Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Much Ado About Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch
I've been a longtime fan of the great pianist Fred Hersch. I remember the first time I saw him live was at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. in the early 90's. Fred was a sideman with the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. I recall that the gig started about an hour late. But at last Henderson arrived, and the concert began as if they were warmed up from already playing a few hours. The repertoire was old chestnuts of the Henderson book:"Recorda-Me", "Invitation", "Beatrice", all tunes which are ripe for virtuosic exploration. Henderson did not disappoint, but the highlight was Hersch: he took apart every tune and put it back together as if he had written those tunes himself.

I met Fred for the first time at a concert being given by the then-unknown pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame.). And over the years I ran into him a number of other times. I always admired the sound that he produced from the piano: always clear, ringing, and beautiful, even, consistent, and warm. I always felt that, as a relatively untrained pianist (my previous instruments were trumpet, then drums), I would never be able to approach that type of pianistic tone. I came up playing with loud drummers and playing on crappy pianos and not-so-crappy-but-still-less-than-authentic keyboards, so my approach to sound production was bang, bang harder, and then bang as hard as you can until you have tendonitis. However, it was suggested to me by a colleague that a lesson with Fred Hersch might actually do wonders for my technique. Indeed, his teaching studio has included great young pianists like Iverson, Sam Yahel, and Brad Mehldau.

So I had the idea to take a lesson with Hersch as mental post-it note for a long time. But it wasn't until I ran into him one night at Small's that I decide to seize the moment."Are you sure you want to take a lesson?" challenged Hersch, in a friendly way. "Of course," I replied, "I'm always trying to improve, and I also want to have a different perspective on sound production for my students." Hersch agreed to meet me at his apartment in Soho for a lesson a few weeks later.

I will admit that even though I attempt to have a real perspective on my strengths and weaknesses as a pianist, I have been doing things a certain way for almost twenty years, and right or wrong, the habits are deeply rooted. Therefore, it took a lot to accept Hersch's judgment. Indeed, he was slightly reluctant, but I insisted that he should not pull any punches. Of course, once we got going, I felt the usual self-doubt and sense of being overwhelmed from all the information. But it was worth it. I hadn't taken a piano lesson in so long, so it was difficult to be critiqued, yet this is what we all need as musicians to move ahead; an honest look at what's working and what's not. We talked a lot about "getting the fingers off the key" and he had a lot of ideas for solo piano playing. I won't give you the entire lesson, because if you are intrigued, you might want to plunk down the clams yourself  and take a lesson from him. It was a great experience, and I recommend Fred Hersch highly as a teacher if you are interested in improving your sound and technique. I will definitely go for a follow-up at some point. (I should note that Fred only takes advanced students.)

Billy Hart
Luckily, I was able to see Hersch give a demonstration of the practical application of his techniques in the form of a set at the famous Village Vanguard Jazz Club.
John Hebert
The trio was fantastic: bassist John Hebert of Baton Rouge, who is now a regular in Hersch's group, and legendary drummer Billy Hart, who was subbing for the great Eric McPherson. I was amazed at the presence of the piano sound: no matter where the music went, the consistency and roundness of the piano voice was so warm yet still shimmering. Even when there was a lot of rhythm going on, Hersch had total control of the sound. Mr. Hart played tastefully yet interactively as always. I was mesmerized by Hebert, who played an acoustic bass with a low C string (instead of the usual E string). Hebert's darkly sustained sound and ultramodern approach sometimes reminds me of Drew Gress, another great bass player and a long-time associate of Hersch. But I think Hebert has come into his own style, and his command of the instrument is indisputable. I was surprised by some odd-meter standards that really gave the trio an opportunity to take rhythmic chances and emerge victoriously on the beat!

Eric McPherson
Since that night at the Vanguard, I've been checking out Hersch's two most recent CDs. One is called Whirl, featuring Hebert and McPherson back on the drums. A satisfying mix of standards and originals, the standards are well arranged and the originals are memorably melodic. "You're My Everything" begins with a beat by McPherson which is part Vernel Fournier, part Art Blakey, a bit of Jack Dejohnette; it's kind of latin-ish but swinging…it's not a beat, really, it's just an approach which feels solid, groovy and free all at once. Hersch starts out soloing as if they cut in mid-performance. As expected, ideas are abundant, and Hersch makes a minor third modulation (from G major to Bb major) part of the form. Fred definitely has some Bill Evans-ish vocabulary, but it's not forced; one phrase or texture or development easily leads to the next one. At last, the melody appears and the trio vamps out softly on EMaj7 with some light impressionism from Hersch.

"Snow is Falling" is a gorgeous waltz, which makes nice use of the effect of the piano in unison with the bassist using his upper register. The piece starts out swaying between two chords, B-G-D to C-G-D, which are more implications of harmony, giving the introduction a mysterious quality, possibly giving the listener the image of a dark snowy evening.  And then the melody leads us into some different, warmer colors. There is much theory behind jazz harmony, but Hersch, like most fully-actualized jazz musicians, writes and plays for the emotional quality of each chord. (Isn't that what music is supposed to be about? Sometimes telling students to used the altered scale on a dominant 7th  chord and a dorian scale on a minor 7 is so abstract because they don't feel anything from the harmony. There's so much "emotional content" in harmony.)

Charlie Parker
There's a lot of different influences on Whirl. There's some playful bebop on "Skipping" and "Mrs. Parker of K.C.", where the title and the tune reference the father of bebop, altoist Charlie Parker. "Mandevilla" uses the Cuban Habanera rhythm with some Herschian harmonic modulations. The title tune "Whirl" kind of reminds me of Schubert's famous lieder "Gretchen am Spinnrade"(Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) but doesn't lose the intense jazz-waltz character. I'm impressed with how Hersch and the trio are able to channel all of these various influences and hone it into one complete performance. You'll want to sit down and listen to this CD straight through, as if you were hearing them do a set at the Vanguard, just to hear the cohesive variety.

Scott Joplin
But wait, there's more! Fred Hersch Plays Jobim is solo piano, a format in which Hersch excels. Here, you can really hear Hersch's full command of the piano and all of its tonal, rhythmic, and orchestral possibilities. The piano is the instrument that, of all the jazz instruments, has the deepest connection to Europe. Indeed, most of the great jazz pianists had some form of classical training, if not a serious grounding in classical piano (Scott Joplin, James P Johnson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, the list goes on.). Hersch is no exception; however, I contend that even when playing rubato, a jazz pianist approaches the push and pull very differently from a pianist who only plays classical music. (I'm not trying to start a controversy-I said differently, not better than...)

Hersch has a great feel for the shape of the dynamics and timing in relation to the harmony. Pieces like
"Por Toda Minha Vida" and "Luiza" are absolutely breathtaking, especially the latter tune; I was so moved by the melancholy of this track that I think someone should write, cast, and produce a tragic French film solely around Hersch's performance of the song! (OK, let's not get carried away...) But at times I was thinking about two solo pianists who I love to listen to; Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. In my humble opinion, Hersch gives them a run for their money with this collection.

Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim was a Brazilian composer who combined the harmony of Chopin with the rhythm of the Samba. One would be remiss to omit Hersch's rhythmic prowess on the samba tunes. This is no easy feat as a solo pianist; Brazilian music requires a certain bounce, especially from the bass, and it's hard to technically cover all the bases (no pun intended) and make it feel complete (believe me, I have tried...). When you listen to performances like "Meditacao", you never miss the band; Hersch covers it all, with a lot of rhythmic liberties but never letting the samba suffer. "Brigas Nunca Mais" is one of my favorite tunes (I got to hear Joao Gilberto sing it live at Carnegie Hall years ago), and Jamey Haddad joins Hersch on some gentle agogo bells, an originally African instrument but considered traditional in Brazilian music. A sensitive rendition of "Corcovado" ends the concert in a relaxed, mature way.

I think Fred Hersch really balanced the energy well on this CD; there's great samba energy, but also he captures the chamber music feeling of bossa nova. A masterwork like this makes me rethink my approach to piano playing. Maybe I'll have to go for another lesson next time I'm in New York.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Mike Clark Interview

I remember the first time I heard the classic Herbie Hancock album "Thrust". It was on the radio, if you can believe it. The song "Actual Proof" burned into my brain: I had been a fan of Herbie's, especially of the Headhunters, of songs like "Chameleon" and "Watermelon Man," but this was different. It was so electrifying, so ultra-sophisticated, so mesmerizing. It was a musical magic trick: I was hearing it, but I didn't believe it. And then for years I wondered, "Who is Mike Clark? This is some ridiculous drumming." And I've been fortunate to get to meet Mr. Clark, and also get to play with him, and witness up close the unique new language he has bequeathed to the modern drum set. Clark is restless as a human being as he is a drummer. He has many ideas and I was lucky to get him to submit to an interview.

GC: How would you describe the Oakland Funk style to an alien who just landed on earth? Or maybe just a regular human being who didn't know about the Oakland Funk? How did it develop? How did you get into it? Do you think there are drummers today who are influenced by that and/or your playing more specifically? Do you see yourself as an innovator?
Clyde Stubblefield
MC: I would say that the Oakland style of funk playing was like a dot-and-dash type of 16th note bass and drum grooves. The guitar playing was sort of like what Catfish Collins and those cats did with James Brown, some slightly busy chicken scratchin', as we used to call it. The rest of the band played jazz derived solos over the top. As far as the drumming is concerned, I would say it was the next logical place for forward thinking drummers of that time to go. For me I listened to Clyde Stubblefield, Jabbo Stark, Bernard Purdie and found my own way of kind of negotiating what I thought they were doing, added bits of that to my own sensibilities-and that become my signature grooves. As far as the blowing, improv or even fills I used be-bop or post-bop language instead of the type of stuff you would hear most funk drummers playing. I didn't have that type of thing in my vocabulary. I was a be-bopper, so my career is sort of like Spock's on Star Trek. If you see Leonard Nimoy doing a romantic lead in a Broadway show, people are like..."Yo Man,  that's Spock". When people hear me playing jazz they think "Hey, man, isn't he that funk drummer from Herbie Hancock???"  HA!!!.........gotta love marketing!
Dave Garibaldi
As far as the development of this style I would say myself, David Garabaldi(Tower of Power), Gaylord Birch were  the main pioneers of this style. At one point  there were many working clubs in Oakland, you could hear this type of funk being played in the parking lot before you went in. While on break from my gig I could hear a band blasting it out of the club next door or down the street sort of like New Orleans is. It was a big deal at the time and big fun for us. People all identified with it as the "Oakland Thing" and we all felt united in this understanding. Musicians and non-musicians alike talked about it all the time, like we all shared this thing and the whole town got it.  This was really exciting!! When you went to hear music everyone was trying to push the envelope and taking chances, there was no playing safe, it was all exploratory.  We were having so much fun we weren't even bugged that we weren't playing jazz. Most of the musicians in Oakland at the time were in fact jazz musicians who were forced to play funky music to make a living. They could play at a much higher level than most regular funk band type cats, and so the so-called Oakland Funk was sort of a natural progression. Also, Lenny White was coming out from New York all the time,  and became one of us. He taught us about what was going on in the Big Apple, so we tried to understand and add that to the mix. He also added some of our stuff to his bag.
I hear the Oakland style somewhere in almost everybody that came after 1975. Even some guys that were before me went back and added bits of it to their own playing. It seemed to have cut across the lines of jazz, blues, funk, and even rock and Latin. With the fame of the HeadHunters and the Tower of Power, this style became popular world wide and I could hear its influence in music everywhere for the next ten years or so, even still today.
 Like anything, when enough becomes enough new ideas and concepts surface and move to the front. I can hear my influence especially in the jazz drummers that came up after the Headhunters did their thing. It became part of the history and language like the stuff that went before the 60's.  It  gets woven into the vocabulary and pieces of it show up here and there according to what's being played. In answer to your question if this kind of playing influenced me... I would have to say in this case, I did the influencing since I was one of the guys that came up with it!  (laughter)
As far as if I consider myself an innovator, I think in my case I took what went before me in jazz, funk, and blues, and put my own spin on it.  I listened to everyone and everything  I could. I tried to meet all the players in each camp so I could  understand what was being played by who and why.  Having played jazz gigs most of my life before I met Herbie is what made my thing  sound different when he added me to the funk. Usually young people take what happened ten years before and sort of update it if you will to fit their own needs and what they are going through in their lives. I came up as a be-bop drummer and was trying to play like Max Roach, and Philly Joe since sixth grade. I never thought of playing any funk. People didn't even call it funk at that time. Then came Elvin, Tony and Lenny White. When these guys hit things began to  
Lenny White
change as far as straight ahead jazz playing was concerned.  I became seriously involved in this new change. At that time there were enough jazz gigs happening to work things out on the gig which was great for me. Everything was in a very creative and experimental place at this time.
In an attempt to make a living I have played with Albert King, Albert Collins, Sam and Dave, Joe Tex and Jimmy Reed to name a few. I even did a few hits with Sly Stone before he put the Family Stone together.  I also played with Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, Jon Hendricks, Oscar Brown Jr.,  and Eddie Henderson also to name a few. So now I had this blues-funk experience as well as playing jazz. Paul Jackson who was my best friend played acoustic bass at that time. We had working jazz trio's and quartets and played every night for years. One day he brought an electric bass to the gig having only played one a few times, he took it out of the case, counted off a blues and we both played the type of thing you heard on Actual Proof immediately without ever talking about it or working on it. I think it came from our friendship, we hung and played together for many years and had some kind of natural musical telepathy and chemistry. It just happened and the rest is history...
GC: What did you learn from playing with Herbie Hancock? What did he learn from you?
Herbie Hancock
MC: What I got from Herbie Hancock was to find my own voice and not to copy others. I was young when I was on his band and the music was brand new. We were doing things that hadn't been done before, so there was no real road map. Whenever I was playing and trying to sound like some of my favorite drummers (most of whom he had played with) he would say. "Hey Mike, if I wanted to play with so-and-so, I would have hired him! Let me hear what you have to say."  I started developing my own style based on the roots of the music I dug. This has lasted me a lifetime. I'm still in this mode and although there have been periods since the Headhunters where it has been popular to copy people damn near to the T, I kept playing my own stuff. Now it's second nature. He also taught me to be a conversational musician, to have a dialog with the people I'm playing with based on what they were playing. He listened deeply and expected us to do the same. He wanted total interaction- not to hear a one armed drummer playing straight time. 
One time, we played poorly at a big show. The critic went to dinner with us after the show and was telling Hancock that he didn't think the band sounded very good that night. Herbie knew we were sounding pretty sad- but said to the critic, "You mean you didn't hear it??"  The guy had a strange look on his face, and Herbie went on to tell him how we had worked very hard to get it to sound that way and it was a brand new way of looking at things musically. The next day we got a great review saying how we had found some new stuff.  I learned a  great lesson from that!!!!!

As far as what Hancock  learned from me I'm not sure, but Paul and I were the only cats in that band that had any experience playing funky music, so we would suggest things to him to make the music lay better. He would ask us things like if what he was doing was funky or too weird and we would give him our opinions. We used to challenge each other by playing way over the bar, or by playing poly-rhythms during the blowing, and you had to be on your toes; it was fun. I learned to stay totally focused while playing. I have heard some of his latest CDs and we  have all changed so much since then...so unfortunately, I have no idea what he is feeling about music today. 
GC: Talk about your recent projects: You have The Headhunters, an organ trio, a straight ahead jazz group. Plus you are doing a lot of clinics. And I recently saw you with a big band! What are you enjoying the most, and is there anything else you have eyes for?
Big Sid Catlett
MC: I have a new CD out called Carnival of Soul. I played organ gigs for years and even had my own organ trio in a club five nights a week in Calif for four years. So I thought I'd make an organ record. I used Jerry Z, Jeff Pittson and Delbert Bump on organ. I have history with each of these cats so it was easy for all of us to get to our personal stuff right away. I used Rez Abbasi and Steve Homan on guitar, Rob Dixon on tenor saxophone and Tim Ouimette on trumpet. Delbert McClinton guested on "Cry Me a River", which was a great thing for me since I played in Delbert's band when I was seventeen. Lenny White guested on a track he and I wrote called "Catlett Outta The Bag", a tribute to Big Sid Catlett a great drummer and a hero of ours. We played originals, standards, funk, swing, old school and modern. We had a blast, and last week it was number 8 on the jazz charts for the third week. I did it for Owl Studios-a new record company. Last year I made a CD called "Blueprints of Jazz" with Christian McBride, Patrice Rushen, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison and Jed Levy. This one was picked one of the best of the decade by Downbeat magazine. I loved that.

Trumpeter Tim Ouimette and I co-lead a big band and we are going to put a CD out next year. Tim writes  brilliant arrangements and we play everything from Basie to Actual Proof. I am also going to Italy quite a bit to play with Antonio Farao the great pianist and in fact I'm taking a band into the Iridium in New York October 27th through the 31st featuring  Donald Harrison, Antonio Farao, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton and Rob Dixon. I am also touring Russia for one month with my organ trio featuring Jerry Z and Rob Dixon, so I have been pretty busy for quite a while.
I am going to Indianapolis next week to mix the new Headhunters CD. The cast for this Headhunters date is Donald Harrison, Derrick Gardner, Patrice Rushen, Rob Dixon, Bill Summers and myself. Snoop Dogg is even on a track and I just heard today that Ice Cube may appear on it. This is heavy funky and I like it a lot. This is the first Headhunters CD I have really dug in a long time.

Other than that I have been traveling some with the Michael Wolff Trio and doing tons of clinics from one coast to the other, and also in Europe and Australia. I do colleges, drum shops, music stores, schools and drum festivals and jazz camps. I really dig doing clinics and many times take a trio so it's not all about drumming. I played with Nat Adderley and he taught us never to leave the stage without paying our respects to the blues which is the springboard for all of the music I play. I bring all of the things I've learned from all these guys to the students so my clinics are not all about chops or a single stroke roll (which I find totally boring) and they really appreciate it so I have been getting a great reaction.
Art Blakey
Lastly I would like to become a bandleader in the tradition of Art Blakey and travel the world playing to all the crowds at festivals and clubs and to continue to make records that reflect how I feel mirror my daily life.
GC: How do you view the music industry today and how do you think the political climate affects it?
MC: I think the political climate of our country is in very sad shape and the effects of greed are making things extremely difficult for the American people and in fact people the world over. It is way out of control. For musicians this  makes it hard for small clubs to stay open so musicians don't have as many places to hone their skills and work on things in a band context in front of an audience. This also cuts the ability to make money down considerably. The larger clubs usually want an all star band, and these groups never really play together, so the music is unable to grow. Hotels gas and air travel are all up in price as well.  Having a steady group of people in one band is damn near impossible, so once again the music suffers. However, whenever times are tough, it seems to push the artists to raise the level of their work very high, and this has a "rock in the pond" effect.  Most of the greatest jazz ever played in my opinion was a reflection of seemingly impossible situations and oppression. I have noticed that since the money has dried up,  the bands that I do hear are playing their butts off, and New York is starting to sound like New York again. This is a welcome relief from some of the stiff contrived groups that are trying to imitate records done in the fifties, without having ever heard theses people live. I played with Sonny Stitt and some of those guys and the copy bands don't have the fire, blues, guts and don't swing as hard because they got it from the records, which is a controlled sound.  I was there and live....it was alive!!! 

Back to politics. I hate any from of bullying or manipulation which is what we have going on now as the corporations are in control and the well being of the people is the last thing on their minds. At any rate what is empowering is it leaves whatever value we create up to us!!

GC: Do you see a relationship between comedy and music? Who are your favorite comedians?
I think the similarities between the music that I play and comedy are first off, the timing. Timing is of the utmost importance for a good musician and a comedian. Also, delivering a great punch line is important to both music and comedy. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum..........etc. The story telling has to be interesting, and the sound of ones voice or instrument reflects our inner world, so one's life experience and feelings are right out there for all to hear. Vulnerability is important, to be strong enough to let people feel and hear your voice as they are going to judge you and criticize. In order to learn and grow, you have to keep showing up and putting it out there. Also, in order to make a living at either of these artistic endeavors you have to shed and do your homework, constantly learning, re-inventing yourself and changing in order to make a living. It's a life long challenge... which is one reason we love it.
Dave Chappelle

Some of my favorite comedians? Paul Mooney, Richard Prior, George Carlin, Chris Rock,Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, George Lopez. I might also add George that I dug your stand-up show that night at Caroline's. I always wished you would write some more stuff and hit it again. You were funny. You know how some musicians are technically really good, did the right homework, and seem to be very up on things, but somehow they don't make you feel anything. Some comedians can stand up there and talk, are bold, but aren't funny, Man, you cracked us up! 

Thanks a lot, George- I enjoyed the interview, great questions.
GC: Thank You, Mike.

Friday, August 27, 2010


American Slavery
Scholars, Musicians, Tenured Professors, and Obsessed Facebookers alike are perpetually locked in a debate: What is the true origin of this music called Jazz? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that enslaved Africans, brought to America against their will and forced to suppress, if not abandon, their native culture, created a unaccompanied vocal form known as the Blues which came from field hollers and work songs. The Blues and African-American influence then permeated other forms such as cakewalks and hymns (which became Spirituals) and was further disseminated through traveling minstrel shows. This eventually led to the development of Ragtime in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, which was at first a structured piano style that used the forms of European marches, but then became practiced by African-American brass bands in New Orleans. It's debatable as to how much of the music was spontaneously improvised, but regardless, the music has always had a "improvised" and "syncopated" or "ragged" feeling. Ragtime as a piano style eventually morphed into "stride" piano (think Fats Waller, James P. Johnson) and the band ragtime concept became swing (think Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson).

Antonio Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza
All of this is fine and dandy; however, this conventional understanding of the origin of America's so-called "original" art form couldn't be farther from the truth. I did a little research (admittedly after a few cocktails) and what most people don't know is that Jazz was actually invented in 1738 by an Italian named Antonio Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza, who was a famous doctor and pasta chef (being a doctor didn't pay what it does now, so Signore Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza had to moonlight. He was also a notary public for a while in the 1720's.). Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza, during a primitive blood letting experiment (in which  he tried to teach the leeches a simple form of sign language), started to imagine a musical scale which could, if played properly in front of a patient, could remedy all kinds of ailments from gout, to extreme gout, to seborrheic goutarrhea (a particularly painful kind of gout. Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza was sort of a gout specialist, although he majored in pediatric enemas at Eastern Bologna Medical College).

restored harpsichord
The renowned doctor/chef worked night and day at the harpsichord, pounding out scales, until one night, after a double shift at the restaurant, Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza discovered a primitive form of the blues scale. It probably had something to do with the fact that Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza was so drunk on Sambuca that he fell on his harpsichord as he walked into his apartment (It was a small apartment- this was during the Bologna Real Estate Boom of the 1730's. Even a studio apartment would cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza later lost his medical license for amputating an arm and a leg, from an unsuspecting patient, just to pay two months rent.) The harpsichord was badly damaged:It could now only play the notes C Eb F F# G Bb and C, the notes of what we now know as The Blues Scale. This is documented by letters which Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza wrote to his cousin in Padova, the great violinist Giovanni Aebersoldo:

"I have discovered a musical scale which, when I play it over and over on my broken harpsichord, makes me feel sad, but then happy, because I am sad. I know this makes no sense, but I cannot think straight after 5 leechings and 3 amputations today. Plus I had to work late at Il Piccolo di Caesar's AGAIN! I know, I know; even as a respected physician with a private practice, I STILL can't make ends meet. I have to work two jobs and I'm starting to get them confused: I think I put leeches in somebody's Pasta Primavera last night. And I tried to cure Signora Bufalino's Scarlet Fever by using a Bolognese sauce on her head! I'm a SLAVE to my work and only playing this scale can take away my ......I don't know, if only sadness had a color that represented it, like red, or even blue......"

I'm guessing, dear reader, that you are thinking that I'm an idiot. Well, that might be true, but I teach at a University, and although it is in Canada, that means that you have to accept whatever I say as a scholarly viewpoint. Even if that viewpoint is very radical, and by radical, I mean completely wrong.

Shogun Tsunayoshi's court, where
SWING was invented
So if Jazzopiccolinodigiornopiazza (who died in 1746 during a coughing fit, due to an excessively powdered wig) invented the blues, then who invented swing? If you guessed Jelly Roll Morton, or Louis Armstrong, or even Wynton Marsalis, then you're WAY off. New comprehensive research, which came to me in a dream after a meal of funnel cake and onion rings, shows that the rhythmic concept of Swing was actually invented by the Japanese in 1683 in the Edo period, during the reign of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. The Shogun Tsunayoshi trained his five sons in the art of samurai sword fighting. The youngest son,  Barry Tsunayoshi, stood out from the other sons, mostly because his sword fighting sucked. The problem seemed to come from the fact that when Barry would hear swords clashing together in a consistent, but slightly uneven rhythm, Barry would just start dancing around the Shogun's palace. Barry soon became uninterested in Samurai training, and would only play his swords like they were a musical instrument. (Many historians believe this is the earliest evidence of a "drummer" mistakenly believing that he was a "musician".)

This shamisen player probably got
a lot of gigs cause he had a car.....
Eventually, Barry would bring his swinging swords to the musicians of the court , who were performing for the Shogun, and try to "sit in". The group consisted of musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments of the period: koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen. After many evenings of "jamu sesun", the Barry Tsunayoshi Quartet was formed. The Shogun was at first displeased with his son's music, but when he saw that Barry was popular with chicks, he decided that he wanted to form his own band. Eventually, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi  ended up taking credit for the "sowingu" style of music, and was referred to as the "Sowingu Shogun", or "King of Swing". Barry Tsunayoshi was forced to commit suicide: not with the Samurai custom of seppuku(self-stabbing), but by eating sushi that had been sitting out on the counter for a whole week.

So there you have it: The true origins of Jazz. Hopefully, this will put the controversy to rest, and Facebookers can get back to posting videos of talking dogs and smoking infants. I invite you readers, if you are still reading this and aren't totally annoyed, to join me for my next music history lesson installment, in which I will propose that Ludwig Van Beethoven wasn't really deaf, he was just faking because his publicist said it "made a good story"...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Letter To The New York Times (Pending Approval)

I was forwarded an article from the New York Times website about jazz musicians who play ping-pong. It's actually an informative, skillfully written article by Aiden Levy. However, I could help thinking that it was an example of why I started this blog: because I'm tired of seeing articles which don't do justice to the musicians or the music. So I made a lengthy comment underneath the article on the Times website. Here's the link to the article, which again, is technically very good and lighthearted, engaging writing by Levy.


I don't know if they will post what I wrote; It said it was pending approval. So here's what I wrote (below this paragraph). I'd love to get constructive feedback (CONSTRUCTIVE! Let's be civilized. Personal attacks will be deleted.) as to whether there is any point in my comment. I felt like I was sort of being mean to Levy, and that is not my desire at all. I think the problem might be with whomever is above Levy at the Times, in that they would rather print something fluffy than something real. Again, no disrespect to Mr. Levy. Maybe he'll agree and do something more music-oriented next time? Or maybe he'll be waiting for me in a dark alley with brass knuckles. Who knows? Anyway, here is what I posted. Bombs Away!

While this article by Aidan Levy is extremely well written and interesting, and in some ways informative, I can't help but feel like it's a mere distraction from the state of the jazz scene in New York. 

What was not mentioned was how world-class musicians have to play in a venue such as Fat Cat where there are huge groups of young people playing ping pong or shooting pool and COMPLETELY IGNORING the music. And being louder than the music most of the time, as in deafeningly louder. I feel like I'm playing at a fraternity party when I perform there. I'm not dissing the venue, I'm dissing the NEW New Yorkers that go there for dissing jazz by not having the slightest interest in it. 

The New York Jazz scene is so lacking in real venues that a gig at Fat Cat is highly coveted, whereas 10 or 15 years ago many of the highest level musicians would never consider playing at such a venue. I love to play music, so I will play there happily when I get the chance. But it is a struggle. It's a struggle to hear myself play over the "Animal House" type of atmosphere!

I think back fondly to places like Bradley's where they had a strict quiet policy. With the exception of the Village Vanguard, that kind of atmosphere is a rarity.  Now I'm not saying you have to be completely silent. I'm just saying if the "audience" is drowning out the music, then it is just pointless. Then it ceases to be a jazz club: It's a place that has background music, much like restaurants such as the Blue Water Grill and the Blue Fin where again great, great, world class musicians play, and are incredibly ignored and periodically shushed by the management. 

I guess my point is that New York used to be the Jazz capital of the world. Due to the influx of the super wealthy, who seem more interested in expensive restaurants than live music, the Jazz Capital is losing it's claim on the title. In my humble opinion, I don't think an article like this is helping the situation. Wouldn't it be more relevant to do a piece on Dan Tepfer, a brilliant up-and-coming pianist in his own right, and talk to him about his music and his career? 

I hate to be a party-pooper, and I'm not trying to be insensitive to the great work that Mr. Levy did writing this piece.(I truly admire the skill of his writing.) But can we put away the ping-pong for a sec and talk about some music? I have a lot of fun playing jazz, but it's not a game. It's serious art that people have invested their entire lives in, and I think it deserves better attention than to be background music for drunk NYU students while they play ping-pong and shoot pool. 

-George Colligan

Jazztruth mentioned again on NPR website

Rant! Rant! Rant!
It has been brought to my attention that Patrick Jarenwattananon's "A Blog Supreme" has referred to jazztruth once again. Any press is good press at this stage, so I'm happy to receive it. It's an interesting article in which Jarenwattananon gives voice to a disgruntled reader named Albert Reingewirtz, who had made comments about how Esperanza Spalding is not a jazz musician and so forth. Reingewirtz rants on about how "Jazz musicians have been given the short end of the stick for decades even though they have dedicated all of their being and their talent to preserve our national heritage-this uniquely American art form called jazz." 

Here is the link so you can see all the mishagos for yourself:

Now, I'm going to refrain  from taking sides at the moment, except that  I do want to thank Jarenwattananon for mentioning me again! However, I am planning a future post in which I aim to end some of these bottomless controversies, such as "Who invented Jazz?" or  "Is Jazz Black Music?"or "Does it have to swing to be jazz?" or maybe even "Does your chewing gum lose it's flavor on the bedpost overnight?" Well, maybe not the last one. (I don't even know where that comes from, it's just part of a joke my father used to tell.)

"Louis Armstrong invented jazz!"
"No, I invented it, jerkface!"
And I'm positive that my effort to end the argument definitively will just keep the argument going even longer. (Those of you who are married might know what I'm talking about.) I insist that the way to shift the current tide to favor jazz and live music is to work together and create positive energy against the powers-that-be. Squabbling within the ranks will accomplish nothing except making musicians and fans mad for no reason, and alienating potential fans.

Everyone seems to be mad about something these days. And jazz musicians and fans are no different. The industry sucks more than ever. It's too easy to fall into the trap of hating on people like Esperanza Spalding. (I played the Newport Jazz Festival last year in a trio of Christian McBride's featuring Billy Hart on drums. Now, think about not only all the recordings McBride is on, but then consider all of the stuff BILLY HART has done in his career. And we were on the small stage. Guess who was on the BIG stage.... her name rhymes with "Thesperanza Balding"....) Regardless of what you think of her music or her occasionally sort-of- annoying-lyrics (if you watch the included video on A Blog Supreme, you'll hear them), Spalding being airlifted into stardom as a hot female bassist-singer is a total no-brainer. And I'll admit, I enjoyed her performance at Newport. 
The Legendary Billy Hart

If you've seen some of my facebook posts in the past, you know I've fallen for the temptation to hate on fellow musicians. I'm not promising that I'll never be negative ever again in life, but I would like to resist the urge to be antagonistic. And I understand why I and others get this way: it's a natural tendency, it's a survival instinct. There would be much less envy if the scene was bubbling over with work and opportunities. But since everyone is fighting over crumbs, the talons emerge and infighting occurs. You've heard the joke:"How many tenor saxophonists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one-and 45 more to stand around and snipe 'How did He get that gig?' "!

Charlie Parker, who never recorded for a
major label, and Miles Davis
Anyway, stay tuned for more compelling content on jazztruth. I maintain that I want to keep it on the positive tip. I'm trying to fight back by giving space to musicians and music that is interesting for it's own merits, not because of hype. So don't believe the hype, believe the music. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

University of Manitoba Summer Session Jazz Camp

Last week, after a satisfying summer spent in the sleepy solitude of a quiet hamlet known as Times Square, New York City, I hopped easily onto two bumpy Delta flights and journeyed back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I mentioned in an earlier post that I won a teaching position at the University of Manitoba last year. The University school year runs basically from September to April; however, in the middle of August is the Summer Session Jazz Camp which is very popular in Winnipeg and open to musicians of all ages. This was my first time teaching at this camp and I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.

Steve Kirby
Jimmy Greene
The students at the Jazz Camp were primarily high school students, although there were younger and also much older. (One man had enrolled himself and his daughters as kind of an alternative summer vacation. I can see them during the slide show: "And here's pictures of us at the beach, and here's pictures of the whole family playing a Bb Blues!") And the budding jazz musicians were mostly beginners, but all were politely enthusiastic and attentive to the various classes, ensemble coaching, and master classes. The international faculty included yours truly on piano, Steve Kirby for double bass, Jimmy Greene for saxophone, Anna- Lisa Kirby for vocals, and newly-minted U of Manitoba drum prof Quincy Davis. Additional faculty included native Winnipeg musicians such as phenomenal pianist Will Bonness, precocious multi percussionist Curtis Novosad, and adroit alto saxophonist Neil Watson. Of course, there were many volunteers and administrators running around; I found them all particularly helpful because I was floating around to different classes, and could never seem to remember which room I was teaching in. There seemed to be an army of volunteers who were cheerfully ready-and-able: ready to escort me to my proper destination, and able to telepathically discern my need for coffee.

As a music educator, I have experience with all different levels of musicians. Beginners are always a challenge, however, beginning jazz musicians are a greater challenge for a number of reasons, the main one being that it's hard to make a beginning improvisor sound like he is playing music! Not only is the beginning jazz student most likely struggling with his or her instrument, they are struggling with these theoretical concepts like chord tones, lydian scales, song forms, and swing rhythm. Not to mention the issue that many younger players are not exposed to listening to jazz music; it's rarely on the radio or television these days. And this is a huge disconnect between jazz education and the typical student participation in the middle school or high school concert band: In a concert band, one can become an adequate to impressive player with no more homework than practicing one's instrument, while the jazz student is expected to, on top of practicing his instrument, having the time to listen to recordings and study all these new theoretical concepts. It can be extremely frustrating for the young jazz student, even if they come from a strong concert band experience, to feel some kind of success in this new arena. Nevertheless, I found the vast majority of the jazz campers to be keen on learning new skills and having fun in the process.(Make sure you pronounce "process" like a Manitoban: The "pro" sounds like how you would say " pro Basketball"........)

Dude, there are SOOOO many types of Metal.......
I like to try to learn from the students as much as they are supposed to be learning from me. I found myself asking the young Manitobans about their musical experiences. Although many of the pianists I worked with had listened to some jazz, some of the other instrumentalists were into other vast musical worlds. "Dude, there are SO many types of metal....Thrash Metal, Doom Metal, Speed Metal, Progressive Metal...", instructed one young electric bass player. I regretted that I left my Progressive Metal Fake Book in my other backpack.

There were some great master classes, which were usually mid-day: Steve Kirby had everybody come up on the stage and sing and clap together, and also spoke about obstacles to learning, such as fear of failure and personal distractions. Jimmy Greene gave an extremely enlightening lecture on the blues, as well as mentioning a recording by Jimmy Smith called Organ Grinder's Swing, and lauding it so swingingly descriptively that it made me want to go check it out! I described my master class as "doing what I normally do at home, which is just walk around the house and play different instruments." I premiered a samba-type tune that I wrote for my son entitled "Baby Liam's Bouncy Chair", which is one of the few tunes that I wrote this summer. Another master class was mostly questions from the campers and answers from the faculty, which culminated in a rousing performance by the faculty ensemble.

I reiterate that a camp such as this one is formidable, because you have to combine a lot of complex information and hopefully put it into practice during the week, while still making it fun and enjoyable. Not everyone in the camp will even go on to major in music, let alone become jazz musicians. But we want to give everyone a good experience with learning jazz, as well as creating a new audience: Hopefully all of the campers will go on to appreciate jazz more than they did before. There are no short cuts to becoming a jazz player, but there is a way to approach it that is gratifying in the short term and the long term. I think we accomplished that during the jazz camp, and I think we'll do even better next year.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"You Don't Know 'Wicked'?"

The Piano Man...
A good friend of mine used to have a regular solo piano gig in a Manhattan hotel. While some might think that there are many advantages to having a steady hotel gig in times like these, my friend spent a good deal of time complaining about the job and relating some depressing yet amusing incidents which would occur during the job on an almost nightly frequency. It seemed as though anything and everything could happen, from drunken guests rowdily requesting "Rhapsody in Blue" to mothers changing their babies diapers right next to the piano. So when my friend asked me to sub for him one night, I had mixed feelings about showing up to play: would I have a relatively uneventful evening of solo piano playing? Or would I have to fend off rabid Billy Joel fans insisting on "The Piano Man" for the fifteenth time?

The first hour of the gig was quiet. Despite the fact that the piano was in rough shape, and maybe hadn't been tuned since the Nixon administration, I played jazz standards in a non-threatening manner for an uninterrupted hour, and then took a fifteen minute break. "What is the big deal?" I mused to myself and the plate of cheese and fruit that I took from the free spread at the bar. "This gig is a piece of cake." I glanced at my watch and approached the piano bench for another set of lobby-friendly jazz standards.

Midway through my set, a blond woman, possibly in her late 40's, enclosed in a beige Hilary Clinton-style pantsuit, sidled up into my piano air space. She wasted no time in letting me know that she was very annoying:"Uh, yeah, that sounds great and everything...", I wasn't even finished the song," ...but do you know any songs from Wicked?"

I had decided fifteen years prior to this moment that if anybody came up to me on a solo piano gig and made requests while I was still playing AND expected me to talk and play and not be incredibly annoyed all at once, then I would grind the song to a halt and defend myself. Well, first I would GLARE at them and then mount a counter-offensive.

"Uh, what is Wicked?", I asked, 'cause I REALLY wanted to know.

"YOU DON'T KNOW WICKED? IT'S THE HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY!", she proclaimed. I sarcastically  wondered to myself if she was a music critic for the Times.

"Oh, I think I saw an ad for it on the Q64A Bus. But no, I don't know any songs from Wicked."

She totally ignored what I had just said. "Do you know THIS song from Wicked?" And then she sings what she thinks is music, but it sounds more like someone waking up from being in a coma for 6 months.

"Lady, I told you, I don't know any songs from Wicked! If you have sheet music in your purse, I'll happily try to read it, but no, I don't know the musical."

"Well, you really should learn some of that music....." She seemed to be finished, but before she scurried away, there was one more knife-in-my-soul kind of request: "My sister is sitting over at this table. She just graduated from Columbia with her Doctorate. Can you play something appropriate for that?"

Edward Elgar
Wow. Just......wow. "Um, what about Pomp and Circumstance?" I was half to eighty-five percent joking. She looked at me quizzically. I proceeded to hum Edward Elgar's famous graduation processional.

"Sure! Play that!" She said, clearly forgetting to offer me a gratuity of any sort, as she sauntered over to where her highly-educated sister was sitting with her husband.

"I'm NOT going to play that!" I shouted, and then I picked up where I had left off in the song I was playing before the Wickedness. Soon enough, it was time for another break to rest my fingers and my mind.

I had actually sort of forgotten about the first half of the Wicked incident when the second half began. I was resting on one of the lobby couches near the piano, when I realized that the Wicked witch and her
sister the Doctor and her husband were sitting two couches over. And they were discussing their displeasure in my lack of Wicked awareness.

"Can you BELIEVE that the pianist didn't know any songs from Wicked?"

"How could he not know any songs from Wicked? IT'S THE HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY!"

"Jeez, How can he be a piano player in NEW YORK CITY and not know any songs from WICKED?"

I could see them from where I was sitting, and was thinking about walking over and explaining to them how I could be such an ignorant piano player and still make a living in New York. But I had one more set to go, my fingers and brain had forty-five minutes of non-Wicked music to deal with, and I just figured what the heck.

I still think that my friend is lucky to have his steady gig. But if it was my gig, I don't know if I personally could handle the constant psychological torture. Yes, there are worse jobs. Playing piano in a hotel is more satisfying overall than, say, working at Starbucks. But I think about it like this: This Wicked Witch of the Pantsuit heard me playing jazz and asked me to do something else because that's what SHE wanted. If you work the counter at Starbucks, nobody comes in and asks for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese! You wouldn't say "Can you BELIEVE that they didn't have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?" NO! You are in the wrong restaurant! Go to McDonald's! If you want songs from Wicked, then buy tickets for Wicked! I think they are on sale NOW! In fact, I heard from somebody that it was the HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY.......

Maybe I'd look better in a pantsuit........

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gary Bartz and Ntu Troop: A Look Back

Gary Bartz
My first real gig as a New Yorker was with Gary Bartz. In the late 80's and early 90's, I would go to listen to Bartz play at jazz clubs like The Closet and The New Haven Lounge in Baltimore, and the One Step Down and Twins in Washington D.C. So in 1994, when Bartz needed a sub in the piano chair, I already knew his repertoire, and I knew what he liked to hear from his accompanists (Baltimore- based pianist Bob Butta was a longtime associate of Bartz, and a huge influence on my piano playing). Soon after, when Bartz had a gig at Sweet Basil's in New York City, I got the call to join his band. As a member of the Gary Bartz Quartet, I got to record with him on his second album for the Atlantic label called "The Blue Chronicles: Tales Of Life". It was an unforgettable experience and one of the highlights of my career.

I think Gary Bartz is one of those artists like trumpeter Woody Shaw, or tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, who are overlooked by writers and historians simply because, during the 1970's, they didn't do the extreme fusion of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return To Forever. Those who are really in the know have much praise for Bartz, but I think he has been deserving wider recognition for years. He has played with all the greats: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, etc...Still, like many jazz greats who aren't young prodigies or ancient masters, Bartz doesn't get the critical acclaim he should.

Gary Bartz is a very humorous person; he can tell hilarious stories with a delivery which is reminiscent of master comedians like Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx. But he is also very socially and politically aware of things. There is a CD I picked up recently which shows his political side in detail. It's a remastering of two records, which were then combined on one CD: "Harlem Bush Music-Taifa" and "Harlem Bush Music-Uhuru" both feature a band which Gary led in the 70's called Ntu Troop. (Ntu comes from the African Bantu languages, which is a sub-branch of Niger-Congo languages, the most common being Swahili. According to Bartz' website, "NTU means unity in all things, time and space, living and dead, seen and unseen.) This group consisted of Bartz on alto and soprano saxophones and vocals, Andy Bey on vocals, Juni Booth on acoustic and electric basses, and Harold White on drums. Nat Bettis plays percussion at times. (On most of "Uhuru", Ron Carter substitutes on bass. Not too shabby!)

Malcolm X
The fact that the two "Harlem Bush Music" records were fused into one CD release could make one assume that both records were originally one studio session, but it seems that this is not the case. But there is a consistency to the sound and the spirit of the entire disc, which makes a complete listen-through totally satisfying. The sonic texture overall is very organic. Even with electric bass, you get a very acoustic, earthy feeling from the entire CD. The intention here is to channel Mother Africa as the basis for everything in jazz: blues, bebop, funk, free jazz, etc...Not to mention the unapologetic activist viewpoints exhibited, especially in songs like "The Vietcong"(This is 1970: the Vietnam War was in full swing, in case you forgot...) and also "The Warrior's Song", a very intense free piece, during which Bartz overdubs himself reading an excerpt from a speech by the Civil Rights Leader Malcolm X: 
                                            "I say bluntly that you have had a generation of Africans who actually believed that you could negotiate, negotiate, negotiate and eventually get some kind of independence. But you're getting a new generation that has been growing, right now, and they're beginning to think with their own minds and see that you can't negotiate up on freedom nowadays. If something is yours by right, then fight for it or shut up. If you can't fight for it, then forget it."

Bartz goes on to quote another of his inspirations, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane:
John Coltrane
                               "You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good."

I find this to be an interesting juxtaposition, which is probably a common inner conflict for revolutionary thinkers: We want change, but do we remain peaceful, or force change by any means necessary? Political messages in music are so rare now that I found this thread of protest in the music to be extremely enlightening.

We think of Bartz as an alto saxophone master. Bartz has claimed in interviews that his main influence was Charlie Parker; however, many of his fans see him as the post-Coltrane alto-and-soprano man. His tone quality is unmistakable; it's very dark and reedy, and Bartz can add a little edge to his tone for emotional effect, but it never sounds harsh. On this collection, he is very unabashedly playing the blues, but Bartz has always been able to mix many elements into a very cohesive improvisational concept. So there will be blues, but some bebop will occur, and also he might surprise you by quoting a few standards, maybe some folk melodies, perhaps some Coltranish saxophonistic vocabulary will jump out. But it's never forced; it always sounds natural. 

(I remember when we were recording "The Blues Chronicles", we were doing several takes of a Bartz original entitled "...And He Called Himself A Messenger". On one of the takes, during Bartz' solo, he quoted a sort of obscure song  called "Delilah"(that appears on a Clifford Brown/Max Roach record called "Jordu"). It was so unexpectedly beautiful, it worked perfectly with the changes, it was so inspired that people in the studio were looking at each other and laughing in disbelief! Even those who didn't know the tune were enthralled. Sadly, they didn't use that take on the CD. And the funny thing for me was that in the remaining years I worked in Bartz' band, I never heard him quote that song again!)

On "People Dance", Bartz gets into a vibe where he is almost literally talking or laughing with the alto, using micro tonality to get the effect of human speech. And as the clear bandleader, Bartz has always been expert using his saxophone to "set up" the groove of the song, or change the tempo, or even make a segue or transition into another song, as if he is the master storyteller with the village musicians gathering around him to listen. 

Andy Bey
The earthiness of the music here is enhanced by many vocals, a surprising number of them provided by Bartz; "Blue" features him in his "debut as blues pianist and as a blues singer". But without question, the vocal star here is the incomparable Andy Bey; his rich baritone has the slightest vibrato, and when he goes into his upper register, it's even more impassioned. And the alto and voice blend beautifully well. This brings me to the issue of harmony: due to the lack of a "chordal" instrument like piano (with the exception of "Blue") or guitar, you could call this a "chord-less" band. However, there are many implied harmonies, and much of it is pedal point based (meaning one constant bass note and chords moving above it, but always related to the bass). And there is some vocal overdubbing on songs like "Du(Rain)", where some interestingly dissonant counterpoint is created, and "Parted," the story of an enslaved African man separated from his lady, which has vocal harmonies that might remind one of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The intention here is to get back to the roots of the music, which means omitting the European structural harmonic influences for a moment. Speaking as a pianist, I am fine with it!

Gary Bartz is still out there playing better than ever: These days he is touring with the legendary pianist McCoy Tyner. He also has his own label, OYO Records( Own Your Own! -which refers to the fact that most musicians don't own the rights to their own material. Bartz, ever the revolutionary, is part of the shifting tide of musicians taking the reigns of their own destiny. Additionally, OYO is also a tribe in Nigeria). For more information about Gary Bartz, please go to his website:

And "Harlem Bush Music - Taifa / Uhuru" is available here: