Saturday, December 6, 2014

Everything is Great!

The older I get, the less I care about what others think of me. I'm not saying I don't care at all; I'm saying that it concerns me a lot less than in years past. It's also kind of a relief to accept that there are always going to be people that just don't like you and never will, regardless of how many Hallmark cards you send them. Although my 4,967 friends on Facebook( ha!) might make you think I'm universally well liked, I do think some folks think I'm somewhat negative at times. I wouldn't consider myself to be a negative person in general, although I do go on about negative things, whether in my blog, on facebook, or even in conversation. Hey, why spend the time and money whining to a therapist when I can whine to the person I'm talking to right now!

I suppose it would be logical to say that we don't tend to gravitate towards negative people. Indeed, the Saturday Night Live sketch " Debbie Downer" shows the epitome of this type of person. You might be enjoying your birthday at Disneyland, and Debbie Downer can't stop talking about the nuclear disaster in North Korea......( Actually, this sketch is great not only because of the character and the great performance by Rachel Dratch, but also because of the trombone sound effect, plus the fact that Dratch and company couldn't stop laughing...)

I suppose we have all had friends like this. It's never really bothered me. I would rather talk about reality than try to pretend that life is always a bowl of cherries. Obviously, we want to acknowledge our good fortunes. I think it's only human nature to see both sides of the coin.

I remember one tour where one of my band mates chastised me for being too negative. " Man, you are always talking s*$t about something." OK. I decided then that my friend would only see the "positive" side of me....

Hey, good morning! I slept so well, did you? You look rested. Have you been outside? It's such a beautiful day. We are so blessed to have the sun shining today. I'm so glad we are on the road together. You are one of my favorite drummers, did you know that? Do you realize how lucky we are to get to play music together? I'm so glad we are friends. Here, come here, I want to give you a hug.....

After a few hours of that, the consensus all around was that I should " go back to being normal."

I think negativity is normal. But don't just take it from me. The New York Times recently ran an article called " The Problem With Positive Thinking."  According to the research done by author Gabriele Oettingen, women who tried to think positively about themselves lost less weight than ones who were less positive about their ability to lose weight.

Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.

The article doesn't recommend a Debbie Downer approach; actually, the hybrid approach is better. Think about your goals, clearly see what stands in the way, and figure out what you can do to remove the obstacles. I think of this as "honesty" or "realism." The truth shall set you free. Some people can't handle the truth. I think it's better to get to the truth sooner rather than later. To solve problems and improve, we must be honest with ourselves.

This is how I approach teaching. This week, I was a guest teacher and performer at the Birmingham Conservatoire in the U.K. I told the student ensembles that I would be positive first, and then give them the bad news. All of the students were very cool with it, and it made for an incredibly satisfying performance. It's not negativity, it's just honesty. I don't want to bum anyone out the way Debbie Downer does. However, I will continue to "be real" with things as much as I can. Of course, someone may give me constructive criticism about this. I'm willing to take the lumps.

Monday, November 17, 2014


GC: Son, let's work on the alphabet. Let's take a break from TV and work on our letters, OK?
GC: Why not? We've watched a lot of shows, let's just take a five minute break! What's the problem?
GC: But son, you need to work on letters so you can learn to read! 
GC: OK, OK.....what's the problem? Son, come and talk to me.
LC: Daddy, I'm only good at some of the letters! I can sing the alphabet song, but some of the letters I'm not good at....
GC: Ok, listen, daddy is going to explain. So, let's not think about letters for a minute. Let's think about construction workers for a second. Let's imagine construction workers building a skyscraper. How long do you think it takes to build a skyscraper?
LC: ....Mmmmmm, I don't know?
GC: A day? Two days?
LC: Maybe..... one hundred days!
GC: Maybe even longer than that. And, this doesn't take into account how long it takes to build the materials for the skyscraper. So, do you think that the construction workers give up if they can't finish the project in a day?
LC: No....
GC: Of course not. They work all day, and then they go home at night, and then they come back and keep working on it. Plus, during the day, they work, and they take breaks. And they know that eventually, they will finish the job. They don't get mad because it didn't get finished in a day. They didn't cry. It's what we call a LONG TERM PROJECT. Or we call it A WORK IN PROGRESS.
LC: Oh.
GC: So I'm trying to make what is called an ANALOGY.
LC: But I'll never have an analogy....
GC: No, you don't.....I mean I'm telling a story that relates to your letters. You are doing great with letters. It's a WORK IN PROGRESS. We don't get upset if you aren't perfect right away. We just do a little every day, and then eventually, you'll be able to read. How are you going to teach your little brother Ruger to read if you can't read?
LC: (laughs)....his name won't be RUGER!
GC: Ha, ha, maybe it will be....MILLARD!
GC: OK, do you feel better now?
LC: Yes. We can work on letters now.
GC: Son, I'm so proud of you, and I love you so much.
LC: Can I have pumpkin pie?
GC: Yes, you can have pumpkin pie.....AFTER we do letters.
LC: (sighs)....OK, Daddy.........

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Clickety Clack!

Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Bring that man's baby back.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
I want my spirit back.
Clickety clack
Bubble music being seen and heard on Saturday night
Blinding the eyes of ones that's supposed to see.
Bubble music, being played and showed, throughout America.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Somebody's mind has got off the goddamn track.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
You didn't know about John Coltrane.
And the beautiful ballad he wrote—wait a minute—
And the beautiful ballad he wrote called "After the Rain".
You didn't know about Lady Day and all the dues that she had to pay.
The Beatles come into the country, they take all the bread,
while the police hittin' black and white folks upside their head.
Tom Jones and Humperdinck got everybody uptight.
They make people that can sing wanna get out and fight.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
What is this madness that Nixon has put upon us?
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
Who will it be?
Who will it be?
It certainly won't be someone that says that they're free.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . . . clickety clack

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was truly a unique musician. Blinded at an early age due to bad medical treatment, Kirk was known for playing not just one, but two and three saxophones at once. Adding flute to his array of winds, he also played lesser known instruments like nose flute, the stritch and the manzello( two  obscure types of saxophones). Historical texts put Kirk in the Avant-Garde category, which is a bit misleading; in some ways, his musical offerings are more conventional than one would assume. However, the above poem shows Kirk's political leanings during the turbulent 60's and 70's.

I've got to spend more time checking out Kirk's music. I had "Rip, Rig and Panic" many years ago, but I'm not so familiar with his discography, which is pretty large. Listening to to the music and poetry here makes me think about where we are as a society now. Who is the modern day equivalent of Roland Kirk? These days, most jazz musicians are trying to figure out how to water their music down so as to gain "wider appeal." We don't even have a forum to be political, because we don't even have a gig! My lament is not only the loss of interest in jazz and creative music in America, but the loss of the edge, the willingness to take a risk and put one's soul into the music. As the man said:
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Blue: Mostly Other People Do The Killing's Transcription Homework Assignment

Mostly Other People Do The Killing.....I mean, wait.....
Mostly Other People Do The Killing is quite a provocative name for a jazz group. I've been aware of them for a few years; I have heard a few samples from their earlier recordings( "This Is Our Moosic, "Forty Fort", and "Shamokin!!!"". Clearly, it's not all about the hype; these guys can play, and they combine a post modern sense of humor with a solid grasp on virtuosity and the jazz tradition.  I think this group is a great example of where jazz is today and how conservatory trained musicians can think outside the box in order to find their niche.

It was brought to my attention that Mostly Other People Do The Killing recently released "Blue", which is not a tribute to Joni Mitchell, but rather an attempt at a note for note reproduction of "Kind Of Blue", which is probably trumpeter Miles Davis' most famous album and one of the most important as well as popular jazz albums in history. I was curious about the project. I will say off the bat that I did not purchase the album, I listened to samples on Itunes, which many of us do before making the decision to buy music( if you actually still buy music......anyone?). I decided not to buy it; instead, I download some of Mostly Other People Do The Killing's earlier work and study it a bit more. I'm not saying that I won't purchase it in the future, but I have reasoning why and I'll get to that later.

I am very conflicted about "Blue"; the clips I heard were impressive, and the jazz educator side of me is always impressed with the technical ability to hear and reproduce solos(especially since many of my students have real challenges with that kind of activity. I wasn't going to mention that one of my student groups couldn't name the musicians on "Kind Of Blue," which is rather disturbing, to say the least.) Transcribing solos and trying to play along with the recording and trying to match every nuance is a great tool in jazz education; however, even the most "derivative" musicians rarely try to perform a transcribed jazz performance and pass it off as their own. ( I'm not saying that MOPDTK is trying to do that, exactly.) It is a little odd that musicians would spend so much time on something that they would never present in a performance; in this way, transcriptions are like etudes- they are studies. You can't play the entire solo of  McCoy Tyner's on Passion Dance whien you play Passion Dance. You could play part of it, you can be influenced by it, but you can't play the whole thing. EVEN IF YOU CAN! IF YOU CAN, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO! In this way, jazz is like comedy- young comedians listen to the greats, but they MUST create their own material to be legitimate. Without Richard Pryor, there would be no Eddie Murphy, and without Eddie Murphy, there would be no Dave Chappelle. BUT, Dave Chappelle would NEVER release a comedy special called "Live On The Sunset Strip" or "Delirious." Why not? Because he has more than enough of his own jokes, and doing something like this would be an enormous waste of time and energy!

I read Nate Chinen's review of the CD, and he address some of the reasoning behind the project, and his own take on it seems just as conflicted as mine, although in the end he heartily endorses "Blue". Again, these are great players from a technical and creative standpoint. However, in my mind, this album has GIMMICK written all over it. The sad thing is, gimmicks work. This is especially true in the entertainment world, the music world, and the jazz world. Most of the time, it isn't about the notes, about the sound, about the artistic message. It's about the gimmick, the image, the sound byte, the selling point. It's not, "How can we make great music that will reach people and take an art form to a higher level?" It's, " how can we trick people into buying our product?" I've tried to stay away from gimmicks as a musician, mostly because it doesn't interest me, usually seems cheesy to me, and most importantly because I haven't found a gimmick that has made me rich and successful.....

The paradox of transcribing solos and playing them along with the recording is that it's nearly impossible to sound exactly like the musician who originally played the solo. It is impressive that MOPDTK  on "Blue" sounds at times exactly like Davis and crew. But even so, it's still not close enough. The recording quality is obviously different. As soon as trumpeter Peter Evans starts playing, you know it isn't Miles Davis. Maybe because he isn't playing on a 1947 Martin Committee trumpet? Is he using a Heim 2 mouthpiece with a deep V cup? Did they record on the same Steinway that was at Columbia's 30th Street studios? (I played that piano when I was recording at Clinton Studios years ago. It was a great piano, but I didn't sound like Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly, oddly enough.) I'm willing to engage in a "Kind Of Blue" challenge to test my own ears, if anybody wants to facilitate that.

I'm not saying that "Blue" is disrespectful of the tradition; indeed, I don't think MOPDTK would have spent all that energy on this if they didn't love that music. However, I would rather see them play their own music. This is why I'm not going to buy "Blue." I won't buy it, but clearly, I've already bought into the hype, and even this little blog will give them more press, so in the end, isn't that what matters? In an era when no one is buying music, it's not surprising that anyone would resort to extreme tactics.

In the end, the existence of a project like this reaffirms my belief that jazz is about innovation through imitation. Check out the greats, but in the end, do it your own way. MOPDTK, as evidence by their earlier recordings, already did this in spades. I guess they had a lot of extra free time to make "Blue". But I can't help what are some other records that warrant note for note reproduction:

A Love Supreme?
Birth Of The Cool?
Way Out West?
Duke Ellington Live At Newport?
Black Codes(from The Underground?
No Jacket Required?
Songs in The Key Of Life?
The Chronic?
Enter The Wu Tang(36 Chambers)?

Don't be offended, MOPDTK, but when my son's Bar Mitzvah rolls around, I'll know where to find a "Kind Of Blue" cover band.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Exercises in Sleep Deprivation, Part II

My son Liam was born December 19, 2009. I did not sleep again until December 19, 2010. Those of you with children can relate; some babies sleep, but some don't. Liam was a kid who just did not want to sleep. I was so sleep deprived that I started taking the bus to school after falling asleep at traffic lights. I thought that maybe I would never sleep again in life, that it was just a 39 year lucky streak and my luck had run out for the next few decades. When we went back to New York for the summer, we hired a sleep consultant, which worked out great for some lady who convinced me to give her 400 bucks in exchange for "sleep" information I could have found for free on the internet. Even at age 4 and a half, Liam still has lots of energy at night, but he sleeps pretty well( although he does com into our room during the night on occasion) once he gets to sleep.

I remember musicians who had kids always said they got more sleep on the road. I never could understand that until I had a son. When I travel, I miss my family, but it is nice to have a bit of a break from irregular sleep patterns. In fact, I think that the period after my son's birth has made me handle sleep deprivation a lot better than I did when I first started traveling. I remember after a few years of being jet lagged every time I went to Europe thinking, "Wow, this is not all that it's cracked up to be!" I don't sleep on planes- which is surprising, since trying to sleep sitting upright with a jet engine under your seat surrounded by strangers seems like it would just knock you right out.....

I always tell my students in my 9 am class, " If you are lucky enough to become a professional musician, you'll be getting up at all hours to make flights, trains, buses, and so forth. Missing a flight is an expensive lesson that you don't want to have to experience." I find I am better at mentally pushing myself through sleepiness. It can be tricky if I need to drive.

This past Friday, I had a good test of my tolerance for sleep deprivation. My son kicked me awake at 3:30 AM, which beat my alarm by 30 minutes. I left my house in Portland at 4: 15 and picked up bassist and former PSU student Jon Lakey at 4:30. We were planning on participating in Eugene based saxophonist Adam Harris' live recording; however, I wanted to make some recruiting stops along the way. We arrived at South Eugene High School at 6:45. I worked with Director Steve Robare's jazz band for about 30 minutes and then Lakey and I played some duo and we talked about the program at PSU. After a nice leisurely breakfast of omelettes, waffles, and gallons of coffee, we headed over to the University of Oregon to crash their Friday jam session. This was obviously not a recruiting stop but more of a chance to observe what goes on at other programs in the area. Lakey and I were invited to play a few tunes, which was of course a lot of fun.

I started to fade a bit, so I head over to saxophonist Joe Manis' house to try to nap on his couch for a few minutes. Lakey and I didn't so much nap, but we did play with Manis' 2 year old for a while. "George......Piano......Jon......Bass...." Ellery is a smart kid and we were having fun, but then it was time for a recruiting stop at Lane Community College. One of my combos from PSU, The Park Avenue Group, met us there, and we played some tunes and answered questions. The kids at LCC are very enthusiastic and it was a really good vibe. I took the PSU students for dinner at a small cafe in downtown Eugene, right before the soundcheck for the live recording, which was taking place at The Jazz Station, a wonderful non-profit venue. I was surprised at my ability to get through the concert, since around 10 pm I started to feel like I was running on fumes. After some quick goodbyes, Lakey and I got back in the car and drove back to Portland. I got home around 1:47 AM. I felt like I had just flown around the world and back.

Ironically, I am about to do something to that effect; tomorrow night, I begin my voyage to
Novasibirsk for one concert with the Lenny White Group. My flight path is Portland-New York-Moscow-Novasibirsk. Most of my trip will be on an airplane. I'm trying to bring as much reading, listening and watching material as I can. I'll keep you posted on whether I get any sleep or not. Wish me luck and I promise to take a lot of pictures.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Coryell, Bailey, White, Colligan: Four NIghts At Jazz Alley

Larry Coryell
One of the downsides of playing a lot of gigs with my students has been, you guessed it, that I'm no longer the youngest person in the band! In all seriousness, I have been very fortunate to be able to learn jazz, mostly on the bandstand,  from older musicians who had way more experience than I. Indeed, my very first steady gig was at a the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, MD, with saxophonist Phil Burlin and bassist Larry Kindling; it was supposed to be MY gig, but they were the ones showing me what to do, being at least a decade older. This is part of the jazz tradition in terms of jazz being a folk music, the art form being passed down to future generations by master practitioners. It's wonderful to be part of a great music curriculum and have classes and have a college experience. However, when you are on a stage and Gary Bartz starts playing a song you don't know and expects you to figure it out, that is a very different kind of learning process. In the real world of music, there are no letter grades- only "PASS" and "FAIL."
Victor Bailey

So when I get a surprise call to join three elder masters on stage at Jazz Alley for four nights, I get not only the thrill of feeling like the young'un on the bandstand, but I also get the thrill of learning through doing. In some ways, playing jazz has infinite variables. You cannot say, "OK, I have learned 60 tunes from the Real Book and transcribed a lot of solos and learned all of my scales and modes and I practiced with a metronome so I'm ready." Every grouping of musicians is going to present different challenges; every combination of bassist and drummer is a different feel than another. It's almost like saying your metronome is going to be different every day you turn it on.

Lenny White
It's especially challenging walking into a situation where you have three legends who have been playing together for decades, and your presence, even if promising, is possibly superfluous. Nevertheless, my first night with jazz fusion legends Lenny White, Victor Bailey and Larry Coryell was extremely positive.( I think it should count towards a Doctorate of Musical Arts. Can I get college credit for this?) We played a mixture of originals by Bailey, White, and Coryell( I had to sightread a tune call Spaces Revisited, which was fun-good thing I went to Peabody Conservatory!). We ended the set with a great arrangement of Led Zepplin's "Black Dog." Hopefully I can continue to learn and imrpove as the weekend continues.

These men aren't just practitioners of the art- they ARE the art!
We have three more nights: two sets Friday and Saturday and one set Sunday. Come down if you are in or near Seattle.....