Friday, April 17, 2015

RIP Brent Black

Some of you might remember back in 2011, I posted something about Nicholas Payton's album "Bitches." Part of the article referred to what I believed what was a rather unfair review of Payton's album. The writer of the review was a guy named Brent Black. This blogpost and the extended comments which followed started a huge firestorm between Black and Payton, Black and myself, Black and Dwayne Burno, and had many jazz musicians and fans wondering, "Who the heck is Brent Black?" The controversy died down for a while, and then a few months later , Black randomly posted something derogatory about me. I ended up writing him an open letter as a kind of peace offering. It didn't quite work. I figured that maybe some people weren't worth the trouble.

Then I found out what was really bothering Mr. Black. Turns out that he was dying of cancer. At that point, I figured this man was more to be pitied than to be hated. I know he said some terrible things. Clearly, he was suffering, and knew he didn't have long to live, so he didn't hold back. I donated some money to his fund for his medical bills. All of a sudden he was my biggest fan! He gave me some of the best reviews I've ever gotten.

It's not really about whether Brent Black was a nice guy, or whether he was right or wrong in his opinions, or whether other musicians were justified in being mad at him. I think he was just a human being who was having problems, and that manifested itself in some of his odd behavior. I didn't agree with a lot of Black's opinions, but I just couldn't hate him anymore. There's already enough hate in the world.

I'm glad Black has relief from the physical pain of his mortal existence. Although I have a feeling, wherever he is, he's stirring things up.....

RIP Brent Black

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Alto Madness: Bob Mover And Steve Wilson

Alto Madness: Bob Mover And Steve Wilson

the great Bob Mover

I consider myself very lucky that I still get calls to play with some of the living greats in jazz. I haven't lived in New York full time for give or take 5 years and a half years, but it appears I haven't been totally forgotten. This month I have had the pleasure of working with two amazing alto saxophonists, both of whom are perhaps underrated and definitely at the top of my list of musicians. If you haven't heard of them, you need to go check them out!

First, I played two gigs with the fabulous alto saxophonist and vocalist Bob Mover. I had met Mover a few times in New York but we had never really played together. We performed with a big band at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington ( under the direction of yet another great altoist and Portland State faculty David Valdez), but the real magic was a duo concert at Michelle's Piano in Portland later in the week. Mover is definitely old school; in his youth he spent time with masters Phil Woods, Charles Mingus, and Chet Baker. He knows a PILE of tunes; indeed, as much as I harp on my students to learn tunes, I was definitely out of my league. Mover the saxophonist was on fire, at times resembling Charlie Parker on steroids. But Mover the vocalist had a more sensitive side; he performed a beautiful rendition of " Estate" with the original italian lyrics, as well as a heart wrenching take on "Some Other Time." I, Valdez, and everyone in attendance of the concert agreed that Mover, despite some heath issues, never sounded better. ( It's kind of a shame that there wasn't any spot for Bob Mover at the PDX Jazz Festival. It's also a shame that more people weren't at the concert at Michelle's Piano. But I digress….) It was a great learning experience for me and I'm hoping Mover and I can find more opportunities to work together.

My fortune has continued into Spring Break with a tour of the midwest with alto and soprano master Steve Wilson. Mr. Wilson is one of the preeminent saxophonists in jazz, having worked with everyone from George Duke to Chick Corea. I've known Wilson for over two decades; we worked extensively with bassist Buster Williams for years. This quartet features bassist Ugonna Okegwo and the incredible Bill Stewart on drums. It's a high energy group that can swing hard but also journey to esoteric stratospheres. So far, we've played
Kalamazoo, Cleveland( my former employer, vocalist Vaness Rubin, surprised us by sitting in on Sunday night at NIghttown), and a clinic at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan( we are doing an educational residency here). Our next stops are The Green Mill in Chicago, and Columbia, Missouri. Wilson, Okegwo, and Stewart are at the top of their game. I know I'm technically on stage with them, but I feel more like I have the best seat on the house. It's very inspirational. Maybe we'll see you in Chicago, or Columbia, MO? 

Friday, March 13, 2015

RIP Lew Soloff

I was sorry to hear of the sudden passing of trumpet great Lew Soloff. I was fortunate to share the bandstand with him a number of times; with his band, Lonnie Plaxico's band, and the Mingus Band. Soloff was always very friendly and garrulous; he always seemed to have a joke or a story to tell. He knew I played trumpet so he would always talk trumpet; " What do you think of this mouthpiece with this horn?" " I didn't really get a good warm-up today..."  Soloff was well known as one of the best lead players, as well as a great soloist; he was an important part of the classic band Blood, Sweat, and Tears. ( Actually, come to think of it, his solo on " Spinning Wheel was one of the first solos I tried to transcribe...although it was way beyond my range.....)

I remember a great story Soloff told me during a break from rehearsing with the Mingus Band. Soloff had chipped his tooth, and decided to go to the dentist, but Lew being Lew, he brought his trumpet to the dentist. He wanted to see if the chipped tooth had an effect on his playing. " I picked up the horn and played up to a triple D, full voice…" Soloff explained. " But I decided that I didn't really need that kind of range, so I let the dentist fix the tooth." Soloff was one of the greats and he will be missed. RIP , Mr. Soloff.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hal Galper Masterclass: " Masters Need To Play With Students"

The great Hal Galper
Portland State was recently lucky to have the great pianist and educator Hal Galper for a masterclass. Galper paid his dues as a member of the Cannonball Adderly group for three years and then the Phil Woods group for about ten years. He's made some great albums as a leader ("Speak With A Single Voice" being my favorite) and has been working steadily with his trio of Jeff Johnson on bass and John Bishop on drums for many years. Galper has also written a number of great books on jazz, including " The Art Of Comping" and " Forward Motion."

Galper didn't play much during the class, but he spoke and took questions for two solid hours. One of the things that really rang true with me is when I asked him, " In the absence of the apprenticeship system, with the lack of true bandstand opportunities like what you had in the 60's and 70's, how do we recreate that in the academic environment? " Galper responded, "Teachers have to play with their students." He went on to talk about non-verbal instruction, and how oftentimes academia is skeptical of this type of teaching and learning. " Every master teacher should have his own band with students playing in it. This is the best way for young players to learn."

Indeed, I spent most of my early career playing with older musicians from whom I could learn. So much of today's landscape is students playing with their classmates, and then getting out of school and playing with their peers. There are few comparable bandstand " schools" like Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Horace Silver, and so forth, working today. There's nothing wrong with peers playing together, however, musicians of the same level( especially of lower experience levels) playing together tends to become an echo chamber with no perspective beyond their own limited experience and wisdom.

I personally would never compare myself to Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Horace Silver, and so forth; however, since I've been a teacher, I've tried to find opportunities for my students who I felt were ready to go to the next level. My latest CD, "Risky Notion" ( available on Itunes, people, how's THAT for shameful self promotion....) features two of my best students from PSU; saxophonist Nicole Glover and bassist Jon Lakey. I don't believe I'm being presumptuous by saying that Glover and Lakey have learned a ton from playing and recording with this group. I think it's also been good for saxophonist Glover to play alongside Joe Manis. Manis is kind of a beast on the tenor and it's been interesting to see how Glover has been inspired by his abilities without making every song into a "cutting contest." It's made her solidify her own concept even more.

Galper also had some interesting advice about becoming a professional musician in this day and age: " I tell all my students to quit! I say you should only do this if you have no choice. If you do have a choice, meaning you have options, eventually, you will make the choice not to do it anymore. But if you just HAVE to play music, then you should." I know that a lot of the students present got a lot out of that kernel of wisdom, as did I. Believe me, sometimes I think I should finally get my Real Estate license and leave the dream of jazz behind. But for the time being, I'm still have the compulsion to play and work on music. Thanks, professor Galper, for giving us the truth.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

How Many Jazz Singers Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb?

When I was starting out as a pianist in Baltimore and Washington D.C., I worked with quit a few singers. I never considered myself a " singer's pianist," however, I learned a lot just from working with so many different kinds of jazz singers. I think it's interesting that with so many jazz programs flourishing, it seems that the subtle art of accompanying singers is becoming a lost art. It's a very different endeavor compared to plowing through small group jazz; the head-20 minute solo-head concept doesn't often work with singers. Playing intros and outros, really getting a feel for rubato accompaniment, dynamics, transposing to find the key that is comfortable for different male and female vocal ranges, as well as knowing repertoire and being able to read charts are all part of the landscape. Some of it is common sense, but if singers and pianists or rhythm sections don't play together on a regular basis, they don't develop the skills to do all of these things on the fly.

I believe that becoming a good accompanist for singers will make you a better accompanist in general. You have to be selfless to a point when you accompany another musician. You make it about letting them shine rather than worrying about what you sound like. Furthermore, you making someone else sound good is really the reason they would call you for another gig; it's not necessarily that you took great solos on your own. Some singers I worked with barely gave me any solos( maybe half a chorus if that even) but that's also a challenge: how to take a great solo within a chorus or less.

Recently, I met a young lady from Armenia ( by way of New Jersey-- not sure which exit....) named Lucy Yeghiazaryan. She was in Portland for a visit and I got to hear her and I was surely impressed. We had a free afternoon and we got some videos just for a lark. She's got a marvelous instrument and really has a great feel for the jazz tradition. I try to keep my accompanist's chops up and I thought this was a good chance. I figure I should document something with Yeghiazaryan before she becomes famous!  Please enjoy the music!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

RIP Clark Terry

The jazz community is saddened by the loss of the great trumpeter Clark Terry. One of the first jazz trumpeters I ever heard as a middle school student, Terry has been an inspiration to so many. He's underrated in someways, but he had an extremely long career( so many trumpeters in jazz seemed to die young) and played a very physical instrument extremely well even as the rest of his body failed him. He was 94 years old! Terry played with Duke Ellington AND Count Basie, which is pretty impressive on it's own. Miles Davis looked up to him, and Terry was one of the first great flugelhorn players.He was the first African American musician to be on staff at NBC in 1960. Truly a great muscian, he also had his humorous side; if you haven't heard his "Mumbles, " you are in for a treat.

There is a recent film about Terry called " Keep On Keepin' On" which I haven't seen yet. ( I'm sure it's better than Whiplash.) I'm glad they were able to get it done before he passed. Let's remember Terry by listening to his music.