a new series of posts devoted to some of the great players that the city of Montreal has to offer. I'll start with a few musicians who've I'm lucky enough to perform with.

Maybe I'll start with a shameless plug for a band I'm in lead by the fabulous guitarist Carlos Jimenez. He's recently launched his website (www.Carlosjimenezmusic.com) and watch for his debut cd to be released in April 2011. Of course Carlos has appeared on numerous cd's as a sideman and is in regular demand in Montreal for his very capable guitar artistry. Carlos has a dark warm sound, somewhere between Jim Hall's and Adam Roger's. And I hope he doesn't mind the comparisons. His music is melodic and his soloing bears a remarkable relaxed quality even at fast tempos. I've always really enjoyed comping for Carlos and sometimes I even find myself just laying out and listening to his improvising. Another facet of Carlos which has been of particular inspiration for me is his passion for Brazilian composers. Carlos has hipped me to some amazing guitar music particularly the compositions of Guinga whose music is a bit of a specialty for Carlos. Look for an incredible track on Carlos' new disc of him performing both guitar parts of a Guinga piece for two guitars. In the meantime here's a little sample of Carlos performing in Montreal:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Living the Jazz Dream

Recently I was interviewed in the McGill Daily for an article about the jazz scene in Montreal.

I have heard several student comments and I'm glad that this article inspired a discussion about the reality of of succeeding in life as a jazz musician. I thought I would just expand and clarify some of the ideas I was quoted saying.

First of all, for some students the tone of the piece was somewhat apprehensive towards the issue of making money as a musician. I think most students are generally terrified at the idea of going out into the world and making a go of it. I would even go as far as to say that some of the allure of being an artists is to by-pass the societal pressure to earn a traditional living and eschew the value that society places on the accumulation of wealth as an indication of success. 

I know it was for me. As a youth who had numerous part time jobs growing up I really liked the idea of finally getting out of school and working for myself, setting my own schedule and accomplishing my own goals. I am very grateful to the various arts councils that supported me while I was getting my skills together in my 20's. I was also able to release a CD and tour with my band during this very formative period in my life. I am also really proud that I never had to play a wedding band or go on a ship to make ends meet. Gradually as I got to be a better player I found myself working more and more as a jazz pianist in Montreal.

Eventually I started teaching a little at McGill when I went back to do my Masters in 2003 which was a really important part of this post graduate training. I was very lucky to be able to get my teaching chops together while I did my masters degree and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the faculty at McGill for sending me that teaching work which I am still doing. 

Although I wasn't rich I felt that I had succeeded making a living as a jazz musician. I was playing with great players on a regular basis and continuing to grow and expand on my skills at the piano. But the general upward trend in my career development was about to hit a ceiling.

An important decision came after a couple years of touring with the young jazz vocal phenom Nikky Yanofsky. At first the gigs were sparse but gradually we were playing bigger and bigger venues. Eventually her disc was nominated for some Junos and we performed at Carnegie hall with Marvin Hamlisch conducting the New York Pops. For the first time in my life at the age of 30 I was making a decent income and even paying taxes! Gradually it dawned on me that I wanted to expand my family and that actually I had always really wanted to raise kids. All of a sudden the thought of having a child seemed to make all of this other stuff make sense. It became part of my musician's dream of success because if I could share my success with a family it would make that success even sweeter for me as well. Surprise, surprise, before you know it you're all grown up.

And then something happened to me that lead me to finally get off the fence and own the new dream of personal success. My son was born when I was 32. In a very short period of time my focus shifted from the shaping of a musical career to the shaping of a human life. Early in Max's life he experienced some health problems. They were minor but required surgery to fix. Our lives were thrown into chaos as my wife and I navigated the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that went along with this experience. All of a sudden it just didn't feel right to ditch my wife and baby son for weeks. And Nikky's schedule was beginning to become very demanding. 

I got fired. Actually nobody called me up to say that my services were no longer needed. When I informed Nikky's management that I was going through a rough time with my 3 month old baby the company just replaced me and that was that. All of a sudden I wasn't getting the call after I worked with them for 2 1/2 years I was just replaced quickly and quietly. 

Well that's the music biz. Sure it sucks to lose a job but what I gained from that experience was that I realized that my family would come first for the rest of my life and that not everybody I would work with would have that value. Despite portraying very publicly to the media Nikky's grounding in "family values" I know the truth about what those people are about and I cherish the path I've taking which has diverged from them.

So here's the point that I made in the article in the McGill daily. I couldn't have in a million years forseen the choices I would have to make in my future regarding my career. I couldn't have really known what I would have needed to let go of in order for me to stay true to myself. When I was 20 all I wanted was to be a jazz pianist. How that would fit into my life as a human being just wasn't on my mind. If I knew it was going to be a struggle and a challenge I certainly didn't understand the ways in which those struggles and challenges would manifest themselves.

So here's the point I make to my students: Follow your dreams but never let your dreams hold you back from living. When we grow and mature as human beings we need to allow our dreams to grow mature as well. Our dreams are a part of us. If stifled and rigidly kept in the same state as they were at a different point in our lives, our dreams may keep us from the path to success. 

What is your personal definition of success? 

Here's mine: